A study published in the journal Preventive Medicine found that women are less likely than men to get at the recommended daily minimum of at least 30 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise. As a result, women are more likely to suffer from depression and higher levels of homocysteine (a chemical in the blood that is produced when an amino acid called methionine is broken down in the body).
Women are also at greater risk for developing metabolic syndrome - a group of risk factors that occur together and increase an individual's risk for developing cardiovascular disease, stroke, and type-2 diabetes. Symptoms include high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and excess weight around the abdomen.
Researchers Paul D. Loprizini and Bradley J. Cardinal from Bellarmine University and Oregon State University studied data from 1,146 men and women between the ages of 20 and 85, all participants of the 2005-2006 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, looking for a link between physical activity, depression, homocysteine, and metabolic syndrome.
Physical activity was measured by equipping participants with accelerometers, and all of their physical activity over a 7-day period was recorded. The data was logged as the average duration of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA).
Results showed that men were getting an average of about 30 minutes of MVPA daily, but by comparison, women averaged only about 18 minutes of MVPA daily.
More than 35% of women in the study had metabolic syndrome and 23% showed symptoms of depression. However, the overall association was greater in women, with roughly 3% more women than men suffering from both of these conditions simultaneously.
Participants who exercised at least 30 minutes daily were less likely to be depressed, less likely to have high cholesterol, and less likely to have metabolic syndrome. Depression is linked to increased abdominal fat and insulin resistance – both risk factors for metabolic syndrome.
Cardinal, a professor at Bellarmine University’s Lansing School of Nursing and Health Sciences, notes, “It’s pretty striking what happens to you if you don’t meet that 30 minutes a day of activity. Women in our sample had better health behavior – they were much less likely to smoke for instance – but the lack of activity still puts them at risk. The key message here is to get that 30 minutes of exercise every day because it reduces a great deal of risk factors.”
The Bottom Line
While the study does not identify a cause for the disparity in exercise rates, lead researcher Loprizini states “women often cite a lack of time to exercise due to child rearing.”
It’s true – modern women have more responsibility than ever. In addition to raising children and managing the household, many women work outside of the home, leaving little time for physical activity. However, finding just a half hour – which really isn’t much – for exercise daily should be a priority.
Loprizini and Cardinal have a study coming out which suggests that accruing physical activity in short periods throughout the day – think three 10-minute bursts – can still be advantageous to health. Meeting that 30-minute minimum any way you can is important, as being overweight and dealing with depression, heart disease, or diabetes makes balancing busy lives an even greater struggle.
Other research shows exercise affects eating behavior in a positive manner. In one recent study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, researchers found that those who exercised were less likely to be motivated to eat than those who did not exercise. But for exercise to have a significant influence on the response to food, vigorous, extended exercise sessions were found to be more effective.
And finding time for physical activity needs to begin early. Previous studies have shown that rates of physical activity in women start dropping when teens reach middle and high school. The American Academy of Pediatrics cites studies which show that “lifestyles learned as children are much more likely to stay with a person into adulthood.” Given that, encouraging young women to engage in sports and activities is something that all parents should work toward.