Physical Activity Lowers Cardiovascular Risk by Modulating Brain Stress Signals

Recent research suggests that engaging in physical activity decreases the risk of cardiovascular disease by diminishing stress-related signaling in the brain (1 Trusted Source
Physical activity reduces stress-related brain activity to lower cardiovascular disease risk

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The study, led by researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, found that individuals with stress-related conditions like depression derived significant cardiovascular advantages from being physically active.

To investigate the reasons behind the psychological and cardiovascular benefits of physical activity, Dr. Ahmed Tawakol, a cardiologist and researcher at the Cardiovascular Imaging Research Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, along with his colleagues, examined the medical records and data from 50,359 individuals in the Mass General Brigham Biobank who had filled out a physical activity questionnaire.

A subset of 774 participants also underwent brain imaging tests and measurements of stress-related brain activity.

Over a median follow-up of 10 years, 12.9% of participants developed cardiovascular disease. Participants who met physical activity recommendations had a 23% lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease compared with those not meeting these recommendations.

Individuals with higher levels of physical activity also tended to have lower stress-related brain activity. Notably, reductions in stress-associated brain activity were driven by gains in function in the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain involved in executive function (i.e., decision making, impulse control) and is known to restrain stress centers of the brain. Analyses accounted for other lifestyle variables and risk factors for coronary disease.

Moreover, reductions in stress-related brain signaling partially accounted for physical activity’s cardiovascular benefit.


As an extension of this finding, the researchers found in a cohort of 50,359 participants that the cardiovascular benefit of exercise was substantially greater among participants who would be expected to have higher stress-related brain activity, such as those with pre-existing depression.

“Physical activity was roughly twice as effective in lowering cardiovascular disease risk among those with depression. Effects on the brain’s stress-related activity may explain this novel observation,” says Tawakol, who is the senior author of the study.


“Prospective studies are needed to identify potential mediators and to prove causality. In the meantime, clinicians could convey to patients that physical activity may have important brain effects, which may impart greater cardiovascular benefits among individuals with stress-related syndromes such as depression.”


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