To achieve the greatest heart health benefits, women should engage in moderate exercise a few times a week rather than running every day, according to a study published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation.
The Million Women Study was conducted in England and Scotland from 1996–2001 to help answer questions about key factors affecting women’s health, like physical activity. Eligible study participants included women between the ages of 50 and 64 who had not been diagnosed with heart disease. At the start of the study, women completed detailed questionnaires about their health and exercise level, answering questions like “How often do you do any strenuous exercise (enough to cause sweating or a fast heart beat)?” and “How often do you do any exercise?”. Researchers then used hospital records to track health outcomes of study participants up to nine years later.
During the nine-year study, roughly 7.5% of the 1.1 million subjects had suffered a heart attack, stroke or a dangerous clot called venous thromboembolism. After comparing outcomes with self-reported physical activity, researchers found that women engaging in regular, moderate physical activity had the lowest cardiovascular risk among women in the study. Women engaging in strenuous physical activity like running also had a reduced risk for heart events, but only when doing such activities 2–3 times a week. In fact, among women participating in strenuous physical activity, those participating in daily vigorous exercise actually had higher cardiovascular risk than those exercising a few times a week.
Experts are cautious in interpreting results, as data regarding physical activity was self-reported and women’s physical activity levels may have changed over the study period. Also, women engaging in vigorous exercise only made up 3% of the entire study population, which opens the study up to potential errors.
Still, authors hope these findings motivate individuals to increase their physical activity, even in small amounts. Some exercise is always better than none, and engaging in moderate physical activity like walking 2–3 times a week can have significant health benefits. With more than 70 million Americans engaging in no regular physical activity, even small increases in physical activity could go a long way in improving public health and reducing risk for heart disease.