Study reveals exercise brings greatest heart benefits to people with history of depression

Women in shorts running on a trail
(Image credit: Getty)

Exercise is good for your physical health, everyone knows that. And it can have positive effects on mental health too, that’s well documented (have you tried running for stress relief?). But the two may be even more interconnected than previously thought, as a new study suggests that the keeping your mind healthy through can lead to a healthier heart too, and the people who can benefit most are those with a history of depression.

It all hinges on exercise’s ability to lower stress levels in the brain, a team at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston revealed in a study published Monday in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

“Physical activity was roughly twice as effective in lowering cardiovascular disease risk among those with depression,” says study lead author Dr Ahmed Tawakol, an investigator and cardiologist in the Cardiovascular Imaging Research Center at MGH.

Tawakol’s team made use of 10 years of data on more than 50,000 people enrolled in the Mass General Brigham Biobank database. All of the participants kept records of their physical activity.

Additionally, 774 of those studied also agreed to brain scans and other tests to measure their stress-linked brain activity (they didn’t just rely on their Garmin watches giving them stress warnings).

trail runner

What’s good for the body is good for the brain, which is good for the body… it’s the circle of health (Image credit: Getty Images)

Almost 13% of the participants went on to develop heart disease. However, those who met standard recommendations for physical activity were found to be 23% less likely to suffer heart-related health issues. These same people on the study also tended to have less stress-associated activity in their prefrontal cortex, the brain’s decision-making center.

The fact that exercise seemed to especially help those with a history of depression reinforces the connection between stress and the physical state of your heart.

So exercise has a double whammy effect on heart health; there’s a direct physiological correlation, plus it de-stresses you which also improves your old ticker. It’s something we probably all assumed anyway, but it’s good to hear scientists say there’s real evidence, and Tawakol believes that doctors should mention the brain-heart connection whenever they give patients advice about the benefits of exercise.

In other words that old adage saying, “Healthy mind, healthy body,” is more true than you might have realized, and nothing combines de-stressing and exercise better than hiking or trail running (barring avalanches, broken bones and arguments with MTB riders about who has the right to the trail, of course).