When people think about women’s health, they think of issues like pregnancy, uterine fibroids, infertility, pap smears, etc. They forget that a woman’s health encompasses every part of her body and not just her feminine parts. Some diseases afflict both men and women alike and should be addressed when we discuss women’s health. The knowledge in this article will guide us to make decisions that will improve our overall health.
February is usually the month that campaigns (or events) are organised to raise awareness for the prevention of heart disease. This ties into the Valentine’s Day celebrations where the heart or love is the focus. Heart health is very important as the good functioning of the heart is key to being healthy and alive.
Did you know that heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in women? It causes more deaths than all cancers combined yet so many women are scared to death of the ‘Big C’ without any care for the ‘Big H’. Women tend to take care of everyone around but themselves. We get so busy during the day and exhausted at night that the thought of going for a jog equates to being hit by a car. There is no shortcut to having a healthy heart, so here are some tips that will get one started on the journey of good health.
Diet: A healthy diet can prevent one from having a heart attack or a stroke. We must avoid or eat in small amounts food that contains salts, sugars, saturated fats, and refined carbohydrates. You can eat some of these occasionally if you have an overall healthy diet of heart-healthy fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and low-fat dairy. Examples of foods that we should avoid are:
- Red meat (high in saturated fat, which can boost cholesterol),
- White rice, yam, bread, and pasta made from white flour. They lack healthy fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Refined carbohydrates convert to sugar and the body stores it as fat, especially belly fat. An increase in belly fat (abdominal girth) increases your risk of coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes. It is advised to use 100% whole grains.
- Soda: Drinkers tend to gain more weight and are more likely to be obese and have type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
- Baked Goods: Yummy cakes, chocolate chips cookies should be for special days. They contain loads of sugar and can lead to weight gain which is linked with diabetes and heart disease. A spike in your blood sugar makes you feel hungrier. It is best to make healthier treats with whole wheat flour, a small amount of sugar or sweeteners, and liquid plant oils.
- Processed meat like hot dogs, sausage, bacon: contain high amounts of salt, sodium, and saturated fat.
- Alcohol: Moderate to heavy drinking can lead to high blood pressure, heart failure, strokes, and weight gain. So, it should not be a habit.
- Fried foods (e.g. chicken, plantain, yam chips, potato chips): Studies have linked fried food with type 2 diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure, all of which raise your risk for heart disease and subsequent heart failure.
Have you noticed how some of these foods are popular comfort foods? As a stress eater myself, I find it hard to imagine a life without white rice and bread! I am sure the health freaks are raising an eyebrow but I have to keep it real! Now that I have got that off my chest, I must caution you that we must make the effort to avoid (or resist) these foods if we want to live a healthy and long life.
Exercise. It is really important to include exercise into your daily routine as difficult as it may be. Exercise has so many benefits aside from improving heart health. It strengthens your muscles, reduces fatigue, builds self-confidence, helps you stop bad habits (smoking alcohol), and most importantly lowers stress which is a major risk factor for so many other diseases.
Exercise can be as simple as walking or complex as a high-intensity workout. During the COVID pandemic lockdown, many of us were able to work out at home with the help of YouTube exercise channels. It is important to choose an exercise routine that you enjoy as it does take a lot of self-motivation to start exercising. I love dancing so I enjoy dance aerobics especially if it is to a music genre that I like. The fact about exercising is that it may be hard to start but once it becomes part of your routine, you find out that your day is not complete without it. Robin Sharma says it all in this powerful quote: “If you don’t make time for exercise, you’ll probably have to make time for illness.”
There are basic components that should be incorporated into your exercise programme that can promote heart health such as:
- Cardio or aerobic exercises (brisk walking, running, swimming, cycling, playing tennis, and jumping rope): These exercises improve blood circulation and how well the heart pumps (cardiovascular conditioning). The benefits of aerobic exercises include decrease in the risk of heart disease, lowers blood pressure, controls blood sugar, and weight management. The American Heart Association recommends 30 mins of cardiovascular exercise five to seven days a week.
- Resistance (strength) training can help reduce fat and create leaner muscle mass. It is particularly effective in reducing belly fat that becomes a huge challenge as you grow older. An increase in abdominal girth or belly fat is a big risk factor for heart disease. It is recommended to do this at least two nonconsecutive days a week.
III. Stretching, flexibility, and balance will benefit our muscles and joints. Incorporating this type of exercise into our routine helps us maintain flexibility and stay free from joint pain, cramping, and other muscular issues. Flexibility is critical in our being able to maintain aerobic exercise and resistance training which is highly beneficial for our hearts.
I must note that it is very important that you see your doctor before you start any exercise programme to ensure there are no limitations.
Stop bad habits. Smoke from cigarettes, cigars, or pipes is bad for the heart and significantly increases your risk for a heart attack (myocardial infarction) or stroke. There is also an increased risk (20-30%) for those exposed to second hand smoke. For women above the age of 35 who are on birth control pills, cigarette smoking puts them at a greater risk for heart disease and stroke.
Some studies have shown that moderate drinking of alcohol, which is defined as an average of one drink per day for women, may not harm the heart. But heavy drinking of alcohol increases your risk of heart disease. To optimise your heart health, stop the bad habits!
An unexpected bill payment, loss of a job, a sick family member, marital/relationship problems, or suffering through a chronic medical condition are some of the stressors we deal with in our daily lives. We react to these stressors in different ways. The COVID-19 pandemic made stress a reality for many people from children to the elderly. The pandemic has affected us all. Managing stress effectively is not only important for heart health but to our overall health. Excessive stress has been linked to several medical conditions, such as gynecological disorders, cancers etc.
Excessive stress can contribute to the behaviour and factors that may lead to heart disease – high blood pressure and cholesterol, overeating, inactivity due to physical and mental fatigue, smoking, heavy drinking, sleep problems. Constant stress can lead to depression and anxiety that is also connected to poor heart health. Managing your stress is important to ensure a healthy heart and body.
When you’re pregnant, your heart works harder. Your blood volume increases to support the growth of your baby. So, it is important to eat a heart-healthy diet, exercise (speak to a doctor first), don’t smoke or drink alcohol, take your prenatal vitamins and manage stress effectively to ensure optimal heart health.
Before menopause, women have a lower risk of heart disease than men. This changes with menopause because estrogen withdrawal has a detrimental effect on the function of the heart and the risk for heart disease increases dramatically. However, engaging in a healthy lifestyle before menopause reduces this risk.
Menopause leads to physiological changes in our bodies such as a change in body fat distribution (increase in belly fat), increase in cholesterol, sleep disturbances, and mood changes that affect our heart health. These changes can be mediated by maintaining a healthy lifestyle, therefore, protecting our hearts.
There is so much more to talk about regarding women and heart health. It just shows you that women’s health is all-encompassing and not just limited to our reproductive parts. I hope this article has shown how important it is for us to take time out for our health. “Communities and countries and ultimately the world are only as strong as the health of their women.” – Michelle Obama.