If you’re really pissed off — after, say, watching a presidential debate or tuning in to CNN anytime this month — going extra hard on the treadmill may seem like a healthy way to blow off some steam. But according to new research published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation, exercising vigorously while you’re raging mad can triple your heart attack risk, even if your heart is otherwise healthy.
In the largest and broadest study of its kind, Canadian researchers analyzed nearly 12,500 first-time heart attack sufferers from 52 nations, none of whom were previously diagnosed with heart disease. The participants were asked whether they’d engaged in heavy physical activity or felt angry during the hour leading up to their heart attack. They were also asked what happened during the same time window the day before, which allowed the researchers to zero in on the effects of these triggers in the same person on multiple days.
Turns out, those who overtaxed their bodies were twice as likely to suffer a heart attack within the next hour. Exact same story for the participants who reported feeling angry — their risk doubled. But anger plus extreme physical exertion proved to be an especially dangerous duo. The participants who reported both at the same time were three times more apt to have a heart attack.
“Both heavy physical exertion and anger have similar effects on the body,” says lead researcher Dr. Andrew Smyth of McMaster University. “They make changes to heart rate, blood pressure, and the way the blood vessels behave.” Combined, these effects can hinder blood flow to the heart, he says. “If this happens in blood vessels that are already showing some signs of disease, such as narrowing or plaque formation, it may cause an acute stop in blood flow to part of the heart muscle, leading to a heart attack.”
This is not the first study to link anger or heavy physical exertion to heart attacks. However, it’s significant because of its large size, inclusion of so many ethnicities, and the fact that these people weren’t all old, out-of-shape, or already sick, like those involved in many heart studies. These findings show that, theoretically, a heart attack could happen to anyone who works out too hard while emotionally upset.
Still, Smyth insists the message is not to avoid exercise, which protects your heart. Just be careful not to push your body to crazy extremes in the moments you feel like tearing someone’s head off. Since one guy’s “extreme” may be another’s warm-up, he advises sticking within your usual intensity and duration when you’re upset to be on the safe side.
Also, work on managing your anger in other ways. Rather than breaking your body trying to sweat it all out, try deep breathing, meditating, or talking out your troubles. And maybe take a break from social media and the news for a few hours — for your health.