A community program that promotes healthy eating and exercise may help overweight, sedentary women reduce their risk factors for heart disease, according to a new study.

Researchers found that the program, dubbed StrongWomen-Healthy Hearts, helped women drop a few pounds and trim their waistlines over 12 weeks. All 96 women in the study were middle-aged or older, and initially overweight or obese and physically inactive — putting them at elevated risk of heart disease.

Whether the short-term weight loss will translate into healthier hearts in the long run is not yet known. But the findings point to the potential of community programs that target older, sedentary women, the researchers report in the American Journal of Public Health.

In the U.S., nearly 70 percent of middle-aged and older women are overweight, note Dr. Sara C. Folta and colleagues at Tufts University in Boston. Among women between the ages of 45 and 54, about 40 percent are sedentary — a rate that increases with age.

All of this, the researchers point out, increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, the number-one killer of U.S. women.

To help address the problem, the Tufts researchers developed the StrongWomen-Healthy Hearts program and tested it in eight counties in rural Arkansas and Kansas.

In four of the counties, women were immediately offered twice-weekly classes over 12 weeks. The other four counties, serving as the "control" group, offered the program at a later date.

The classes included aerobic exercise, like walking, along with advice on boosting day-to-day activity levels — like taking the stairs instead of the elevator. The women also received advice on cutting calories and choosing healthier foods, preparing meals and making smarter choices at restaurants.

At the end of the 12-week period, Folta's team found that compared with the control group, women in the program expended more energy, lost 4 to 5 pounds, on average, and shed more than 2 inches around the waistline — an important factor in heart disease risk.

The women also reported greater confidence in their ability to maintain a healthy diet and exercise routine.

The findings, the researchers write, "suggest that it is possible to facilitate meaningful behavioral change in midlife and older women." Future studies should look at whether the changes last, and translate into lower heart disease risks.