How exercise protects women from disease
The benefits of a regular workout
Exercise isn’t just about firming up your thighs and toning your triceps; regular workouts can help ward off many of the major diseases that affect women — from breast cancer to high blood pressure, osteoporosis to arthritis.
But perhaps the most valuable benefit of all is the protective effect exercise has on the heart. Did you know that one in every two women in the UK dies of heart or vascular disease? Yet regular aerobic exercise can reduce the risk of heart disease by 30 to 40 per cent.
Aerobic exercise (from walking to jogging, dancing to swimming) influences four of the main heart disease risk factors:
- Blood pressure (people with hypertension are three times more likely to experience heart disease)
- Cholesterol profile (exercise lowers total cholesterol and increases the amount of HDL cholesterol)
- Risk of diabetes
- Excess body weight.
Regularly active women have a 42 per cent lower risk of getting type II diabetes, as a higher fitness level has been shown to increase insulin sensitivity and enhance glucose transportation.
Although it’s never too soon to start reaping the benefits of exercise, it’s never too late, either. A study published in the journal Epidemiology found that women who took up exercise after the menopause had a 30 per cent lower risk of developing breast cancer. Those who had been active throughout their lives had a 42 per cent lower risk than sedentary women, however.
Scientists don’t know exactly why exercise seems to be protective against breast cancer — it may be that regularly active women produce a less harmful form of estrogen, or that they are exposed to less estrogen overall. But the overall verdict spells out one thing: consistent, vigorous exercise is linked to a lower lifetime breast cancer risk. There is also some evidence that staying fit reduces your risk of colon cancer, and cancers of the upper digestive tract, too.
The old ‘use it or lose it’ adage is often applied to muscle — but the same goes for bone density. The more you do sooner, the better. Peak bone mass — the maximum amount of bone you ever attain — occurs around the age of 20 and from 30 or so onwards, a slow decline begins. In the decades prior to menopause, we lose 0.75 to 1 per cent per year — but in the years following it, bone density (the thickness and strength of the bone) can plummet by as much as 5 per cent per year. This is why the bone-thinning condition osteoporosis – that causes frailty, a high risk of fracture and loss of height — affects one in three women over the age of 50 in the UK.
According to a report in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, the most crucial ‘controllable’ factor that affects skeletal health is the amount of bone-loading exercise we do. A study from the University of Cambridge found that only high-impact exercise, like running, reduces the risk of hip fracture — low impact exercise, like walking, had no beneficial effect on bone density. But you don’t have to become a runner to protect your bones.
One study found that 50 jumps a day — taking just a couple of minutes — significantly improved bone density in a group of pre-menopausal women. Any high-impact exercise, such as skipping, aerobics or dancing, is effective, while resistance training is excellent for the bones and joints that aren’t normally weight-bearing (such as the wrists and cervical spine). Weight-supported activities, such as cycling and swimming, have no effect on bone at all, since there is no load.
And if you were wondering whether all that joint pounding is bad for you, read on … Regular exercise through a full range of motion can help maintain joint mobility and function (according to research published in the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery). Another study, published in the journal Arthritis and Rheumatism, showed that even something as high impact as running could protect against osteoarthritis by keeping joints and connective tissue strong, mobile and topped up with nutrients.
So there are a few more things to think about next time you’re deciding between your training shoes and your slippers …