Exercise too dangerous? Exercising with blocked arteries could trigger a stroke

WASHINGTON —Could exercise really be bad for your health? A new study warns that exercising could potentially cause a stroke in individuals with blocked arteries.

Indian researchers suggest that many gym-goers may be overlooking the cautionary advice given before exercise classes, which strongly encourage consultation with a doctor before engaging in strenuous physical activity. Scientists warn that some health conditions could make the increased heart rate associated with exercise dangerous.

The study, conducted by a team from the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur, found that an increased heart rate could potentially induce a stroke in patients with severely blocked carotid arteries. However, they also found that for healthy individuals and those with only mild arterial blockages, exercise is still beneficial for maintaining healthy blood flow.

The research team clarified that the carotid arteries, located on both sides of the neck, provide blood flow to the face and brain. These arteries can become narrowed when substances such as fat, cholesterol and other particles build up on the inside walls of the artery, forming plaque.

This narrowing, known as stenosis, can be difficult to detect in its early stages as plaque begins to build up. However, it poses a significant risk as it can restrict blood flow to the brain. If the brain is deprived of the necessary blood supply, it lacks oxygen, resulting in a stroke in the patient.

In healthy individuals, an elevated heart rate can increase and stabilize the drag that blood exerts on the vessel wall, thereby reducing the risk of stenosis. However, this may not be as beneficial for patients who already suffer from strictures.

To study this, the research team simulated blood flow in the carotid arteries at three stages of stenosis – without blockage, with 30% mild blockage and with 50% moderate blockage – using a specialized computer model. They then compared the effects of an exercise-induced heart rate of 140 beats per minute with resting heart rates of 67 and 100 beats per minute.

heart arteries during exercise
Oscillatory shear index (OSI) contours on healthy carotid arteries, 30% stenosis and 50% stenosis for normal (67 beats per minute), moderate (100 bpm), and high (140 bpm) heart rates. CREDIT: Khan et al.

As anticipated, for healthy individuals and those with mild blockages, the exercise-induced condition improved the health of the simulated carotid arteries. However, the team expressed concern about the results for cases with moderate blocks.

Vigorous exercise shows negative effects on patients with moderate or higher stricture levels, study author Somnath Roy says in a news release. Substantially increases the shear stress in the area of ​​the stricture, which can lead to rupture of the stricture. This ruptured plaque can then flow to the brain and its blood supply, causing an ischemic stroke.

Dr. Roy adds that an elevated heart rate could also increase the chances of another stricture forming. The research team notes that many factors contribute to stricture and stroke risk, including age, lifestyle and genetics. They recommend regularly checking the health of your arteries before engaging in intense workouts.

The study authors also suggest sticking to a carefully prescribed exercise regimen if you have moderate to severe strictures or a family history of stroke.

The results are published in the journal Physics of fluids.

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South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.

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