Women may get more health benefits from exercise than men, new research suggests

Women may realize more long-term health benefits of regular exercise than men, according to a new study funded in part by the National Institutes of Health.

“Even a limited amount of regular exercise can provide a major benefit, and it turns out this is especially true for women,” cardiologist Susan Cheng, a co-author of the study that was published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, said on Monday.

Researchers examined a group of 400,000 men and women in the United States over a 20-year period, finding that regular exercise lowers the risk of premature death differently between the sexes.

The study found that women who exercised regularly were 24% less likely to die from any cause during the study period than women who did not regularly exercise. Women who exercised weekly also had a 36% lower risk of a fatal cardiovascular event, such as a heart attack or stroke, compared to those who did not exercise.

By contrast, men who exercised regularly were only 15% less likely to die and had a 4% lower risk for cardiovascular death compared to those who did not exercise.

Women also achieved the same health benefits as men with much shorter workout times. To meet the same 18% reduced death-risk mark, men needed 300 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise per week, whereas women needed only 140 minutes. If both sexes engaged in vigorous aerobic exercise for 110 minutes weekly, a woman’s risk of death decreased by 24%, but a man’s risk only decreased by 19%.

Strength training exercises also reduced the risk of death in general and fatal cardiovascular events in particular, but the effects varied based on sex.

“This study emphasizes that there is no singular approach for exercise,” said Eric Shiroma, the program director for clinical applications at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute with the NIH. “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.”

The authors suggest that this difference could be caused by physiological and anatomical differences between the sexes, such as men’s larger lung capacity, heart size, and muscle mass. These attributes likely mean that women may need to expend more energy and strength to perform the same tasks as men within the same exercise time period, in turn reaping greater health rewards.

“We hope this study will help everyone, especially women, understand they are poised to gain tremendous benefits from exercise,” Cheng said. “It is an incredibly powerful way to live healthier and longer.”

The authors also found, however, that only 33% of women and 43% of men in the study met the standards for weekly aerobic exercise, and only 20% of women and 28% of men completed a strength training session each week.

The Department of Health and Human Services recommends that both sexes get at least 2.5 to 5 hours of moderate exercise or 1.25 to 2.5 hours of vigorous exercise each week, along with two or more days of strength training weekly.

“Taking some regular time out for exercise, even if it’s just 20-30 minutes of vigorous exercise a few times each week, can offer a lot more gain than they may realize,” Cheng said. “[H]opefully these findings inspire more women to add extra movement to their lives.”       

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