One Step at a Time

February 12, 2003

There's good news for women who know they need to exercise for their hearts but think only vigorous exercise will do. A study in the Sept. 5, 2002, issue of The New England Journal of Medicine reported that postmenopausal women who walk regularly reduced their rate of heart disease as much as those who engage in more intense exercise such as jogging and aerobics. 
The study, by Dr. JoAnn Manson of Harvard Medical School and colleagues, followed 73,743 women age 50 to 79 for an average of three years. Women who reported walking at a brisk pace 2 hours a week lowered their rate of heart disease by the same amount -- 30 percent -- as those who reported more vigorous exercise for the same amount of time. Women who did both walking and vigorous exercise lowered their risk more than those who did either one alone. 
Walking has several advantages as the exercise of choice for postmenopausal women, says Dr. Brian Leutholtz, a visiting professor in Baylor's health, human performance and recreation department. It is a low-impact activity that places less stress on the joints, making it ideal for women who have medical conditions such as arthritis. Weight-bearing exercises such as walking also have been shown to slow the progression of osteoporosis, an age-related deterioration of the bones, he says. 
According to a 1996 Surgeon General Report, walking is the most common form of exercise among women. Also, postmenopausal women may view walking more favorably than other forms of exercise, an important factor because exercise must be done regularly to benefit the heart, Dr. Leutholtz says.
"Studies have shown that there is a 60 percent drop-out rate within six months of starting a new exercise. Walking might be associated with fewer injuries and less recovery time, and so more women will continue to do it," he says. 
Other findings from the study were that prolonged sitting or spending more than 12 hours each day lying down or sleeping also increased risk. This confirms that activity is key to preventing heart disease, Dr. Leutholtz says.
"Exercise physiologists often say that sitting is better than lying down, standing is better than sitting and walking is better than standing," he says. 

Beal is a lecturer in Baylor's Louise Herrington School of Nursing, where she teaches "The Experience of Illness." She received her BS from Columbia University and her MN from Emory. She is a freelance health and medical writer.