- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 3, 2005

NEW YORK (AP) — For the first time, researchers have established how much exercise women should be able to do for their age and found that their capacity is slightly lower than men’s.

Their capacity also declines faster than men’s as they grow older.

Until now, the only guidelines available were based on men, and it wasn’t certain whether they applied to women as well. Researchers used the results of 5,721 exercise stress tests on women older than 35 to figure out what should be considered normal for them compared with the established fitness levels for men.

“In general, women’s fitness levels seem to be lower regardless of her age than for men,” said Dr. Martha Gulati, a Chicago cardiologist who led the study.

Although fitness declines with age for everyone, the research showed the difference between men and women becomes more pronounced with age, she said. Women lose about 1 percent of their exercise capacity per year, the study found.

“Given that we live longer, it just emphasizes the importance of fitness for women,” said Dr. Gulati, who along with a fellow researcher has a patent pending for the fitness guidelines.

Their findings are reported in today’s New England Journal of Medicine.

Treadmill stress tests routinely are used to diagnose heart disease, often after someone complains of symptoms such as chest pain or shortness of breath.

The 5,721 Chicago-area women who took the treadmill test in 1992, however, did not have any symptoms or history of heart problems. They were given a standard stress test with the speed and incline of the treadmill increased every three minutes until they became tired or had other problems.

Their exercise capacity was estimated in metabolic equivalents (METs), based on the speed and grade of the treadmill. One MET is the amount of energy or oxygen used to sit quietly for a minute. Moderate walking burns 3 to 6 METs per minute; running consumes more than 6 METs.

Using data from the volunteers, the researchers came up with a formula to determine the normal fitness level for women. A 50-year-old woman, for example, should be able to reach 8.2 METs. For a 50-year-old man, the predicted exercise capacity is 9.2 METs, based on a different equation.

Although stress tests are relatively inexpensive, Dr. Gulati said, it is not necessary to have one to find out which MET level you are achieving. Exercise machines at health clubs do the calculation automatically.

“All of them spit out how many METs you’re doing depending on how hard you’re working,” she said. “A lot of people don’t know what it means.”

Dr. Gerald Fletcher, a cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., and a spokesman for the American Heart Association, said the guidelines for women will help doctors encourage patients with poor fitness levels to get more exercise to reach their expected MET levels.

“Overall, I think this is a very good guideline to be done carefully in people who are not at high risk,” he said.

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