The sedentary lifestyle of many Americans — who spend most of their days sleeping, driving, or sitting behind a computer — has put them at risk for a slew of major health problems, including depression and heart disease. Low physical activity has also led to higher obesity rates and diabetes.

New research finds that a sedentary lifestyle for women going through menopause can cause even more damage. The study, which was published online Jan. 27 and which will be published in the print journal Menopause in May, analyzed more than 6,000 middle-aged Hispanic women from 11 different countries in Latin America. The women, who were all between the ages of 40 and 59, attended some 20 urban health centers in their respective countries. After completing questionnaires about depression, anxiety, insomnia, menopause symptoms, and physical activity levels, the participants were grouped into two categories; sedentary or active.

Women considered sedentary had reported fewer than three, 30-minute-or-more sessions of physical activity during the week. Menopause, meanwhile, was measured using the Menopause Rating Scale, (MRS), in which the women answered questions about hot flashes, joint pain, sexual problems, and mental health issues.

A large chunk of the population, 64 percent of all the women studied, were deemed sedentary. The researchers found that 16 percent of the sedentary women had severe menopause symptoms, while only 11 percent of the active women experienced them. Sedentary women were more likely to have higher total menopause scores, as well as higher rates of depression, anxiety, and insomnia.

Menopause is the period of time when a woman’s menstrual periods cease. Common symptoms include hot flashes, vaginal bleeding, and mood changes. Women going through menopause are also vulnerable to depression, yet another reason why maintaining physical activity is key to managing symptoms.

In a 2008 study, menopausal women who exercised regularly reported lower anxiety, stress, and depression, but didn’t see any impact on hot flashes. And another recent study found that yoga could alleviate insomnia during menopause, though it also didn't help hot flashes. The latest study shows that exercise may reduce these physical symptoms a bit — such as hot flashes, vaginal changes, and bladder problems — but it seems the biggest benefit lies in a woman’s mental health.

“Regular physical activity reduces the risk of breast and colon cancer, dementia, heart attacks, stroke, depression; loss of lean muscle mass, and bone loss and improves immune system function,” Dr. JoAnn Pinkerton, executive director of the North American Menopause Society (NAMS), said in the press release. “One study showed that just one hour of walking daily cuts the risk of obesity by 24 percent. Fewer hot flashes, fewer health risks, increased well-being — who doesn’t want these benefits?”

Source: Pinkerton J, et al. Sedentary lifestyle in middle-aged women is associated with severe menopausal symptoms and obesity. Menopause, 2016.