Depressed patients may have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease – something that regular exercise could help reduce or manage.

This is the finding of a team of researchers from Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, writing in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. While symptoms of mild to minimal depression were linked to early signs of heart disease, regularly working out just might be key to fighting them.

Depression has long been linked with a higher cardiovascular risk as well as other conditions. Up to 20 percent of heart attack patients report being depressed, while heart disease patients maintain three times more risk of becoming depressed than healthy individuals.

The team analyzed 965 subjects who did not have heart disease and were not previously diagnosed of any anxiety or psychotic disorder. The subjects were evaluated for depression and physical activity levels through questionnaires, and were assessed for early markers of heart disease.

They found that early disease markers, particularly arterial stiffening and inflammation, which usually come with worsening depression symptoms, manifested more in inactive individuals.

These markers were less common among subjects who regularly engaged in physical activities.

"There are many patients with heart disease who also experience depression - we need to study whether encouraging them to exercise will reduce their risk of adverse outcomes," said study author Dr. Arshed A. Quyyumi, also a co-director of the Emory Clinical Cardiovascular Research Institute.

Exercise provides physical and psychological benefits that can potentially make one happier, such as through reducing anxiety and improving mood. Physical fitness does this through ways such as:

Release of "feel good" brain chemicals that can alleviate depression, including neurotransmitters, endorphins, and the endocannabinoid system

Reducing immune system chemicals that can worsen depression

Increasing body temperature for potentially calming effects

Inciting greater confidence as one meets exercise goals and targets, as well as improves his or her appearance

Promoting more social interaction, even a simple exchange of greeting or smiles and walking around the community

Distracting from worries and serving as a healthy coping mechanism

Exercise physiologist Samantha Heller from the New York University Medical Center said that humans are designed both physically and biochemically to keep moving.

"[The] human body is one big chemistry lab that not only governs our health, but also our mental and emotional states," she said, adding that exercising the body's different systems lead to better adaptation through better stamina, stronger bones and muscles, and improved mood.

She explained that heart disease has its roots in genetics, lifestyle, age, and the environment - all of which can improve psychological wellness. Increased inflammation and impeded blood flow, for instance, could directly or indirectly affect the mechanical and biochemical workings of the brain.

"All of these things can have big effects on mood, memory and emotion," she added.

The word "exercise" may make someone think of running laps or having a highly structured workout program. On the contrary, one may simply start with physical activities such as walking, gardening, or taking the stairs instead of the elevator.

It's recommended for beginners to start slowly and adjust according to the body's response.

Photo: Rosmarie Voegtli | Flickr

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