Women need to pay more heed to their health and wellness. Neglecting your own fitness and state of health leads to a poorer quality of life with unnecessary ramifications. Steady weight gain over the years is only one of the many problems.
How many times have we told ourselves that the weight we’ve gained with age is “normal”? How many times have we been told that suffering from chronic non-communicable disease (like diabetes, hypertension, depression, heart disease) is part of ageing and therefore needs to be endured and treated symptomatically with pills, potions and procedures? How many times have we been told and have believed that a chronic disease is ‘hereditary’ and inevitable because our parents had it?
All these diseases have been ‘normalised’ and accepted with great deal of resignation. I suspect this resignation also stems from the fact that we really don’t want to or don’t know to change the course of our health. Women tend to neglect their fitness/wellness. There is always something else that seems to require their attention that is more important than their own health and wellbeing. Family, career, social work and so on. Sometimes this becomes an easy escape strategy to remain where they are, overweight or unhealthy with various degenerative illnesses. This is far from normal and should not be acceptable.
Speaking of fitness and weight alone (as there are other aspects of health I am not discussing here), as we age, we gain 1lb of fat and lose ½ lb of muscle every year after 35 (earlier if you are completely sedentary). Extrapolate these numbers and you will have a vague idea of the “quality of content” (amount of fat verses the amount of muscle) of your body by the age of 60. Understanding what losing muscle and gaining fat can do to your body in terms of functionality, not just appearance, may help you sit up and pay attention.
The function of muscles is locomotion or movement. Daily tasks cannot be performed if muscle mass and strength deteriorate. Accumulation of fat is not just about appearance. It hinders simple day-to-day tasks, acts as a repository of inflammation and toxins. The added weight places a great strain on the joints and spine, as they are not supported by strong muscles. It stresses the heart and lungs, which is why overweight individuals feel breathless while climbing stairs or performing any action which requires the heart and lungs to work harder. Unable to cope with excess weight and getting no help from the poorly conditioned muscles, the heart beats rapidly, sometimes even irregularly. The breathlessness is a result of the respiratory system trying to cope with the excess demand for oxygen by the working muscles. Poor oxygenation of the muscles leads to early fatigue and cramping as they try to work without oxygen.
Muscles respond to external stress or ‘resistance’ as it is called, provided the stress is applied in the right direction and is of the right intensity.
This is not an irreparable situation. There is hope for restoration, in even the most extreme cases. The extraordinary ability of the human body to rehabilitate is what makes it so special. The earlier one starts the process, the easier it will be and the better the results. But it is never too late to start a fitness programme. Studies have shown that even starting to train with weights to improve strength and introducing some amount of cardiovascular exercise even at 90 has beneficial spin-offs.
According to the WHO, we only require about 30 minutes of regular cardiovascular exercise (walking, running, cycling, aerobics etc) a day, five days a week for health improvement. They have also included strength training twice a week to build and strengthen muscle, which has been found to be a critical aspect of fitness.
Muscles respond to external stress or ‘resistance’ as it is called (as in weight training), provided the stress is applied in the right direction and is of the right intensity. This is important to emphasise as otherwise one might as well advise a 70-year-old woman to start training by shifting the furniture in her house. So it has to be personalised keeping in mind the age, fitness level, goals and health history of the individual.
Ideally, all women need to train with weights to improve strength and increase muscle mass. This becomes even more important after 30 when muscle mass starts to deplete, and a woman’s bones have a tendency towards osteoporosis. Weight training prevents osteoporosis and the depletion of muscle.
When one discusses weight training for women, one is often met with mild horror, if not outright shock and indignation. The truth is, it need not be as frightening as it sounds. One can start slow, with lighter weights or own bodyweight exercises and then grow to challenge one’s muscles further by increasing weight. As one builds strength and confidence, one begins to enjoy the sensation of sheer power that accompanies physical strength. Simple acts of climbing stairs, squatting, rising from sitting on the floor, or even just sitting on the floor, become easier.
Thomas Alva Edison once said “If we all did the things we are capable of, we would astound ourselves.” This is true of our fitness levels too. As long as one is not afraid of failure and gets the right professional guidance, one can always look at progress in the three main aspects of fitness — stamina, strength and flexibility, at any age. Weight loss is a byproduct of regular exercise, not the sole benefit.
Once you start exercising, you are in a better mood, able to deal with the mundane day-to-day activities or a stressful career without feeling overwhelmed.
Take a stand, your health and wellness is important. Introducing fitness creates so much positive energy that it seeps into every other aspect of your life. Set aside at least an hour, even half an hour, a day exclusively for yourself. Start small and grow within yourself, improving your health, both physical and emotional. You will find that once you start exercising, you are in a better mood, able to deal with the mundane day-to-day activities or a stressful career without feeling overwhelmed or stressed more than necessary.
It is all about quality of life, not just increased longevity.
The author is a lifestyle medicine physician. firstname.lastname@example.org