There’s no doubt that being a strong and independent woman, making your own way in the modern world, can be highly time-consuming and physically demanding. Often this feat involves great multi-tasking skills, as the crazy onslaught of stressful life situations that tend to crop up out of the blue can be difficult to juggle at times. You might be run ragged from struggling to meet important work deadlines, or find yourself caught up in all the highs and lows of your girlfriends’ dramas. Then there’s always beloved family members that you need to make time for, and let’s not forget the potential hassles of your own romantic trials.
While you might find you have to prioritise certain aspects of your day-to-day life every now and then to be truly productive and get your affairs in order, there is one thing that you should always value above all else: your health. While it can be all too easy to forget the importance of your physical and mental wellbeing when you’re distracted by other people’s demands and dramas, it’s important to pay attention to the needs of your mind and body. Often we go far too long neglecting our own health and ignoring the warning signs that signal impending disaster, before something happens to force us back to awareness – and usually that something is an illness or sickness, which always glaringly emphasizes a weakness in the body’s defences.
The good news is that it’s quite a simple process to take care of yourself in small ways every day. By rethinking and perhaps adjusting your routine in certain areas of your life, such as in exercise and diet, you’ll find that over time, you’ll start improving in leaps and bounds when it comes to both your physical and mental agility. To find out more, be sure to review the rest of our comprehensive women’s health guide, which details the many ways in which you can boost your overall health and happiness.
Sections in this guide:
- Weight Loss
- Reproductive and Sexual Health
- Mental and Emotional Health
- Happy and Healthy Women
Regardless of whether you’re a woman or a man, maintaining healthy fitness levels is an important part of everyday life. As you grow older, it becomes even more important to engage in regular physical activity, to adequately exercise your limbs and muscles and ensure they continue to function efficiently in the long run. Having an active lifestyle not only significantly lowers the risk of developing a multitude of serious illnesses, such as heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes, but it will also boost a person’s overall physical appearance and mental wellbeing. By helping you to maintain a trimmer figure and increase lean muscle mass, and even improving your quality of sleep and mental function, regular physical activity continuously works to help you look, feel and think better.
The Australian Department of Health and Aging recommends a four-step guide for adults who are seeking to enjoy a healthier, more active lifestyle:
- Change your way of thinking: Having a positive attitude is a powerful thing when it comes to exercise. If you can learn to love engaging your body in physical movement, you’ll find it much easier to reap the health benefits of regular exercise, no matter what form it takes.
- Make the most of every opportunity: Try not to think of exercise as something that can only be accomplished over a certain period of a time, in a certain setting. Exercise can take place whenever, wherever – when you get off the bus a few stops early on your commute to work, when you’re taking the stairs instead of the lift, or during a short walk around the block on your lunch break.
- 30 minutes a day: Attempt to engage in half an hour of moderate-intensity physical activity on most, if not all, days. If you’re finding it inconvenient to find a thirty-minute block during the day, break the session up into two fifteen-minute intervals – for example, you could go for a short run in the morning, then hit up the gym in the evening.
- More, more, more: For people who want to improve their fitness on a larger scale and boost their health benefits in the process, it’s suggested that adults engage in further, vigorous physical activity of their choosing, in addition to the previous recommendations.
While fitness is a vital part of life for both sexes, it’s often true that for women, their level of fitness does tend to more strongly dictate their body image and, consequently, their sense of self-worth. This is undoubtedly due to the western world’s cultural ideal of the “perfect” female body, which lauds having a flat stomach, toned legs, and an overall lithe physique. While many women may visualize regular physical activity solely as a method through which achieve this physical standard, the importance of maintaining fitness levels primarily lies in the way it works to exercise the limbs, strengthen muscle density, increase the body’s endurance, and overall improve a person’s physical health. Studies have shown that exercise is not only associated with physical health, but also with psychological wellbeing, and that regular physical activity can improve women’s body image both by helping them to more effectively manage their weight, and by reducing the importance of their outward appearance to their sense of self.
