Women And Heart Health – Why We Need To Ignore The Doubters And Just Get Out There

I’m a plus size woman with a really bad running habit.  I can’t stop.  My shoes call to me from the hallway and I’m worried that I’ll get arrested for indecent exposure if I go out running in the rain one more time (an ample bust, combined with a lack of decent plus size breathable wear have too many times made for an impromptu wet t-shirt contest).

So, when the Daily Mail published an article last week about two running magazines which have chosen plus size women for their covers, I was delighted.  US magazine, Running, featured Erica Schenk, a size 18 model, who is well known for her fitness habit and the UK title, Womens’s Running, pictured Lindsey Swift on their November issue.  After being heckled by a van driver, Linsday’s open letter detailing why running is more important to her than what people think about the size of her body went viral, being shared over 26,000 times.  To say I find her inspiring would be an understatement.

The Mail article was positive and inclusive, everything I like reading about but as usual, I was more interested in the comments section below.  This is where it all started to get a bit muddy and a little less positive.

There are many obesity experts out there.  Unfortunately, instead of spending their time doing research, pounding the streets or making themselves a salad, they litter perfectly healthy discussion forums with anecdotal, ill-informed soundbites about pie-hole stuffing and sofa surfing.

But what kind of message is this sending out?  Should we really be discouraging women from exercising because it’s pointless if it’s not accompanied by a punishing diet and an unhealthy obsession with the tape measure or scales?

Thankfully, the real experts are out there reading books, crunching numbers and writing papers.  I find their words far more helpful.

The Mail article lead to me doing a little digging around on the matter of fit but fat and I came across cardiologist C. Noel Bairey-Merz, well known in her field for investigating the differences between the ways that men and women develop and present heart disease.  She wanted to explore why after years of research, mortality rates from cardio disease were decreasing in men but increasing in women.  For her, this has been a matter of sexual politics as well as medicine.

From what I’ve read of her research, trends of where and how blockages and other operational problems arise in the heart are different between male and female subjects.  That in mind, she published a study, examining the BMI, measurements and fitness levels of a sample of women with surprising results: “fitness may be more important than overweight or obesity for CV risk in women”.

Of course, she is only one voice amongst many and cardiovascular disease is only one area of risk reported to be higher for tubby people but it got me thinking.  What if we took her research at face value?  What if we just acknowledged that getting out and getting going is just good for you, whatever your weight?

The Heart Sisters blog by Carolyn Thomas, journalist and heart attack survivor, is a most excellent place to find out more about prevention, diagnosis and care of female heart disease and has a page dedicated to ‘Improving Your Odds’.  I read it and realised that my running habit may be helping me to dodge the family heart disease bullet despite my weight.

Some of the major contributing factors to a higher risk of CV disease in women are:

  • Stress – running not only helps to readjust hormone levels, it also gets you out of the house from the kids/pets/spouse and allows thinking time or even not thinking time.
  • Type E-personality or being Everthing to Everyone – a study showed that women often put themselves last after house/kids/pet/spouse. This means that the more subtle symptoms of female heart disease can be easily missed or misdiagnosed. Running puts you first, even if it’s only for thirty minutes or so.
  • Sleep disorders – whether it’s through beneficial core body temperature changes, improvement in brain function or strengthening of the cardiovascular system (amongst a whole host of associated benefits) moderate exercise has been shown to promote better sleep habits.
  • Depression – you need only do a cursory search to find out how exercise can help with depression.
  • Smoking – a big no-no for women who want to keep their hearts healthy and it’s a bit hard to run with a fag in your mouth. I do know a few girls who’ll have a cup of tea and a ciggy after a run but they’re in the minority. At this point, I’ll add that I’ve never smoked – not because I inhabit some kind of moral high ground but because I cough, making me look like a spotty 13 year old behind the bikesheds.
  • Blood pressure and cholesterol – again, affected by activity levels as well as diet.
  • High fibre, heart-healthy diet – I have a strong body that responds well to how hard I push it – I just don’t feel like filling it full of rubbish after a run, it would just seem ungrateful. It’s all change when the fridge starts singing to me late in the evening, however, but that’s another blog post in itself.

So, what is my message to the fat but fit naysayers?

Your rhetoric is just too simple.  Just as Bairey-Merz has done so much for female heart disease mortality rates just by pushing past what other physicians thought was obvious, I’m also keen to ask questions about whether exercise can inform healthier lifestyle choices, rather than just being something someone gets morally blackmailed into doing to lose weight for losing weight’s sake.

I’m calling for a change in thinking.  I’m calling for an uprising of plus size people like me on the streets with their trainers on.  I’m calling for a war cry of heart healthy people who are fed up with being labelled as pie-eating sofa surfers.

Let’s wobble away and damn those who’d have us believe we’re not healthy just because we’re heavy.

And now that the rain has stopped, I might just chance a run.

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6 Replies to “Women And Heart Health – Why We Need To Ignore The Doubters And Just Get Out There”

  1. The problem I have with running is that I hate it. I have knock knees (which I had even as a skinny kid) and just don’t elicit anything from it other than sheer misery. I cycle instead and am trying to find a decent swimming pool. But I cheer on women of all sizes getting out there and running.

    1. Cycling! I love cycling too! We’ll include cycling and swimming and walking and netball and tennis and everything else that gets your heart going and makes you feel happy.

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