HCA image What would you say to 60 minutes of physical activity a week?

Many studies have revealed the health value of exercise. Research has defined the minimal amount of physical activity it takes to see heart benefits in women—60 minutes per week. Would you be willing to commit to that amount of time? Since this decision is so important to your long-term health, before answering, consider why women even need to worry about their hearts.

Heart Disease Is Common in Women

Heart disease is the number one killer of women in our country today. Nearly 400,000 women die from cardiac causes in the US each year. This is ten times the number of women that die from breast cancer . Yet, according to a Gallup poll, four-out-of-five women are not even aware that they are at risk for heart disease.

It is true that estrogen produced by a woman's body helps prevent heart disease while we're young, but this advantage is lost after we pass through menopause. By age 65, one-in-four women—the same proportion as in men—ends up with coronary heart disease . We need something more to keep our hearts healthy.

Studying Physical Activity in Women

Encouraging news from a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association ( JAMA ) indicates that even light exercise is associated with a lower rate of coronary heart disease in women. The study followed 39,000 healthy women ages 45 and older for an average of five years. At the end of the study, researchers found that women who walked at least one hour a week, regardless of pace, had half the rate of heart disease as women who did not walk regularly.

Vigorous activities also reduced heart disease risk. But the results suggest that time spent exercising and calories burned were more important than intensity for the women enrolled in this study.

Researchers noted exercise's beneficial effects extended to women at high risk for heart disease. Those who smoked, were overweight, or had elevated cholesterol levels had similar improvements in their heart disease rate when they exercised as did low-risk women. For women with high blood pressure , however, the scientists said their findings indicate that more than mild exercise may be harmful.

Adding More Exercise To Your Life

Here's how you can get the heart-health benefits of exercise—including better cardiovascular function, lower blood sugar and cholesterol, and reduced weight and stress—even if you have cardiac risk factors or are not accustomed to exercising. Heed this heart-healthy advice:

  1. Get your doctor's okay before starting physical activities. This is especially critical for women with chronic illness or risk factors for heart disease.
  2. Choose several activities you think you would enjoy. For most women a blend of exercise types is usually best. These may include:
    • Aerobic activities like walking—the most popular leisure activity among women—and dancing, aerobics classes, swimming, or biking
    • Stretching exercises
    • Strengthening exercises such as using weights or body bands
  3. For each activity, gradually increase your pace and time.
  4. Learn to listen to your body. If you don't feel right, stop and make adjustments, or see your doctor.

Building Protection for Your Heart

Over the years numerous studies have concluded that physically active people have a lower rate of heart disease than those who are inactive. For heart health, most experts recommend that women aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise most days of the week. This equates to expending about 1,000 calories a week through exercise.

I encourage women who are physically fit to continue vigorous activities for the added health value. Even if you're sedentary, though, studies suggest that light exercise for as little as 60 minutes a week can dramatically benefit your heart.