When it comes to daily food intake, men and women again have similar dietary requirements, in that both sexes should consume a variety of foods packed with important proteins, minerals and vitamins. However, there are certain nutrients that are important for women in particular, to promote a healthy reproductive system, strengthen bones and teeth, and boost energy levels. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which is the world’s largest organisation of food and nutrition professionals, recommends that women should consume the following foods on a daily basis:
- Three: servings of whole grain foods (whole grain bread, brown rice cereal, oats, pasta)
- Three: servings of low-fat or fat-free dairy products (milk, yogurt, cheese)
- Five to six: ounces of protein (lean meat, chicken, eggs, turkey, fish, beans, peas, nuts)
- Two: cups of fruit (fresh, frozen or canned without sugar)
- Two and a half: cups of vegetables (fresh, frozen or canned without salt)
Women should ensure that they are eating plenty of plant-based foods in order to provide their bodies with enough fibre every day, such as leafy green vegetables, beans and legumes. It’s also important to bulk up on calcium and iron, as women lose large amounts of iron during menstruation, and also have a greater risk of developing osteoporosis than men due to reduced bone density.
To boost calcium levels, consider plant-based sources such as broccoli, kale and Brussels sprouts, which are much less fatty than dairy products. Meanwhile, iron intake can be increased through consuming lean red meat, lentils, spinach and almonds.
If you’re a bit of an emotional eater, join the club – it can be a pretty difficult habit to break! Whether you harbour a sweet tooth or you find savoury snacks more preferable, women in particular are often guilty of indulging in this activity. Emotional eating occurs when people are eating for reasons other than hunger, and whether stress, sadness or boredom is the culprit, emotional eating can quickly become an incredibly unhealthy routine, both for your physical body and your emotional health. Being able to differentiate between emotional hunger and real hunger is the first step to curbing the cravings. Often, emotional hunger feels urgent, comes on suddenly and leaves you feeling guilty for eating too much; real hunger, however, dawns gradually and can be put off, and usually doesn’t lead you to overeat. Once you recognize the kind of hunger you’re feeling, you can take the appropriate measures to deal with the urge. The best way to combat emotional eating is to deal with the root of the problem head on – to distract yourself if you’re bored or to perk yourself up if you’re down in the dumps, for example.
There’s no denying that one of the most significant concerns a woman can have, at one point or another in her life, is how to manage her weight. Striking the right balance when it comes to eating the right foods and doing enough exercise can be a struggle, particularly amidst the hectic everyday bustle of other priorities. While it can be easy to resort to celebrity-endorsed fad diets and get-skinny-quick eating regimes, the truth is that the best way to get in shape, and more importantly stay in shape, is the healthy way. While this method might require greater reserves of patience and dedication, nevertheless it does guarantee visible results – not just in regards to your dress size, but also significantly in terms of physical and mental health benefits.
The best way to go about losing weight is to establish a solid plan, one that comprehensively outlines exactly what you want to accomplish and how you mean to go about reaching
your goal(s). While that might sound daunting, the reality of the task simply requires you to be honest with yourself about your intentions and capabilities. Australia’s Better Health Channel, which is funded by the State Government of Victoria, highlights several important factors that you may want to consider when constructing a healthier food and exercise regime for yourself:
- Don’t skip meals! Often women fall into the trap of believing that skipping meals is a good way to lose weight, but actually, apart from depriving you of the energy and nutrients your body needs throughout the day, this action can skew your metabolism by causing you to overeat during your next meal, which could potentially result in unwanted weight gain.
- Consider why you overeat: If you are overweight or obese and are seeking to change your approach to food, it’s a good idea to reflect on reasons why you might be overeating, and brainstorm ways in which you can avoid these situations and/or change your habits when it comes to consuming excessive amounts of food.
- Get up! The best way to engage in regular exercise is to find an activity you genuinely enjoy doing – if you love dancing, for example, look into Zumba classes, or if you’re fond of swimming, you might want to consider doing laps at the local pool. If you’re not much of a sports person to begin with, take it slow when it comes to increasing your level of physical activity. Take advantage of social opportunities to exercise, like going on a long walk with a family member, or starting a yoga group with friends.
- Eat right: The rules might sound a bit cliché, but they are for a reason! If you eat from a variety of food groups, load up on fruits and vegetables, drink plenty of water and cut down on sugary treats, salty snacks and alcohol, you’ll be on the right track.
