Light Activity Appears to Reduce Heart Disease of Older Women


Simple outdoor activities, including gardening, strolling through a park, and even folding your clothes might be just enough to significantly lower the risk of cardiovascular disease among women age 63 and older, says a recently released study in the journal JAMA Network Open.

The researchers noted that light physical activity appears to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease events such as stroke or heart failure by up to 22 percent, and the risk of heart attack or coronary death, by as much as 42 percent.

 Movement is Good for Your Cardiac Health

“When we tell people to move with heart, we mean it, and the supporting evidence keeps growing,” said David Goff, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Division of Cardiovascular Sciences at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) in a March 15, 2019 statement announcing the study’s findings. “This study suggests that for older women, any and all movement counts towards better cardiovascular health.” Goff added that the findings are consistent with the federal government’s most recent physical activity guidelines, which encourage replacing sedentary behavior with light physical activity as much as possible, says Goff.

In the five-year prospective study, NHLBI, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), followed more than 5,800 women ages 63 to 97 to find out if higher amounts of light physical activity were associated with reduced risks of coronary heart disease or cardiovascular disease.

The current NHLBI funded study involved a racially and ethnically diverse group of 5,861 women who were enrolled between 2012 and 2014. None had a history of myocardial infarction or stroke. The women were part of the NHLBI-funded Objective Physical Activity and Cardiovascular Health (OPAC), a sub-cohort of the Women’s Health Initiative.

Study participants were fitted with hip-mounted accelerometers, a device like a fitness tracker, that measured their movement 24 hours a day for seven consecutive days. The accelerometers were also calibrated by age to distinguish between light, and moderate-to-vigorous physical activity—a monitoring detail considered a major strength of the study. Researchers then followed the participants for almost five years, tracking cardiovascular disease events such as heart attacks and strokes.

Across all racial and ethnic groups, the link was clear, said study author Andrea LaCroix, Ph.D., chair of the Division of Epidemiology and director of the Women’s Health Center of Excellence at the University of California, San Diego.

Higher Physical Activity… the Lower the Risk

“The higher the amount of activity, the lower the risk,” LaCroix said. “And the risk reduction showed regardless of the women’s overall health status, functional ability or even age. In other words, the association with light physical activity was apparent regardless of these other factors,” she said.

According to NHLBI, heart disease is the leading cause of death among American women, and older women suffer profoundly: nearly 68 percent of those between 60 and 79 have it, as do older Americans overall. Of the estimated 85.6 million adults with at least one type of cardiovascular disease, more than half are age 60 or older.

LaCroix, who led the OPACH study, stated, “To our knowledge, this is the first study to investigate light physical activity measured by accelerometer in relation to fatal and non-fatal coronary heart disease in older women.”

Researchers say that previous studies have largely relied on self-reporting questionnaires, but most people do not think of folding clothes or walking to the mailbox as physical activity of any kind.

“Those questionnaires do not capture the low intensity movements accrued in activities of daily living,” adds LaCroix.  Even in her own OPACH findings, she noted, “there was no correlation between the amount of self-reported light physical activity and the amount we measured with the accelerometers. Without accurate reporting, we run the risk of discounting low intensity activity associated with important heart health benefits.”

Researchers need to conduct large randomized trials to determine if particular interventions might increase light physical activity in older women, and what effect that would have on cardiovascular disease rates. But the OPACH authors said they encourage this group to increase their light physical activity immediately.

NIH, the nation\’s medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes (including the NHLBI) and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NHLBI conducts research in heart, lung, and blood diseases and sleep disorders that advance scientific knowledge and improves the public’s health.  For more information, visit


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