By Dr. Nancy Lee, Director, Office on Women’s Health (OWH), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
I am 64 years old. There, I admit it. Women don't always want to admit their age, but there is one really good thing about seeing the decades roll by: I finally appreciate that "women's health" means different things at different times.
For this year's National Women's Health Week, we're focusing on what steps women can take at different ages and stages to live a healthier life. And now that I am older, I'd like to share some of my thoughts on things I wish someone had told me when I was younger.
In my 20s
Fall in love with working out.
Sometimes when you're young, you think you don't need to exercise. You can run, jump, and play with no problem and no weight gain, so why work out? But trust me: not making exercise a habit in your 20s makes it much harder to pick it up later in life. My daughter grew up in the Title IX era, when the world of sports opened up to girls and young women in a new way. Her transition into staying in shape as an adult has been far easier than mine ever was. Get active now for an easier time later.
Protect yourself from the sun.
You know to put sunscreen on your face when you're at the beach or on a hike. But sunscreen isn't just for your face. All of your skin needs protection. Remember that even tan skin is damaged skin. I was recently diagnosed with a small skin cancer -- nothing serious but a warning that I have to be vigilant from now on. Many of today's skin products include sunscreen, but you also need protective clothing and hats to protect yourself from the sun's dangers every time you go outside, and every season. You should also seek shade and avoid outdoor activities during periods of peak sunlight.
Walk your miles in comfortable shoes.
Everyone tells you when you get older, you'll have wrinkles and your metabolism will slow down. But no one tells you your feet are going to hurt! And I mean really hurt. High heels and pinching shoes when you're young can cause serious problems down the road. Start taking care of your feet early to avoid future pain (and maybe even foot surgery!). Choose comfortable, properly fitting shoes with good arch support and cushioning over high-heeled, narrow-toed ones.
In my 30s
Let it go.
As you move into your 30s, you develop a greater sense of self and a deeper understanding of what you need to be mentally and emotionally healthy. Everyone feels difficult emotions like anger, jealousy, and resentment, but how we choose to deal with them is up to each of us. In my 30s, I learned that I could let go of anger. For you, it might be something else, like learning to say "no" or letting others make their own mistakes. Whatever paying attention to your mental health means to you, this is a good time in life to work on it.
I've been a healthy eater for most of my life, but when my kids were little, it wasn't always easy or convenient. But if you really want to have more energy, feel strong, and lower your risk of illness and disease so you can be around to see your kids grow up, eating healthy is important.
Get more sleep.
You may be able to function on 5-6 hours of sleep, but you won't be at your best -- and it might make you seriously ill. Not getting enough sleep is associated with a wide array of chronic diseases and conditions, including stroke, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, depression, and kidney disease. Why risk it? Experts recommend adults get 7-8 hours of sleep per night. Start taking care of your sleep needs now. If you have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or feeling refreshed after sleep, talk to your doctor.
In my 40s
Don't sweat the small stuff.
If your 30s are about being comfortable in your own skin, your 40s are about being comfortable in the world. Life is full of little things that can make you crazy -- or not. And it's not always easy to accept what you cannot change. Now, instead of worrying about all of the little stuff, I learned to focus on the family and friends who are so important to my daily health and happiness.
Be kind to yourself.
Are you tough on yourself like I was? In my 40s, I juggled my scientific career, two small children, a husband, family obligations and friendships. I had to learn to be patient with myself when I couldn't do everything. Many days I chose to spend time with my kids instead of exercising. But instead of beating myself up over it, I learned that doing my best was just fine.
"The Change" can start earlier than you think.
Most people think of menopause as something that affects women in their late 40s or 50s, but some women start having symptoms as early as 40. That's one reason it's important to keep up with your annual well-woman visit. Taking that time to talk with your health care provider about how you're feeling, what you might expect in the coming year, and what tests and screenings you need can help you recognize and deal proactively with any menopausal symptoms -- or anything else going on. Just because menopause is a natural process doesn't mean you have to suffer.
In my 50s
It's never too late to make good choices.
The truth is that no one escapes aging and the changes that come with it. But often age brings the realization that it is never too late to make positive health changes. For the first time since my kids were born I got into a good exercise groove. What changes can you make for better health? Quit smoking, take up running, cut out sugary drinks -- both big and small steps can do wonders for your health. The goal is to make more good choices today than you did yesterday.
Even in my 60s, I'm still working on some of these things, and I still haven't learned to get enough sleep. But life is all about the process, not the end result. It's never too early or late to work toward being your healthiest you! This National Women's Health Week, pick just one thing you can do today to live a healthier and happier life at any age. And then tomorrow, do it again.
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