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When Working Out to Blow Off Steam Can Kill You

Extreme stress or anger combined with strenuous exercise can trigger a heart attack if you're already at risk, new study says.

When you're super-stressed, dealing with a gargantuan project at work with an encroaching deadline or straight up in a palms-twitching-face-sweating nuclear rage because you just found out your girlfriend is leaving you for another guy, you'd think working out to blow off steam would be the most proactive way to simmer down. But, alarming new research from the Population Health Research Institute at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario suggests the opposite.  

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When you're really mad or stressed, intense exercise triples your risk of having a heart attack within an hour—if you have risk factors already and are middle-aged, at least. 

In the study, researchers surveyed 12,461 people, across 52 countries, who suffered their first heart attack. Participants averaged 58-years-old and 75 percent of them were men.

To see if (and how) physical exertion, anger, and emotional upset trigger the onset of a heart attack, men and women answered questions about whether they were upset and did any vigorous exercise in the hour before their heart attack or during the same time period the previous day.

In all, heavy physical exertion or being angry or upset doubled the risk of suffering heart attack symptoms within an hour, the researchers say. But, your risk for heart attack triples when you're upset and do some form of intense endeavor

“For folks who have difficulty controlling their temper, who have a tendency to blow their gaskets, it’s important for them, not just emotionally but physically and medically, to control their tempers,” Barry Jacobs, Psy.D., from the Crozer-Keystone Health System said in a video via Science Daily. When you're super angry, chopping wood may seem like the kind of macho anger-liberating activity you need. But this succession of events can lead to physiological conditions, which can cause a heart attack, Jacobs explains.

It makes sense: Emotional stress and difficult bouts of exercise can raise your blood pressure and speed heart rate, quickening blood flow through your heart's blood vessels, which, if they've got a buildup of plaque, can block blood flow and lead to a heart attack.

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This study isn't without its flaws. For one, the men and women reported their own levels of stress, anger, and amount of physical exertion, the researchers say. What you perceive to be vigorous exertion can be  running an ultramarathon, but to someone else, that can be defined as a 20-minute treadmill workout. (Just to give you an idea of what constitutes a strenuous activity, the Department of Health and Human Services defines "vigorous-intensity activities" as being over 6.0 METs (how much energy you expend during an activity), so this can be running at 6 mph, hiking, or weightlifting, for example.) 

But this doesn't mean you shouldn't work out if you're frustrated from a long day at work or peeved from an argument

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"The authors of the study point out, quite correctly, that regular physical exercise is extremely important for heart health and general health," Jacobs adds. And again, he also points out the study authors looked into people who are middle-aged and have cardiovascular risk factors; so if you're young, fit, healthy, and haven't had any signs of poor heart health your risk is certainly lower

Regardless, it's best to cool your jets before you reach your point of no return. Know the signs you're headed for a meltdown; read: The 5 Stages of Rage You Reach Before You Hit Your Boiling Point.

Have a hard time controlling your emotions and tend to blow up in fits of extreme rage? Check out our guide on Anger Management: What to Do When You Feel Like You're About to Absolutely F****ing Snap 

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