Leisure Time Physical Activity in Australian Women: Relationship with Well Being and Symptoms

By Brown, Wendy J.; Mishra, Gita et al. | Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Leisure Time Physical Activity in Australian Women: Relationship with Well Being and Symptoms


Brown, Wendy J., Mishra, Gita, Lee, Christina, Bauman, Adrian, Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport


This paper explores the association between moderate levels of physical activity (PA) and health benefits in well being and symptoms such as tiredness, back pain, and constipation. Participants in the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women's Health, 14,502 young women (ages 18-23 years), 13,609 middle-age women (45-50 years), and 11,421 older women (ages 70-75 years), answered questions about vigorous and less vigorous exercise (used to determine a physical activity score), well being (SF-36), symptoms, and medical conditions. There were significant associations between the PA score and SF-36 in each cohort. Odds ratios (OR) for a range of symptoms and conditions were lower for women who reported low to moderate activity than for sedentary women, for example, for young women or for constipation = 0.76 (CI, 0.65-0.89), for middle-age women or for tiredness = 0.70 (0.63-0.78). There was no threshold of PA at which health benefits increased significantly. Although cross-sectional, the findings suggest that low-t o-moderate levels of exercise are associated with a range of health benefits for women of all ages. These preliminary findings will be followed up during the longitudinal study.

Key words: exercise, SF-36, cohort study, morbidity

The public health burden of sedentary living is well established. Large-scale epidemiological studies have demonstrated beneficial effects of physical activity in terms of all-cause mortality, coronary heart disease, and diabetes (Berlin & Colditz, 1990; Powell & Blair, 1994). While most of the early evidence for these beneficial effects came from studies involving men, more recent findings, such as those from the Iowa cohort study, suggest a graded inverse relationship between physical activity and all-cause mortality in women (Blair, Kohl & Barlow, 1993; Kushi et al., 1997).

There is also evidence to suggest that physical activity has benefits for women in terms of blood pressure (Reavan, Barrett-Connor, & Edelstein, 1991), blood lipids (Duncan, Gordon, & Scott, 1991), breast and colon cancer (Gammon, John, & Britton, 1998; Thune, Brenn, Lund, & Goard, 1997), osteoporosis and hip fracture (Berard, Bravo, & Gauthier, 1997; Kelly, 1998; SnowHarter & Marcus, 1991), and for alleviating premenstrual syndrome, dysmenorrhoea, and menopause-related symptoms (Clapp & Little, 1995). The demonstrated relationship between activity and psychological well being, for example, Brown (1990); Glenister (1996), is also particularly important for women, because depression and psychological distress are more commonly reported by women than men (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1996).

Epidemiological studies of physical activity at community levels are complicated by issues relating to the amount of activity required to obtain cardiovascular and other health-related benefits and to issues relating to measurement of activity (Lee, 1993). Until recently, most research on health-related physical activity was based on the assumption that there was a threshold of exercise intensity, below which there were few health-related benefits. The American College of Sports Medicine (1978) definition set this intensity threshold at a high level (75-85% of maximum heart rate) but with relatively low frequency and duration (at least 3 times per week, with a minimum duration of 20 min). More recent recommendations from the American College of Sports Medicine, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the U.S. Surgeon General (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1996) suggest that significant health benefits will accrue from more moderate intensity exercise, equivalent to a brisk wa lk for at least 30 min on most days of the week (Pate et al., 1995; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1996).

The baseline surveys for the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women's Health (now known as the Women's Health Australia project) presented an opportunity to explore the relationships between physical activity and a number of indexes of health and well being in three large cohorts of Australian women. …

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