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Exercise reduces stressful brain activity, which can lead to less heart disease risk, study shows

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It’s common knowledge that exercise is good for mental health and heart health — and now, a new study suggests that all three work together.

In addition to the physical benefits of exercise, it is also associated with a reduction in stress signals in the brain, leading to a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, the study found.

Researchers analyzed data from more than 50,000 adults around age 60 from the Mass General Brigham Biobank, according to the study published Monday in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

The study looked at a survey of participants about their physical activity, imaging of their brains to track stress-related activity, and digital records of cardiovascular events.

“People who exercised more had a progressive reduction in stress-related signals in the brain,” said lead study author Dr. Ahmed Tawakol, a cardiologist at Mass General Hospital and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

“We found some interesting associations that exercise seemed, in part, to reduce heart disease risks by decreasing stress-related signals,” he added.

Everyone should pay attention whenever studies show this type of improvement resulting from a lifestyle change, said Dr. Andrew Freeman, director of cardiovascular prevention and wellness at National Jewish Health. Denver. Freeman was not involved in this study.

“These are incredibly profitable, the scale of the improvements are astonishing – often better than many drugs – and we should put these tools in our arsenal for immediate use,” he said.

Tawakol and his team also wanted to know whether people with more stress-related signals in the brain would benefit more from exercise, he said.

“Surprisingly, we also saw a twofold increase in the benefits of exercise in depressed people compared to people who do not have depression or a history of depression,” Tawakol said.

The relationship between the amount of exercise and lower levels of cardiovascular risk also varies depending on whether a person has a history of depression, he added.

For people without a history of depression, the cardiovascular disease-reducing benefits of exercise plateaued after about 300 minutes of moderate physical activity per week. But for people with depression, the benefits continued with more time spent, Tawakol said.

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Find exercises you enjoy and do regularly, said Dr. Andrew Freeman, director of cardiovascular prevention and wellness at National Jewish Health in Denver. He did not participate in the study.

These benefits are in addition to the psychological benefits that researchers already know from exercise, he added.

“We know that depression is an important risk factor for heart disease and is also one of the most common stress-related conditions,” said study co-author Dr. Karmel Choi, clinical psychologist and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital.

“Even though some people may be more sensitive to stress and its health consequences, here we see that they can also benefit from it. more of exercise and its stress-modulating effects. Which is encouraging,” she added in an email.

Exercise reduces stress signals and increases prefrontal cortical signals, Tawakol said.

“Both of these are interesting changes in the brain,” he said.

The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for executive functions, or cognitive processes that control behavior, Tawakol said.

And stress signals in the brain are associated with things like inflammation, higher activity of the sympathetic nervous system, higher blood pressure and diseases that thicken or harden the arteries, he added.

In part, exercise appears to reduce heart disease risks by reducing stress signals, Tawakol said.

However, these results are only associations. Because the researchers observed the participants rather than conducting a randomized trial with a control group, they cannot say with certainty that exercise caused the reductions or what mechanisms underlie it, he said. he declares.

You don’t have to be a professional athlete to have a good exercise routine, and it can help you progress, Freeman said.

“It turns out that human beings were designed to move and move around a lot, and when we do that – especially when we’re outside and among trees – data suggests that all of these have very significant effects on stress reduction.”

Freeman recommends checking with your doctor first and trying to get in 30 minutes a day of breathless physical activity — and it doesn’t matter what that activity is.

“If you don’t like walking, biking, swimming or anything else, don’t do it. But find a way to do physical activity that you really enjoy,” he said.

Just make sure it feels challenging, no matter your fitness level, Freeman added. If you can speak in full sentences while you exercise, it might be time to make things more difficult, he said.

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