Can exercising to ‘blow off steam’ cause a heart attack?

Getting very upset raises your blood pressure and makes your heart work harder. So does heavy physical exertion.

Can exercising to ‘blow off steam’ cause a heart attack? The simple answer is yes — but the real answer is a bit more nuanced so let’s explore this in more detail.

A study coordinated at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. and published in the journal Circulation accumulated data from 52 countries looking at people having their first heart attack. Among other things they asked the over 12,000 participants what they had been up to in the hour before the heart attack happened. A significant number mentioned being angry or emotionally upset. Similarly, a significant number said that they had been engaged in heavy physical exertion. Those who had both were even more likely to have had that first heart attack.

From a basic, biology-of-the-body perspective, this makes perfect sense. Getting very upset, screaming in an argument for example, raises your blood pressure and makes your heart work harder. So does heavy physical exertion and certainly combining the two could be expected to raise the risk more, as this data seems to indicate.

So, is it really dangerous to “blow off steam” by working out when you’re emotionally upset? It depends on how hard you’re working out. Going for a walk to calm down or doing your normal exercise like a reasonable jog is probably okay, but pushing yourself hard is not.

There are other key messages from this study. Before blowing your stack, take a deep breath and count to 10. Extreme anger is not good for your body. Regular physical activity is in general good for you but heavy exertion, especially if you push hard when you are very angry, is not good for your heart. If you want to blow off steam, don’t go beyond what you would normally be doing.

And lastly, if you have any symptoms suggesting a heart attack in the period after being extremely emotionally upset or after heavy physical exertion, do take them seriously.

Dr. Mitch Shulman is an Assistant Professor, Dept. of Surgery, McGill Medical School and an Attending Physician, Emergency Department, McGill University Health Centre. He’s also the CJAD AM 800 Medical Consultant.

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