As with any other goal, it’s important for you to have a positive attitude and a realistic mindset when you’re putting your plan into action. While at times it can seem frustrating and hopeless, you just need to keep your eye on the prize to start seeing the pay off. Remember that fad diets, no matter how convincing they might seem, can only help you in the short term, if that – often, they cause more havoc than good, by disrupting your body’s natural metabolism and digestive system. Furthermore, both fad dieting and yo-yo dieting are terrible for morale, as the resulting fluctuations in weight can cause a despairing and disheartened outlook. This is where it is important to have the support of your friends and family, as well as faith in yourself, as strongly negative feelings in regards to one’s body image can signal the dangers of succumbing to an eating disorder.
Let’s be honest – when it comes to business down under, women can be a lot more complicated than men. Embarrassment aside, it can frankly just be difficult to know if there’s anything really wrong, especially if you’re unsure of what it is you’re supposed to be looking for. But for women especially, it’s of vital importance that they keep on top of their reproductive and sexual health, as unexpected complications can arise that may vastly affect future decisions and desires when it comes to having a family. When in doubt, you should always reach out to your general practitioner or another health professional. Whether you need to discuss your menstrual cycle, you’re considering a certain form of contraception, or you have another personal enquiry, always be sure to ask plenty of questions so that you exactly understand your individual situation.
When it comes to your menstrual cycle, there’s a broad range in what’s considered “normal” and what isn’t. Just like every woman’s body is different, so too is her menstrual cycle – you might have your period anywhere from two to seven days; it might arrive on exactly the same day every month or swing between certain days; you might have a regularly heavy flow, a light one, or a mix of both. It honestly just depends on your individual cycle. Typically, however, a rough pattern of some sort will emerge in the first few years after menstruation begins, which may be a pattern of regularity or irregularity. It’s when you notice something unusual that doesn’t fit within the normality of your own cycle, that you should look into the issue.
Keep in mind that the kind of contraception you use will affect the heaviness and regularity of your periods. Otherwise, there are a variety of reasons why you might be experiencing menstrual cycle irregularities. This could include, but is not limited to, pregnancy, eating disorders/extreme weight loss/excessive exercising, polycystic ovary syndrome (also known as PCOS), premature ovarian failure, pelvic inflammatory disease, and/or uterine fibroids. While such conditions are rare, and an irregular period could simply be attributed to any number of trivial reasons, if you do notice a significant change in your menstrual cycle, the best thing to do would be to contact your doctor. To decrease the chances of experiencing menstrual irregularities, every woman, especially those who are sexually active, should undertake regular pelvic examinations, so that potential problems can be observed and treated in advance.
2. Sexually Transmitted Infections
Also known as STIs or alternatively as STDs, it goes without saying that sexually transmitted infections are never pleasant, for the giver or the receiver. Safeguarding your sexual health against these diseases is particularly important for women, as although STIs can be passed on to both sexes, the long-term consequences are often much more severe for women, especially for pregnant women who can pass on serious health defects to their child. The correct use of latex condoms can vastly help to protect both partners against the dangers of STIs, though unfortunately never completely eliminating the risk of infection.
Sexually transmitted infections are typically caused by bacteria or viruses. Common forms of bacteria-ridden STIs include chlamydia, gonorrhoea and syphilis, which may or may not have visibly felt symptoms and can be cured by antibiotics. STIs that are caused by viruses, however, which include genital herpes and human papillomaviruses (HPV), cannot be treated, although there are medicines that can keep these diseases at bay. Women who are sexually active should undertake a pap smear or pelvic exam once or twice every couple of years to ensure their safety against sexually transmitted infections.
Whether you’re already planning to fall pregnant in the near future, or a baby is far off on the horizon of your life, it’s important that you do consider the ways in which your actions today might be impacting your chances of conceiving a child in the long run. There are many things that affect a woman’s fertility, and while you might not have control over certain factors when you decide to fall pregnant (your age, for example), there are some aspects of your lifestyle that you may want to reconsider. Your weight and your consumption of alcohol and tobacco all play important parts in affecting not only how long it takes you to conceive, but even more significantly, the health of your newborn child.
