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A formula for fitter women

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When doctors tell women they need to exercise - or exercise more, the next logical question is how much. A study that appeared last week in the New England Journal of Medicine may provide an answer.

Researchers led by Dr. Martha Gulati, assistant professor of medicine and preventive medicine at Northwestern University, developed a nomogram - a graphical calculating device - to figure out how fit women need to be for their age.

The value of such information, said Gulati, a cardiologist, is that it's based on a study of 5,000 women. Previously, any exercise advice doctors could provide was based on studies of men, she said.

Gulati and colleagues studied two groups of women at least 35 years old. The researchers found that the women who didn't reach 85 percent of their exercise capacity for their age were twice as likely to die within nine years from any cause as women who reached at least 85 percent of their exercise capacity for their age.

Then, the researchers developed a formula for calculating exercise capacity, measured in METS or metabolic equivalents, the amount of energy used when the body is at rest for a minute.

To get your ideal MET if you're a woman, that formula is 14.7 minus (0.13 times age). For example, if you're a 40-year old woman, your ideal MET is: 9.5 METs. You can achieve this by walking very fast or jogging at a brisk pace.

Here are other examples of activities and corresponding METs: mowing the lawn using the power mower: 4.5 METs; fast ballroom dancing or square dancing: 5.5 METs; swimming vigorously: 7 METs; playing squash: 12.1 METs. For a chart of more activities, go to the Harvard School of Public Health Web site at /nutritionsource/Exercise.htm

Using this information, doctors need to make specific exercise prescriptions a standard and regular part of women's annual physical exams just as they do a Pap smear and blood-pressure reading, Gulati said.

First, doctors need to ask women specific questions about physical activity they participate in every day: What kind? How often? For how long each time? What's the intensity level?

Then, using the formula, they can calculate age-appropriate exercise goals.

Women need to do their part in making sure they achieve those objectives. One hurdle is that unless women work out on exercise machines at the gym or at home, there isn't a handy way to measure METs. Many cardio exercise machines provide MET readouts for workouts.

If you don't use machines with MET readouts, use the physical activity chart showing corresponding METs in the aforementioned Web site.

Remember that if your doctor tells you that you need to increase your exercise intensity, comply, but do it gradually. This may entail weeks of slowly increasing speed, elevation or vigor of movements. You reduce the risk of injuries by taking this approach.


(c) 2005, The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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