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Tennis is an activity women can do to help lower heart failure risk. Thomas Barwick/Getty Images
  • Researchers report that regular physical activity is associated with lower rates of heart failure in women 63 to 99 years of age.
  • The researchers found that 3,600 steps per day was a reasonable target for older women.
  • They suggest women need to do twice the time of light to moderate activity to receive the same health benefits that they get from vigorous activity.

Physical activity in older women, including light activity, is associated with lower heart failure rates than those with a sedentary lifestyle.

That’s according to a new study published in the journal JAMA Cardiology.

Researchers analyzed the activity data of 5,951 women, ages 63 to 99, who wore activity trackers for 24 hours a day for seven days, except when in water. The participants did not have known heart failure.

Scientists followed the women for an average of 7.5 years. During this time, there were 407 cases of heart failure.

Some results of the study include:

  • The scientists consistently observed lower risks of heart failure in women who participated in daily physical activity.
  • Double the time spent on light to moderate resulted in similar health benefits to intense physical activity.
  • 3,600 steps per day was associated with a 26% lower risk of heart failure.

The researchers said that 30 minutes of exercise and 3,600 steps daily are reasonable targets for women 63 to 99 and can help lower the risk of heart failure.

They noted that even as few as 2,500 daily steps could be beneficial.

The researchers suggested that medical professionals encourage older adults to sit less and be more active while completing daily activities.

“This study showed that the benefit in terms of preventing heart failure can be accrued even with a lower amount of activity,” said Dr. Ajay Vallakati, a specialist in advanced heart failure at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center who was not involved in the study. “The risk of developing heart failure was highest in women who walked less than 2,000 steps per day. The risk of developing heart failure goes down with women who walk more than 2,500 steps per day. Similar benefits can be seen with light physical activity (for twice the amount of time) or moderate to vigorous physical activity. This contrasts with current guidelines that place more emphasis on moderate to vigorous physical activity. This study suggested that light physical activity can also offer the same degree of benefit as moderate to severe physical activity.”

“I encourage patients in this age group to exercise as much as they can,” Vallakati told Medical News Today. “If all women in this age group walked 2,500 steps a day, it could reduce the risk of heart failure by 25%.”

Dr. Sameer Amin, a cardiologist and the chief medical officer for L.A. Health Plan in California who was not involved in the study, said the medical community should encourage people to be active.

“We have known for a long time that increased physical activity leads to better cardiovascular health. This study furthers our understanding of the link between exercise and the risk of heart failure,” Amin told Medical News Today.

“As a medical community, we should be encouraging people to become and stay active,” he added. “The more people get moving the better their health will be. People often believe that they have to exercise strenuously to make a dent in their cardiovascular risk. The truth is that anything is better than nothing, building habits are better than isolated activity, and sedentary behavior leads to worse health outcomes.”

“I encourage people to focus less on the number of steps that they take and more on building habits around healthy daily activity,” Amin noted. “If counting steps helps motivate someone to build those habits, I am all for it.”

For years, the focus was on 10,000 steps per day, but that amount of walking can be daunting for some people.

“I think women get discouraged trying to stay active for a long enough time or trying to get to 10,000 steps,” said Dr. Jennifer Wong, a cardiologist and medical director of non-invasive cardiology at MemorialCare Heart and Vascular Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in California who was not involved in the new research. “I like this study because it backs up what I tell my patients and reiterates the risk of heart failure in women.”

“Any steps are better than none,” Wong told Medical News Today. “Start small and work up to 2,000 steps. Once you reach that goal, reach for 3,600, then 5,000. You should start feeling better as you become active.”

Heart failure is when your heart cannot pump enough blood to support other organs.

Heart failure and heart attack are not the same thing. A heart attack is when blood flow is partially or entirely cut off to a part of the heart.

Heart failure can be acute, where it develops suddenly, or chronic, where it slowly worsens over time. It is typically caused by another condition, such as coronary heart disease, heart inflammation, high blood pressure, or cardiomyopathy, according to the National Institutes of Health.

There is no cure for heart failure. However, there are ways to manage the condition.

Lifestyle changes, such as daily physical activity, not smoking, limiting alcohol consumption, reducing sodium intake, managing stress, getting enough sleep, and maintaining a healthy weight can reduce you manage heart failure.

Implantable devices, such as a pacemaker or cardioverter defibrillator, can help your heart beat regularly.

Some medications might help:

  • Diuretics and aldosterone antagonists remove excess sodium and fluid from your body, decreasing the blood your heart needs to pump.
  • ACE inhibitors and angiotensin receptor blockers relax your blood vessels, making it easier for your heart to pump blood.
  • Beta-blockers slow your heart rate to make it easier for your heart to pump blood and can prevent long-term heart failure from getting worse.
  • Digoxin increases your heartbeat’s strength, allowing it to pump more blood. This drug is used for serious heart failure or when other therapies do not work.