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  • Posted April 15, 2024

Exercise Could Help Your Heart by Calming the Brain: Study

You know exercise is great for your cardiovascular health, but new research suggests that your brain has a lot to do with it.

It's all about physical activity's ability to lower stress levels within the brain, explained a team at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston.

Bolstering that finding, their study found that exercise brought the greatest heart benefits to people with histories of depression.

“Physical activity was roughly twice as effective in lowering cardiovascular disease risk among those with depression," noted study lead author Dr. Ahmed Tawakol. He's an investigator and cardiologist in the Cardiovascular Imaging Research Center at MGH.

The study was published April 15 in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

In the research, Tawakol's team looked at a median 10 years of data on more than 50,000 people enrolled in the Mass General Brigham Biobank database. All of the participants kept records of their physical activity.

A subset of 774 also underwent brain scans and other tests measuring their stress-linked brain activity.

Over the decade of follow-up, almost 13% of the participants went on to develop heart disease, the researchers reported.

However, folks who met standard recommendations for physical activity were 23% less likely to receive such a diagnosis.

Those individuals also had markedly less brain activity associated with stress than people who exercised less, Tawakol's team found.

Specifically, fitter folk tended to have less stress-associated activity in the brain's decision-making, impulse-control center, the prefrontal cortex. This area is known to wield some control over the brain's stress centers, the Boston team explained.

Overall, it appeared that lowered stress levels did have a big role to play in improved heart health, the researchers said. The fact that exercise seemed to especially help folks with a history of depression reinforced that notion.

"Effects on the brain's stress-related activity may explain this novel observation," Tawakol said in an MGH news release.

He believes that doctors should mention the brain-heart connection whenever they counsel patients about the benefits of exercise.

More information

Find out more about exercise's brain benefits at the Cleveland Clinic.

SOURCE: Massachusetts General Hospital, news release, April 15, 2024

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