Study: Moderate Exercise May Be Most Effective for Improving Heart Health

New research shows that middle-aged women may gain more health benefits from less frequent activity

When compared with those who exercise intensely and more frequently, middle-aged women who exercise moderately just two or three times per week may have a lower risk for cardiovascular disease, blood clots, and stroke, according to new research published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation.

The study analyzed about 1.1 million women from the U.K. using data submitted as part of the Million Women study. The average age of the participants was 56 and they had no history of cancer, heart disease, stroke, blood clots, or diabetes.

At the beginning of the study, the women were asked about how many hours they spent doing walking, cycling, gardening and housework each week and then again three years later. Each participant was followed for an average of nine years.

The results found that when compared with inactive women, women who exercised moderately—at a level that causes sweating or a faster heartbeat— two to three times per week reduced their risk for heart disease, stroke, and blood clots by about 20 percent.

Additionally, the researchers found that women who reported doing “strenuous physical activity daily” actually had a higher risk for heart disease and stroke, when compared with the women who exercised less frequently and less intensely.

The bottom line: “Inactive middle-aged women should try to do some activity regularly,” the study’s lead author, Miranda Armstrong, M.Phil., Ph.D, a physical activity epidemiologist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom told the American Heart Association.

“However, to prevent heart disease, stroke and blood clots, women don’t need to do very frequent activity, as this seems to provide little additional benefit above that of moderately frequent activity.”

In their conclusion, the study’s authors noted that the most significant difference in risk was between “those doing some activity versus none” and that there was little evidence to support that more frequent exercise could help to reduce health risks.

They also pointed out that these results are noteworthy because this study examined quantitative parameters surrounding the relationship between exercise and heart disease, while many previous studies have only shown that women who are more active may be at lower risk than those who are less active.