People With Depression Experience 2X The Cardiovascular Benefits Of Exercise

Depression And Exercise
Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Study underscores the brain’s role in deriving cardiovascular benefits from physical activity

People with depression and anxiety experienced nearly double the cardiovascular benefits of exercise than those without either diagnosis, according to a new study.  Researchers analyzed the health records of more than 50,000 patients in the Massachusetts General Brigham Biobank database, around 4,000 of whom suffered a significant heart-related event, like a heart attack. 

They assessed through a questionnaire the rate of coronary events in people who said they met the weekly recommended exercise. The findings add to mounting evidence that exercise improves cardiovascular health by helping to activate parts of the brain that counteract stress. Overall, the study found that people who achieved the recommended amount of physical activity per week were 17% less likely to suffer a major adverse cardiovascular event than those who exercised less. These benefits were significantly greater in those with anxiety or depression, who had a 22% risk reduction vs. a 10% risk reduction in those without either condition.  

“The effect of physical activity on the brain’s stress response may be particularly relevant in those with stress-related psychiatric conditions,” the study’s lead author and postdoctoral clinical research fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital, Hadil Zureigat said in a news release.  ( “This is not to suggest that exercise is only effective in those with depression or anxiety, but we found that these patients seem to derive a greater cardiovascular benefit from physical activity.” 

Rates of both depression and anxiety have risen during the COVID-19 pandemic, and heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the U.S. The study findings underscore the important role of exercise in maintaining heart health and reducing stress, according to the researchers. Regular physical activity had nearly doubled the cardiovascular benefit in individuals with depression or anxiety, compared with individuals without these diagnoses, according to the study, which was presented at the American College of Cardiology’s 71st Annual Scientific Session.

The research expands upon previous studies by the research team that used brain imaging to determine how exercise improves cardiovascular health by helping to keep the brain’s stress response in check. Individuals with depression or anxiety have higher stress-related neural activity and a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.

“When one thinks about physical activity decreasing cardiovascular risk, one doesn’t usually think of the brain,” Zureigat said. “Our research emphasizes the importance of the stress-related neural mechanisms by which physical activity acts to reduce cardiovascular risk.”

No matter what a study's specific activity goal, researchers noted that previous studies have shown that people have reduced their heart disease risk even when they don't fulfill the recommended amount of physical activity. “Any amount of exercise is helpful, particularly for those with depression or anxiety,” Zureigat said. “Not only will physical activity help them feel better, but they will also potently reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease. It can be hard to make the transition, but once achieved, physical activity allows those with these common chronic stress-related psychiatric conditions to hit two birds with one stone.”

Dr. Mark L. Meyer Dr. Meyer graduated from Haverford College with a Bachelor of Science, High Honors, in cellular and molecular biology, Phi Beta Kappa, Magna Cum Laude. He attended the Yale University School of Medicine, where he also completed a categorical residency in Internal Medicine, served for one year as an Emergency Department attending physician, and held the title of Clinical Instructor in the Department of Surgery. During this time, Dr. Meyer obtained a J.D. from the Yale Law School, concentrating on medical ethics, scientific research law, and FDA law. He then completed a fellowship in Cardiovascular Diseases at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, where he obtained Level 3 Nuclear Cardiology training.

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