Being significantly underweight or overweight can greatly influence your chances of conceiving a healthy baby. If you are overweight or obese, this can cause hormonal imbalances and pregnancy complications, such as hypertension, infection, preeclampsia (high blood pressure and excessive protein in the urine that can restrict your baby’s growth), gestational diabetes, and stillbirth. Women who are underweight can similarly experience complications with the birth of their child, mainly that of a premature birth, which could seriously affect the healthy growth and development of the baby once it is born. Underweight women are also more than 50% likely to take over a year to fall pregnant, in comparison to women who are a healthy weight when attempting to conceive.
Most women know that they shouldn’t smoke tobacco and drink alcohol once they’re pregnant, but over indulging in either of these activities in the years before conceiving can also significantly affect your fertility. Studies have shown that smokers are twice as likely to be infertile as non-smokers, that smoking women experience menopause much earlier than women who do not smoke, and that even passive female smokers (women who do not smoke themselves, but who inhale the tobacco smoke of their partners or family members they live with) are more likely than females who live in non-smoking homes to take longer than a year to conceive. Meanwhile, consuming excessive amounts of alcohol even before conception again can affect how long it takes a woman to fall pregnant, often endangering her chances of delivering a healthy child.
For women, finding a suitable form of contraception can be compared to buying a pair of jeans – you have to find the right fit for your individual body. There are many different kinds of contraception, and it’s completely normal to feel a little overwhelmed by all the options. If you’re uncertain over what might work best for you, it’s a good idea to schedule an appointment with your GP so you can have a chat about your specific needs. Regardless of what kind of contraception you use, however, it’s important that you never engage in unprotected sex. Apart from protecting you from the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection, latex condoms are also a good safeguard against an unintended pregnancy. By combining a method of contraception with the use of a condom each time you have sexual intercourse, you’ll be doubling your chances of having safe and healthy sex.
For women, popular methods of contraception include the pill (of which there are two main types), a contraceptive injection, a skin implant, a diaphragm, or an intra-uterine device (IUD). Different women prefer different forms, depending on their particular lifestyle – for example, you may find taking the pill regularly to be a hassle, and prefer to opt for the implant or injection instead. It’s a good idea to discuss the pros and cons of each type of contraception with your doctor, and be sure to ask about the rates of effectiveness and how often each type needs to be consumed or renewed. The pill, for instance, is arguably the most commonly used form of contraception and is 99.7% effective with perfect use. Depending on which one of two types you take, the pill works by releasing hormones that stop the ovary from releasing an egg each month, or alternately by thickening the mucus at the entrance to the uterus to prevent the egg passing through.
It should come as no surprise to read that every action a pregnant woman takes, from what she eats and drinks to how much she exercises, has a great impact on the healthy development of her baby. You can probably read between the lines here and marvel at the effort it takes to carry a child – this is a situation in which the platitude “it’s all or nothing” definitely applies! Pregnant women have double, and sometimes even triple, as much incentive to work towards having a healthy body as other people do, as they are directly responsible for another human being’s physical and mental wellbeing.
Although it can become increasingly difficult to muster up the required energy, it is extremely beneficial for women to exercise regularly once they become pregnant. Engaging in low to moderate-intensity physical activity can help to relieve back pain and muscle tension, improve your quality of sleep, prepare your body for birth by increasing your endurance, and even enable you to return to your pre-pregnancy body more quickly. Pregnant women should discuss with their doctors what level and quality of exercise would be the safest for them over the duration of their condition.
Having a balanced and varied diet is always of prime importance for women at any stage in their lives, although there are additional nutrient requirements for those who are pregnant. The Royal New Zealand and Australian College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists recommend that pregnant women should consume foods that containing the following important vitamins, minerals and proteins:
- Folic acid: reduces the risk of neural tube defects and megaloblastic anaemia; can be found in fortified cereals, soy, chickpeas and lentils, green leafy vegetables and sunflower seeds.
- Vitamin B: extremely important for the infant’s neurodevelopment; can be found in red meat, eggs, milk and seafood such as trout, salmon, oysters and clams.
- Vitamin K: of vital importance to the production of proteins in the coagulation process; can be found in spinach, Brussels sprouts, broccoli and other green salad vegetables .
