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Strenuous Exercise When You're Angry Might Do More Harm Than Help, Study Says

Blowing off steam with strenuous exercise can work for most, but a brisk walk may be as effective and safer for some.

Most think a good workout can help you blow off steam, but researchers have found strenuous exercise while angry can raise the risk of a heart attack for some people.

The study looked at more than 12,000 heart attacks in 52 countries. Researchers asked participants if they engaged in heavy exertion within an hour before their heart attack, and if they engaged in heavy exertion and were angry or emotionally upset 24 hours before the attack.

Emotional upset and heavy exertion both increase the risk of a heart attack. But Dr. Anand Rohatgi, a cardiologist with Parkland Hospital System and UT Southwestern Medical Center, said those in the study who had both had a threefold risk of an attack.

Rohatgi thinks the study doesn’t apply to most people, but that it offers good advice.

“I think it’s a message of caution that we don’t want to do things erratically or in extremes,” Rohatgi said. “We want to be — from a mood standpoint and an exercise standpoint — stable and consistent.”

Interview Highlights

How anger poses a problem: What people believe is happening is that plaque growing in the arteries has a coating and something like maybe too much adrenaline or some signal of too much activity can happen in the body that can stress the system. The coating can rupture and thin, and some type of stress, like anger, increased blood pressure or increased heart rate can rupture the coating.

Who’s likely to be affected: It’s probably a small proportion. Probably over 90 percent of heart attacks are really attributable to the things we know: high cholesterol, high sugar, high blood pressure, age — what we call traditional risk factors. But about 7 or 8 percent of what the study found in heart attacks is due to some external trigger — a bout of strenuous exercise or some anger, or even both. It’s real, but just a small proportion of what’s leading to heart disease in most people.

To guard against this: You probably don’t want to do some heavy exertion or something you’re not used to at that moment, because putting two things that are new for you — this anger episode that you’re having, plus this activity you may not be used to — may be too much for your system. Many people will be fine, but to be prudent, a brisk walk, deep breathing and some relaxing music would probably go along way to making you feel better.

Interview responses have been lightly edited for clarity.


Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.