Exercising women can put in less effort and have lower early death risk than men

Women get the same exercise benefits as men, but in shorter amounts of time

A woman and her dog run along the bank of the River Cam in Cambridge at sunrise. PA
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Women who exercise regularly can put in less effort and still have a significantly lower risk of an early death from heart attacks or other events compared to men, a study suggests.

A study of more than 400,000 US adults spanning two decades has shown women who engaged in physical activity were 24 per cent less likely to experience death from any cause, compared to those who did not, while men were 15 per cent less likely.

Researcher also found that women had a 36 per cent reduced risk for a fatal heart attack, stroke or other cardiovascular event, while men had a 14 per cent reduced risk.

They also achieved the same exercise benefits as men, but with shorter amounts of time.

The researchers speculate there may be a few reasons for these differences in outcomes, one of them being variations in anatomy and physiology.

For example, the team said, men generally have increased lung capacity, larger hearts, more lean body mass, and a greater proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibres – which generate high levels of force and power – compared to women.

Hence, women often put in more effort to perform the same level of exercise as men.

“Women have historically and statistically lagged behind men in engaging in meaningful exercise," said Martha Gulati, of the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai, California.

“The beauty of this study is learning that women can get more out of each minute of moderate to vigorous activity than men do.

“It’s an incentivising notion that we hope women will take to heart.”

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For the study, published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, the team analysed data from 412,413 adults in the US National Health Interview Survey database from 1997 to 2019.

The researchers found that exercising – whether it was moderate such as brisk walking, vigorous such as a spin class or jumping rope, or even strength training with weights – reduced the risk of early death in both men and women.

But the team also found the reduced risk for death plateaued for both men (24 per cent) and women (18 per cent) when they reached 300 minutes, or five hours, of moderate physical activity a week.

Similar trends were seen with 110 minutes of weekly vigorous exercise, the researchers said, showing a 24 per cent reduced risk of death for women and a 19 per cent reduced risk for men.

But when women spent 140 minutes on moderate exercise every week, their risk of death was reduced by 18 per cent, compared to 300 minutes for men.

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Women also reduced the risk of death by 19 per cent when performing vigorous exercise for just 57 minutes a week, compared to 110 minutes needed by men.

And those who did strength training saw a 30 per cent reduced risk of heart-related deaths, compared to 11 per cent for men.

“Even a limited amount of regular exercise can provide a major benefit, and it turns out this is especially true for women," said Dr Susan Cheng, a cardiologist at the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai.

“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 realise.”

Updated: February 19, 2024, 9:29 PM