Women Can Exercise Less than Men for Equal Health Gains

Women Can Exercise Less than Men for Equal Health Gains
  • A study has found that women may receive more benefits from exercise than men.
  • Even with the same amount of exercise, women had a lower risk of early death.
  • The study looked at death from all causes and from cardiovascular events.
  • This difference might be due to physiological differences between the sexes.
  • These findings could help with tailoring an exercise program to the individual’s needs.

Women may receive greater health benefits from regular exercise than men, according to a study published on February 19, 2024, in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology,

The study, which was partially sponsored by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, found that even when women and men got about the same amount of exercise, women still had a lower risk for premature death, including dying from a cardiovascular event like heart attack or stroke.

Additionally, this link existed with all types of exercise studied, whether it was moderate or vigorous aerobic activity or strength training.

Women had lower mortality risk compared to men

The study authors explained that exercise is often recommended as a way to avoid dying prematurely.

However, despite this fact, women tend to exercise less than men.

Their goal was to determine whether there might be a difference in how much each sex benefits from exercise.

The study analyzed data from over 400,000 Americans with an average age of 44 years, 55% of whom were female.

Using this data, the scientists looked to see if there was any connection between people’s exercise habits and whether they experienced an early death.

The researchers found that women who exercised were 24% less likely to die early from any cause. Men who exercised, however, were 15% less likely.

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Additionally, these women had a 36% lower risk of dying from a cardiovascular event, but the men had a 14% lower risk.

This association held true, no matter what type of exercises they looked at, whether it was moderate aerobic exercise such as fast walking; more vigorous activities like spinning; or strength training, either with weights or body-weight exercises.

However, when it came to moderate aerobic exercise, there was a limit to how much additional activity created improvements. In both sexes, no further reduction in risk was seen above 300 minutes per week.

Other findings included the fact that women received the same benefits as men from shorter amounts of time spent exercising. For example, when they engaged in vigorous exercise, they were able to reduce their risk of premature death by 19% with only 57 minutes per week of exercise. By comparison, it took the men 110 minutes to achieve this goal.

Similar advantages were seen when it came to strength training. Women who trained saw a 19% reduction in risk for death from all causes while men had an 11% reduction.

When it came to deaths from cardiovascular causes, women’s reduction in risk jumped to 30%, while men’s reduction in risk remained the same at 11%.

Why exercise might provide more benefits for women

Dr. Daniel Atkinson, GP Clinical Lead at Treated, said there are a few reasons why the same level of exercise might appear to provide more benefit for women than men.

Atkinson was not involved in the study.

First, there are physiological differences to consider. “Women tend to have proportionately lower lean muscle mass and strength than men,” he said.

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“So as a result, they may experience greater relative improvements in strength and circulation in response to exercise, leading to more efficient bodily changes, and therefore better health outcomes.”

It might also be related to muscle fiber composition, Atkinson remarked, pointing out that women have a higher proportion of Type I oxidative muscle fibers, which are better suited to cardiovascular endurance.

“This composition may provide benefits in terms of exercise capacity and metabolic function, resulting in a more pronounced reduction in mortality risk with physical activity,” he said.

Finally, it could be about women’s response to muscle-strengthening activities, Atkinson said, since this seems to be more related to long-term health outcomes in women than in men.

“Maybe this is because men have higher baseline strength than women already … or it might be due to something else, like a decreased risk of falls or issues related to conditions like osteoporosis (which is more common in women than it is in men),” he said.

However, Atkinson added, this is just speculation and more research is needed before any clear conclusions can be drawn.

How to exercise to stay healthy

Dr. Tracy Zaslow, primary care sports medicine specialist at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles and a team physician for Angel City Football Club and LA Galaxy, noted that the current recommendation is for people to engage in 150 minutes/week of exercise.

Zaslow was not involved in the study.

However, this may not be an optimal goal, she said.

“Both genders may benefit from working towards a goal of 300 min/week,” Zaslow suggested, adding that “sex-specific considerations could enhance individual risk assessments and tailored exercise prescriptions in the effort to increase engagement in physical activity, especially for females.”

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For women in particular, Zaslow advises doing the following to ensure that they are maximizing the benefits of exercise:

  • Start with small amounts of exercise and add in more as you build strength and endurance.
  • Find a partner to exercise with.This helps keep you accountable and makes exercise more enjoyable.
  • Walk while doing errands rather than driving your car between stops.
  • Take the stairs rather than the elevator.
  • Try new activities and make exercise fun.
  • Set up a family challenge where each member is working toward a goal so you can encourage each other.
  • Listen to music or a podcast during your workout.
  • Mix it up and do different activities each time you exercise. This could mean alternating between strength and endurance exercises or doing a different type of activity each time, such as walking, yoga, or pickleball.

Takeaway Note

A new study has found that women might experience greater health benefits from exercise than men.

Even when women exercised the same amount as men, they were less likely to die prematurely from any cause, including cardiovascular events like heart attack and stroke.

It is unclear why this difference exists, but it might have to do with physiological differences in muscle mass or muscle fiber composition.

These findings could be useful in tailoring exercise programs to the individual.

There are several things that women can do to maximize their exercise efforts, including starting small and building from there, pursuing their exercise goals with friends or family, and working more exercise into their daily activities.


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