Effect of Stress-Related Neural Pathways on the Cardiovascular Benefit of Physical Activity

J Am Coll Cardiol. 2024 Apr 23;83(16):1543-1553. doi: 10.1016/j.jacc.2024.02.029.


Background: The mechanisms underlying the psychological and cardiovascular disease (CVD) benefits of physical activity (PA) are not fully understood.

Objectives: This study tested whether PA: 1) attenuates stress-related neural activity, which is known to potentiate CVD and for its role in anxiety/depression; 2) decreases CVD in part through this neural effect; and 3) has a greater impact on CVD risk among individuals with depression.

Methods: Participants from the Mass General Brigham Biobank who completed a PA survey were studied. A subset underwent 18F-fluorodeoxyglucose positron emission tomography/computed tomographic imaging. Stress-related neural activity was measured as the ratio of resting amygdalar-to-cortical activity (AmygAC). CVD events were ascertained from electronic health records.

Results: A total of 50,359 adults were included (median age 60 years [Q1-Q3: 45-70 years]; 40.1% male). Greater PA was associated with both lower AmygAC (standardized β: -0.245; 95% CI: -0.444 to -0.046; P = 0.016) and CVD events (HR: 0.802; 95% CI: 0.719-0.896; P < 0.001) in multivariable models. AmygAC reductions partially mediated PA's CVD benefit (OR: 0.96; 95% CI: 0.92-0.99; P < 0.05). Moreover, PA's benefit on incident CVD events was greater among those with (vs without) preexisting depression (HR: 0.860; 95% CI: 0.810-0.915; vs HR: 0.929; 95% CI: 0.910-0.949; P interaction = 0.011). Additionally, PA above guideline recommendations further reduced CVD events, but only among those with preexisting depression (P interaction = 0.023).

Conclusions: PA appears to reduce CVD risk in part by acting through the brain's stress-related activity; this may explain the novel observation that PA reduces CVD risk to a greater extent among individuals with depression.

Keywords: brain; cardiovascular disease; depression; imaging; stress.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cardiovascular Diseases*
  • Exercise
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neural Pathways
  • Positron-Emission Tomography
  • Risk Factors
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed