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Cardiovascular Fitness for Women

Walking and yoga show clear benefits for heart health.

Two women improving their cardiovascular fitness by walking briskly with hand weights.

Updated on May 13, 2021.

Improving cardiovascular fitness levels among women could save countless lives.

About 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 depend on the disease. However, coronary artery disease, stroke and peripheral artery disease all involve atherosclerosis, in which arteries narrow and harden due to fatty plaque buildup on their inner wall. Over time, arteries can become completely blocked, and as a result, two main events may occur: a heart attack or a stroke.

Crucially, women can increase their cardiovascular fitness and combat CVD by reducing these 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

In addition, there are sex-specific risk factors for women (Garcia et al. 2016). These include preterm delivery, hypertensive pregnancy disorders, gestational diabetes, some autoimmune diseases, breast cancer treatment and the menopause transition.

Improving Cardiovascular Fitness: Exercise Guidelines

Aerobic exercise. To improve overall cardiovascular fitness 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, the recommendation is 40 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise 3–4 times a week.

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

Training tip: It’s okay to break a day’s exercise into 2–3 segments of 10–15 minutes each.

Research Findings on Cardiovascular Fitness, 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). This may be because women are less likely than men to receive preventive treatment or guidance—lipid-lowering therapy, therapeutic lifestyle changes and aspirin, for example. When physicians prescribe medication, moreover, the treatment is less likely to be rigorous enough to achieve desired results.

Notably, 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. And yet, higher levels of physical activity can improve cardiovascular fitness and are associated with lower rates of chronic diseases, including CVD.

Walking Study

Results of the Cardiovascular Health Study by Soares-Miranda et al. (2015) show a strong association between physical activity, particularly walking, and a lower risk of CVD later in life, even in those ages 75 and older. Walking is the most common type of physical activity as people age.

In the study, researchers followed 4,207 U.S. women and men (aged 73 plus or minus 6 years at baseline) for 10 years. Above all, walking speed and distance proved to be important for cardiovascular fitness. Boosting speed (intensity) had clear benefits: Walking at 3 miles per hour instead of 2 mph lowered the risk of coronary heart disease, stroke and CVD by 50%, 53% and 50%, respectively. Likewise, going farther was linked with greater gains: Specifically, walking 49 or more blocks per week lowered risk of CHD, stroke and CVD by 36%, 54% and 47%, respectively, compared with walking 0–5 blocks per week.

Yoga Study

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 yoga decreased both systolic and diastolic blood pressure and reduced waist circumference. It also improved blood lipid levels and measures of insulin sensitivity. Significantly, all these positive changes lower CVD risk. (Physicians and therapists recommend yoga as a supplement to aerobic and resistance training because of yoga’s calming effects.)

For more information on women’s cardiovascular fitness, CVD and other health conditions, plus complete references, please see ideafit.com/personal-training/the-value-of-exercise-for-womens-health/.

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