- Calcium: greatly reduces the risk of premature birth and preeclampsia; can be found in dairy food products such as reduced milk, hard yellow cheese and low-fat yogurt .
- Iodine: essential in furthering the growth and development of the infant’s brain and other organs; can be found in meat, eggs, seafood, seaweed and dairy products.
It goes without saying that, along with maintaining a healthy diet and engaging in regular exercise, pregnant women should refrain from indulging in alcohol and tobacco consumption, as well as other drug use. Consuming these harmful products can lead to severe birth complications and stunted infant development, particularly premature birth, small birth size and even Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Even if your baby is born with no obvious health problems, certain defects could make themselves known in later life. Women who smoke when they are pregnant, for example, are likely to have children who are plagued by asthma and/or other breathing complications well into their childhood, adolescence and adult life.
While it’s fairly easy to pinpoint ways in which a woman can improve her physical fitness, it would appear that boosting a person’s mental and emotional health is a little more difficult. The unfortunate truth is that there’s no sure-fire way to guarantee that someone can cultivate, and maintain, a mood of overall contentment and happiness. Despite the obviously less visible results, however, mental health is just as important to a woman’s wellbeing as her physical health. Studies have shown that mental illness is responsible for approximately 15% of all disease burdens in woman who live in the state of Victoria, and that depression is one of the main causes of disability in Victorian women, which emphasizes the concrete correlation between mental health and physical wellness. No-one likes feeling down in the dumps, but if you’re consistently experiencing deeply negative emotions, such as depression, anxiety and/or violent anger, it might be time to reach out to others for help.
Your emotional wellbeing is largely dependent on a variety of factors in your life and lifestyle, particularly your physical, social and cultural environment. The way you feel about yourself as a product of these factors defines your emotional and mental state, so your body image and your self-esteem, as well as the nature of your platonic, familial, professional and romantic relationships, can all play huge parts in dictating and influencing your perception of the world and of the self. Although there’s no precise method that can ensure your emotional wellbeing, maintaining a balance in all aspects of life and surrounding yourself with good, loving people is one of the first steps to feeling happier and healthier. Other ways in which you can boost the positive energy in your life include:
- Creating me time: They say that the moments in which we are truly ourselves are those times when we are completely alone. While having a social life always good for a person’s emotional and mental wellbeing, it’s equally important to spend time by yourself every now and then, whatever it is you choose to do on your own. These moments of solitude will allow you to reflect on your own actions, desires and priorities without the interference of others distracting you.
- Understanding yourself: Women have a tendency to be overly critical of themselves, whether this is concerning their physical appearances, their work performance, their social conduct, or any number of other behaviours. Often the onset of negative feelings in regards to any of these areas in a woman’s life is a product of her own fears and insecurities, and are thus largely self-directed and divorced from reality. It’s a good idea to just stop and think every now and then about whether things are really as bad as you think they are, as the small issues that women fret over frequently turn out to be insignificant in the long run.
- Knowing the right people: The friends, family and acquaintances we have in our lives have a vast influence on our feelings and our beliefs, and on our overall outlook on life. While at times it can be difficult to actively surround yourself with positive people who care about you and are in sync with your own values, doing so can significantly change your life for the better. Some of your personal relationships that may be steeped in history could have grown unhealthy or even toxic over time, and in these cases it might be the best idea to cut your losses and start afresh. Few women take the time to really contemplate the people they value the most in their lives, but it’s important to do so, and to let these individuals know what they mean to you.
If you do find yourself feeling constantly depressed, suffering from stress and anxiety, or experiencing suicidal thoughts, seek help and make your feelings known, either to a loved one or to a healthcare professional. Remember that things can only get better once you help others to help yourself.
Most people don’t like to imagine that contracting a serious illness or disease is a very real possibility, one that could affect anyone at any time. Such an idea undoubtedly inspires fear and distaste, which is a completely legitimate reaction – no-one wants to anticipate that the worst could happen, to themselves or to a loved one. That said, prevention before treatment is always the best policy to adopt when it comes to a person’s health. While there are many, potentially fatal conditions that can drastically affect a person’s wellbeing in negative ways, women should be particularly wary of the different types of cancers that can harm both their fertility and mobility, as well as their overall health.
