Physical activity and coronary heart disease in women: is "no pain, no gain" passé?

JAMA. 2001 Mar 21;285(11):1447-54. doi: 10.1001/jama.285.11.1447.


Context: Physically active women have lower coronary heart disease (CHD) rates than inactive women. However, whether the association differs by intensity of activity or in women at high risk for CHD is unclear.

Objective: To examine the relation between physical activity, specifically investigating walking (a light-to-moderate activity depending on pace), and CHD among women, including those at high risk for CHD.

Design, setting, and participants: Cohort study of 39 372 healthy female health professionals aged 45 years or older, enrolled throughout the United States between September 1992 and May 1995, with follow-up to March 1999. Recreational activities, including walking and stair climbing, were reported at study entry.

Main outcome measure: Correlation of CHD with energy expended on all activities, vigorous activities, and walking.

Results: A total of 244 cases of CHD occurred. Adjusting for potential confounders, the relative risks (RRs) of CHD for less than 200, 200-599, 600-1499, and 1500 or more kcal/wk expended on all activities were 1.00 (referent), 0.79 (95% confidence interval [CI], 0.56-1.12), 0.55 (95% CI, 0.37-0.82), and 0.75 (95% CI, 0.50-1.12), respectively (P for linear trend =.03). Vigorous activities were associated with lower risk (RR, 0.63; 95% CI, 0.38-1.04 comparing highest and lowest categories). Walking also predicted lower risk among women without vigorous activities. Among these women, the multivariate RRs for walking 1 to 59 min/wk, 1.0 to 1.5 h/wk, and 2 or more h/wk, compared with no regular walking, were 0.86 (95% CI, 0.57-1.29), 0.49 (95% CI, 0.28-0.86), and 0.48 (95% CI, 0.29-0.78), respectively. For walking paces of less than 3.2 km/h (2.0 mph), 3.2 to 4.7 km/h (2.0-2.9 mph), and 4.8 km/h (3.0 mph) or more, compared with no regular walking, RRs were 0.56 (95% CI, 0.32-0.97), 0.71 (95% CI, 0.47-1.05), and 0.52 (95% CI, 0.30-0.90), respectively. When analyzed simultaneously, time spent walking (P for linear trend =.01) but not walking pace (P for linear trend =.55) predicted lower risk. The inverse association between physical activity and CHD risk did not differ by weight or cholesterol levels (P for interaction =.95 and.71, respectively), but there were significant interactions by smoking and hypertension status. Physical activity was inversely related to risk in current smokers but not hypertensive women (P for interaction =.01 and.001, respectively).

Conclusions: These data indicate that even light-to-moderate activity is associated with lower CHD rates in women. At least 1 hour of walking per week predicted lower risk. The inverse association with physical activity was also present in women at high risk for CHD, including those who were overweight, had increased cholesterol levels, or were smokers.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Cohort Studies
  • Coronary Disease / epidemiology*
  • Energy Metabolism
  • Exercise*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Middle Aged
  • Multivariate Analysis
  • Proportional Hazards Models
  • Risk Factors
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Walking