Health in Your 20s
Building good health through healthy habit.
For most women, our 20s are the healthiest time in our lives. This was when muffin tops applied only to baked goods, late night parties were effortlessly followed by getting to work on time and looking fresh, and there was no cellulite to spot-treat with specific exercises. Time was on our side and in spite of the abuse we subjected our bodies to (why not put on baby oil and lay out in the sun?), we still managed to look and feel young and healthy.
But now that I’m a physician taking care of adult patients, I see the reality of what happens when our 20s quickly become our 30s, 40s, 50s and so on. I’ve noticed my patients who had or at least started healthy habits in their 20s, and continued to practice them, do much better medically and physically than those who never did. I’ve seen firsthand that maintaining healthy habits is the “ounce of prevention” that yields an amazing payout later in life.
The trouble with this simple insight is that when we’re in our 20s, we’re invincible, and we too often ignore preventative health practices mainly because we haven’t yet experienced the aftermath.
Here are 9 healthy habits that are worth cultivating. They have the added benefit that they will still work—even if your 20s are as distant as your memories of eating pizza and beer without caring what the bathroom scale said in the morning.
1. Exercise Regularly. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in this country. Atherosclerotic heart disease (buildup of plaque) is caused by obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, smoking and other factors. Daily exercise can help decrease blood pressure, improve blood sugar and cholesterol, and independently reduce your risk of heart disease later in life. Plus, exercise is a “sentinel health habit”—meaning those who start an exercise program also often start other healthy behaviors. Win-win.
2. Get Enough Sleep. Adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night. Lack of sleep is implicated in obesity, heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease and stroke. Studies show that people who work night shifts don’t live as long—and their lack of sleep is a significant factor. It’s also important to have quality sleep. Put the electronics away, exercise daily (yes, exercise again), set a bedtime routine, and eliminate caffeine after noon and alcohol after 6 p.m. These tips will help instill good sleep habits and a healthier you.
3. Make Good Food Choices. Keep a food journal, write down everything you eat, and review your journal to see what changes you need to make. Some simple rules for healthier eating: 1) if you don’t recognize the ingredients on the label, don’t eat it, 2) if the package crinkles when you open it, don’t eat it, 3) shop the perimeter of the grocery store and focus on produce and fresh meats, 4) limit white carbohydrates (white bread, pasta). On this last point, carbs are sugars, and white sugars are already so refined your body doesn’t need to work to process them—so the extra calories end up as fat.
4. Don’t Smoke. Smoking causes heart disease and emphysema as well as lung, oral and a slew of other cancers. And did you realize it also causes yellow teeth, bad breath and a break-down in your skin’s collagen that can make you look much older than you are? Lose-lose.
5. Wear Sunscreen. Tanning bed users have a 75 percent higher risk for melanoma than those who don’t tan. Worse yet, the younger you are, the worse the risk is—because of increased years of exposure and the fact that cells of younger individuals are at higher risk to become cancerous. There’s no such thing as a “healthy tan.” Unless it comes in a tube.
6. Have Safe Sex Every Time. The 20s are often a time of sexual exploration. This carries risks. Some technically “curable” sexually transmitted infections (STIs)—such as gonorrhea or chlamydia—can cause significant problems such as infertility in women even after a “cure.” Other infections—HIV/AIDS or herpes—can never be cured. Using condoms with all sexual encounters will not eliminate the risk of STIs, but it will significantly decrease your chance of waking up with the “what is that?” crisis.
7. Drink Only in Moderation. If you do drink alcohol, drink only in moderation. For women, one drink of alcohol daily helps protect against heart disease; more than one increases our risk of breast cancer and can also cause other medical problems. Tip: One drink equals 12 ounces of beer (one bottle), OR just 5 ounces of wine (beware big, fancy wine glasses), OR 1 to 1.5 ounces of liquor. Measure your alcohol and use appropriate sized glasses.
8. Treat Mental Illness. Mental illness should be treated like every other illness. Women report much higher rates of depression and anxiety than men and nearly one in five women will experience depression during their lifetime. If you or someone you know seems depressed, has lost interest in previously fun activities, or is otherwise having issues with stress or anger, call your physician for a consultation. Treatment can help.
9. Have a Positive Social Network. Studies have shown that people with quality friendships live longer, healthier lives than those with few or poor social ties. Your 20s are an excellent time to think about who you are and who you want to be and to cultivate positive relationships that help you be the best you possible.
So, get going on these healthy habits.
Dr. Baird is board certified in Internal Medicine by the American Board of Internal Medicine and practices in Southern Chester County. Her professional interests include management of high blood pressure, diabetes and cholesterol disorders, and special interests include cardiovascular health and preventative healthcare. 610-345-1900; PennMedicine.org/PrimaryCare.
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