Review| Volume 44, ISSUE 4, P586-611, April 2022

Sex Differences in Physical Activity and Incident Stroke: A Systematic Review



      Physical inactivity, a modifiable risk factor for cardiovascular disease, is independently associated with stroke. Though some prior data have suggested sex differences in levels of physical activity, whether there are sex differences in the role of physical activity in primary stroke prevention is largely unknown. This systematic review identifies and describes recent findings on sex differences in the association between physical activity and incident (first-ever) stroke. This review also describes the current evidence on the strength of the association between physical activity and a reduced stroke risk in women in particular.


      Using a prespecified strategy, PubMed/MEDLINE and Cochrane Central were searched to identify observational studies or trials published from 2000 to 2020 and reporting sex differences in physical activity and incident stroke. To be included, among other criteria, studies had to include sex-specific effect estimates from women, men, or both. Titles, abstracts, and full-text articles were screened to identify studies meeting the inclusion criteria, and adjusted sex-specific estimates of the association between physical activity and incident stroke for total stroke (ischemic plus hemorrhagic) or ischemic stroke were abstracted.


      Thirty-seven studies met the inclusion criteria. Of 17 studies that included data on total incident stroke (ischemic and hemorrhagic combined) in both women and men, 7 (41%) showed similar associations between physical activity and incident stroke between women and men, 6 (35%) suggested a significant effect in women but not in men, and 3 (18%) showed a significant effect in men but not in women. Of 10 studies that included data on ischemic stroke in women and men, 5 (50%) suggested similar effects in women and men, 4 (40%) suggested a significant effect in women but not in men, and 1 (10%) showed an effect in men but not women. In women specifically, the majority of included studies demonstrated a reduced risk for incident stroke with physical activity, with relative risk reductions ranging from 11% to 72%, though most estimates fell between 20% and 40%.


      The majority of studies indicated a clear association between physical activity and a reduction in stroke risk. Studies were split as to the potential for sex differences in this association. Future prospective investigations should identify strategies for the use of increased physical activity for primary stroke prevention, with sex-specific considerations as warranted. The data on sex-specific dose–response relationship between physical activity and stroke risk are inconclusive and warrant more research.

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