A team at the University of Queensland tracked the health of more than 32,000 participants in the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health, which for 20 years has been tracking the long-term health of women born in the 1920s, 1940s and 1970s.
They found smoking had the greatest impact on heart disease risk for women aged 22 to 27, but after the age of 30 smoking rates began to drop off as more women gave up smoking. Following this, researchers found a widespread lack of exercise became the dominant influence on heart disease risk.
The researchers said the dangers of an inactive lifestyle were being underestimated and deserved to be a much higher public health priority. If all over-30s followed the recommended activity guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise over a week, nearly 3,000 lives could be saved each year in Australia alone. More needs to be done to warn women of inactivity as it outweighs other risk factors such as obesity, smoking and high blood pressure, they concluded.
Reporting in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, the researchers said continuing efforts to stop smoking were warranted but a greater effort was needed to promote exercise and keep middle-aged women active through to old age. Adults aged 19-64 years are recommended to do 150 minutes of weekly physical activity, or 30 minutes over five days.
Commenting on the University of Queensland study, Thembi Nkala, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation, said physical inactivity was a known major risk factor for heart disease.
“Interestingly, this study shows its dominant influence on heart disease amongst women, and suggests a greater need to promote regular physical activity amongst this group,” she said. “It’s important to remember that heart disease is linked to other factors such as smoking, obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. It’s essential to manage these too, as the more risks you have, the greater your chance of heart disease.”
The study found that inactivity remained the greatest population risk factor for heart disease among women all the way into their late 80s.
Globally four main risk factors account for more than half of all cases of heart disease – smoking, being overweight or obese, high blood pressure and inactivity. Public health authorities around the world have become increasingly concerned that the dangers of physical inactivity are not as well-known and understood by the general public as the health issues surrounding smoking, being overweight and high blood pressure.
Just last month, the UK government was warned in a report compiled by MPs that the country is less physically active than at any time in all human history. The report called for the establishment of an independent body dedicated to improving physical activity, and for transport funding to be reallocated to create more cycle routes and footpaths.