Women's Health Hot Line


3 steps to total body fitness

You're the star in your aerobics class, so you know you're being good to your heart. But is that enough for your whole body? Not if you're female! Experts say women need three types of exercise for total body fitness.

An aerobic workout is indeed good for your heart; that means at least 20 minutes at your ideal target heart rate three to five times a week.

But aerobic exercise is not enough. You need to do weight-bearing exercise as well. This type involves impact on your joints; walking is a good example. This kind of exercise will build up your bones, helping to prevent osteoporosis, the so-called brittle bone disease of aging women.

You also need strength resistance training, which might include increasing your upper-body strength with light weights.

Total body fitness is important if you want to ensure that you will not be confined to a nursing home when you’re older. In fact, experts say physical condition is the biggest indicator of independence in later life!

Women's sports come of age

When I was growing up, sports meant one thing — gym class. Times have changed. This summer, an unprecedented number of women are participating in the Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta. Strong women. Proud women. It's a grand time to be female.

Inspired, many of us are taking to the jogging paths and bike trails. This is important, not only for us as women, but for our health as well.

Playing sports offers impressive health benefits. Consider breast cancer, for example. The medical profession knows very little about how to prevent breast cancer. But, according to a study published in 1994 in the National Journal of the Cancer Institute, young women who exercise four hours a week reduce their breast cancer risk by almost 60 percent.

This was not the first time exercise was found to possible reduce cancer risk. In the 1980s, Harvard School of Public Health geneticist Rose Frisch surveyed 5,398 female college graduates to see which characteristics corresponded with future good health. Women who played team sports reduced their lifetime risk of breast cancer by 35 percent and cervical, uterine and other reproductive cancers by 61 percent.

Researchers speculate that exercise may favorably alter the production of the ovarian hormones estrogen and progesterone during the menstrual cycles. Other research shows vigorous exercise can delay the onset of menstruation, decreasing a woman's lifetime exposure to estrogen, which may lower breast cancer risk.

Regular exercise is credited with decreased risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis and colon cancer. Women who exercise regularly suffer less from depression and stress and report an increased sense of well-being. Some studies indicate exercise might also help us weather the symptoms of menopause.

This transformation of sports from a virtually all-male enclave into an equal opportunities arena got a tremendous boost in 1972, when the federal government passed a civil rights law forbidding discrimination against girl's school sports. Since then, participation of girls and women at all levels in sports has mushroomed. Before, only one out of 27 high school girls played competitive sports; now one-third do.

But this battle is not over. Girls in poor cities cannot afford the time or equipment necessary to play. Without professional teams, college girls must give up their athletic careers when they are at their peak.

There also is a backlash brewing against this law; Brown University, for one, is challenging a ruling that it violated the law by not providing female students the same athletic opportunities given to men.

We must not roll back the clock. Women aren't playing sports just for fun. It's not only important for the Olympics; it's important for our health and the health of our daughters as well.

Exercise: How Much is Enough?

"No pain, no gain" was the rule a few years back. Experts at the federal Center for Disease Control decreed that getting in shape required — at the barest minimum — at least 20 minutes of vigorous activity several times a week.

But then, these very same experts seemed to change their tune. In conjunction with the American College of Sports Medicine, the CDC issued a statement relaxing its point of view. Instead, the organization urged Americans to perform 30 minutes of moderate activity each day.

Furthermore, this exercise didn't have to be done all at once, or even be particularly strenuous. Suddenly, activities like gardening, raking leaves and even dancing, counted.

But is this too good to be true? It seemed so when a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that women runners whose exercise levels far exceeded the revised CDC guidelines reaped more health benefits than those who didn't.

Confused? Don't be. In issuing its more relaxed guidelines, the CDC was being realistic, recognizing that millions of American's don't exercise at all. The more relaxed guidelines are designed to encourage the millions of us who don't exercise at all to get off our duffs; it was not intended to encourage the active among us to slack off.

So, if you're basically a couch potato, take heed from the CDC's message. Go for a walk, do some gardening, go dancing. By gradually increasing your exercise level you may eventually find yourself exceeding it and becoming more active than you ever imagined.

Can you be fat — and fit?

If you're fat, you can't be fit. True or false?

You've probably answered "true." After all, it's been dunned into us that if you've overweight, you must not care about your health.

This apparent truism was underscored last year, when the results of a Harvard study showed that women who gained as little as an extra twenty pounds increased their risk of dying. If you want to avoid heart disease, diabetes, stroke, high blood pressure and even some cancers, then lose weight, the experts all chorus.

But this is easier said than done. Millions of us spend billions of dollars each year on diets, to no avail. And even if we strive to reject society's cult of thinness, we're left with the lingering fear that we're still eating our way to our graves.

Steven Blair thinks this is wrong. An epidemiologist at the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research in Dallas, Blair points out that studies which equate overweight with early death have one thing in common — they've neglected to factor in physical fitness. It may not be the extra pounds which are unhealthy, but the lack of fitness, he contends.

In studies he's done at the Institute, he's found that those who are fat do risk earlier death, but only if they're not physically fit. As for those who are slender, they risk an earlier death too, if they don’t exercise, Blair's study showed.

The bottom line? Being heavy doesn't mean you can't be fit. You can reap benefits from exercise, no matter what the scale reads.

Gifts for a healthy Valentine's Day

On Valentine's Day, why not give someone you love the gift of good health. Here are suggestions for gifts that can make a real difference in their lives:

  • A Walkman and audio cassette of music for walking, jogging or running. From country tunes to Broadway, there are tapes to suit everyone's taste.
  • Dance lessons - for couples, such as ballroom or square dancing, or go solo with jazz, tap or ballet.
  • Exercise clothing - a leotard or sweat suit.
  • A gift certificate for a pair of new athletic shoes.
  • A subscription to a health or sports magazine.
  • A gift certificate for a stress-easing massage.
  • A set of weights and an instructional video.
  • A basket filled with health and beauty aids that you assembled yourself.
  • A donation in your loved one's name to a favorite health-oriented charity.
  • A journal with pages designed to record healthy habits.
  • A certificate promising to join in a specified number of walks.

You're limited only by your imagination. But don't forget the best gift of all is to give of yourself. Joining your spouse, parent or child in healthy activities is a way to parlay your gifts into benefits that you'll enjoy, too.