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Most women with cardiovascular disease are not getting enough exercise, study finds

Photo by Fitsum Admasu on Unsplash
Research has suggested that as much as 90 percent of the risk of cardiovascular disease is preventable through the adoption of healthy lifestyle behaviors, including regular physical activity.

More than half of women with cardiovascular disease in the United States are not getting enough physical activity — a figure that has increased over the past decade, according to a study published earlier this month in JAMA Network Open.

The study’s findings are troubling. Cardiovascular disease, which includes coronary heart disease, heart attack, stroke, peripheral artery disease and various heart rhythm disturbances, is the leading cause of death among women in the U.S. Each year, about 400,000 American women die from the disease — about the same number as from cancer, diabetes and chronic lower respiratory diseases combined.

Cardiovascular disease is particularly prevalent among black women. About 48 percent of black women aged 20 and older have cardiovascular disease compared to 32 percent of white women and 33 percent of Hispanic women, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).

Research has suggested that as much as 90 percent of the risk of cardiovascular disease is preventable through the adoption of healthy lifestyle behaviors, including regular physical activity. Exercise has also been shown to help people already diagnosed with cardiovascular disease by reducing the risk of a repeat heart attack, for example, and improving quality of life.

The authors of the current study — a team of researchers from Johns Hopkins University — wanted to determine how many women with cardiovascular disease were meeting the recommended level of exercise (30 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity five times a week) and whether certain demographic groups of women might need targeted help from the medical community and policymakers to help them get that recommended amount.

How the study was done

For the study, the Johns Hopkins researchers used data collected between 2006 and 2015 from about 18,000 women with cardiovascular disease who participated in a government-run national survey. The women were between the ages of 18 and 75, and were nationally representative in terms of age and race/ethnicity of the 19.5 million American women currently living with cardiovascular disease.

The researchers found that in 2006, 58 percent of the surveyed women with cardiovascular disease said they were not meeting the recommended physical activity guidelines — a number that rose to 61 percent in 2015. The increase was most notable among women aged 40 to 64, with 53 percent reporting in 2006 not getting enough exercise and 60 percent in 2015.

Black and Hispanic women were also more likely to say they weren’t meeting the physical activity guidelines, as were women who came from low-income households, who had less than a high school education and who were enrolled in Medicare or Medicaid.

The study also found, perhaps not unsurprisingly ,that the annual health care costs in 2014-2015 of women with cardiovascular disease who did not exercise enough was, on average, about $4,000 more than for those who did meet the physical activities guidelines ($14,820 versus $10,504).

Limitations and implications

The study is based on the survey takers’ self-reported information about physical activity — information that might not have been accurate. Also, the study was observational, so it can’t prove a cause-and-effect relationship between lower levels of physical activity and higher medical costs.

The findings, however, support plenty of other research that has linked a lack of physical activity to a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease — and of having poorer health and quality of life after a heart attack or stroke.

“Physical activity is a known, cost-effective prevention strategy for women with and without cardiovascular disease, and our study shows worsening health and financial trends over time among women with cardiovascular disease who don’t get enough physical activity,” said lead author Dr. Victor Okunrintemi, a former research fellow at Johns Hopkins who is now an internal medicine resident at East Carolina University, in a released statement.

“We have more reason than ever to encourage women with cardiovascular disease to move more,” he added.

Okunrintemi and his co-authors call on health officials to implement “specific interventions targeting older women, those from lower socioeconomic status, and racial/ethnic minorities” so that more women in these high-risk groups can get become physically active — and lead healthier lives.

FMI: You can read the study on the JAMA Network Open website.

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