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Researchers at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and College of Medicine in Columbus received a $4.3 million grant from the American Heart Association to study the effects of stress on cardiovascular health and if exercise can provide protection.

OSU will work on a three-study research project in partnership with Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn., to determine the correlation between exercise and changes in gut bacteria, which is known to influence the development of heart disease, according to a May 5 news release.

“This collaborative effort brings together experts in cardiovascular disease, environmental risk factors, exercise physiology, gut microbiome, epidemiology, cardiometabolic health, community-based participatory research and clinical research,” said Kristin Stanford, associate professor of physiology and cell biology and internal medicine/endocrinology, who is leading Ohio State’s research project as associate director of the Dorothy M. Davis Heart and Lung Research Institute. “Heart disease is the leading cause of death, and we know chronic stress can cause an increased risk of coronary artery disease and stroke. It’s essential to define interactions and potential interventions between stress and cardiovascular disease.

“Exercise protects against the harmful effects of stress by reducing cortisol levels, heart rate and anxiety responses,” Stanford continued in the release. “Recent studies have investigated the effects of exercise on the gut and found that exercise changes the makeup of the microbiome and that these changes likely have several benefits for human health. However, the connection between cardiovascular disease, chronic stress, the gut microbiome and exercise has not been investigated.”

Stanford will lead a study to determine if maternal exercise negates the effects of maternal stress on offspring cardiovascular health and if these effects are brought about by the gut microbiome.

Another study will determine if exercise can reverse the effects of stress on heart health. It is led by Loren Wold, professor of surgery in the division of cardiac surgery and associate dean for research operations and compliance in the College of Medicine.

The third study will determine if Black Impact – a 24-week healthy lifestyle intervention program for Black men, co-created by Ohio State and The National African American Male Wellness Agency – improves heart health. It will also examine how the program affects stress and if it changes inflammation and gut microbiome in study participants.

“Black men have the shortest life expectancy and lowest cardiovascular health of any non-indigenous race/sex group. Thus, programs to improve cardiovascular health are urgently needed,” said Dr. Joshua Joseph, assistant professor of medicine in the division of endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism and co-lead of the clinical trial, in the release.

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