Middle-aged women could significantly lower their risk of heart disease and stroke by exercising just 2-3 times a week, according to a new study carried out at Oxford University and published in the journal Circulation.
The research - funded by the British Heart Foundation, Medical Research Council and Cancer Research UK – is based on an analysis of the physical activity habits of more than one million UK women using data from the Million Women Study.
The research found that women who did strenuous physical activity (enough to cause sweating or a fast heartbeat) 2-3 times per week, or any activity up to 4-6 times per week, had around a 20% lower risk of coronary heart disease, stroke and blood clots, compared to women who were inactive.
Compared to being inactive, doing any form of physical activity at least once a week was found to lower the risk of heart disease. Different types of physical activities were associated with lower risk, including walking, gardening and cycling.
However, the study also found the benefits of strenuous activity were not linear. The risk of heart disease was no lower among the small proportion of women who did strenuous activity more than 3 times a week, than among women who did strenuous activity 2-3 times a week.
The study has been published during the BHF’s Heart Month campaign through which the charity is urging people to spend at least 10 minutes every day making small improvements to their lifestyle, including doing more physical activity.
Dr Miranda Armstrong, the study’s lead author and a physical activity epidemiologist at the University of Oxford, said:
“Through this research we wanted to improve our understanding of the relationship between physical activity and the risk of heart disease in middle aged women. Positively, the research showed that every effort to be physically active could contribute to improving heart health, with those women who undertook physical activity just once a week having a lower risk of heart disease than those who did nothing. The women who were active 2-3 times a week were able to cut their risk of heart disease substantially.”
Doireann Maddock, Senior Cardiac Nurse at the BHF, said: “This research further reinforces the evidence that you don’t have to run marathons or spend hours at the gym to improve your heart health. Even if you don’t have much time to spare, just a couple of weekly sessions to get your heart rate going can help to reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke.
"Anything is better than nothing and this Heart Month we’re encouraging people to start small by taking on the BHFs Heart Month 10 minute challenge and making just one small change, every day.”
Tom Stansfeld, health information officer at Cancer Research UK, said: “This study shows how important physical activity is for your health – and it’s not only your heart that stands to benefit. We know that even small amounts of physical activity can reduce the risk of breast, bowel and womb cancers. Being active in any way you can - even if it's walking to the station or getting off the bus a few stops earlier - is a great thing for your overall health.”