We've Come a Long Way, but We're Not There Yet | Commentary

Yes. We have come a long way.

In the past 30 years, America has made monumental strides in women’s health. We’ve cut cigarette smoking among women down to roughly half of what it was in 1985. Breast cancer deaths are down by about a third from their peak, when we were losing about 33 per 100,000 women. And since 1986, when the National Institutes of Health established a policy to include women in clinical trials, we’ve gained invaluable information on how gender differences affect the safety and efficacy of pharmaceuticals and medical devices throughout a woman’s life.

But as a woman who has spent the last 25 years of her career promoting wellness and fighting for public policies that support healthy lifestyle choices, there are two statistics that continue to nag at me:

1. Significantly less than half of American women (only 42.6 percent) are meeting the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for aerobic activity.

2. Women are roughly 10 percent less likely to meet those guidelines than men.

What these numbers tell me is that despite all the progress, we’re still lagging behind in our determination to prioritize a critical underpinning of women’s physical and mental health — exercise.

Regular exercise is more important for women today than it ever has been. Not only do we carry greater responsibility than in any other time in modern history, but we’re managing the stress of multiple roles in an era of health care reform. Cost-consciousness is paramount. And the onus increasingly falls on each of us to steer our own health care within a system that is in an extended state of flux.

Under such circumstances, it becomes exceedingly important for women to take a proactive approach to their health. And the most practical, cost-effective way for a woman to increase her chances of staying well is through “self-care,” or primary prevention.

Primary prevention is the first line of defense in keeping costly debilitating chronic diseases at bay. And it rides on four low-cost lifestyle habits that have proven effective in preserving health: regular exercise; a healthy diet; the avoidance of tobacco, alcohol, and other controlled substances; and stress management.

The evidence in favor of even just exercise alone is stacked. And while research shows that regular physical activity is tied to positive health outcomes for both genders, at least one study — which looked at the association between physical activity and metabolic syndrome and depression — showed that the link between regular exercise and good health is even greater for women.

The beauty of regular exercise is the tremendous return on investment it pays for women in terms of health, mood, and self-esteem. Studies show that staying physically active cuts a woman’s risk of breast cancer; helps protect her heart, sporting a greater impact on her risk of heart disease than even smoking, obesity, and high blood pressure; and decreases her risk of Type 2 diabetes — even when she has already experienced gestational diabetes during pregnancy.

Women’s health is no longer just about women. Today, women make up 47 percent of our work force and contribute at least 25 percent of our nation’s gross domestic product. Projections indicate that women will account for the greater percent of labor force growth in the 10 years leading up to 2018. Imagine what the cost of lifestyle diseases and associated disabilities would be if such a significant portion of the labor force was not functioning at capacity.

It’s time to take women’s health to the next level. But if further advancement is to become a reality, then we must empower women to prioritize exercise and other forms of primary prevention. We must implement public policy and legislation that make opportunities for exercise and other healthy lifestyle choices realistic. That means building sidewalks, bike paths, and parks; keeping quality PE in our schools so exercise becomes an expected part of daily life from a young age; creating economic incentives and removing disincentives to primary prevention, like covering physical activity costs as part of Medicare and Medicaid; and simply creating a national environment where women are empowered to make healthy lifestyle choices while keeping up with their responsibilities to family, community and employer.

Right now in the 113th Congress, there are a record number of women in both the House and the Senate. Our nation’s voter turnout rate remains higher for women than for men in all elections, as it has since 1986. And the current Administration is the first ever to have the White House Council on Women and Girls within the Executive Office of the President “to ensure that each of the agencies in which they’re charged takes into account the needs of women and girls in the policies they draft, the programs they create, the legislation they support.”

Our time is now. More so today than at any other point in history, we’re positioned to propel women’s health forward. We must recognize the urgency of empowering more women to engage in regular exercise and other forms of primary prevention — from school age to advanced age.

I call on all female leaders in Congress, the Administration, and across America. If we don’t empower ourselves to protect our own health, then who will? Let’s get moving now.

Helen Durkin is executive vice president of public policy for the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association.

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