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Unveiling the Link Between Stress-Related Brain Activity and the Heart-Healthy Power of Exercise

Written by Andrew Le, MD

UpdatedMay 29, 2024

Could the mental relief from your daily jog be doing wonders for your heart health too? A groundbreaking study, "Effect of Stress-Related Neural Pathways on the Cardiovascular Benefit of Physical Activity," published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, reveals a significant link between our brain's response to stress and the heart-protective benefits of physical activity. The study suggests that exercise might be particularly beneficial for those battling depression.

The expansive research included over 50,000 adults and discovered that individuals who were more physically active showcased lower levels of stress-related neural activity in the brain. This reduction in stress processing within the brain was found to be a pivotal mediator in the well-established cardiovascular triumphs awarded by regular physical activity.

For those suffering from depression, a condition interlinked with stress-related neural pathways, the study unveiled a silver lining. Not only did exercise diminish the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) for these individuals, but the benefits seemed to magnify compared to those without depression. This translates to a double bonus – improving mental health while significantly beefing up protection against heart disease.

Methodically, the study capitalized on health surveys, genetic data, and advanced brain imaging from the Mass General Brigham Biobank. The brain's involvement was measured by looking at the activity ratio between the amygdala—a region handling stress—and the prefrontal cortex—a region regulating stress responses. The occurrence of CVD events was diligently tracked via electronic health records.

Interestingly enough, the research journey also identified that the beneficial neural shifts were particularly pronounced in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) when individuals stayed consistently active. This brain region is essential for managing our response to stress. Consequently, the higher activity in the vmPFC might be the stress-buster behind the plush cushion provided against heart ailments.

Key takeaway? Engaging in regular physical activity does more than just flex your muscles; it reels in stress levels and fends off the blues, safeguarding your heart in the process. Depressed individuals, in particular, might find a robust ally in exercise for both mental and cardiac health.

However, like any scientific inquiry, the study has its limitations, acknowledging that its observational nature cannot conclusively pinpoint cause and effect. Furthermore, these findings were based on self-reported survey data, which comes with the usual caveats of accuracy.

In summary, this study shines a spotlight on the intricate dance between the mind and the heart. It proposes a biologically plausible explanation for why physical activity is so vital for heart health and why it could be even more crucial for individuals grappling with depression.

For those interested in diving deeper into the intricacies of how the heart connects to the mind, check out the full research details here.

Built with the help of Buoy Health.


Zureigat, H., Osborne, M. T., Abohashem, S., Mezue, K., Gharios, C., Grewal, S., Cardeiro, A., Naddaf, N., Civieri, G., Abbasi, T., Radfar, A., Aldosoky, W., Seligowski, A. V., Wasfy, M. M., Guseh, J. S., Churchill, T. W., Rosovsky, R. P., Fayad, Z., Rosenzweig, A., Baggish, A., Pitman, R. K., ... Tawakol, A. (2024). Effect of stress-related neural pathways on the cardiovascular benefit of physical activity. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 83(16), 1543-1553.