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Women’s health expert: When it comes to prevention, diet and exercise are key

This Monday was the sixth annual Stanford Women's Health Forum, hosted by Stanford's Women and Sex Differences in Medicine center (WSDM), and I was happy to have been present for the lively talks. The forum focused on prevention, and the keynote, delivered by Marcia Stefanick, PhD, professor of obstetrics and gynecology and WSDM director, highlighted physical activity and weight management as the key preventative actions for women to take.

High blood pressure remains the number one preventable cause of death in women, with physical inactivity and high BMI, both of which contribute to high blood pressure, in third and fourth place. (For the curious readers, smoking comes in second.) Because prevention requires changes in behavior, behavior was what Stefanick focused on. Rather than reinforcing many women's feelings of embarrassment about their weight, she said, providers should help women feel that they can do something about it.

Healthier behaviors must include diet and exercise. Both fatness and low fitness cause higher mortality; realistic expectations about how to change both should factor into care. Stefanick emphasized that weight loss should be slow: 10 percent of one's body weight baseline over six months, or one pound per week for moderately overweight people, and no more than two pounds per week. And we need to stop being so sedentary, Stefanick exclaimed. The classic principles of exercise apply - gradually increase the frequency, intensity, and/or duration of exertion. Adults should be getting at least two and a half hours of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity per week, in addition to doing muscle-strengthening activities at least twice a week, the conference flyer read.

However, citing the problems of eating disorders and older women losing weight without trying, Stefanick stressed that "weight management is a spectrum; there are extremes at both ends." In describing variations on mesomorphic, endomorphic, and ectomorphic body types, she stated that "we don't know what the optimal body type is." It probably varies for each person.

Something I found particularly interesting was Stefanick's description of gynoid vs android fat distribution patterns (which I learned as "pear" and "apple" body shapes, respectively). Gynoid distribution around the hips, thighs, and butt is more common in women, and includes more subcutaneous fat, while in android distribution, which is more common in men, fat collects around the belly and chest and is actually dispersed among the organs. Such intra-abdominal fat is more damaging to health, as it affects the liver and lipid profile and can cause heart disease, but it's also much easier to get rid of through exercise (which is one reason men overall have less trouble losing weight than women).

In the spirit of more personalized care, Stefanick also discussed how recommended weight changes during pregnancy should vary according to the person's prenatal BMI. Someone underweight could gain up to 40 pounds and be healthy, she pointed out, while obese people might actually lose weight during pregnancy for optimal mother-baby health.

Previously: Why it's critical to study the impact of gender differences on diseases and treatmentsWhen it comes to weight loss, maintaining a diet is more important than diet typeApple- or pear-shaped: Which is better for cancer prevention?A call to advance research on women's health issues and To meet weight loss goals, start exercise and healthy eating programs at the same time
Photo by Mikaku

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