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New research highlights how exercise can reduce stress-related brain activity to also help lower your risk of cardiovascular disease. Luis Alvarez/Getty Images
  • Physical activity appears to help reduce cardiovascular disease risk.
  • This was especially true in people with a history of depression.
  • This may be because it reduces stress-related brain activity.
  • Both depression and cardiovascular disease are impacted by stress.
  • Experts recommend getting 150 minutes of aerobic exercise per week for heart health.

According to researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, physical activity appears to reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease.

They say this may occur because physical activity can reduce stress-related signaling within the brain.

The study, which was published in the April 2024 issue of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, might also explain why those with depression — which is known to be related to stress — experienced the greatest cardiovascular benefits.

It is already known that physical activity can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by affecting risk factors such as blood lipids, high blood pressure, and arterial stiffness.

However, according to the study authors, the mechanisms we know about account for only 59% of physical activity’s benefits on cardiovascular risk.

The goal of the current study was to learn more about what might make up the other 41%.

In formulating their hypothesis, they considered the fact that physical activity is known to reduce stress as well as depression. Also, stress and depression are associated with increased cardiovascular disease risk.

They felt that it could be that physical activity’s effects on stress-related brain mechanisms could be how it influences cardiovascular disease risk.

To carry out the study, senior author Ahmed Tawakol, MD, and his team examined medical records of over 50,000 patients from the Mass General Brigham Biobank who had participated in a survey about their physical activity.

Of these people, 774 also had brain imaging done and measurements made of their stress-related brain activity.

The median length of follow-up was 10 years. During this time, 12.9% of people developed cardiovascular disease.

However, those who met the recommendations for physical activity had a 23% lower risk for these diseases.

Those who engaged in the advised amount of physical activity also had lower stress-related brain activity.

The authors note that these reductions were mainly due to gains in function in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for decision-making and impulse control. It is also known to regulate our reactions to stress.

Further, the reductions in stress-related brain signaling partially accounted for how physical activity benefitted the cardiovascular system.

An additional finding reported by the team was that physical activity was about twice as effective in reducing cardiovascular risk in those with pre-existing depression.

“Effects on the brain’s stress-related activity may explain this novel observation,” Tawakol said in a press release.

However, he noted that more research is needed before causality can be proven.

John Higgins, MD, sports cardiologist with UTHealth Houston, who was not involved in the study, explained the study’s findings by saying, “Essentially, the stress pathways have negative effects on [the] arterial system by raising blood pressure and heart rate, damaging the inner lining of blood vessels over time, increasing inflammation, and damaging the immune system.”

According to Higgins, all these things can lead to increased cardiovascular risk and higher rates of coronary artery disease, including heart attack, heart failure, cerebrovascular disease (stroke), and other vascular diseases like peripheral artery disease and carotid artery disease.

“Physical activity, by reducing this driver of stress on increasing CV risk factors, helps ameliorate/reverse these effects and promote health and wellness,” he said.

Karishma Patwa, MD, who is with Manhattan Cardiology in New York City and is a contributor to LabFinder, said it can be “daunting” to start an intense exercise program.

The goal is to get in 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise each week, she added.

Moderate-intensity exercise is an exercise that will get your heart beating faster and cause you to sweat.

“Running, jogging, walking uphill, and swimming are all great ways to get your heart pumping,” said Patwa.

Patwa suggests starting slowly and working your way up to 150 minutes.

According to Higgins, the easiest way for most people to get started is to simply walk.

“[I]t is safe, accessible, and relatively cheap with respect to equipment,” he said. “Try to do some exercise most days of the week.”

“Aerobic activities that are especially useful in obese adults include walking at a speed of at least 2.5 miles per hour, bicycling, jogging, treadmill walking, swimming, aqua-aerobics, rowing, and low impact aerobics classes,” added Higgins.

A new study has found that getting the recommended amount of physical activity was associated with reduced risk for cardiovascular disease.

In those with pre-existing depression, the effect was even greater. The risk for cardiovascular disease was reduced by nearly twice as much.

The researchers said that this reduction in risk was associated with lowered levels of stress-related brain activity in the prefrontal cortex.

Stress has several negative effects that increase cardiovascular disease risk. By reducing stress-related brain activity, physical activity can help lower the risk of cardiovascular disease.

The easiest way to get started with an exercise program is by walking. Then, over time, you can work up to the recommended 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercises like running, swimming, or biking.