Health Benefits of Regular Exercise Greater For Women Than Men

Research shows the upside for women may surpass men—even when they put in less effort. Find out why.

Black woman exercising outdoors

Updated on February 20, 2024.

Regular exercise has proven health benefits for everyone. But the upside for women may be even greater than it is for men—even when women put in less effort, according to an NIH-supported observational study.

Researchers found that overall, the risk for early death or fatal heart event is lower for women than it is for men with the same activity level. They noted however, women achieved the same benefits as men in about half the time.

It’s not entirely clear why women enjoy greater health benefits than men. The study’s authors speculate that several factors may play a role, including differences anatomy and physiology between the sexes. Men typically have greater lung capacity, larger hearts, and more lean-body mass, and a greater proportion of fast-twitch muscles than women. This may force women to meet increased respiratory, metabolic, and strength demands for the same activities, resulting in greater health benefits.

“Even a limited amount of regular exercise can provide a major benefit, and it turns out this is especially true for women,” says Susan Cheng, MD, a cardiologist and the Erika J. Glazer Chair in Women’s Cardiovascular Health and Population Science in the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai, Los Angeles in a news release. “Taking some regular time out for exercise, even if it’s just 20-30 minutes of vigorous exercise a few times each week, can offer a lot more gain than they may realize.”

The February 2024 study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology is based on a prospective analysis of data collected from more than 400,000 U.S. adults ages 27 to 61. Those included in the study were surveyed to determine how often and how long they exercised as well as the type and intensity of their activities. The researchers calculated total weighted moderate-to-vigorous intensity aerobic physical activity (MVPA) by adding up the duration of both moderate and vigorous activities—but they multiplied the time spent engaged in vigorous intensity by two (or counted it as twice the time as moderate activity).

Over the course of 20 years, women who got regular exercise were 24 percent less likely than those who did not exercise routinely to experience death from any cause, compared to 15 percent for men. The study also found that women had a 36 percent lower risk for fatal heart attack, stroke, or other heart event. For men, the risk was 14 percent lower.

There was a reduced risk of death tied to all forms of exercise, including moderate aerobic activity, like brisk walking, as well as vigorous exercise, such as a spinning class or jumping rope, and body weight or other strength training exercises, the study showed.

For moderate aerobic physical activity, the reduction in the risk for death plateaued or leveled off at 300 minutes, or five hours of exercise per week for both men and women. At this level of activity, the risk dropped 24 percent for women and 18 percent for men. The researchers pointed out, however, that women hit the 18 percent reduced risk mark in half the time as men, or 140 minutes per week.

With 110 minutes of weekly vigorous aerobic exercise, the risk of death for women dropped by 24 percent and the risk for men fell by 19 percent. Women also met the 19 percent mark with less effort than men, or with just 57 minutes a week of vigorous activity.

The health benefits of exercise included weekly strength training exercises. Women who engaged in body weight or other muscle-building activities had a 19 percent lower risk of death and a 30 percent lower risk for heart-related events than those who did not participate. By comparison, men had an 11 percent reduced risk for death and 11 percent lower risk for heart attack, stroke, or other heart-related event.

“This study emphasizes that there is no singular approach for exercise,” said Eric J. Shiroma, Sc.D., a program director in the Clinical Applications and Prevention branch at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) in a news release. “A person’s physical activity needs and goals may change based on their age, health status, and schedule – but the value of any type of exercise is irrefutable.”

The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends that most adults get at least 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity exercise or 1.25 hours of vigorous exercise each week, or a combination of both. They should also engage in at least two days per week of strength training.

The study showed, however, that only 33 percent of women and 43 percent of men meet the recommended levels of physical activity. And only 20 percent of women and 28 percent of men engaged in weekly strength training.

Article sources open article sources

Ji H, Gulati M, Huang TY, et al. Sex differences in association of physical activity with all-cause and cardiovascular mortality. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2024.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition.” Washington, DC. 2018.

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