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Who Gets More Health Benefits from Exercise, Women or Men?

By Jiri Kaloc

A new study from the Smidt Heart Institute shows that women and men get different benefits from the same levels of exercise. Who is better off? And how many active minutes per week do you need depending on your sex?

The researchers analysed data from over 400 thousand adults with 55% of them being women. Participants were surveyed between the years 1997 and 2019 and provided data on their physical activity. The study was set up to examine how frequency, duration, intensity and type of physical activity relate to health outcomes in both sexes.

Mortality risk reduced by 24% for women and 15% for men

The study confirmed what we all know, that people who exercise have much better health on average than people who are sedentary. But the difference between women and men is what surprised even the researchers themselves.

“For all adults engaging in any regular physical activity, compared to being inactive, mortality risk was expectedly lower. Intriguingly, though, mortality risk was reduced by 24% in women and 15% in men,” said Susan Cheng, MD, senior author of the study.

“Women have historically and statistically lagged behind men in engaging in meaningful exercise. The beauty of this study is learning that women can get more out of each minute of moderate to vigorous activity than men do. It’s an incentivising notion that we hope women will take to heart,” added Martha Gulati, MD, co-lead author of the study.

Women need less exercise to get the same benefit

The study also showed that the advantage women seem to have applies to many different types of exercise from cycling to lifting weights.

Moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise – With activity such as brisk walking or cycling, men reached their maximal benefit at 5 hours per week. Women achieved the same benefit from exercising just under 2,5 hours per week.

Strength training – With strength-focused exercises such as weightlifting or core body exercises, men reached their peak benefit from doing 3 sessions per week while women gained the same amount of benefit from only 1 session per week.

The authors noted that women continued to reduce their mortality risk if they did more than 2,5 hours per week of aerobic activity or 2 or more strength sessions per week.

Aim for 300 active minutes per week

The study concludes that with all types of exercise and variables accounted for, men get a maximal survival benefit with 300 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per week, while women get the same benefit from 140 minutes per week. But women continue to get further benefits up to 300 minutes a week. So, the goal remains the same for both sexes, women just have more to gain than men.

“I am hopeful that this pioneering research will motivate women who are not currently engaged in regular physical activity to understand that they are in a position to gain tremendous benefit for each increment of regular exercise they are able to invest in their longer-term health,” said Christine M. Albert, MD.