Women get same exercise benefit as men, with less effort, study finds

"A little bit can go a really long way" for women and exercise, author says.

February 20, 2024, 12:38 PM

A new study not only confirms known research that regular physical activity can prolong life and lower a person's risk of dying, it also finds that women experience greater benefits from exercise than men do, at lower amounts of exercise.

Using findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Health Interview Survey, researchers analyzed data from 412,413 adults from between 1997 to 2017 to understand the degree of overall health benefit derived from physical activity.

Researchers found that men were more likely to engage in physical activity than women. However, women who engaged in regular physical activity had a 24% lower risk of dying from any cause compared to inactive women, while physically active men had a 15% lower risk compared to their inactive counterparts. Researchers further discovered that the most beneficial amount of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity – for example, brisk walking or cycling – was around five hours per week, though there was also benefit shown for women starting at half that weekly amount.

"It turns out women can get a lot more return for even a little bit of investment than they might realize," Dr. Susan Cheng, director of the Institute for Research on Healthy Aging in the Smidt Heart Institute and senior author of the study, told ABC News. "[A] little bit can go a really long way."

"When it comes to looking at the particular amounts, particularly with moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, women could get almost double the return for the same investment compared to male counterparts," Cheng added, calling the news "exciting and positive, especially for the really busy women out there who are juggling a lot of responsibilities both at work and at home."

Women also saw a more significant reduction in mortality risk after engaging in muscle-strengthening activity, such as weightlifting or core exercises, than men did – 19% compared to 11%, respectively – according to the study.

“This important study emphasizes the power of exercise for women,” Dr. Patricia Best, an interventional cardiologist and member of the Women’s Heart Clinic at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, told ABC News. Taking it one step further, Best notes that following a heart attack, “women have frequently been referred to cardiovascular rehab less than men, and this study helps to give credence to the importance of exercise in women."

Consistent with prior research, both aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities were associated with lower risk of dying from heart-related diseases.

"For exercise, we'd like to encourage our patients and folks in general to be as active as they can, be no matter how busy we all are. In general, we say that anything is better than nothing and more is better than less," Cheng told ABC News.

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