Women and exercise: it may not always be fun, but it’s beneficial

UAB experts say that while physical activity is necessary for both men and women, there are gender-specific benefits that women need to know.

The end of the year is fast approaching and you know what that means: As soon as the calendar turns to 2013, you will be vowing to get physically active. But experts at the University of Alabama at Birmingham say with all the benefits you can glean, why wait until you make those New Year’s resolutions to get active, especially if you are a woman?

nycu_women_exercise_sMen are more likely than women to meet the federal guidelines for adults of at least 2.5 hours of physical activity per week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Inactive adults have a higher risk for early death, heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, depression and some cancers. For women, increasing research is showing exercise may help reduce breast cancer risk, says Marcas Bamman, Ph.D., director of the UAB Center for Exercise Medicine.

“Exercise as a means of preventing or reducing the risk of various cancers, particularly breast cancer, is important for two reasons: both the direct physical effects and the indirect effect, which is preventing or contributing to mechanisms that help prevent weight gain,” Bamman says. He adds that when people gain weight, their cancer risk rises, too.

A reduction in breast cancer risk is not the only benefit associated with getting active, especially for post-menopausal women.

“The body shape of post-menopausal women is more likely to change due to the removal of hormone-specific profiles like estrogen,” Bamman explains. “Unless they exercise regularly and watch what they eat, they will have a tendency to gain more abdominal fat, which is the most dangerous, and their body composition will become more apple-shaped — like a man’s — instead of pear-shaped.”

Men are more likely than women to meet the federal guidelines for adults of at least 2.5 hours of physical activity per week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Bamman’s suggestion for most post-menopausal women: a mix of endurance and resistance training, three to four days per week.

Another factor women need to consider is loss of bone mass, which can lead to osteoporosis, says Retta Evans, Ph.D., UAB associate professor of health education. But — you guessed it — exercise helps here as well.

“Starting at around 30 years of age, women begin to lose bone mass,” Evans says. “Unless you are doing something to oppose that, such as weight-bearing exercise, it will continue. Resistance and weight training are the best, but things like walking or jogging in combination with weights are good enough.” Dance, Zumba and kickboxing also help with maintaining bone mass, Evans says. But activities like swimming, because they do not involve weight-bearing, don’t qualify.

Exercise can also help with another cause of concern for many women: their posture. But it’s not just any type of exercise, Evans says — it’s yoga.

“Yoga helps to maintain your muscularity and that helps with maintaining your posture,” she explains. “It also helps in stretching all of the muscle groups, front and back. Yoga is another great weight-bearing activity as well.”

Whether exercising is a means to feeling healthy or looking healthy, Evans says the most important thing is to stick with it.

“The bottom line is people have to find something they enjoy doing and once they find something they enjoy they are more likely to continue,” Evans says. “It doesn’t take anything except a pair of good walking shoes to start something as simple as walking around; anything that keeps the body moving as opposed to being sedentary can help contribute to a path toward better health.”

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