Exercise is known to increase strength, reduce weight, and improve physical appearance, but the protective benefits of regular physical activity are often not brought up. Heart disease, osteoporosis, uterine fibroids, and breast cancer are just some conditions that are increasingly affecting women. While these conditions are complex in nature and have variety risk factors that increase their chance of development; there are preventable measures that can be put into place to help decrease their likelihood. More and more current research is demonstrating how regular exercise and other lifestyle modification not only improves how the body functions but also can act as a defense mechanism.
According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, heart disease is the leading cause of death for Canadian women and most Canadian women have at least one risk factor for the disease. Many of these risk factors including high blood pressure and cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, stress and inactivity are preventable and exercise has favourable effects on most of these risk factors. Regular exercise lowers blood pressure, which in turn reduces the workload of the heart, it increases “good” cholesterol (high density lipoproteins), which takes fatty deposits away from the arteries to the liver where it can be processed. Exercise also helps to regulate insulin levels in those with diabetes, it reduces body fat and increases lean muscle and releases endorphins that help with stress reduction. The effect of regular exercise on each risk factor may be marginal but combined; especially with other lifestyle choices (smoking cessation and nutrition) it plays a big role in preventing heart disease and maintaining good heart health. It doesn’t take much physical activity to receive these preventative benefits, the Heart and Stroke Foundation recommends that adults accumulate at least 150 minutes of moderate-to vigorous intensity aerobic physical activity per week, in bouts of 10 minutes or more to maintain good heart health.
By age 30 most women will reach their maximum bone strength and bone density; after 30 we are working on maintaining these levels. Physical activity along side calcium and vitamin D intake is essential for building and maintaining strong bones. Between the ages of 30 and menopause women experience minimal changes in bone density however the first 10 years post menopause there often can be significant bone loss leading to the development of osteoporosis, this is due to the fact that during menopause levels of the hormone estrogen which plays an important role in maintaining bone density drops significantly. Therefore, it’s important to maximize bone density in our younger days and maintain it as we get older through proper nutrition and exercise. Exercise works by stressing the bones, when bones are put under stress bone forming cells called osteoblasts migrate to the stressed area and lay down more bone, increasing their overall density and strength. Weight-bearing activities like walking, running and squats are the most effective for strong bones. Resistance training is another effective form of exercise that builds and maintains bone strength. During resistance training muscles work against an opposing force causing muscle tendons to put stress on the bones further strengthening them.
According to the Canadian Women’s Health Network, approximately 20-25% of all women suffer from uterine fibroids. Fibroids are noncancerous growths in the uterus that develop during childbearing ages. Increased levels of estrogen play an important role in the development of fibroids, they can range in size from undetectable masses to masses large enough to distort the uterus they can be a single fibroid or numerous growths. Symptoms include heavy menstrual bleeding, menstruations lasting longer than usual, painful menstruations, pelvic pain or pressure and swelling or enlargement of the abdomen. Because of estrogen’s role in the development of fibroids, females with excess body fat especially in the abdominal area are at increased risk of producing extra estrogen and developing fibroids. Regular moderate physical activity is effective in reducing body fat and high estrogen levels.
Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in Canadian women after lung cancer. Many risk factors for breast cancer are non-modifiable, but physical activity has been shown to have protective benefits against its development. Studies show that women who are physically active decrease their risk for developing breast cancer compared to inactive women. The association between exercise and breast cancer is linked to the hormone estrogen, before menopause estrogen is mainly produced in the ovaries after menopause estrogen production of the ovaries drastically decreases and mainly comes from fat tissue. Women with increased estrogen levels have an increased risk of developing breast cancer. Therefore, regular physical activity helps to decrease overall body fat and estrogen levels. The protective benefits from exercise are strongest when exercise is sustained over a lifetime and done after menopause.
With rates of many diseases increasing annually the benefits of exercise are beginning to be more important than once thought, living a healthy lifestyle that includes physical activity is shown to have many protective benefits against life-threatening conditions affecting women today. It is crucial that all women tap into these preventative measures, by exercising regularly and including a variety of activities that focus on endurance, strength and flexibility.