As you navigate through midlife, getting regular exercise—such as running—becomes more and more essential for your cardiovascular well-being. And while you’re still hard at work on your New Year’s resolutions, February’s American Heart Month is another good time to set a new health goal for yourself—particularly when it comes to your ticker.

New research published in the journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology suggests that for women going through menopause, paying attention to your heart health is especially important.

In the study, researchers used data from the Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation (SWAN) – currently the largest and longest-running study of women’s health in midlife. Looking at markers of the cardiovascular health of 339 women over a 12-year period, the researchers found an increase in arterial stiffness by about 0.9 percent one year before their last menstrual period and about 7.5 percent one year afterward—a considerable acceleration in such a short time frame.

This adds to growing evidence that the menopause transition is a critical stage for the acceleration of cardiovascular disease risk, according to lead author Saad Samargandy, Ph.D.(c), at the University of Pittsburgh. He told Runner’s World that previous research has found changes such as increased inflammation and the accumulation of fat around the heart for women in midlife.

When women go through menopause, their arteries begin to stiffen over time, which reduces their elasticity and affects how well the heart pumps and moves blood. That can lead to high blood pressure, and potentially prompt events like heart attacks and stroke, as well as contribute to damage for other organs like the kidneys and lungs.

The study didn’t cover why all of these shifts occur—and so quickly—but they’re possibly related to hormonal changes that affect the vascular system—which is made up of the arteries and veins that carry blood throughout the body—according to the study’s senior author Samar El Khoudary, Ph.D., associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh.

The effect is especially present in African-American women, El Khoudary told Runner’s World, since the study showed they experience more stiffness in their arteries earlier in their lives than other populations.

The reason why is unclear, El Khoudary said, but previous research suggests African-American women tend to have a worse cardiovascular risk profile—the American Heart Association notes, for example, that they have higher rates of diabetes, smoking, family history of heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, and high cholesterol.

But exercise can be crucial for all women to lower those risks, she said. The standard guidelines recommend that adults—both men and women—engage in at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity, or a combination of both, spread throughout the week.

How many women in midlife are meeting these goals? Definitely not enough.

“Recent work from SWAN showed only 7.2 percent of women traversing through menopause are meeting these guidelines,” Samargandy said. “We need to do much more to encourage women to follow these guidelines to achieve heart health and reduce their risk of heart disease.”

Although risks go up as you age, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do to bring them back down for yourself. Just getting out for a short, easy run is a great place to start.

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