1. Breast Cancer
Despite the popular misconception, the term “breast cancer” doesn’t actually describe one absolute type of cancer, but rather encompasses a range of cancers that originate in and/or affect the breast area. These include, among others, ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), which starts in the milk ducts and is the most common type of non-invasive breast cancer; Paget’s disease of the nipple, a rare form of invasive cancer which causes the nipple and areola to become red and itchy; locally advanced breast cancer, an invasive condition that spreads to other areas of the breast; and inflammatory breast cancer, which aggressively affects the blood vessels in the skin of the breast.
All women, especially young women and women who have a family history of breast cancer, should undergo a breast exam (otherwise known as a mammogram) every two years, in order to monitor any changes in the chest area. If you notice any unusual changes in your breasts at any time, such as an unexplainable lump or an area of irritation, you should contact your GP as soon as possible. If you’re feeling particularly worried about your individual risk factor, it would also be a good idea to discuss your concerns with your doctor.
2. Cervical Cancer
The cervix, which is also known as the neck of the uterus, is part of the female reproduction system, and is comprised of an outer area that opens into the vagina, and an inner surface which leads into the uterus. The cervix can become cancerous when the cells in this area begin to change. Cervical cancer occurs when these abnormal cells develop into cancer cells, which may be contained within the cervix but can also spread further into the vagina and other parts of the body.
Studies have shown that smoking tobacco can increase your chances of developing cervical cancer, as the chemicals in tobacco can damage the cells of the cervix. Otherwise, the leading cause of cervical cancer is now proven to be human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted wart virus that can affect multiple areas, such as the skin, vagina and cervix. Genital HPV, which infects approximately eight out of ten women at some point in their lives, is an extremely common strain of the disease, which only makes it more crucial that every sexually active woman should undertake a pap smear at least every two years. This will ensure that any pre-cancerous cells in the cervix are detected early, and can be treated before becoming dangerous.
3. Ovarian Cancer
There are three types of ovarian cancer: the epithelial type, which is by far the most common type and comprises approximately 90% of ovarian cancer cases; the germ cell type, which is when the cells which produce a woman’s eggs become cancerous; and the stromal type, which is the rarest type occurring within supporting tissues in the ovary. Ovarian cancer can at times be difficult to detect, as the symptoms (which may or may not include persistent abdominal, pelvic or back pain, cramps, changed bowel or urinary habits, painful sexual intercourse and/or vaginal bleeding) only tend to arise when the disease has already spread. There is also no known method of prevention for ovarian cancer, although risk factors to look out for include family history, infertility and ageing, wherein women over the age of fifty become increasingly susceptible to the disease.
4. Skin cancer
While it’s true that skin cancer can equally affect men and women, modern western culture’s fondness for tanning – whether under the actual sun, or with the use of artificial UV sources such as solariums – makes it ever more vital for women to be sun-smart and to take extra measures to protect their skin. Skin cancer comprises two different types: non-melanoma, which is the most common and can take the form of a new growth or sore that doesn’t heal in the usual ways, and malignant melanoma, which is much more serious and often appears as a changing mole or freckle.
There’s no doubt that Australian summers can be extremely harsh on the skin, which explains why skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the country. The good news is that there are many ways in which people can actively reduce their own chances of developing skin cancer, as virtually all risk comes from exposing your skin to the sun or to artificial UV sources. The best method of prevention is to simply cover up with clothing, and to liberally and regularly apply sunscreen when spending time outdoors. When seeking a suitable sunscreen, it’s best to look out for one that is broad spectrum, which means that it protects against both UVA and UVB rays, and has a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of at least 30+.
When it comes to women and their health, there’s no end to the mental issues and physical conditions that can arise. While there’s nothing you can to do to absolutely protect yourself against every illness and disease that you could ever potentially develop, being as informed as possible, and remaining in frequent contact with your GP or another health professional, can help you to hopefully stay ahead of the game. It’s always of utmost importance for both men and women to take their health seriously, as nothing inhibits your enjoyment of your lifestyle and your loved ones as much as a mental or physical affliction. Stay healthy, stay safe, and always respect your body and your mind to ensure long-lasting happiness and wellbeing.
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