Women may realize health benefits of regular exercise more than men, study says

Harry Luke
Harry Luke
8 Min Read

NEW YORK, Feb. 19 (UPI) — Women who exercise regularly have a much lower risk of premature death or a fatal cardiovascular event than men who work out the same length of time, a new study indicates.

The findings, supported by the National Institutes of Health, were published Monday in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. The results are based on a data analysis of more than 400,000 U.S. adults ages 27 to 61.

Over two decades, women who exercised regularly were 24% less likely than those who didn’t work out to experience death from any cause, while men were 15% less likely. Women also had a 36% reduced risk for a fatal heart attack, stroke or other cardiovascular event, while men had a 14% decreased risk.

Researchers noted that women on average tend to exercise less than men, and said that hopefully, these findings will motivate more women to incorporate greater movement into their lives.

“The good news is that for women — they do seem to get more out of every minute of exercise when compared to men,” the study’s co-lead author, Dr. Martha Gulati, told UPI via email.

Women seem to get more out of every minute of exercise when compared to men, study co-lead author Dr. Martha Gulati said. Gulati is director of preventive cardiology in the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles.
Women seem to get more out of every minute of exercise when compared to men, study co-lead author Dr. Martha Gulati said. Gulati is director of preventive cardiology in the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles.

But telling a never-exerciser to strive toward about 30 minutes a day “can sound overwhelming and impossible, so they will resign and not even start any activity,” said Gulati, director of preventive cardiology in the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles.

She suggested that men and women begin with five minutes a day and then increase the time.

The link for greater reduced risks for mortality among women compared to men held true for all forms of exercise — moderate aerobic activity, such as brisk walking; vigorous exercise, such as taking a spinning class or jumping rope; and strength training, which could include body-weight exercises.

Yet, for moderate aerobic physical activity, the decreased risk for death plateaued for both men and women at 300 minutes, or five hours, per week. At this degree of activity, women and men lowered their risk of an early death by 24% and 18%, respectively.

Similar trends existed with 110 minutes of weekly vigorous aerobic exercise, which correlated with a 24% reduced risk of death for women and a 19% decreased risk for men.

Women also reaped the same rewards as men, but in less time. With moderate aerobic exercise, they reached the 18% reduced risk point in half as much time as men: 140 minutes, or under 2.5 hours, per week, compared to 300 minutes for men.

For vigorous aerobic exercise, women met the 19% reduced risk mark with only 57 minutes a week, compared to 110 minutes for men.

This benefit extended to weekly strength training exercises. Women and men who engaged in strength-based exercises saw a 19% and 11% decreased risk for death, respectively, compared to those who did not take part in these exercises.

Women who pursued strength training had an even more substantially lower risk of cardiovascular-related deaths — a 30% reduced risk, compared to 11% for men.

Despite all these benefits, only 33% of women and 43% of men in the study met the standard for weekly aerobic exercise, while 20% of women and 28% of men completed a weekly strength training session.

Multiple factors, including variations in anatomy and physiology, may explain the differences in outcomes between the sexes, the researchers said.

For example, men often have greater lung capacity, larger hearts, more lean-body mass and a more significant proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibers compared to women. As a result, women may use added respiratory, metabolic and strength demands to do the same movement, and in turn achieve more health benefits.

“It is important to study women and to look for sex differences,” Gulati said. “Women are not simply small men. They are physiologically different.”

Adults should aim for at least 2 1/2 to five hours of moderate-intensity exercise or 1 1/4 to 2 1/2 hours of vigorous exercise weekly, or a combination of both, and participate in strength-based activities two or more days per week, according to The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.

The research was partially supported by grants from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

“This study emphasizes that there is no singular approach for exercise,” Eric J. Shiroma, a program director in the institute’s Clinical Applications and Prevention branch, said in a news release.

“A person’s physical activity needs and goals may change based on their age, health status and schedule, but the value of any type of exercise is irrefutable,” Shiroma said.

Exercise improves cardiovascular health and lowers mortality, Dr. Rupa Sanghani, a cardiologist and director of the Heart Center for Women at Rush University System for Health in Chicago, told UPI via email.

“The most significant finding of the study is that women derive an even greater benefit than men do at the same level of physical activity,” said Sanghani, who was not involved in the research.

“With the greater attention paid to women’s heart health in recent years,” she added, “we’ve learned much more about the physical differences between men and women’s cardiovascular systems, and with more studies, our understanding will grow.”

Dr. Heather Bergeson, a sports medicine physician and an assistant professor in the department of orthopedic surgery at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities in Minneapolis-St. Paul, told UPI via email that “strength training is also important, especially for women as we age and start to lose muscle mass and bone density.”

Clinicians “previously recommended 150 minutes of moderately intense exercise per week, but this study shows that peak effect is 300 minutes per week,” said Bergeson, who is also co-director of TRIA Women’s Sports Medicine in Bloomington, Minn.

“Being active or on your feet at work does not count” toward that recommendation, Dr. Jacqueline Latina, a structural interventional cardiologist at Mount Auburn Cardiology Associates and Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Mass., told UPI via email.

“Many young to middle-aged women have trouble finding time to exercise with child care and other responsibilities,” Latina said. “But this gives us data to encourage everyone to make the time for your own health because women in particular can benefit from increasing physical activity.”

She added that “aiming to make areas more walkable should be a critical part of urban planning and development.”

Share This Article
Harry Luke is a Professor in University of Galway. Harry's journey has been marked by a relentless pursuit of knowledge, creativity, and a commitment to making a positive impact on the world around him.