Focusing on the Big Three: Women’s Health and Fitness

Anna Hilton, PA

I’m here on a crusade to reduce the burden of cardiovascular disease with a focus today on half the population. Did you know that cardiovascular disease is the number one killer of women in the USA? Although classically thought of as a man’s disease, it unfortunately takes its toll on us more estrogen laden humans too.

It is actually estrogen that is thought to have some heart protective effects in younger women, but this effect fades away after menopause. Perhaps this is where the rumor that heart disease is more common in men started. This is only true in early life, after menopause heart disease rears its ugly head in women just as often as in men. It also, more frequently, does so with non-textbook symptoms. Women who are having heart attacks are less likely to report chest discomfort. Many medical studies were historically dominated by male research subjects, then those standards were applied to male and female patients alike. I feel it is no surprise to most of you reading this to find out women turn out not to be just like men. Unfortunately, the result of this is that coronary artery disease diagnosis is more likely to be delayed in women and often they have a higher complication rate. There is good news though. There are efforts now nationally to collect more female specific data with the aim to provide earlier and better care.

So what can you do as a woman or someone with women in your life? Prevention! It is by far the best medicine. To pack the biggest punch, focus efforts on the big three: a healthy diet, regular cardiovascular exercise and smoking cessation.

Food is something we all consume, but it is not all created equal. Diet is a complex thing to change with many factors, it is not always easy to know where to start. The first step in improving diet is being aware of what you eat, mindful of the total calories eaten each day and how that number compares to calories you burn with your lifestyle. Overall, the majority of your calories should come from vegetables and lean proteins, like chicken, fish or plant based proteins. Carbohydrates should be a smaller share. If you’re looking for specific diets to follow, check out the evidence based DASH or Mediterranean diets.

As you snack on those green beans, the next step is to get moving. The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes a week of at least moderate activity. There is even more benefit with over 300 minutes a week. Not quite there yet? Start somewhere! Whether it’s parking further away from the building in the parking lot or dusting off the bike in the garage to go on occasional leisurely bike rides. It all counts and makes a difference in your heart health in the long run.

If you currently smoke, how much do you think quitting smoking will benefit your heart health? The world health organization reports that after one year your risk of coronary heart disease is about half of that of a smoker’s and by 15 years, that risk is now that of a non-smokers. If you’ve already had a heart attack, quitting helps reduce the risk of another heart attack by 50%. While tough to quit, the fight is worthwhile because these are just talking about the heart benefits, you’re lungs and the rest of your body will thank you too.

So if you are a woman or you know a woman, get out there and get moving to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease. Cheers to a long happy and heart healthy life. 

Do you wonder where you can get more information? It’s always a good idea to speak with your health care provider before starting an exercise program. Also, reach out to your provider for more information about a heart healthy diet and help with going smoke free. Whether they are a PA, NP, MD or DO, all these acronyms will be excited to help you work on prevention.


There are many reliable online resources, here are just a few of my favorites:

American Heart Association

American Heart Association Go Red For Women Campaign

Center for Disease Control

Harvard Health Publishing

World Health Organization fact sheet about quitting smoking