A new Beaumont Health study featured in the July issue of "Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise," the official journal of the American College of Sports Medicine, has found that middle-aged and older women who exercise moderately to vigorously, three times a week for at least 30 minutes, were able to significantly reduce cardiac risk factors in just six months.
Specifically, participants in Beaumont's Women Exercising to Live Longer or WELL program, achieved reductions in weight, cholesterol and blood pressure, along with symptoms of depression and anxiety.
While heart disease is the leading killer of women in the United States, many women still struggle to embrace lifestyle changes that can prevent the disease.
These include following a heart healthy diet and according to the American Heart Association, getting at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise a day, five days per week.
"For many women who are sedentary, the thought of exercising five to seven days a week can be daunting," said Megan Bowdon, clinical exercise physiologist and manager of Cardiac Rehab and Preventive Cardiology at Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak.
Funded through donor support, the WELL program provides women who might not otherwise have access, the opportunity to exercise, free-of-charge, with the support and guidance of trained clinical exercise physiologists and nurses.
Study participant, Patricia Hale, 72, of Oak Park, lost a significant amount of weight and a total of 17 inches on the program. These results inspired her to stick with the program long after her six-month, free membership had expired.
"It's an amazing feeling when your physician gives you confirmation that your numbers have improved," said Hale, a retired dietary aid. "After I stopped working, I gained weight and developed breathing problems. I had never formally exercised before, but I knew I didn't want to go out like that. My mother, aunt, and cousin all died at age 42 of heart disease."
Fellow study participant, Pauline Flaga, 76, of Clawson, a 20-year breast cancer survivor, also lost weight and reduced her blood pressure by embracing exercise through the program after her husband recovered from a quadruple bypass.
"Seeing my husband suffer so much inspired me to take action," said Flaga, who also appreciated the encouragement to get doctor check-ups and cardiac testing prior to participation in the WELL program. "I did not want to go down the same path he did."
With nearly equal numbers of white and black study participants, the Beaumont study is the largest one to date to look at the effects of regular exercise on black women.
"Our six-month exercise program was conducted without exercise testing prior to study participation, with the goal of documenting comparable physiologic, clinical and quality of life benefits in one of the largest cohorts of black – 191 and white – 222 'at risk' women," said Barry Franklin, Ph.D., director of Preventive Cardiology and Rehabilitation, Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak.
This is especially significant because black women are more likely to die of a heart attack than any other racial group and have higher rates of sudden cardiac death at a younger age, Dr. Franklin added.
"The challenge is to reduce barriers to exercise in black women and other "at risk" groups by increasing access to community-based exercise programs," Dr. Franklin said. "It is our hope and goal that many more women with disparities in cardiovascular health and traditional risk factors may realize the benefits regular exercise can provide."
Since the program inspired her to adopt regular exercise, Wanda Whiting, a 65-year-old study participant from Southfield, has successfully reduced her cholesterol. She also sleeps better and feels happier and more energetic.
"I come home from exercise and I have the energy to sweep and rake the leaves now," she said. "How in the world is this possible? I don't know but I love it. And the staff at the Beaumont Health and Wellness Center, they are like family. If I need help or instruction, they are always right there for me. They want me to be successful in staying healthy."
For Bowdon, helping to facilitate the WELL program has been inspiring and rewarding.
"I love seeing the excitement the women have about their results," Bowdon said. "Whether it's weight loss, or cholesterol reduction or sleeping better, it's amazing to see how proud the women are of themselves. They made the commitment, we just gave them the opportunity and guidance.
"We also received a lot of positive feedback on how exercise improves the mental outlook of our women – and that's huge," Bowdon continued. "Depression and anxiety can have major, negative impact on quality of life. This kind of research can improve the way our health care team guides and treats patients."
Bowdon is the study's principal investigator, with support from Dr. Franklin and cardiologist Pamela Marcovitz, M.D, director of the Ministrelli Women's Heart Center.
"I feel fortunate to be able to use these findings to advocate for our patients and help them beat the No. 1 killer of women," Bowdon added.