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My little brother had a heart attack recently.

He’s OK and recovering well. But it was quite a shock to him and the rest of us.

For one thing, younger siblings aren’t supposed to experience potentially life-threatening medical events, and he didn’t have any risk factors except…

He is a non-smoker, of normal weight, reasonably fit (he runs a garage and is physically active all day long) with normal blood pressure and lipids, and on no medication.

“Fit as a fiddle,” there were no warning indicators, except…

Running your own business is stressful. No matter how hard you work or how much your clients love you, there’s no let up on the worry of making enough to pay the bills or keeping your punters happy.

Prolonged stress leads to higher levels of inflammation in the body, and it’s this that predisposes us to be at higher risk of heart disease, type two diabetes, depression, neurodegeneration, rheumatoid arthritis and certain cancers.

 

Heart disease remains our number one killer, so looking at what works to help protect us from heart disease is imperative.

The World Health Organisation has classified stress as the health epidemic of the 21st century.

Living through the global pandemic highlighted the need to recognise that ongoing stress accumulates and depletes the body’s natural ability to cope. The immune system takes a hammering, meaning you’re more prone to picking up all the communicable diseases going around, and psychologically, you’re more sensitive to all the daily hassles that impact your perspective and sense of well-being.

While we all experience stress to a certain degree, we don’t always like to acknowledge when we’re struggling and will downplay its impact on our health and wellbeing.

We tell ourselves,

“It’s just a bit hectic at the moment, things will settle down soon.”

But what if they don’t?

“I’m sure I can sort this myself. I don’t need any help.”

But what if you can’t?

“My GP told me my blood pressure is a bit high, but I reckon I’m fit enough. It’s not a problem.”

But what if it is?

When we’re good at justifying to ourselves that all is well, we won’t see what others may, like the tell-tale signs of chronic stress that are causing excessive fatigue, sleep disturbance, anxiety, depression, heartburn, headaches and assorted aches and pains.

New research has revealed an important protective factor against heart disease associated with chronic stress.

 

It’s called exercise.

Cardiology researchers from Massachusetts analysed the medical records of 50,359 Mass General Brigham (MGB) Biobank participants who completed a physical activity survey.

From there, a subgroup of 774 people underwent brain imaging and measurements of stress-related brain activity and were followed up over a ten-year period.

12.9% of the group developed heart disease.

However, those who met the physical activity recommendations of 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise were shown to have a 23% lower risk of developing heart disease compared to those who were relatively inactive.

The exercisers were also noted to have lower stress-related brain activity, driven by gains in greater executive function, such as decision-making and impulse control, and reduced stress.

The protective effect of exercise on the heart was found to be twice as effective in those individuals with stress-related conditions such as depression.

In essence, protecting yourself from chronic disease and specifically heart disease can be helped by ensuring you are sufficiently physically active, even if you don’t think you’re over-stressed.

My little brother is now on a rehab program that includes upping his physical activity beyond what he normally does for his work.

He knows his big sister and family are on to him, to keep him accountable to his new regime.

Sometimes, it can take a shock to the system to wake us up to the need to be proactive about staying healthy.

Lifestyle. It’s always a choice.

 

What choices have you made to keep your own stress in check?

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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