An apple a day may not keep the doctor away, but maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, and keeping stress to a minimum can improve a woman’s overall health and lower her risk for heart disease, cancer, and other maladies later in life.
Even making just one or two of these lifestyle changes can have a profound impact on a woman’s overall health and longevity. Here are some tips for better self-care and living your best — and hopefully longest — life.
According to the American Heart Association, 1 in 3 women dies from heart disease and stroke each year, making cardiovascular disease the number-one killer of women in the United States.
Internal medicine doctor, national Go Red for Women spokesperson, and American Heart Association national board member Dr. Mary Ann Bauman said there are simple steps women can take to lower their risk of heart disease, starting with knowing their numbers.
“Know your blood pressure, know your blood sugar, know your cholesterol, know your family history, and know your body mass index,” said Bauman. “And the next best thing to do is really start to change those things that you can change. You can’t change your genetics, but you can certainly exercise and eat a healthier diet.”
Bauman said it is also important for women to be aware of the early signs of a heart attack: crushing pain or pressure in the chest, difficulty breathing, pain or pressure in the arm and jaw, nausea and vomiting, discomfort between the shoulder blades, dizziness, and profuse sweating. “And don’t be afraid to call 911,” added Bauman. “Studies show women will call 911 for somebody else who is having chest pain, but not themselves.”
Another way women can take charge of their heart health, Bauman said, is by joining Go Red for Women.
Accoring to Bauman, 89 percent of women who join Go Red make at least one healthy lifestyle change.
Following heart disease, cancer is the second-biggest killer among women in the United States. If you have a family history or are at high risk for certain cancers, you should talk to your health care provider about screenings and prevention. For those at average risk, here are some general cancer screening guidelines, courtesy of the American Cancer Society.
• BREAST CANCER: Between the ages of 40 and 44, women have the option to start annual mammograms. Breast cancer screenings are recommended annually for all women between the ages of 45 and 54. Women should switch to mammograms every other year starting at age 55.
• CERVICAL CANCER: Women should have their first Pap test at age 21 and continue with tests every three years through age 29. At 30, it’s recommended that women undergo a combined Pap and HPV test every five years until age 65. Some doctors opt to do this more often.
• COLORECTAL CANCER: Screenings for colorectal cancer should begin at age 50 with a colonoscopy. Women at average risk for colon cancer should follow up with an additional colonoscopy every 10 years.
With everything women tackle on a daily basis it’s no surprise so many women are stressed out.
“We live in a society where there’s so much stress and demand on women,” said Bonnie Hill, an advanced registered nurse practitioner, certified nurse-midwife, and NAMS certified menopause practitioner at Franciscan Women’s Specialty Associates at St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma. “One of the best things women can do (for their health) is to actively manage their stress. Because stress is what’s killing us.”
Whether you’re in your 20s or 90s, Hill said, stress management is key. “There are lots of things that you can do (to manage your stress),” said Hill. “Things like exercise, spiritual connection, serving, giving back, massage therapy, eating clean, and eliminating sugar.”
Hill said many of the activities that help manage stress also aid in general health and wellness. If a woman chooses exercise to help control her stress, Hill recommends lifting weights. Not only does weightlifting help women burn calories and maintain a healthy BMI, but weightlifting also helps women build muscle mass and maintain strong bone health.
“The other thing I recommend,” said Hill, “is meditation. It’s critical.” Hill describes meditation as the time a woman spends with just her and her breath. “It’s amazing how it just calms you and get you out of that sympathetic nervous system stress mode of go, go, go,” she said.
With 30 years of experience in women’s health care, Hill said there are some general things all women should do to ensure their health.
It might sound like a broken record, but a healthy BMI, regular exercise, and a diet that’s rich in fruits and veggies really can do the body good. Simple things like sweating for 20 minutes a day and eating more greens can have powerful long-term effects.
In addition to eating right and exercising, women also need to take extra time out of their day to nurture themselves. Hill said what that looks like could vary from woman to woman. “Doing something for yourself could be getting together with friends, it could be taking a weekend by yourself to hear your inner voice, it could be going to a mindfulness event — for women, it’s whatever it is that brings them peace and calm.”
Even healthy women who go above and beyond to take care of body and mind can experience health problems. Hill said knowing when to address something out of the ordinary with your provider is key. “If something happens where it’s unusual one time and it goes away and it doesn’t recur, don’t worry about it,” said Hill. “If something happens one time and it goes away but then it occurs again, get checked. If it becomes a pattern, your body is giving you a message: Go get checked.”