A new study by the American College of Cardiology has found that regular physical activity has nearly doubled the cardiovascular benefits in individuals with depression or anxiety, compared with individuals without these diagnoses.
The study was published in the journal ‘Cardiology’. The new research findings added to mounting evidence that exercise improves cardiovascular health by helping to activate parts of the brain that counteract stress.
The study found that “people who achieved the recommended amount of physical activity per week were 17 percent 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 percent risk reduction versus a 10 percent risk reduction in those without either condition,” according to the study.
“The effect of physical activity on the brain’s stress response may be particularly relevant in those with stress-related psychiatric conditions. 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,” said Dr. Hadil Zureigat, MD, a postdoctoral clinical research fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital and the study’s lead author.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, rates of depression and anxiety have increased, and heart disease remains the top cause of death in the United States. The study findings underscored the important role of exercise in maintaining heart health and reducing stress, according to the researchers.
For the study, researchers analyzed the health records of more than 50,000 patients in the Massachusetts General Brigham Biobank database. Just over 4,000 of the patients had suffered a major adverse cardiovascular event, which included experiencing a heart attack, having chest pain caused by a blocked artery, or undergoing a procedure to open a blocked artery in the heart.
According to the reports, “Researchers first assessed the rates of major coronary events among patients who reported in a questionnaire that they exercise at least 500 metabolic equivalents (MET) minutes per week, aligning with the ACC and American Heart Association primary prevention guideline recommendation of at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week, with those who exercise less.”
The analysis revealed that people who got at least 500 MET minutes or more per week were 17 percent less likely to suffer an adverse cardiovascular event. Then, they analyzed how this pattern played out among patients who had a diagnosis of depression or anxiety compared with those who did not have depression or anxiety.
This second analysis revealed that patients with depression derived more than double the benefit from exercise in terms of reduced cardiovascular risk compared with people who did not have depression. A similar benefit of exercise was found for patients with anxiety.
Even though the study used 500 MET minutes as a cutoff for the analysis, researchers noted that previous studies show people can reduce their heart disease risk even if they do not achieve the recommended amount of physical activity. Even a little bit of regular physical activity can make a difference in terms of cardiovascular risk.
“Any amount of exercise is helpful, particularly for those with depression or anxiety. Not only will physical activity help them feel better, but they will also potently reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease, Dr. Zureigat concluded.