The two women who sit across from me at work are similar in many ways. They're both young, whip smart, and wicked chic, but they couldn't be less alike when it comes to their personal philosophies on healthy living. While Callie has told her colleagues time and again how she happily subsists on cheesy potatoes and loathes the notion of aerobics, Gabby has become something of a health goddess, addicted not to cheese but boiled eggs and the stairclimber at her gym. Gabby is certain to outlive us all, but the workout-averse could save themselves from heart attacks, too. A new study suggests that even the most mild of physical movements could keep your body from killing you.
A study titled "Frequency, Type, and Volume of Leisure-Time Physical Activity and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease in Young Women" was recently published in the Circulation medical journal. It followed more than 97,000 women between the ages of 27 and 44 for twenty years. These women were pulled from the Nurses' Health Study II, an ongoing research project looking at chronic illness in women. A biannual survey including questions about physical activity was used to determine the effect of exercise on young women's heart health.
In an interview with Broadly, head researcher Andrea Chomistek of Indiana University explains that, while fewer women over the age of 55 have died of heart disease in recent decades, these rates have seen a minimal decline among younger women. "Given the prevalence of risk factors for heart disease, young women need to start taking steps now to lower their risk of experiencing a heart attack," Chomistek says. "Compared to those who are active, individuals who are inactive have adverse levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, blood pressure, and glucose control, all of which are cardiovascular risk factors." Chomistek saw this represented in the population of women she studied.
Scary tales about the eroding health of young women are rather depressing, particularly for those who can't imagine exercising outside of the hikes they take in Skyrim or World of Warcraft. Gratefully, Chomistek's study found that you don't need to work out a lot in order to help your health. "Moderate intensity exercise was associated with lower heart disease risk, not just vigorous exercise," Chomistek says. "In particular, we found that brisk walking was very beneficial. Thus, women who are inactive don't have to necessarily join a gym or run a marathon… just go out for a walk."
According to the Center for Disease Control, "cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States," a sobering reality for young women who think that because they're not suffering the consequences of an inactive lifestyle in the short term that they'll be okay later on. Erin D. Michos is a professor of medicine and epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University. She wrote an article about Chomistek's study for Circulation.
In an interview with Broadly, Michos explains that you can curb the risk of developing cardiovascular disease if you manage to reach middle age without developing any of the associated risk factors; this is something one can accomplish simply by maintaining healthy levels of cholesterol and normal blood pressure. Women who are able to do this have "substantially lower lifetime risks of subsequent cardiovascular disease and markedly longer survival compared to women who already have developed one or more risk factors by age of 45," Michos says.
It's good to move throughout the day. Michos likes to say that "sitting is the new smoking," because of the ill effects of a sedentary life. This can be countered by standing up from your desk every once in awhile. But moderate intensity exercises are most helpful. "Moderate-intensity activities include brisk walking, recreational swimming and cycling, moderate yard work and housework, and dancing, and may be much more accessible to initiate," Chomistek says. "Brisk walking in particular has a low-rate of musculoskeletal injury and no known excess risk of severe cardiac events; it is an activity that can be initiated by almost all sedentary adults."
Callie told me that she fills her kiddie-pool by hand with buckets of water every weekend. "I can't figure out to work the hose," she says. To her, this is an intensive exercise. It certainly seems as if it should qualify at least as "moderate yard and housework." Michos says that you're ideally going to have at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week, and though Callie told me it takes her on average 25 buckets of water to fill her kiddie-pool, I doubt it takes more than half an hour at most.
Michos says that some women may be anti-exercise because of the way that athleticism and physical activity have been marketed to men as an aspect of masculinity. "Young girls [were] given the message not to get sweaty and [to] 'play house,'" Michos says. "We have made progress in society in promoting activity to children and young adults of both genders, but it is not enough yet, we still need to encourage girls and young women that they can be as active as—or even more active than—boys and young men the same age."