Asking women to exercise more and eat less is just too simplistic. Although many diseases are linked to things we seemingly control, to assume that women aren’t healthier because they are either uninformed or uncommitted is wrong. Women’s lives are complicated and interrelated, one factor enmeshed in a dozen others, interwoven by relationships and situations. Caregivers to the world, we are busy and stressed and our health is too often the price we pay.
On closer examination, researchers now believe that a woman’s health is profoundly impacted by factors outside of her control. The National Institutes of Health Research Priorities for Women’s Health for 2010 reports that conditions such as caring for children or family members, her marital status, and how much she works inside and/or outside the home, have a significant bearing on women’s health priorities. Her health is also influenced by her culture, her education and resources, even by whether she lives in a rural or metropolitan community. And, of course, there is an immense disparity in access to care – the harsh dividing line that will define the new haves and have-nots.
And yet, regardless of these conditions, there are four keys that experts agree can improve the health of any woman who employs them.
~Key #1: Sleep. According to the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, regularly shorting ourselves of sleep is associated with serious conditions that will shorten our life expectancy. Lack of sleep has been linked to diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and reduced immune function. Although getting eight solid hours is just not realistic for some women, make a personal commitment to give yourself longer, better quality sleep. It’s a big first step on the path to wellness.
~Key #2: Exercise. Although we’d all like to take the recommended half hour walk every day, for most of us, life just gets in the way. One of the most stunning arguments for exercise is the discovery that the risk of dying of a recurrence of breast cancer is lowest among women who walk at least three to five hours per week, according to the American Cancer Society. For the general population, Mayo Clinic lists benefits of regular exercise as improving your mood, combating chronic disease, managing weight, boosting energy, promoting sleep and even improving your sex life.
~Key # 3: Nutrition. To combat the number one killer of women, heart disease, the American Heart Association recommends a “Mediterranean” diet, rich in vegetables, whole grains, fruits, olive oil, and legumes such as beans. It is predominantly based on plants and seafood with limited lean meats or cheese. Reduce sugar and salt by leading your family to rediscover the natural taste of foods.
~Key #4: Regular checkups and preventive screenings. Many women believe that if they feel good, they must be well. Unfortunately, some diseases are great at hiding until they are a serious - perhaps deadly - problem. On medical issues, I suggest three “don’ts:
• Don’t be in the dark – Know your body and your family medical history. Know the early warning signs of diseases that might affect you.
• Don’t be in denial – If you suspect something isn’t right, get checked.
• Don’t give up your power – Be your own health advocate, pursuing answers to any medical situation that affects you or your family.
Research shows that when women take care of themselves, the health of their family improves. And that, after all, is the greatest gift we can give to ourselves and to the world.
Annette is a 23-year survivor of ovarian cancer, 2-year survivor of breast cancer and advocates for women coping with cancer. She serves on the Board of Directors of the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance as President-Elect and Chair of the Marketing & Communications Committee and is co-founder and president of the Ovarian Cancer Alliance of Arizona. She is the author of Outside The Lines of Love, Life and Cancer.