A 12-minute workout can activate hundreds of heart-healthy molecules

A man pedals during an indoor cycling session at the gym.

Scientists know exercise is good for the heart, but a study in Circulation explains molecular processes that promote metabolic health and reduce the risk for heart disease. Researchers analyzed 588 metabolites, byproducts of metabolism, from 411 adults during a 12-minute cycling session. During peak exercise, 502 metabolites were activated. These compounds overlapped with processes that support metabolic function, insulin sensitivity, a marker of how easily the body breaks down sugar, and cardiovascular health. For example, metabolites associated with diabetes and cardiovascular disease fell 29% during exercise. Metabolites associated with anti-inflammatory processes and a reduced risk for cardiovascular disease increased, strengthening a network for heart and vascular health.

Body weight, biological sex, and exercise duration had varying effects on circulating metabolites. People with a higher body mass index didn’t have as strong of a response in pathways associated with insulin function and diabetes. Women had a greater response in metabolites associated with cardiovascular health, while men had a stronger response in cell metabolism (likely due to increased muscle mass). Unsurprisingly, metabolites used during respiration and immediate energy use increased with exercise intensity and duration. Others, including those involved with metabolism and insulin sensitivity, were activated but didn’t have dose-specific responses to exercise. The researchers note the study, which is part of the Framingham Heart Study and supported by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, shows that even short amounts of exercise can activate hundreds of molecules associated with cardiovascular health.

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