Women's Exercise Passes Through Phases

Ruzanna Harutyunyan's picture

Milestones such as marriage and motherhood — or retirement and widowhood — can affect the amount of exercise women get, according to a large new study from Australia.

Not surprisingly, decreases in physical activity were associated with marriage and childbirth in young women and declining health in older women. However, the study also found that women who retired or who became widows tended to increase their physical activity level.

Altogether, more than 40,000 women responded to the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health, with participants answering survey items on two occasions three years apart. The researchers looked at three life phases: young womanhood, middle age and older age.

About a third of the younger (ages 18 to 23) and middle-aged (45 to 50) women and a quarter of the older women (70 to 75) were active at both survey times.


“By recognizing the life events that are associated with decreases in activity, women could be alerted to the risk,” said lead author Wendy Brown, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Queensland. “For example, if you are an older woman with heart disease or diabetes, it is vitally important to stay active, as physical activity can help to manage these conditions.”

The study appears in the latest issue of the Annals of Behavioral Medicine. For younger women, fitting exercise into expanding family obligations can seem overwhelming.

“Situations like marriage and children change the amount of expendable time during the day,” said Amy Eyler, Ph.D., a professor of community health at St. Louis University. “It may vary culturally, but having children almost always decreases the feeling of self-priority for women.”

“Being widowed was associated with increasing physical activity in the mid-age women,” Brown said. “This may reflect the fact that women use physical activity to cope with this event — or perhaps that they have more time to be active. However, young women who experienced harassment at work tended to increase their physical activity; it may be it was used as a way of coping with the stress of such events.”

Compared to the Australian study, in which less than 30 percent of women were active, physical activity rates are higher in the United States. “Overall 46.7 percent of women reported regular levels of activity to the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System,” a large U.S. survey, Eyler said. “Figuring out ways to maintain regular physical activity throughout the lifecycle is important. Even a walk around the block with a good friend can do wonders for both mental and physical health.”