Healing the Physical and Metaphorical Heart 

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Scientists who study physiology and in other biomedical research fields—including anatomy, biochemistry, pathology and pharmacology—network, collaborate and communicate about the latest research at the American Physiological Society (APS) annual meeting at Experimental Biology (EB). This week’s post explores how exercise can improve health in people who have experienced traumatic childhood experiences. 

We know from published research that psychological stress can translate into physical health concerns such as heart disease. Exposure to stress early in life can have lasting effects on people’s physical and mental health. Since 1995, researchers have been looking into how potentially traumatic childhood events, called adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, can affect health. Examples of ACEs include neglect, abuse or the loss of a parent.  

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ACEs can have “lasting, negative effects on health, well-being, as well as life opportunities.” Roughly 61% of adults in the U.S. have experienced at least one ACE, and about 16% report experiencing four or more.  

New research presented earlier this month at the APS annual meeting at EB shows exercise could help reduce some of the effects of ACEs. The research team looked at otherwise healthy young women who experienced at least four traumatic events in childhood. 

Nathaniel Jenkins, PhD, talks about the link between exercise and childhood trauma.

The women participated in a moderate-high intensity progressive exercise program that included aerobic and resistance exercises. They showed improvements in both mental and cardiovascular health. The top number in their blood pressure reading—the systolic blood pressure—went down. (Elevated systolic blood pressure means the heart must work harder to move blood through the body.) They also had lower levels of a protein in the blood that causes blood vessels to tighten. Goal planning strategies improved too, which is a psychological measure of hope. 

The researchers were particularly struck by how the women’s physical and psychological health markers improved together, which suggests there’s a relationship between positive psychological traits and cardiovascular risk factors in young women who have overcome childhood trauma. 

The study offers hope that concrete steps to address the physical effects of ACEs could also alleviate some of the psychological effects as well—healing survivors’ physical and metaphorical hearts at the same time. 

Want to see more research from EB? Check out our APS at EB 2022 Newsroom to see more highlights from the meeting. 

Claire Edwards

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