During a five-day stretch this summer, Dr. Andrea LaCroix was on the move. On Independence Day, she logged 20 miles on her bicycle across Washington’s hilly San Juan Island.
A day later, she took to the water, kayaking for several hours. On her third day, she swam a mile, and on the fourth, she was back on the bike for a 22-miler on backcountry trails.
Dr. Andrea LaCroix
On the fifth day, she mixed things up a bit with paddleboard yoga on Seattle’s Lake Union. That’s right, paddleboard yoga.
“You wouldn’t believe how good it is for balance and core strength,” she said. “I used so many different muscles on the paddleboard, I was sore all over the next day.”
You might think that LaCroix is getting plenty of vigorous exercise, that the word sedentary is not part of her vocabulary. Five hours per week, the typical amount of time LaCroix coaxes out of a busy work schedule at the Hutchinson Center, sure sounds like plenty—for anyone.
But with all this activity, it might be surprising to hear that she is barely doing enough.
“I may barely meet the national guidelines for vigorous exercise,” she said. “The harder I work, the longer I sit. We need to be physically active throughout the day. We all have too much sedentary time in our lives.”
Why exercise matters
One of the keys to understanding our health, she said, is not to look at active time—when we’re hitting the gym or going out for a run—but to focus instead on how much time we are not moving our bodies at all.
Sedentary time is a predictor of mortality, a predictor of a shorter, unhealthier life. Sedentary time often means obesity is not far behind with the increased risk of cancer and other diseases.
“If you sit for long periods without any movement, you’re looking at negative physiological changes over time,” she said. “Sedentary people have a greater risk of getting sick, and that includes a greater risk of cancer.”
This is why exercise matters to LaCroix—not simply for personal reasons. At the Hutchinson Center, she is a respected public health researcher and a co-investigator of the Hutchinson Center-based Women’s Health Initiative, a landmark research program that addresses cancer, heart disease and osteoporosis—the most frequent causes of death, disability and poor quality of life in postmenopausal women.
As an expert in the field of epidemiology, she has published research on women’s health, aging and geriatrics, with the emphasis on prevention of cancer and other diseases.
Most recently, LaCroix led a study that found the risk of strokes and other health problems linked with estrogen-only pills fade when women stop taking them after menopause. The study also confirmed that concerns about breast cancer and heart attacks were largely unfounded for women in their 50s who took the hormone for short periods to relieve symptoms of menopause.
The fountain of youth
Today, LaCroix’s principal research interests focus on older women’s health, with particular attention on prevention of cancer, heart disease, fractures and falls. She has studied the role of drugs and vitamins to reduce some of these risks. Now, she is deeply focused on exercise as a major reducer of risk.
“People talk about the fountain of youth. For me, the fountain of youth means aging well. And the best medicine for aging well is physical activity,” said LaCroix, who is a member of the National Advisory Council on Aging.
But how much is enough? It may just depend on a person’s age.
“When you talk about national guidelines for exercise, only 2 percent of women meet them when measured objectively. Two-thirds of women between 50 and 79 report little or no activity. So, are we classifying correctly the amount of exercise that people need for optimal health?” LaCroix said.
She is trying to find out. LaCroix and her colleagues are enlisting 8,000 women over age 80 to determine what levels and kinds of activities the elderly need to maintain health and prevent injury from falls. Ultimately, the research will be used to develop activity guidelines for those over age 65, a group that has been understudied with regard to activity and disease risk.
Each participant will receive an “accelerometer,” a small monitor worn on the hip that measures vertical, horizontal and perpendicular activity. And just as important, it will measure sedentary time.
In the meantime, what should people do to stay active? “The exercise you love to do,” LaCroix said.
And that may even include paddleboard yoga.