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How to live longer: Women who exercise have healthier hearts

The fittest women in the study were able to manage a simple exercise test.
Woman jogging while listening music at beach against sky
Women in the study were considered fit if they could walk fast up four flights of stairs or very fast up three flights without stopping to catch their breath.Getty Images stock

Women who exercise appear to live longer: Those who are very fit run a much lower risk of dying from heart disease, cancer and other common causes compared to those who are less active, a new study suggests. They new report is considered important because it's one of the few exercise studies that focus on benefits for women.

Spanish researchers found that compared to the fittest women, those with poor capacity for exercise were nearly four times more likely to die from heart disease, according to the study presented at EuroEcho 2019, the annual meeting of the European Association of Cardiovascular Imaging.

The fittest women in the study were able to manage the equivalent of “walking up four flights of stairs in about 45 seconds, or walking up three flights very fast,” said the study’s lead author Dr. Jesus Peteiro, a cardiologist at the University Hospital A Coruna.

Prior to Peteiro’s research, information on the benefits of exercise in women had been scant as many studies have focused on men.

Be more active every day

Peteiro believes there is hope even for women who don't workout if they are willing to make a change now. While gym memberships may work for some, it’s too easy to let those lapse, he said in an email.

Women were considered fit if they could walk fast up four flights of stairs or very fast up three flights without stopping to catch their breath.

“We think that it is more important to change the lifestyle than to merely join a fitness club for a time,” Peteiro said. “For changing lifestyle we mean to change the daily routine to make it more active. For instance, commuting to work by walking, cycling or public transport always leads to more exercise than taking your car."

Also, walking up stairs at home or work instead of using the elevator can help.

To take a closer look at how a woman’s fitness might impact her longevity, Peteiro and his colleagues turned to data that had been collected on 4,714 adult women — with an average age of 64 — who had been referred for a heart disease test that involves working out on a treadmill.

The women were asked to walk, and then run if they could, with increasing intensity until they couldn’t go any longer. Images of the women’s hearts were generated during the test.

The women were declared fit if they could work out at 10 metabolic equivalents or METs — equal to walking fast up four flights of stairs or very fast up three flights without stopping to catch their breath.

One question Peteiro can’t answer is what the fit women did to get in shape. That information wasn’t in their records, he said.

The women who achieved 10 METs or more were compared to those who couldn’t make 10 METs.

Over the next four and a half years, there were 345 deaths from heart disease, 164 from cancer and 203 from other causes.

The annual rate of death from heart disease was nearly four times higher among women who didn't exercise compared to those who were fit, 2.2% versus 0.6%, while the annual rate of cancer deaths among women with poor exercise tolerance was double that of the fit women, 0.9% versus 0.4%.

The annual rate of death from other causes was more than four times higher in those with poor exercise capacity compared to those who were fit, 1.4% versus 0.3%.

The new research adds to what is already known about exercise and longevity, “but heralds as one of the few landmark studies that focus solely on women,” said lcilma Fergus, director of cardiovascular disparities at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.

While many existing guidelines “indicate that physical activity is an important first step, this study does help to quantify how much more of a benefit can be achieved by exercise, especially vigorous exercise,” Fergus said in an email.

The new study underscores the importance of regular exercise for all of us, said Kerry Stewart, a professor of medicine and director of clinical and research physiology at Johns Hopkins Medicine.

“The vast majority of evidence suggests that 30 minutes a day of moderate exercise will produce health benefits and lower the risk of many diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, hypertension, diabetes and arthritis,” Stewart said, adding that just being thin isn’t enough to protect against these diseases.

There is research in men showing that those who were able to maintain a high level of fitness had the lowest risk of cardiovascular disease, Stewart said. And those who worked at becoming fit lowered their risk of heart disease, whereas those who started out in very good shape, but lost fitness over time were more at risk.