Women's fitness refers to the condition of optimum health of women.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as of 2015, fewer than 49% of women follow recommended guidelines for physical activity. Sedentary lifestyles, or not enough physical activity, is more common in women than in men.
Beyond controlling weight, building lean muscle mass, and reducing excess fat, regular physical activity helps women maintain joint health and fight against osteoporosis and the weakening of bones. Regular exercise has been shown to greatly reduce the risk of heart disease, which is the leading cause of death among women. It is also shown to help fight against other forms of chronic disease such as diabetes, some cancers (e.g., colorectal and breast cancer), and hypertension. Regular exercise also helps to reduce stress hormones (cortisol levels) and has been shown to decrease anxiety and depression. About twice as many women as men have depression.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), being overweight or obese is strongly linked with heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, high blood pressure, breathing problems, osteoarthritis, gallbladder disease, and certain cancers. Regular physical activity, reduced calorie consumption, and positive nutrition are the best measures toward the prevention of these diseases or medical conditions. Regular physical activity improves cardiorespiratory (heart, lung, and blood vessel) health and might help with the prevention of reduced cognitive functioning, such as in the case of dementia and Alzheimer disease.
Women's health and fitness, and the prevention of disease, is also strongly linked to nutrition. The “Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” published in 2015 by DHHS in partnership with the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, suggests five major goals for Americans:
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), half of one's daily consumption should consist of fruits and vegetables, and these items should be varied. Half of all grains consumed should be whole grain, meats and other proteins should be lean, and dairy should consist of low-fat or reducedfat options.
Research indicates that most diets are too low in specific nutrients, so dieters should ensure appropriate levels of potassium, dietary fiber, calcium, and vitamin D are being consumed. Adequate consumption of iron, folate, and vitamin B12 are also important, as these nutrients are lacking in the diets of many women.
To achieve and maintain fitness, regular physical activity or exercise does not need to be strenuous. Mild-to-moderate, but regular, exercise such as walking for 30 or more minutes about 5 days per week can result in higher levels of fitness and reduced expectation of chronic disease. This kind of mild-to-moderate physical activity is enough to improve bone health and can reduce stress, depression, and anxiety.
Two types of exercise are necessary to achieve best fitness: aerobic exercise and strengthening exercise. Aerobic activity is any activity that increases heart rate, and strengthening activities are those that focus on resistance effort in any of the muscle groups. The President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sport's research digest, “Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans,” recommends at least 2.5 hours per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity such as produced by brisk walking. The guidelines also recommend muscle-strengthening activities two or more days per week to exercise all major muscle groups (e.g., legs, hips, back, stomach, shoulders, and arms).
Higher levels of regular physical activity produce greater health benefits, so moderate-intensity aerobic activity, such as brisk walking, cycling on a level surface, water aerobics, or lawn mowing, can be supplemented with vigorous activity such as jogging or running, cycling on an uneven, swimming laps, or most aerobic sports, such as single's tennis and basketball. Five hours per week of moderate-intensity activity along with muscle strengthening on two or more days per week yields better health benefits. This activity does not need to take place all at once to give results, separating out the activity into ten-minute intervals can be just as effective.
Strength training activities can be done with or without equipment, such as in the case of calisthenics (e.g., sit-ups, push-ups, and pull-ups). The use of armbands, dumbbells, or even soup cans can add resistance. As with any repetitive exercise, intervals should be gradually increased, different muscle groups should be worked, and periods of rest should be included so that the muscles have time to recover and strengthen.
Exercise helps pregnant women sleep better, maintain health, lessen weight gain, and decrease time to lose weight after delivery. They should focus on moderate activities and strengthening of muscles. It is usually acceptable for pregnant women to continue with their regular form of exercise unless there is a risk element, such as with horseback riding, but it is not advised to take up a new activity without consulting a health professional first.
Once a woman reaches menopause, her hormone changes can affect daily life, but exercise can ease some of the stress and other symptoms related to menopause and improve physical health and well-being. Women who do not currently exercise should consult their physicians first before beginning their activity program gradually, adding more time and intensity over time. Physical activity rates decline as women age, yet activity is important to maintaining muscle and bone strength, along with overall health. Older women might have to break their activity into durations of 10 minutes at a time but should aim for as close to the recommended 150 minutes a week of activity as possible.
Research indicates that warming up the muscles before exercise and cool down afterwards is appropriate and may reduce the number of injuries sustained during exercise. Slowly warming the muscles before exercise with low-impact calisthenics helps to prepare the muscles for a higher impact workout. Rather than stopping aerobic activity suddenly, slowing movement to gradually return the heart to a normal rate and stretching the muscles are recommended.
Stretching the muscles after a workout helps to improve flexibility. This will ensure ease of movement for all tasks, such as bending to put on or remove shoes, or turning to check the blind spot when changing lanes, or backing out of a parking space. Stretching should be avoided before beginning exercise when the muscles are “cool” as this can increase the possibility of injury.
Ample research indicates the benefits of yoga, a 5,000-year-old practice that incorporates stretching, strengthening, and balance, as well as meditation and breathing exercises to help with mind and body fitness and stress reduction.
Women who are pregnant or those with medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, or hypertension should consult their doctors before initiating any exercise routines. Women over the age of 50 should also consult their physicians if they plan to initiate or continue a vigorous exercise routine, and they should be tested for heart disease or other medical conditions before beginning a new exercise program.
If ongoing physical activity is too strenuous, women run the risk of weakening their bones rather than strengthening them, and menstrual irregularities can result. Women who exercise too strenuously also put themselves at greater risk for injury. Strenuous activity over a long period of time can weaken the immune system.
Overall, women and girls remain less physically active than men and boys. The World Health Organization and other research institutions explain this differential with the historical disparity between opportunities for women and men. In 1972, when Title IX was implemented, more athletic opportunities were made available for girls, but the data does not yet reveal a change in the outcome on life expectancy. The data are clear, however, that regular exercise prevents chronic disease and extends life.
Overcoming barriers to fitness for women can improve their overall health. Women report that it is difficult to work in leisure time activity when they already spread their time among work, caring for children or other family members, keeping up a home, and social obligations. Social support has a strong relationship to physical activity. Women who receive consistent social support by way of encouraging family and/or friends, or who exercise with a partner or group, are more likely to maintain regular exercise programs. Those women who maintain consistent physical activity are at lower risk for disease and experience an increased quality of life.
See also Alzheimer's disease ; Bone health ; Exercise ; Hypertension ; Osteoporosis .
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American College of Sports Medicine, 401 West Michigan St., Indianapolis, IN, 46202-3233, (317) 637-9200, Fax: (317) 637-7817, (888) 463-6332, http://www.acsm.org/ .
American Council on Exercise, 4851 Paramount Dr., San Diego, CA, 92123, (858) 576-6500, (888) 825-3636, ext. 782, Fax: (858) 576-6564, https://www.acefitness.org .
American Dietetic Association, 120 South Riverside Plaza, Suite 2000, Chicago, IL, 60606-6995, (800) 877-1600, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.eatright.org/ .
Julie Jordan Avritt
Revised by Teresa G. Odle, BA, ELS