Women & Cardiovascular Disease: Research + Exercise Guidelines

by Tori Lau, Bryanne Bellovary and Len Kravitz, PhD on Oct 18, 2018

Cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death in women, is a class of diseases involving the heart and blood vessels. Learn about this disease, its associated risk factors and the pertinent research developments; then consider the practical training guidelines for clients.

Cardiovascular Disease and Exercise

Approximately 1 in every 3 women in the U.S. will die from cardiovascular disease—it kills a woman every 80 seconds (AHA 2018). Common types of CVD include coronary artery disease, stroke, peripheral artery disease, congestive heart failure, arrhythmias and congenital heart disease.

The underlying mechanisms vary depending on the disease; however, coronary artery disease, stroke and peripheral artery disease involve atherosclerosis, a condition characterized by narrowing and hardening of the arteries due to fatty plaque buildup on the arteries’ inner wall. Over time, arteries can become completely blocked, and two main events may occur: a heart attack or a stroke.

Women can combat CVD by reducing these controllable risk factors, common to both men and women:

  • high cholesterol
  • smoking
  • high blood pressure
  • overweight
  • stress
  • poor diet
  • depression
  • anemia
  • contraceptive hormone use
  • apnea
  • high triglycerides
  • obesity
  • prediabetes
  • diabetes
  • metabolic syndrome
  • physical inactivity

Additional risk factors are sex-specific (Garcia et al. 2016), including preterm delivery, hypertensive pregnancy disorders, gestational diabetes, some autoimmune diseases, breast cancer treatment and menopausal transition.

Exercise Guidelines

Aerobic exercise. To improve overall cardiovascular health and function, the American Heart Association (AHA 2017) recommends a minimum of 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes per week of vigorous-intensity exercise (or a combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity exercise).

For people with high blood pressure or high cholesterol, 40 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise 3–4 times a week is recommended.

Resistance training. Moderate- to high-intensity muscle-strengthening exercise on at least 2 days per week is recommended for additional health benefits.

Training tip: A week of exercise could be broken into 2–3 segments of 10–15 minutes each day.

Research Findings on CVD and Exercise

Recent research indicates that efforts to reduce incidence and mortality rates for coronary heart disease in women younger than 55 have plateaued (Garcia et al. 2016). The authors add that women are less likely to receive preventive treatment or guidance, such as lipid-lowering therapy, therapeutic lifestyle changes and aspirin, than are men at similar risk. And when medications are prescribed, the treatment is less likely to be rigorous enough to achieve desired results. Garcia et al. also state that women are 55% less likely than men to participate in cardiac rehabilitation programs, owing to physician referral patterns, program structure or patient preference. However, the findings indicate that higher levels of physical activity are associated with lower rates of chronic diseases, including CVD.

Results of the Cardiovascular Health Study by Soares-Miranda et al. (2015) provide very strong evidence that physical activity, particularly walking, is associated with lower risk of CVD later in life, even in those aged 75 and older. In this study, 4,207 U.S. women and men (aged 73 ± 6 at baseline) were followed for 10 years. Study findings show that walking distance and speed are especially important activity factors, given that walking is the most common type of physical activity as people age. For example, compared with study participants who walked at a speed of 2 miles per hour, those who walked at 3 mph had a 50%, 53% and 50% lower risk of coronary heart disease, stroke and CVD, respectively. And compared with participants who walked 0–5 blocks per week, those who walked 49 or more blocks per week had a 36%, 54% and 47% lower risk of CHD, stroke and CVD, respectively.

A review by Cramer et al. (2014) assessed the positive influences of yoga on risk factors associated with CVD. A total of 44 clinical trials qualified for the review. Results showed that compared with no stimulus, yoga decreased both systolic and diastolic blood pressure, reduced waist circumference, and improved blood lipid levels and measures of insulin sensitivity. All of these positive changes contribute to reductions in CVD risk. Yoga is recommended by physicians and therapists as a supplement to aerobic and resistance training because of the calming effects yoga can have.

For more information about women and other health conditions, plus complete references, please see “Research Update: Explore the Value of Exercise for Women’s Health” in the online IDEA Library or in the July–August 2018 print edition of IDEA Fitness Journal. If you cannot access the full article and would like to, please contact the IDEA Inspired Service Team at 800-999-4332, ext. 7.

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About the Authors

Tori Lau

Tori Lau IDEA Author/Presenter

Bryanne Bellovary

Bryanne Bellovary IDEA Author/Presenter

Len Kravitz, PhD

Len Kravitz, PhD IDEA Author/Presenter

Len Kravitz, PhD, is the program coordinator of exercise science and a researcher at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where he recently won the Outstanding Teacher of the Year award. Len was also honored as the 2006 Fitness Educator of the Year by the American Council on Exercise.