Exercise protects mentally stressed hearts

Depression and anxiety disorders also put a strain on the heart and circulatory system. The good news: Sport is particularly effective for those affected. Exercise not only improves mental symptoms, but physical activity also regulates the stress response in the brain.

The cardiovascular system of people with depression or anxiety disorders benefits from this even more than that of mentally stable people.

heart & mind exercise

Stress takes a toll on the body and soul

“The effect of physical activity on the brain’s stress response may be particularly relevant in people with stress-related psychiatric disorders,” said study lead author Hadil Zureigat of Massachusetts General Hospital.

The researchers and colleagues examined the effectiveness of exercise in preventing cardiovascular disease. To do this, they analysed the health data of more than 50,000 patients that had been recorded in the database of the Massachusetts General Brigham Biobank.

Just over 4,000 of the patients had suffered a major cardiovascular event, e.g., B. a heart attack, chest pain due to a blocked coronary artery (angina pectoris) or an operation to open a blocked coronary artery.

Movement in everyday life also counts

The participants not only indicated how many hours they explicitly did sports, but also how much they moved in everyday life. The so-called metabolic equivalent (MET) serves as a measurement variable for this.

Depending on the intensity, sports scientists assign different MET minutes to different forms of exercise. For example, the minimum weekly minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise recommended by the World Health Organization is equivalent to 500 hours of MET per week.

Twice as effective for the mentally ill

The result:

  • Overall, participants who reported achieving at least 500 MET minutes weekly reduced their risk of a major cardiovascular event (such as a heart attack or stroke) by 17 percent.
  • People with anxiety disorders or depression made a significant contribution to this average result: they were able to reduce their risk by as much as 22 percent compared to fellow sufferers who were less active.
  • However, exercise also paid off for people who did not suffer from one of the two mental illnesses. For them, the likelihood of cardiovascular events fell by only 10 percent with sufficient exercise.

Thus, the effectiveness in people with anxiety disorders and depression is more than twice as great as in people without such a previous mental illness.

“Any amount of exercise is helpful, especially for people with depression or anxiety,” Zureigat said. “Physical activity not only makes them feel better, but it can also significantly reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease.”

The transition can be difficult, but once made, physical activity could kill two birds with one stone for people with these common psychiatric disorders.

Exercise tames stress responses in the brain

In previous studies, the research team used brain imaging to determine how exercise helps control the brain’s stress response.

Stress-related neural activity is increased in people with depression and anxiety disorders. This can directly affect cardiovascular health. For example, increased blood pressure puts a strain on the vessels and thus contributes significantly to the development of heart attacks and strokes.

“When you think of physical activity reducing cardiovascular risk, you don’t usually think of the brain,” Zureigat said. In fact, however, physical activity could also influence neuronal mechanisms in such a way that cardiovascular risk is reduced.

In the UAE

UAE businesses are steadily coming around to the idea that employees are not inexhaustible machines, led primarily by the noble example taken by the government to reduce the working hours of public sector workers and promoting a better work-life balance. It is important however that individuals use their spare time wisely and find time for physical activities, to ensure both mental and physical health and well-being.