Much of the literature concerning health benefits of physical activity is based on studies done primarily with men. Only recently have large-scale studies been initiated to investigate the effects of physical activity on women’s health and wellness. Chris Wells, the author of this paper, has been a pioneer in the study of physical activity for women. As you will see, much more research studying girls and women is necessary, but much has been accomplished in recent years. Diseases often thought to be “diseases of men” affect women as well as men.

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The evidence now suggests there are many health benefits for females who become regularly involved in physical activity. This article clearly shows that women, especially women of color, are more likely to be sedentary. Sedentary living increases risk of heart disease, various cancers, hypertension, stroke, and non-insulin diabetes. Controlling body fatness, another factor that is related to increased risk of chronic diseases, is also associated with inactivity. Continued efforts that focus on increasing physical activity among girls and women will reduce the risk of chronic diseases and death.

Healthy People 2000 sets forth the nation’s health goals for the next decade (Public Health Service, 1990). One of three primary goals is to reduce health disparities among Americans. This goal addresses reducing preventable disease and death from chronic diseases among racial and ethnic minorities in the United States. Also of importance is the disparity that exists among women as compared to men and among women of different racial and ethnic groups. It is significant that of eight priorities for health promotion and disease prevention, increased physical activity and fitness leads the list.

If we could increase physical activity and decrease obesity, the reasoning goes, much of the premature death, disease, and disability of high-risk populations could be virtually eliminated. But, what is the relationship between physical activity and health in women? Can a strong case be made for increasing physical activity in women as a primary preventive measure for major chronic disease? Will increasing physical activity reduce risk of disease and improve the health and wellness of women? Is physical activity as beneficial for women as research has shown it to be for men?

This paper will address this issue by presenting the growing body of evidence for the beneficial relationships between physical activity (including exercise and physical fitness) and the major chronic diseases in women, with special reference to race and ethnicity. It will be evident that American women need to make significant lifestyle modifications to alter their health risks, and that health and educational professionals must mount new efforts to develop culturally appropriate and sensitive health programs and educational materials. But, first, how physically active are American women?

The most current data on habitual physical activity are from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), a state-based, random-digit-dialed telephone survey that collects self-reported information from a representative sample of people 18 years of age and older. In 1992, BRFSS data were available from 55,506 women from 48 states and the District of Columbia (Prevalence of recommended levels . . . , 1995). These women were asked about the frequency, duration, and intensity of their leisuretime physical activity (LTPA) during the preceding month.

Respondents were categorized as having (1) no LTPA, (2) irregular activity that did not meet the recommended criteria for either vigorous physical activity (? 20 minutes per day of vigorous physical activity on ? 3 days per week) or the newer moderate activity recommendation (accumulation of ;gt;30 minutes per day of moderate activity on ? 5 days per week) (Summary Statement, CDC and ACSM, 1993). Only 27. 1 % of these women reported participation in recommended activity levels, and 30. 2% reported no leisuretime physical activity whatsoever.

The prevalence of no LTPA increased with age from 25. % among women 18 to 34 years to 42. 1 % among women over age 65. Racial/ethnic disparity was clearly evident. Black non-Hispanic women were less likely to be active (43. 6%) than Hispanic women (40. 2%) or white non-Hispanic women (27. 6%). Physical inactivity was inversely related to income. Women with ? $14,999 annual household income were most likely to have no LTPA (40. 2%), and women with.

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