Women have many unique health concerns — menstrual cycles, pregnancy, birth control, menopause — and that's just the beginning. A number of health issues affect only women and others are more common in women. What's more, men and women may have the same condition, but different symptoms. Many diseases affect women differently and may even require distinct treatment.
Even if you are the most independent exerciser around, give a group fitness class a shot at least once a week—you may find that you enjoy it more than sweating solo. “Happiness and health are shared through social connectedness and closeness,” says Greg Chertok, director of sport psychology at the Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Center in New Jersey. “Geography and proximity are predictors of how contagious emotions can be, and this may translate into an athletic environment too.” Sign up for Bikram, CrossFit, spin, or Zumba, and you could find yourself—gasp!—smiling at the gym thanks to your classmates.
What you eat is even more important as you enter your 40s. Women need protein (meat, fish, dairy, beans, and nuts), carbohydrates (whole grains), fats (healthy oils), vitamins, minerals, and water. These foods have been linked to some disease prevention, such as osteoporosis, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. The American Academy of Family Physicians supports the development of healthy food supply chains in supplemental nutrition programs so as to broaden the availability of healthy food.
Don't take dramatic steps alone. You need to work closely with an experienced health care professional to lose weight, particularly if you have other medical problems, plan to lose more than 15 to 20 pounds or take medication on a regular basis. An initial checkup can identify conditions that might be affected by dieting and weight loss. Make sure you find out how much experience your health care professional has dealing with nutrition. It's not always well covered in medical schools. You may want to talk to a registered dietitian before embarking on a diet.
All youth need calcium to build peak (maximum) bone mass during their early years of life. Low calcium intake is one important factor in the development of osteoporosis, a disease in which bone density decreases and leads to weak bones and future fractures. Women have a greater risk than men of developing osteoporosis. During adolescence and early adulthood, women should include good food sources of calcium in their diets This is when bone growth is occurring and calcium is being deposited into the bone. This occurs in women until they are 30 to 35 years of age. Women 25 to 50 years of age should have 1,000 mg of calcium each day, while women near or past menopause should have 1,200 mg of calcium daily if they are taking estrogen replacement therapy; otherwise, 1,500 mg per day is recommended. Women older than 65 years of age should have 1,500 mg per day.
Vitamin D: Over the past decade, dozens of studies have revealed many important roles for vitamin D, the nutrient that skin cells produce when they are exposed to sunlight. The recommended daily intake of Vitamin D is 600 IU per day, although recommended levels are under review. If you avoid the sun or live in the northern half of the U.S., ask your doctor whether your vitamin D level should be tested.
Calcium: “Getting enough calcium is important for all ages, but it's particularly important during adolescence and early adulthood, when bones are absorbing calcium,” says Heather Schwartz, MS, RD, a medical nutrition therapist at Stanford University Hospital and Clinics. Calcium and vitamin D are often paired in fortified foods such as milk. The reason: The body needs D in order to absorb calcium.
It's even more important for older people to stay hydrated. Age can bring a decreased sensitivity to thirst. Moreover, it's sometime harder for those who are feeble to get up and get something to drink. Or sometimes a problem with incontinence creates a hesitancy to drink enough. Those who are aging should make drinking water throughout the day a priority.
Vinyasa and power may not be the only forms of yoga that will get you closer to that long, lean, limber look. Research presented at the 73rd Scientific Sessions of the American Diabetes Association found that restorative yoga—which focuses more on relaxing and stress-reducing movements rather than a challenging flow or balancing poses—burns more subcutaneous fat (the kind directly under your skin) than stretching does. By the end of the yearlong study, yogis who practiced at least once a month lost an average of about three pounds, nearly double the amount lost by those who only stretched. So if you don’t feel up for a more athletic yoga class, ease your way into a practice with a gentle one.
After 40, your hormone levels (estrogen) drop. This causes your insulin (hormone that helps your body use sugar) rise. Your thyroid levels go down. This combination makes you hungrier. You end up eating more and burning fewer calories. Much of the weight gain occurs around your belly. Eat more foods with fiber (berries, whole grains, nuts) to fill you up and help you eat less. Aim for 25 grams of fiber each day after the age of 40. Other ways to increase your metabolism include:
Calcium: For adult women aged 19-50, the USDA recommended daily allowance is 1,000 mg/day. For women over 50, the recommended daily allowance is 1,200 mg/day. Good sources of calcium include dairy products, leafy green vegetables, certain fish, grains, tofu, cabbage, and summer squash. Your body cannot take in more than 500 mg at any one time and there’s no benefit to exceeding the recommended daily amount.
Popular belief says if you really want to make a big change, focus on one new healthy habit at a time. But Stanford University School of Medicine researchers say working on your diet and fitness simultaneously may put the odds of reaching both goals more in your favor. They followed four groups of people: The first zoned in on their diets before adding exercise months later, the second did the opposite, the third focused on both at once, and the last made no changes. Those who doubled up were most likely to work out 150 minutes a week and get up to nine servings of fruits and veggies daily while keeping their calories from saturated fat at 10 percent or less of their total intake.
As women, many of us are prone to neglecting our own dietary needs. You may feel you’re too busy to eat right, used to putting the needs of your family first, or trying to adhere to an extreme diet that leaves you short on vital nutrients and feeling cranky, hungry, and low on energy. Women’s specific needs are often neglected by dietary research, too. Studies tend to rely on male subjects whose hormone levels are more stable and predictable, thus sometimes making the results irrelevant or even misleading to women’s needs. All this can add up to serious shortfalls in your daily nutrition.
Women need more of this mineral because they lose an average of 15 to 20 milligrams of iron each month during menstruation. Without enough iron, iron deficiency anemia can develop and cause symptoms that include fatigue and headaches. After menopause, body iron generally increases. Therefore, iron deficiency in women older than 50 years of age may indicate blood loss from another source and should be checked by a physician.
Getting enough water also is important. Many experts recommend at least eight 8-ounce glasses of water daily—more if you exercise frequently or are exposed to extremes of heat and cold. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans emphasize drinking more water and other calorie-free beverages, along with fat-free or low-fat milk and 100 percent fruit juices, instead of calorie-packed regular sodas.
It's a cliché, to be sure, but a balanced diet is the key to good nutrition and good health. Following that diet, however, isn't always that easy. One challenge is that women often feel too busy to eat healthfully, and it's often easier to pick up fast food than to prepare a healthy meal at home. But fast food is usually high in fat and calories and low in other nutrients, which can seriously affect your health. At the other extreme, a multimillion dollar industry is focused on telling women that being fit means being thin and that dieting is part of good nutrition.
Young adults. Teen girls and young women usually need more calories than when they were younger, to support their growing and developing bodies. After about age 25, a woman’s resting metabolism (the number of calories her body needs to sustain itself at rest) goes down. To maintain a healthy weight after age 25, women need to gradually reduce their calories and increase their physical activity.
Among other things, you need calcium to build healthy bones and teeth, keep them strong as you age, regulate the heart’s rhythm, and ensure your nervous system functions properly. Calcium deficiency can lead to, or exacerbate, mood problems such as irritability, anxiety, depression, and sleep difficulties. If you don’t get enough calcium in your diet, your body will take calcium from your bones to ensure normal cell function, which can lead to weakened bones or osteoporosis. Women are at a greater risk than men of developing osteoporosis, so it’s important to get plenty of calcium, in combination with magnesium and vitamin D, to support your bone health.