You’d have to be living under a rock to not know that regular exercise is beneficial to general health and that certain health issues can be improved or maintained through exercising on a daily basis. The “eat less, move more” mantra may sound simple, but it’s the basis for optimum health and normal weight levels, and it’s easy to live with. That’s the key: lifestyle. Diets don’t work, at least not long term; a lifestyle shift is necessary to make a permanent difference in everything from weight to cholesterol levels to disease prevention. The balance is clear: eat well (mostly whole foods) and get regular exercise, mostly prescribed as aerobic plus resistance training (or weights, to tone muscle and add strength). No matter your age or gender, cardio workouts will be an essential part of the formula.
The real question, then, is what works better for women than men in terms of cardio-vascular (heart and blood, in lay terms) workouts? The answer, at this point, isn’t clear; there are scant studies devoted exclusively to the subject of suitable cardio workouts for women versus the same for men in relation to benefits in lowering LDL cholesterol. Since research is very scarce, and most studies treat the genders equally, the slant towards cardio workouts for women is based on the preferences and biases of females.
Women, generally, have to balance a litany of things, personal and professional, during the course of any given day. For a woman, then, a cardio workout has to fit into her tight daily schedule, not cost a lot of money (there are more fun things to spend disposable income on!), and not be inconvenient in terms of ready access. In short, cardio workouts for women have to fit into her lifestyle seamlessly.
Okay, so What’s Involved in this “Cardio Workout” Thing?
There are basically three methods of getting a cardio workout:
- Get outdoors and get your fanny moving. This means walking (power-walking is better for a cardio workout), jogging, running, riding a bicycle, and swimming. Most women in North America live in a Continental climate with four seasons, one of which is winter, so some of these activities may not be doable in a New England snowstorm. Which leads us to option number two…
- Go to a gym, health and fitness club or dance club. Gyms put indoors what you can do outdoors in the good weather. Stationary bike machines replace bicycles, stair-climbers replace hills, and treadmills replace walking trails. Additionally, yoga is normally practiced indoors, and so is dancing. An hour of tango, if enjoyed with your spouse, is romantic, fun, elegant, aerobic, burns calories, and helps you perfect your rhythm. Badminton (far more than tennis), racquetball and squash are fantastic cardio workouts!
- Workout at home. Housework can be a form of cardio workout if you take it on with vigor. Play some rock music and dance as you vacuum! If you have a set of stairs, grab the baby or the cat and go up and down the stairs 50 times and give them your attention simultaneously. Do outdoor chores with equal vivacity and you’ll discover how much you enjoy this nice cardio workout.
How Should Women Prepare for a Cardio Workout?
Women have a few individual health care matters that do not affect men in terms of a cardio workout: we menstruate, and that can influence how much of a workout we feel like taking on; we can be pregnant, affecting (depending on what stage of pregnancy) the extent and duration of our workout; we are generally smaller than men, and have (in most cases) less stamina. All of these factors, plus age, bone density and body weight come into play. In preparing for a cardio workout, women should take into account the aforementioned influences and then do the following things:
- nourish yourself properly; you can actually burn too many calories if your cardio workout spends more than you ingest
- build up to that hour or half hour a day by starting with perhaps 15 minutes of a cardio workout and increasing that by 5 minutes per day
- hydrate, hydrate, hydrate
- monitor your blood pressure; it will go up when your heart rate is increased, but you need to be sure it levels offs reasonably afterward
- do some stretching, focusing on the muscles you’ll be using in your workout, before actually starting the routine
- if you’re doing your workout outdoors, be sure to use sunscreen; if it’s winter and you’re jogging, get spike attachments for your running shoes
- mentally prepare yourself for what-ifs, like traffic, for example, when you’ll be jogging along a highway
How Can Busy Women Stay Motivated?
