Though the benefits of exercise abound, research presented today at the American Stroke Association’s International Stroke Conference 2014 shows that moderate exercise could cut stroke risk in women by 20% and offset the increased risk in women taking postmenopausal hormone therapy.

And the good news is that women can reduce their stroke risk by briskly walking, conferring the same benefits as if they were to run. The researchers, led by Prof. Sophia Wang of the Beckman Research Institute in California, say this decreased risk from moderate exercise is just as strong as that of strenuous exercise.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 795,000 people in the US have a stroke each year, killing nearly 130,000 individuals and costing the US $38.6 billion.

To conduct their study into stroke risks, the investigators analyzed data from the California Teachers Study, which consisted of over 130,000 women, to see how many experienced a stroke between 1996 and 2010.

The women who reported engaging in moderate physical activity in the 3 years before enrollment in the study were 20% less likely to suffer a stroke, compared with women who reported no activity.

Prof. Wang says she was surprised that the link to reduced stroke risk was strongest with moderate physical activity.

“More strenuous activity such as running didn’t further reduce women’s stroke risk,” she adds. “Moderate activity, such as brisk walking appeared to be ideal in this scenario.”

The team also found that postmenopausal women taking menopausal hormones were able to slightly offset their increased risk of stroke with moderate exercise.

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No boot camp necessary: research shows regularly going on brisk walks is enough to lower stroke risk in women by 20%.

Though this group of women had more than a 30% increased risk of stroke, compared with women who had never used hormone therapy, the researchers found that after they stopped taking hormones, their risk decreased.

“The effects of physical activity and hormone therapy appear immediate and the benefits of physical activity are consistent in premenopausal and postmenopausal women,” Prof. Wang says.

However, she adds that women do not need to attend boot camp. “The types of activities we’re talking about are accessible to most of the population,” she says.

Activities like power walking and tennis, the team note, do not require access to gyms.

Another finding from the study is that diabetic women have an increased stroke risk, but the researchers add that this group of women were also overweight. Prof. Wang says:

Physical activity, obesity and diabetes are all highly correlated with one another. Stroke prevention among diabetics is thus a particularly important scientific question to address.”

The team adds that further research into how much moderate exercise helps diabetic women avoid a stroke is needed.

One study weakness is that 87% of the women were white, but Prof. Wang hypothesizes the results could also apply to women of other ethnic groups since the link to stroke risk reduction was so strong.

The American Stroke Association has put together an easy way to determine if you are having a stroke, known as FAST:

  • F – Face Drooping: when one side of the face droops or is numb
  • A – Arm Weakness: when one arm is weak or numb, or drifts downward when raised
  • S – Speech Difficulty: when speech is slurred. Try repeating a simple sentence like “The sky is blue.” Check to see if the sentence is being repeated correctly
  • T – Time to call 911: If any of these symptoms are present, even if they go away, the organization advises calling 911 immediately.

Other symptoms include sudden confusion, trouble seeing, dizziness or loss of balance, and sudden severe headache with no known cause.