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For Women, a Walk a Day Keeps Stroke Away

From the WebMD Archives

June 13, 2000 (New York) -- Get out those walking shoes. A new study showsthat walking at a brisk pace for about a half hour a day can reduce a woman'srisk of having a stroke. The researchers speculate that walking helps preventstroke by lowering blood pressure, increasing levels of HDL or "good"cholesterol, and helping to maintain a healthy weight.

"Stroke is one of the major causes of death in both men and women,"study author Frank B. Hu, MD, PhD, tells WebMD. "Our study suggests thatphysical activity can substantially reduce stroke in women."

The study, which was published in the June 14 issue of the Journal of theAmerican Medical Association, included more than 70,000 female nurses whoare part of the Nurses' Health Study, an ongoing investigation of women'shealth that began in 1976.

Hu and colleagues from the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, saywomen in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, who walked at a moderate pace on most days ofthe week for at least 30 minutes, reduced by about 20% their risk of ischemicstroke -- the most common type of stroke -- which is caused by a blood clot inthe brain. Those who walked at a brisk pace or very brisk pace reduced theirrisk about 40%.

He says the findings are important because they show that something assimple as taking a walk every day -- which just about every woman can do at anyphase of her life -- can lower the risk of having a disabling stroke.

"You don't have to go to the gym [or] play sports," Hu says."Brisk walking is not a major endeavor for most people." The walkingshould be enough to elevate your heart rate slightly, but not so much that youare out of breath or sweating, he says.

Another finding of the study was that even women who had been sedentary formost of their adult lives still were able to reduce their risk of stroke ifthey became active in their middle-age and retirement years, suggesting thatthe benefits of exercise are almost immediate.

Hu says women who have not been very active recently should start by walkingfor 10 to 20 minutes a day, several times a week and gradually increase theintensity and duration. Walking five or six days a week for about 30 minutes isideal, but he says that women who walk less are still less likely to have astroke than women who don't exercise at all. And walking more than 30 minuteson one or two days a week, coupled with 10- or 15-minute walks on other days,may be another way for busy women to fit exercise into their day.

Several previous investigations, including a government-sponsored panel ofexperts and a report from the surgeon general, concluded that there wasn'tenough good data to show that exercise plays a role in preventing stroke. Butan expert who reviewed the new study for WebMD says this study adds to growingevidence that exercise is an important and "natural" way to preventstroke.

Lewis B. Morgenstern, MD, says people who have been sedentary for yearsshould talk to their doctor and build an exercise plan that will help themachieve the goals they want in a reasonable manner and time frame.

Morgenstern, who is assistant professor of neurology and epidemiology at theUniversity of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, says while you can't sayfor sure that exercise has the same effect on stroke risk in men as it does inwomen, it's logical to assume that it would.

"The jury is probably still out on that one," he tells WebMD."But anything that is going to lower blood pressure and lower 'bad'cholesterol and raise 'good' cholesterol is going to be good for any person.It's likely [the results] are just as robust in men, it just hasn't beenstudied well enough."

Vital Information:

  • A new study shows that women who walk briskly for 30 minutes each day canlower their risk of stroke.
  • Even women who have been active throughout their lives, but beginexercising in middle-age or retirement years, can reduce their risk ofstroke.
  • One expert recommends that inactive women should start an exercise programwith 10 to 20 minutes of walking several days a week, and gradually increaseintensity and time.