Sept. 4, 2002 -- A brisk walk can be as good for women's hearts as a trip to the gym -- as long as it's done regularly. According to a new study, postmenopausal women who walk at a moderate pace for at least two and a half hours per week reduce their risk of heart attack or stroke by nearly a third.
Although many studies have shown that regular exercise lowers the risk of heart disease, researchers say there's little specific information on its effect on women and minorities. And until now, it's been unclear whether more moderate forms of exercise, such as walking, also protect against heart disease.
But new research, published in the Sept. 5 issue of TheNew England Journal of Medicine, shows both walking and more strenuous exercise can produce substantial reductions in heart disease risk for nearly all women. For the study, researchers followed more than 73,000 postmenopausal women, including more than 12,000 minority women, for an average of 3.2 years.
Compared with the least active women, the study showed that women who either walked briskly or exercised vigorously at least two and a half hours per week had a 30% lower risk of heart-related problems, such as heart attack, stroke, the need for heart bypass surgery, heart failure, or death. And the heart-healthy benefits extended to all women in the study, regardless of race or ethnic group, age, or weight.
Since walking is the preferred form of exercise for many women, researchers say doctors should encourage their female patients to follow current federal guidelines that call for engaging in moderate-intensity physical activity on most, and preferably all, days of the week.
"Although vigorous exercise should not be discouraged for those who choose a higher intensity of activity, our results indicate that moderate-intensity exercise confers substantial health benefits for postmenopausal women," write researcher JoAnn E. Manson, MD, DrPH, of the Division of Preventive Medicine at Harvard University, and colleagues.
Not surprisingly, the study also found that women who spent prolonged periods of time sitting had a higher risk of heart attack or stroke. As the level of physical activity among the women rose, their risk of heart disease fell.
In an editorial that accompanies the study, Paul D. Thompson, MD, of Hartford Hospital in Connecticut, says the findings show that "the evolution of healthy lifestyles should include a hefty dose of one of our earliest evolutionary steps -- walking and other forms of physical activity."