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Physical Activity Patterns in Women

Barbara E. Ainsworth, PhD, MPH


Participation in regular physical activity provides numerous health benefits, including reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, colon cancer, obesity, and type 2 diabetes mellitus. Among women, regular physical activity also may reduce the risks for breast cancer and osteoporosis (1). The Healthy People 2010 goals for the United States are to increase the quality and years of healthy life and to eliminate health disparities among residents. Important components in reaching the broad goal are reducing the proportion of adults who engage in no leisure-time physical activity to 20% and increasing the proportion of adults who engage in at least 30 minutes per day of regular, moderate physical activity (2).

Women's Activity Status

Surveillance system studies show that few women participate in enough regular physical activity to receive the desirable health benefits: 43% of US adult women are classified as sedentary, and nearly 40% perform some activity at levels that are insufficient to gain health benefits. Only 15% of women report regular, sustained physical activity (five or more times per week for 30 or more minutes per day).

Physical activity patterns vary with age, education, income, and race. The proportion of women classified as sedentary and insufficiently active increases with age and is highest among women with the lowest education and income. Women of color report less leisure time physical activity than whites at all levels of social strata (1). These data suggest that most adult women in the United States may be at increased risks for chronic diseases and conditions associated with sedentary lifestyles and irregular physical activity patterns.

Recent studies show that women obtain most of their physical activity in nonexercise settings. In a study of physical activity among adults living in Baltimore, Young et al (3) noted that walking for transportation contributed significantly to daily physical activity among older, urban, African-American women. Ainsworth et al (4) identified housework, walking for exercise, child care, and occupational tasks as frequent activities reported by middle-aged African-American and American Indian women. In a study (5) of 2,636 adult women living in northern California, those of younger age, white race, and higher education were more likely to participate in sports and exercise activities than their older, less-educated, and minority counterparts. Women with the most social support for exercise were more likely to exercise regularly as compared with women receiving less support for exercise.

What Physicians Can Do

Physicians can play a vital role in encouraging female patients to engage in physical activity. Since many women do not report participating in sports and structured exercise, physicians can suggest that women adopt a more physically active lifestyle. A suitable goal would be to accumulate 30 minutes per day in brisk walking (6). Ways to achieve this could be to walk when possible rather than to drive, take walks with family, and find ways to build in more walking at work (eg, taking the stairs or taking short walk breaks).

Steps to Better Health

Although women have been shown to be less active than men, avenues exist for them to increase physical activity and reap the benefits of increased activity. Future research must focus on how to address multicultural differences in women's physical activity patterns and how to educate physicians on how best to motivate women and all patients of diverse backgrounds.


  1. US Department of Health and Human Services: Physical Activity and Health: A Report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta, US DHHS, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, 1996
  2. National Center for Health Statistics: Healthy People 2021 Review, 1997. Hyattsville, MD, US Public Health Service, 1997, pp 25-33
  3. Young DR, Miller KW, Wilder LB, et al: Physical activity patterns of urban African Americans. J Comm Health 192021;23(2):99-112
  4. Ainsworth BE, Irwin ML, Addy CL, et al: Moderate physical activity patterns of minority women: The Cross-Cultural Activity Participation Study. J Womens Health Gend Based Med 1999;8(6):805-813
  5. Sternfeld B, Ainsworth B, Quesenberry CP Jr: Physical activity patterns in a diverse population of women. Prev Med 1999;28(3):313-323
  6. Pate RR, Pratt M, Blair SN, et al: Physical activity and public health: a recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American College of Sports Medicine. JAMA 1995;273(5):402-407

Dr Ainsworth is an associate professor in the School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, South Carolina. Address correspondence to Barbara E. Ainsworth, PhD, MPH, School of Public Health, 211B Health Sciences Bldg, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC 29208; e-mail to [email protected].