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Women need less exercise than men for same cardiovascular benefits, researchers find

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Women are getting more bang for their buck than men when they exercise, researchers said in a new study published Monday.

The researchers found that women needed just under 2.5 hours of moderate to vigorous aerobic physical activity a week to get the same “survival benefit” that men get with five hours of physical activity. The mortality risk for women who engaged in regular physical activity was reduced by 24% compared to 15% for men, the researchers wrote in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. 

“The beauty of this study is learning that women can get more out of each minute of moderate to vigorous activity than men do,” Dr. Martha Gulati, co-lead author of the study, said. “It’s an incentivizing notion that we hope women will take to heart.”

Researchers analyzed health data spanning from 1997 through 2019 from 412,413 adults in the U.S. By the end of the study, 39,935 of the adults had died, of which 11,670 were cardiovascular deaths. 

The researchers noted that the study had an “observational design,” meaning they couldn’t say for certain that the exercise was causing the lowered risk. They also cautioned that the information they studied was self-reported and didn’t take into account variations in household activities.

Dr. Steven Nissen, a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic who was not involved in the new research, called the new findings “intriguing,” while emphasizing the limitations of an observational study.

“It needs to be confirmed by others, with other data and other data sets in other populations, maybe in other countries,” he said in an interview, adding, “A single observational study is not kind of a slam-dunk proof of anything.”

Among the women studied, those who engaged in regular aerobic exercise had a 36% lower risk of dying from cardiovascular issues compared to a 14% risk reduction for men. Heart disease is the leading cause of death among women in the United States, killing more than 300,000 every year, according to a 2021 study published in The Lancet medical journal.

The new study’s researchers also looked at the gaps between men and women who engage in regular strength training. They found that while men reach their peak benefit from doing three sessions of muscle-strengthening activities per week, women accrue the same degree of benefit from about one session per week. 

Among men studied, those who engaged in regular muscle-strengthening activities were associated with an 11% reduction in cardiovascular risk, compared to a 30% reduction in risk for women.

The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, developed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, recommends adults should do at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week. The guide does not recommend different amounts of exercise for men and women.

The new study’s researchers suggested differences between the male and female bodies could be responsible for the divergent results between the men and women studied. They noted that men on average have proportionately larger hearts, wider lung airways, greater lung diffusion capacity and larger muscle fibers than women.

Nissen said that at the end of the day, no matter your gender, exercise is one of the best medicines we have.

“Everybody, regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman, ought to exercise 300 minutes a week. It’s what I tell all of my patients,” he said.

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