Saint Luke’s News: New research finds key to improving both mental, physical health

August 28, 2019
Woman looking out of a window.


It is well-known that exercise is good for your physical health. But increasing your physical activity, especially with friends, can improve your mental health as well, according to a new study published in the medical journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings.     

The study by James O’Keefe, MD, a cardiologist with Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute, along with Evan O’Keefe, MS, and Carl Lavie, MD, FCCP, looked at the ties between a person’s mental and cardiovascular health.

Mental stress – which could be depression, anxiety, or strong negative feelings – is a top risk factor for heart attack and stroke. It can also prolong chronic heart disease nearly as much as smoking or having high blood pressure, according to previous studies.

“After earthquakes or sudden disasters like the attacks on 9/11, we see this spike in sudden cardiac deaths, and that’s just one indication,” Dr. O’Keefe said. “When we have a lot of stress that we can’t resolve, it tends to eventually take a toll on our heart.”

On the reverse side, research also shows a heart attack, heart failure, heart surgery, or stroke can make a person feel depressed or anxious. Compared to the general public, depression is three times more common in people with serious cardiovascular problems.

This can turn into a never-ending downward spiral of stress and worsening heart disease, where these two problems can work in synergy to degrade our physical and mental wellbeing.

That’s where exercise fits into the picture.

A recent study of 1.2 million people in the U.S. published in the medical journal Lancet Psychiatry found those who exercised regularly had about 43 percent fewer days of poor mental health compared to those who did not. 

“As it turns out, exercise is good for your heart and your mental health,” Dr. O’Keefe said. “It’s also good for interrupting this downward spiral. No matter how stressed you are, if you start an exercise program, it pretty much eliminates the cardiotoxic effects of stress.”

In fact, a large amount of research shows that exercise is equally effective in treating depression as antidepressant medications.

Before you start, Dr. O’Keefe offers a few tips.

First, don’t push yourself too hard.

“You don’t have to run marathons—even moderate exercise on a regular basis can eliminate the cardiotoxic effects of stress, no matter how stressed you are,” Dr. O’Keefe said.

The Lancet Psychiatry study found the mental health benefits were much lower in people who exercised more than 24 times a month or longer than 90 minutes a session.

Second, have some fun!

Research shows stress reduction benefits of physical activity are magnified when you exercise in social settings like group workouts, team sports, or interactive play. A previous study by Dr. O’Keefe found that playing team sports like tennis, golf, badminton, or soccer can increase life expectancy much more than exercising alone.

“This is really key,” Dr. O’Keefe said. “We’re intensely social creatures and physical play is an important part of emotionally bonding with our family and the people around us. Play is really good for us on a deep level— for our heart, our brain, our mood, our relationships, and our longevity.”

Read the full study Exercise Counteracts the Cardiotoxicity of Psychosocial Stress.

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