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Benefits of Exercise for Women

Written by:

Reviewed for medical accuracy by:

Added to knowledge base:

Kristen Lucy

Tamara Stein, PhD.


Lauren Cantor

Dept. of Anatomy,


UM Medical School



When it comes to exercise, women always seem to find excuses not to get to the gym.  There is always some other engagement or a lack of time that take priority over a woman’s physical fitness goals.  While most women know that they should exercise and that it is good for the heart, often this is not enough incentive to work-out.  While there are a myriad of reasons why someone may not follow through with exercise plans, perhaps one major reason is simply lack of knowledge.  Why should I exercise and how is exercise good for my heart, are questions that need to be answered.  Once these questions are answered, perhaps the trip to the gym may seem less of a hassle and more of a duty to oneself.

Many studies have shown that women have different psychological and social mediators of physical activity participation than men do.1 These mediators include housework, childcare responsibilities, and female gender roles that can decrease participation in physical activity.2 More frequently than men, women report having barriers to exercise and less control over their decision to exercise.3 Women also report being able to find little time for themselves in already overbooked schedules.4  As women age, participation in physical activity decreases.5

Historically, women have been discouraged from participation in athletics.  It is only since the advent of Title IX, the 1972 educational amendment that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex in organizations receiving federal aid, that females have had widespread opportunities to participate in school sports.4  Even after the amendment was passed, however, the regulations did not go into effect for two years, and enforcement was lacking.  Since the early 1990s, hundreds of civil rights complaints and lawsuits have been filed against colleges and schools, and most of these gender discrimination suits have been resolved in favor of women.  These cases have resulted in women’s coaches receiving equal pay, women’s teams being reinstated instead of cut, and women’s club sports being upgraded to varsity status.6  In 1971, fewer than 300,000 high school girls played interscholastic sports; in 1993, that number had jumped to two million.7 Boys’ numbers declined from 3.7 to 3.4 million between 1971 and 1993.5

Thus, it is little wonder that physical inactivity is more prevalent among women than men.8 However, numerous studies have shown the risks of inactivity, especially for women. Sedentary women have increased risks for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, colon cancer, and depression.8 Lack of exercise has also contributed to the obesity epidemic in this country. In the United States, 64.5 million women (61.9 percent) are overweight, and 34.7 million (33.4%) are obese (BMI≥30).  Only 35.3% of U.S. women are at a healthy weight (18.5≤BMI≥25).9

According to the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, cardiovascular disease is currently the leading killer of women causing almost half a million deaths due to heart disease each year. 10  Although heart attacks usually occur later in life for women (leading killer of women by 65 years of age versus 45 years for men), they are much more deadly than in men.11  In a 2003 article in The American College of Sports Medicine journal, it was suggested that physical activity “should be targeted for promotion” of cardiovascular health.  Indeed, it has been shown that physical activity reduces the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) by about half.11

In the past few years many studies have set out to discover the benefits of exercise, not only for the heart, but for all facets of a woman’s health.  Some of the more interesting and motivational facts are listed below:

  • In a study of the elderly, it was found that those participants who reported walking 120 or more minutes a week were “associated with a lower risk of emergency room visits and hospital stays in the subsequent year.”12
  • In a study comparing a group of women who were self-selected to participate in an exercise regimen versus a sedentary group, it was shown that “the moderate-intensity physical activity program experienced potentially valuable health and social cognitive improvements relative to those who did not participate.”13
  • According to the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, physical activity not only improves cardiovascular health, but also helps to keep blood pressure, weight, and cholesterol in control. 
  • The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology educational bulletin recommends that both premenopausal and menopausal women exercise in order to prevent osteoporosis.14
  • In 2003, the Journal of Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation reported that even small amounts of physical activity done routinely are found to improve quality of life and mood.15

This list is given in hopes that one of these facts will inspire readers to begin some sort of physical activity.  In upcoming articles, we plan to discuss different aspects of health and fitness for women: how to get started, establishing a work-out regimen, staying motivated, and much more.  Until then, in the words of Tamara Stein, Ph.D., don’t just do it, …do it now! …while you study …while you play.  Take the stairs!


  1. Segar, M, Jayaratne, T, Hanlon, J, Richardson , C. Fitting fitness into women’s lives: effects of a gender-tailored physical activity intervention. Women’s Health Issues 2002; 12: 338-347.
  2. Verhoef, MJ, Love, EJ, Rose, MS. Women's social roles and their exercise participation. Women & Health 1992; 19: 15–29.
  3. Stephens, T, Craig, C. Wellbeing of Canadians: Highlights of the 1988 Campbell 's Survey, Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute 1990.
  4. Lutter, JM. History of women in sports: societal issues. Clinical Sports Med 1994; 13: 263–279.
  5. Feminist Research Center . Empowering Women in Sports 2005. Website: http://www.feminist.org.
  6. MMWRMMWR, Prevalence of sedentary lifestyle––Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, United States , 1991. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 1993; 42: 576–579.
  7. U.S. Department of Education. Title IX: 25 Years of Progress. 1997.
  8. U.S. Department of Health and Human ServicesPhysical activity and health: a report of the Surgeon General, Center for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion 1996.
  9. National Institutes of Health Statistics related to Overweight and Obesity. National Institute of Diabetes & Digestive & Kidney Disease, 2004.
  10. American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology 2004. http://www.acog.org/from_home/spotlight.
  11. Bassuk, S, Manson, J. Physical activity and cardiovascular disease prevention in women: How much is good enough? The American College of Sports Medicine, 2003; 31: 176-181.
  12. Perkins, AJ, Clark , DO. Assessing the association of walking with health service use and costs among socioeconomically disadvantaged older adults. Preventive Medicine 2001; 32: 492-501.
  13. Clark , DO; Stump, TE, Damush, TM. Outcomes of an exercise program for older women recruited through primary care. Journal of Aging & Health 2003; 15: 567-585.
  14. ACOG educational bulletin.  Osteoporosis.  International Journal of Gynaecology & Obstetrics 1998; 62:193-201.
  15. Stewart, KJ, Turner, KL, Bacher, AC, DeRegis, JR, Sung, J, Tayback, M, Ouyang, P. Are fitness, activity, and fatness associated with health-related quality of life and mood in older persons? Journal of Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation 2003; 23:115-121. 



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