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.