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Health Information Teaming Up with Women to Prevent Heart Disease and Diabetes

Staying physically active can be challenging — especially for busy women on the go. Between juggling family, work and home, there isn't much time left for regular trips to the gym. But according to preventive medicine specialists at Rush University Medical Center, physical activity is absolutely crucial for women, especially as they approach menopause, because it helps prevent the buildup of visceral fat.

Visceral fat, or "belly fat," is the fat that surrounds the internal organs at the waistline. It is the most toxic type of fat and has been shown to raise a woman's risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

A landmark study from August 2009, conducted by researchers at Rush, revealed a link between the changing hormonal balance associated with the menopausal transition and the accumulation of visceral fat. "We now know that visceral fat develops in women during the menopausal transition, with the change in the hormonal balance — specifically, the decrease of estrogen and the increase in active testosterone," says Lynda Powell, PhD, Chairperson of Preventive Medicine at Rush, who was involved in the study along with Rush researchers Imke Janssen, PhD, Rasa Kazlauskaite, MD, and Sheila Dugan, MD.

"We can't change the hormone balance that comes with the menopause," Powell adds. "But we can change other factors such as physical activity and management of stress, both of which have proven to be effective ways to reduce visceral fat." In fact, a study led by Dugan and published in 2009 revealed that higher levels of physical activity were associated with lower levels of visceral fat in both white and black women.

Working Together to Fight Heart Disease
That's why Powell and her colleagues are currently working to develop a novel program for women who are about to undergo the menopausal transition that is aimed at reducing visceral fat through a sustained increase in physical activity and improvement in stress management.

The program, called WISHFIT, will be a team effort, designed and implemented by Rush researchers in collaboration with women from the South Side communities where the previous studies took place. The goal: to get women, their social networks and their community involved in understanding the health risks associated with menopause and supporting changes that minimize those risks.

According to Powell, the program will draw on behavioral and social sciences research demonstrating important requirements for changing human behavior. For sustained change to occur, studies have shown that people need to be intrinsically motivated by learning how to enjoy being physically active and managing stress. Research also shows that sustained change comes about when the individual's social network, particularly same-sex friends, hold similar values and norms, and when the community supports the need for change and supplies the resources that facilitate it.

WISHFIT is based in the Chicago communities of Beverly and Morgan Park. Women who are community leaders will not only help design the program, but will promote it to other community members by creating a "buzz" about the cardiovascular risks following the menopause, particularly for the development of visceral fat, and the role of physical activity and stress management in preventing them.

Other programs have sought to increase physical activity by focusing primarily on motivating the individual. "But to effect lasting change," Powell says, "a person's social networks and community need to be part of the solution."

Physical Activity Made Easy
The recommended amount of physical activity is 30 minutes most days of the week. Practice wasting energy as you go throughout the day. Here are a few quick and easy things you can do on a regular basis to boost your overall level of physical activity and stave off visceral fat:

  • Rediscover the stairs. Boost your energy by trying to reach the second floor faster than those who took the elevator.
  • Team up with a friend for an after-lunch walk. Remember that physical activity is cumulative, so if you can squeeze in 10 minutes of walking three times a day, you'll have your 30 minutes. Walking with a partner will help keep you motivated on those days you're tempted to skip going.
  • Stretch every 45 minutes when working at your desk.
  • When you drive, choose a parking space farther away from your destination. Those extra steps will add up. The goal is 10,000 steps daily.
  • Rethink your gift giving. Give your friends gifts related to physical activity, such as a gift certificate to a Pilates class or personal training session that you can attend together; or a pedometer-accelerometer.
  • When you accompany your kids to their sports activities, take a brisk walk around the stadium.
  • Relearn how to play. Ask yourself what you did when you were a teenager to play, and start doing those activities again. Take a ballroom dance class, join a bowling league, ride a bike. Choose activities that you enjoy doing so you'll be more likely to stick with them over time.

More Information at Your Fingertips:
  • For more information about visceral fat and strategies for changing risk factors, call the Rush Prevention Center at (312) 942-3133
  • Join women's heart experts at Rush University Medical Center on Saturday, February 13, 2010, from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. for "The Culture of a Woman's Heart," our annual program that outlines your individual risk factors for heart disease based on your ethnicity and explains how you can be proactive about your heart health. For more information or to register, please call (888) 352-RUSH (7874).
  • Looking for a doctor? Call toll free: 888 352-RUSH (888 352-7874)
  • Follow Rush on Facebook and Twitter.

Please note: All physicians featured in Discover Rush Online are on the medical faculty of Rush University Medical Center. Some of the physicians featured are in private practice and, as independent practitioners, are not agents or employees of Rush University Medical Center.

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