Exercise is a great way to reduce stress and improve overall health. But according to a new study by the American Heart Association, you should think about your frame of mind before hitting the pavement or running to the gym.
The large international study included 12,461 first-time heart attack sufferers from 52 countries, average age 58. Participants were asked to recall whether they were angry or upset, or had heavily exerted themselves in the hour before their heart attack.
- About 14 percent of the participants reported that engaging in physical exertion, or being angry or emotionally upset were triggers for their heart attack.
- Separately, either being angry or upset, or engaging in heavy physical exertion was associated with a doubled heart attack risk.
- Put the two together, and being either angry or upset as well as engaging in heavy exercise was linked to a tripled heart attack risk.
When anger, emotions and heavy physical exertion combine
According to Shawn Skeen, MD, the effects extreme anger and exercise have on your body can be similar. Skeen is a cardiologist at Ascension Providence. Ascension Providence is a part of Ascension, the largest nonprofit health system in the U.S. and the world’s largest Catholic health system.
Extreme anger or exercise both increase blood pressure and heart rate. For people who may have unstable plaque build-up, this may increase the likelihood these plaques could rupture, resulting in a heart attack. “Also, when we get upset, angry, very sad or overly anxious, or do rigorous exercise, our bodies produce more stress-related hormones,” Skeen said. “In some cases, these hormones alone can result in stress-related heart dysfunction, despite the absence of obstructive coronary artery disease.”
To exercise or not exercise?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease remains the number one killer in the U.S.; about 735,000 Americans have a heart attack each year. Skeen urges that prevention of a first heart attack is key – so, ditching the exercise is not an option.
“Physical aerobic activity, combined with a heart-heathy diet is as effective as any medicine we have at preventing a first heart attack,” Skeen said.
Skeen points out that the study may show a link between being upset or doing strenuous exercise and having a heart attack, but it doesn’t mean the heart attack is actually caused by the extreme emotion or exertion. Also, the study relied on participants’ memories of what they were doing before the heart attack, which tends to be less reliable compared to clinical data.
However, because extreme stress or emotional upset and rigorous physical exercise are known heart attack triggers, the study does suggest that cooling down emotionally before exercising can help defuse those as triggers. Skeen also encourages those who have multiple heart disease risk factors be evaluated by a health care professional before starting any physical activity.
Alternatives to strenuous physical activity
Keeping stress and emotions in-check is important for overall health and wellness. According to Skeen, you don’t have to break a sweat to do so. Mind-body techniques such as yoga, meditation and prayer are equally effective with real cardio benefits. Other options include low-impact physical activity like walking or gardening or relaxation methods such as breathing and counting.
Talk to your doctor about what alternative techniques are right for you. And of course, talk to your doctor before starting any new exercise regimen.