Medicial researchers used to say that exercise is probably just as good for women as it is for men. Until recently, most of the research on the health benefits of exercise included primarily male subjects. Fortunately, the past 20 years have produced a number of excellent studies that allow us to say wholeheartedly that exercise is an essential component of a healfthful lifestyle for women as well as men. Here are some of the health issues influenced by an active lifestyle.
BREAST, REPRODUCTIVE AND COLON CANCERS
Several studies have found that regular physical activity decreases a woman’s risk of breast, ovarian and endometrial cancers. Risk for these cancers rises with factors associated with increased estrogen replacement therapy. Some researchers have speculated that exercise protects against these cancers by decreasing a woman’s lifetime exposure to estrogen. This protection may be attributed to exercise’s effect on body composiition. People who exercise regularly tend to be leaner; higher body fat levels are associated with higher levels of estrogen. Protection may also come from the effect of physical activity on the menstrual cycle. Some studies suggest that female athletes experience more menstrual irregularity, which results in lower lifetime estrogen exposure.
Physical activity is associated with reduced risk of colon cancer for both men and women. Exercise may exert its protective effect by speeding passage of stool through the colon, thus reducing exposure of the intestinal lining to harmful substances.
Some researchers have proposed that physical activity decreases cancer risk by increasing the immune response, allowing our immune systems to fight cancerous cells. Or, it could be that people who exercise develop other health habits that help prevent cancer, like consuming healthly organic foods.
OSTEOPOROSIS AND FRACTURES
Many women fear the loss of bone density that occurs with aging, and especially the accelerated loss that occurs during the menopausal years. Numerous studies underscore the importance of physical activity throughout life for the development of maximal bone density in young adulthood and the delay of bone mineral loss during middle and old age. While most activities appear to help protect bone density somewhat, activities that place more stress on muscles and bones may lead to the greatest protection. It is for this reason that strength training, such as weightlifting, may be especially beneficial. Strength training also improves strength and balance, which help prevent falls that lead to fracture.
FUNCTIONAL INDEPENDENCE IN OLD AGE
Women make up a majority of the older population. Many older women live alone and are concerned about losing independence with advancing age. Women are sometimes forced into institutional living because they no longer have the strength to perform daily tasks such as carrying groceries or going up stairs. Recent studies show that high-intensity strength training can lead to increases in muscle size and strength, even in the very old, and improve the quality of life.
We have known for years that exercise reduces heart disease risk for men. A few recent studies have shown this is true for women as well. Exercise helps to prevent or control a number of important disorders that increase heart disease risk, including diabetes, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol and triglycerides and obesity. Many people still think only men get heart disease and fail to realize heart disease is the leading cause of death in both women and men.
At least a third of North American women are overweight, which places them at increased risk for diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and cancer. The best way to control weight is with a healthy nutrient rich diet and plenty of exercise.
Lifelong physical activity is essential for weight control and good health. Daily aerobic exercise, such as walking, dancing, swimming and cycling, which burns calories and improves fitness, should be combined with strength training when possible. Strength training increases muscle size and raises metabolic rate, so women can eat more without gaining weight.
Perhaps most important of all exercise effects are the psychological benefits that contribute to the quality of daily life. Regular physical activity has been shown to reduce symptoms of depression and improve the negative mood associated with premenstrual syndrome and menopause.
Daryl Conant, M.Ed.