September 7, 2011

Women can expect to maintain a youthful and independent life by establishing a regular exercise program. The multiple benefits of exercise for women are well documented in research conducted over the past 30 years. Exercise can reduce the risk of heart disease, prevent osteoporosis, maintain a healthy body weight, improve mental alertness, reduce fatigue, and eliminate stress. More recent studies even show a reduction in breast and colon cancer in women who lead an active, healthy lifestyle.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, heart disease is the number one cause of death in women, with an estimated mortality rate of 500,000 women per year in the United States. A low aerobic fitness level is an independent risk factor for cardiovascular mortality in women who have coronary artery disease. Nevertheless, the death rate can be reduced by regular exercise. A recent study concluded that women who walked at least 3 hours per week cut their risk of dying of cardiovascular disease by 40%.

Exercise improves cardiovascular mortality by reducing the major risk factors for heart disease. This includes lowering high blood pressure, total cholesterol, low-density lipoproteins (LDLs) and triglycerides, and increasing high-density lipoproteins (HDLs). Exercise also promotes decreases in body weight and fat stores. It offers a nonpharmaceutical approach to ward off the expense, side effects, and morbidity and mortality of drugs and surgery. Regular exercise combined with a healthy diet is the best strategy for preventing heart disease.

A second major benefit of regular physical activity is strengthening bones, thereby reducing the risk of osteoporosis (loss of bone density). Osteoporosis affects in excess of 20 million postmenopausal American women. It leads to muscular weakness, bone fractures (primarily of the hip and spine), disability, and death. Less than one third of women who fracture their hip recover sufficiently to conduct basic life activities. Although osteoporosis can be a debilitating disease, the potential consequences are preventable by combining low-impact and resistance exercises with a calciumenriched diet.

Regular activity that includes both weight bearing and resistance exercises also improves bone mineral density, and even when bone loss has already occurred, exercise can halt and may reverse bone loss. In addition to these benefits, exercise builds muscle that helps maintain strength, balance, and coordination—all of which play a key role in preventing bone-breaking falls. Many older women who fracture a hip or spine must depend on family members or long-term care facilities to aid in their daily living activities. Preventing osteoporotic fractures is a critical component of the quality of life for the growing population of older American women.

In addition to physical benefits, regular exercise improves mental well-being; it reduces emotional stress and alleviates bouts of anxiety and depression. Studies demonstrate that exercise stimulates the release of endorphins—the feel-good hormones. Psychologists have observed that walking or running has both physiologic and psychological benefits for people who are depressed. A study of women suffering from mild depression found that when they became involved in a fitness program, their symptoms decreased significantly compared to women placed on an antidepressant.

Physical fitness also leads to increased mental alertness and capacity; sleep quality improves and that leads to reducing fatigue. Research has shown that self-esteem and self-control increase with regular exercise, enhancing both mood and mental health. Self-confidence is also improved through regular exercise, and that contributes to better work performance and ability to better handle life’s personal and professional challenges.

The benefits of exercise start when you begin. Recommendations to increase physical activity need not include formal regimens or gym memberships. Those beginning an exercise program, whether formal or informal, should strive to make it enjoyable, choosing a regimen that includes variety to work multiple muscle groups and to prevent boredom and sustain motivation. However, in order to enjoy all of the benefits of exercise, it is essential that beginners visit their doctor for a physical checkup and obtain medical clearance before starting any exercise program.

The American Academy of Sports Medicine (AASM) recommends at least 30 min of cardiovascular activity on most days of the week. The 30-min sessions can take place all at once, or they can be divided into 10or 15-min sessions. Cardiovascular benefits are achieved by reaching and maintaining 60-80% of the target heart rate for the entire 30-min period. Your target heart rate is calculated by subtracting your age from 220 and multiplying that number by 0.6 or 0.8 (depending on your health status). Cardiovascular exercises include walking, running, aerobic dance, swimming, elliptical trainers, stair-climbers, and cross-country ski machines.

In addition to low-impact cardiovascular activity, an exercise regimen should include resistance/weight training to help maintain bone density. For example, free-weights or weight machines both contribute to bone health. Resistance training should be included 2-4 times in a weekly exercise program. Stronger bone is built by training the major muscle groups of both the upper and lower body. Work muscle groups on alternating days in order to prevent muscle damage. A reasonable target objective is two or three sets of 8-15 repetitions for each activity. Begin with lower weights, and then determine the proper amount by noting when a particular weight causes the muscle to fatigue during the last few repetitions.

Exercise should become a part of daily activity. Many women fail to exercise, citing family and career responsibilities as obstacles that prevent them from maintaining a regular program. However, when exercise becomes an integral part of daily life, women can better handle their many responsibilities. The physical and mental benefits of exercise are too numerous to ignore, especially as a means of promoting and maintaining a younger, healthier body. The benefits of exercise start when you begin.

SEE ALSO: Body mass index, Cardiovascular disease, Cholesterol, Coronary artery disease, Coronary risk factors, Depression, Hypertension, Osteoporosis and osteopenia, Sports injuries, Yoga

Suggested Reading

  • American College of Sports Medicine. (2000). ACSM’s guidelines for exercise testing and prescription (6th ed.). New York: Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins.
  • American Heart Association. (1997). American Heart Association fitting in fitness: Hundreds of simple ways to put more physical activity into your life. New York: Times Books.
  • Kolata, G. (2003). Ultimate fitness: The quest for truth about health and exercise. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
  • Meeks, S. (1999). Walk tall: An exercise program for the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis. Gainesville, FL: Triad.
  • Thayer, R. E. (2001). Calm energy: How people regulate mood with food and exercise. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Villepigue, J., & Rivera, H. A. (2002). The body sculpting bible for women. New York: Hatherleigh.

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