There are endless reasons to exercise: increased energy levels, improved self-confidence and a stronger, slimmer body, to name a few. But it also reduces your risk of heart disease. And if you think you don’t have to worry about that because you’re a young woman, think again.
Women under 40, you have a one-in-four chance of having a vascular event (like a stroke or heart attack), and if you’re over 40, your odds jump to one in three — putting you in the same risk category as men.
"Women shouldn’t think they're immune," says Cape Town cardiologist Dr Adrian Horak.
"Although they’re protected to an extent by their hormones, heart disease often becomes more apparent after menopause." But, while surprising, the news isn’t all bad. According to Horak, there’s much we can do to lay the foundation for a healthy heart, especially during our 20s and 30s. And along with a healthy diet, exercise is at the top of the list. Here’s why:
- It’s a great stress-reliever.
"Regular exercise helps prevent excess stress, anxiety and depression, so it’s crucial for mental wellbeing and optimal heart health," says sports scientist Kathy Mc Quaide of the Sports Science Institute of South Africa.
- It lowers your heart rate. As a muscle, your heart gets "fitter" as you exercise, and better able to pump more blood through your body with each beat. And as less effort is required, your resting heart rate slows down.
- It lowers your blood pressure. "Sedentary people are 35% more likely to develop high blood pressure than active people," says Mc Quaide. And according to the Heart Foundation, a bout of moderate exercise helps to lower your blood pressure for up to three hours afterwards, while a few months of regular exercise can drop your blood pressure by up to 10%.
- It improves your ratio of good to bad cholesterol. "Regular exercise helps to lower bad cholesterol levels. Plus it improves good cholesterol levels — even more so than medication," says Horak.
- It helps you achieve and maintain a healthy weight. "Exercise boosts your metabolism, decreases fat and increases lean-muscle mass," says Mc Quaide, which is essential if you’re carrying extra weight — especially abdominal weight, which puts you at even greater risk.
- It reduces your risk of developing diabetes. About 1,5-million South Africans have type-2 diabetes and have a greater risk of developing heart disease as a result. "Weight loss and exercise help to increase insulin sensitivity, which makes you less likely to develop type-2 diabetes," says Mc Quaide.
- It stacks the odds in your favour. The Heart Foundation says that inactive people are twice as likely to have a heart attack and three times more likely to die immediately afterwards than people who exercise regularly.
- (Lauren Seton-Smith, updated May 2008)
Lauren Seton-Smith is a journalist at Shape magazine. This is an edited version of an article which comes from an earlier edition.