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Ways to Get Healthy for Women

Oct. 4, 2012
 
The Doctors: Women's Health
The Doctors: Women's Health: 4 healthy tips every woman can use.
Feeling tense? The simple act of smiling can reduce stress and lower your heart rate. / Geri Lavrov / Getty Images

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Some health conditions are unique to women, like menopause and cervical cancer; others —such as obesity and osteoporosis —are more widespread among women than men. To help prevent, detect and protect against health problems affecting women, try these science-based strategies, pulled from the latest research:

Overweight?

Cancel your lunch date

Scientists looked at a wide range of diet-related behaviors and meal patterns in 123 overweight to obese postmenopausal women for a year to evaluate what works for weight loss. The findings showed that women who ate out for lunch at least once a week lost on average 5 fewer pounds than those who dined in restaurants less frequently. What does contribute to weight loss is writing down everything you eat: Women who kept food diaries lost about 6 pounds more than those who did not journal their meals. Maintaining a healthy weight is important for a number of reasons: Along with eating right and exercising, it can help prevent type 2 diabetes in women over 50.

Stressed?

Consider the ‘grin and bear it’ approach

New science shows that age-old adage really can help you feel better in tough times. Scientists from the University of Kansas examined the effects of different types of smiles during stressful activities, including “standard” smiles (which use muscles around the mouth) and “genuine” (that engage muscles around both the mouth and eyes). Study participants who wore any kind of smile were less stressed and had lower heart rates during the tasks than those with neutral facial expressions; stress levels dipped even more for the folks with “genuine” smiles. So the next time you’re stuck in traffic or experiencing some other stress, stop for a minute to smile to help calm down.

Protect bones

Work out a few hours a week

Bone is living tissue that gets stronger with exercise, but you don’t need marathon sessions to make a difference: Engaging in more than just two hours of physical activity per week appears to help pre-menopausal women maintain healthy bones, suggests a new study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism. Scientists found that even small amounts of exercise significantly reduced the level of a protein that inhibits bone growth, while at the same time increasing the activity of a different protein that promotes bone formation. Weight-bearing workouts such as walking, dancing and tennis are effective for building and maintaining bone density; so are muscle-strengthening moves, including lifting weights and using elastic exercise bands. Talk to your doctor before starting any new exercise program.

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Stay healthy

See your ob-gyn once a year

Most women no longer need yearly Pap tests to screen for cervical cancer, according to updated guidelines, but that doesn’t give you a free pass to skip your annual exam. Well-woman visits allow doctors to assess overall health and find potential problems early, and they are needed for important screenings and immunizations based on a woman’s age and individual risk factors, says the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

So what are the new guidelines for Pap tests? The American Cancer Society now recommends women ages 21 to 29 get the test every three years; those 30 to 65 should have both a Pap test and an HPV test every five years (HPV is a virus that can lead to cancer). Some women may not need to be screened for cervical cancer, others may need the test more often. Your doctor can help determine the best schedule for you.

Fatigued?

Take iron supplements

They might help put a little pep in your step, recent research suggests. Scientists studied nearly 200 women ages 18 to 53 who complained of fatigue; all had relatively low iron sources but were not anemic. Half were given 80 milligrams of iron daily, and the other half a placebo. The women getting the iron pills reported a nearly 50% decrease in fatigue, compared with a 29% decline in the placebo group. For unexplained fatigue, talk to your doctor about testing for iron deficiency and perhaps adding an iron supplement to your regimen. Food sources of iron include red meat, poultry, spinach and beans.

Quit smoking

Consider Eating more fruits and vegetables

Smokers who load their diet with plenty of produce are three times more likely to kick the habit, according to an observational study out of the University at Buffalo. The survey also found they smoked fewer cigarettes daily, waited longer to smoke their first cigarette of the day and were less dependent on nicotine. Fruits and vegetables worsen the taste of cigarettes—that’s one potential explanation, say researchers. It’s also possible that the high fiber content in these foods leaves people feeling full and less inclined to light up, since smokers sometimes confuse hunger with a cigarette craving.

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Ease menopause symptoms

Consider Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT)

First you were told it was safe; then many experts said hormone therapy was risky, having been linked to breast cancer and heart disease. Then studies came out that certain forms of hormone therapy are okay for some menopausal women. After a decade of debate and conflicting reports, 15 top medical organizations — including the North American Menopause Society, American Society for Reproductive Medicine and Endocrine Society — recently released a joint statement that concluded HRT is an acceptable and relatively safe choice for healthy women (up to age 59 or within 10 years of menopause) who are bothered by moderate-to-severe menopausal symptoms. Your individual level of risk and potential benefit of using HRT or even specific HRT products depends on a number of factors. For example, if your only symptom is vaginal dryness, the recommended treatment is low-dose estrogen; or if you’ve been using HRT for five years (or possibly even less), your risk for breast cancer increases (when HRT is stopped, risk declines). Work closely with your doctor to determine if HRT is right for you.

Drive safely

Avoid distractions

Reading a text message takes your eyes off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds — doesn’t seem like much time, right? But if you’re cruising along at 55 mph, that’s like driving the length of an entire football field — blind. Talking on your cell or to the kids in the backseat, drinking coffee, changing a CD, using your GPS: These are all things we do probably on a daily basis while behind the wheel. In 2010, more than 3,000 people were killed in crashes involving a distracted driver, and more than 400,000 were injured. Motor vehicle crashes are a leading cause of fatal accidents among women; to help keep you and your family safe, keep your eyes on the road, hands on the wheel and mind focused on your driving.

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