Set realistic goals for your workout. First, establish where you’re at now. What are your current cholesterol levels? Your weight? Your muscle tone? Your blood pressure? Your general health? Then set a reasonable goal for the frequency and length of your cardio workout. Figure out, too, how to monitor its effects. You can easily buy a reliable model of blood pressure monitor at the drug store, but cholesterol levels require a blood test. How long will you undertake your cardio workout before you visit your doctor to help you ascertain the results? Most doctors recommend 3 months.
Keep those goals front of mind as you begin, and never forget them as you make progress. If a sick baby or a financial blip enters the picture and forces you to put your cardio workout on hold, don’t despair; deal with the problem at hand and then get back to your cardio workout. Women are too good at trying to be all things to all people, and it often backfires; set your priorities, sort out issues to clear your slate and your mind, and then get back at your workout.
Staying motivated is easier than most women think. If part of your routine involves meeting with gal pals every week for a cup of coffee, suggest you get together for a long, brisk walk (coffee in hand if you wish!) or a yoga class instead. Your favorite music will always be a motivator, so plug in that iPod and move to the beat. Try to make your cardio workout even nicer by making love with the one you love! Pick a fun sport that will also make you laugh (very healthy!), like badminton or squash, and play it a few times a week with a group of friends or your entire family. Pick a friend or your spouse with the same goals and do your cardio workout together; compare goals and achievements (a little competition is a great motivator!).
Find challenges to inspire you and you’ll stay motivated. If your cardio workout of choice is riding a bicycle, then seek out hills and ride up them, alternating sitting and standing as you climb. If you’re playing squash, get involved in a tournament and aim one level above that where you play. Just be sure to workout for a minimum of 30 minutes a day at least 5 days a week.
Here’s a tip: If your cardio workout involves weight loss, not just lowering cholesterol levels, then don’t weigh yourself every day. Do it once a week, maximum. You’ll see progress more profoundly, and if you magically gain a pound on one particular day, you won’t know and it can’t de-motivate you.
Does Cardio Workout Lower LDL Cholesterol in Women?
Again, the bulk of research on this subject does not differentiate between men and women. What is clear about the correlation between a cardio workout and lowering bad cholesterol is this:
- There are no side-effects like those from prescription drugs when you use exercise to help combat high cholesterol. If you prepare properly and slowly work your way up to an optimum workout plan, your odds of injury are minimal.
- Avoid products for sale that offer ludicrous claims and guarantees. Watch out especially for costly videos that demonstrate workouts that will “guarantee” lower cholesterol levels. These companies are in business to make money and they don’t care about your cholesterol issues.
- Lowering cholesterol levels without the aid of a medication involves diet and exercise, in tandem.
Clinical research on the effect of cardio workouts for women on cholesterol levels have had mixed results, most of which have concluded that that dynamic effect is not significant in terms of direct impact. What this means is the studies cannot prove that, for example one hour of cardio workout for women equals an 8% reduction in LDL cholesterol. The results vary far more than that and appear to be dependent upon several factors.
What is fairly unanimous among the studies performed is that prolonged aerobic exercise (including cardio workouts) is key to getting results. That’s why women, when something steers them off their cardio workout course, need to get back at it as soon as they manage what redirected them.
A study undertaken in 2001 at the Hartford Hospital in Connecticut found a strong link between exercise and lowering LDL cholesterol. It remains a definitive study and is worth reading; visit www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11427768 for the full story, but in a nutshell, tests found that there were a significant group of cholesterol- and blood pressure-related benefits, especially in prolonged exercise sessions. This paragraph, taken from the study as reported in the journal of “Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise” sums it up:
“CONCLUSIONS: Exercise has definite acute effects on blood lipids, blood pressure, and glucose homeostasis. Exercise also has acute effects on other factors related to atherosclerosis such as immunological function, vascular reactivity, and hemostasis. Considerable additional research is required to define the threshold of exercise required to produce these putatively beneficial effects.”
The bottom line is that more study is needed, and that study needs to include differences between men and women regarding cardio workouts that help directly to lower LDL cholesterol levels. In the meantime, exercise is a benefit to health for one and all, so walk, jog, dance, make love and then swim; your body and mind will be all the better for it.