If winter weather is tempting you to retreat to the couch, consider this incentive to get out and move around: Recent research shows that exercise may have significant health benefits for women in particular.
According to a study published in the Journal of Lipid Research, cardiovascular exercise may yield an even bigger heart-health payoff for women than for men. In a long-term study of both genders, people who amped up their exercise by at least an hour a week lowered triglycerides and raised HDL (or "good") cholesterol, as expected.
But for women, working out also seemed to lower levels of LDL, or "bad," cholesterol, thereby cutting the risk of heart disease. African American women and postmenopausal women showed particularly dramatic results, but the trend held for women across the board.
It will take additional research to find out why the gender difference exists; the going hypothesis is that "it's related to hormone levels," notes study author Keri Monda, Ph.D., research assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Other research shows that exercise can help women stave off breast cancer. One recent study found that among postmenopausal women -- those most likely to develop breast cancer -- the more intense the exercise, the better: Over the course of a decade, those who were moderately to vigorously active for more than seven hours a week were significantly less likely to develop breast cancer than women who were sedentary.
Another 2009 study, published in the International Journal of Cancer, showed that among women who developed breast cancer, those who exercised for at least four hours weekly had a 44 percent lower risk of dying from the disease than those who were the least active.
How to Get Started
To start or stick to a workout routine, planning is key: Studies show that successful exercisers plot exactly how they're going to work fitness into their week.
Think about how you can make exercise a part of your current routine -- a speed walk during your lunch hour, an aerobics or dance class on your way home from work, a weekend snowshoeing excursion with your family.
"Take your fitness schedule seriously, but be careful about being overly ambitious," advises fitness trainer Ellen Barrett. "People think 6 a.m. is the only free time they can exercise, but that is usually a sure flop! By day two, they start hitting the snooze button."