Exercise Reduces Heart Risk by Giving the Brain a Break

by Staff Writer
April 17, 2024 at 11:57 AM UTC

Research shows exercise reduces cardiovascular disease risk by reducing stress-related signals in the brain.

Clinical relevance: Research shows exercise reduces cardiovascular disease risk by reducing stress-related signals in the brain.

  • The Massachusetts General Hospital study involved more than 50,000 people from Mass General Brigham Biobank.
  • Participants meeting physical activity recommendations had a 23 percent lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease over a 10-year follow-up.
  • The cardiovascular benefits are heightened in individuals with higher stress-related brain activity, particularly those with depression.

We all know exercise is good for the heart and the mind. But researchers have spent years trying to answer the “why” behind the “what.” In fact, one recent paper argues that exercise can slow down the aging process.

Now, research out of Massachusetts General Hospital suggests that physical activity reduces cardiovascular disease risk – at least in part – by cutting down on the stress-related signals in the brain.

The study, which appeared in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, also showed that people living with stress-related conditions – such as anxiety or depression – enjoyed the greatest cardiovascular benefits from exercise.


In a bid to get a better grasp on the processes that underpin the advantages of physical activity, Ahmed Tawakol, MD, an investigator and cardiologist in the Cardiovascular Imaging Research Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, and his colleagues examined the medical records – and related data – of more than 50,000 people from the Mass General Brigham Biobank.

The researchers had the study participants fill out a survey that gauged their level of physical activity. The team then put a subset of 774 of them through brain imaging tests to measure stress-related brain activity. The Boston team of researchers also factored in lifestyle variables and other coronary disease risks.

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

Study participants who showed more physical activity also boasted lower stress-related brain activity. 

The researchers insist that gains in function in the prefrontal cortex helped drive the drop in stress-associated brain activity. And, they added, the drop-off in stress-related brain signaling played a partial role in the cardiovascular benefit gleaned from exercise.

Added Benefits of Exercise

The researchers also discovered that exercise’s cardiovascular benefit appeared to be highest among participants who already had higher stress-related brain activity. That includes any study participants struggling with 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,” Tawakol, the study’s senior author, explained. “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.”

Further Reading

The Health Care Professional and Patient’s Guide to Understanding What to Do, How, and Why

Sedentary Time as a Risk Factor for Adverse Physical Health and Mental Health Outcomes

Exercise, Yoga, and Tai Chi for Depression

Clinical and Practical Psychopharmacology

Antipsychotic Medication Continuation vs Taper and Discontinuation in Patients With Schizophrenia and Other Nonaffective Psychotic Disorders

Dr Andrade discusses two studies that examined the outcomes of gradual, individualized antipsychotic dose reduction and discontinuation in patients with psychosis.

Chittaranjan Andrade

Letter to the Editor

Geriatric Depression: What Clinicians Need to Know

The authors discuss what clinicians should be aware of when caring for elderly patients with depression.

Ahmed Naguy and others