Filed under: Women's health
Exercise is an important lifestyle tool to help reduce your risk for breast and other cancers such as lung and colon cancer. While your genetics play a role in the development of some breast cancers, research has found that regular exercise can reduce your risk by an average of 25%. It may even improve your chance of recovery if you’ve already been diagnosed. Gentlemen take note: Men can get breast cancer too.
It’s never too late to start getting active. While exercise at any age can reduce your risk for breast cancer, the greatest benefit seems to be for adult women, especially those over the age of 50. It’s important to be physically active throughout the day, not just when you’re exercising. Even household, recreational, and occupational activities can have an impact on reducing risk for breast cancer.
Of course, early detection can be critical for dealing with breast cancer. Make sure you conduct regular breast self-exams. If you find anything that worries you, talk to your doctor right away.
If you have already been diagnosed with breast cancer, talk to your doctor about what kinds of activities are safe for you to do while undergoing treatment. Exercise and physical activity during cancer treatment also can be healthy for mind and body, can manage fatigue, and may lower the risk of progression. Just another reason to get out and get active!
The Female Athlete Triad is a health condition that commonly affects physically active girls, teens, and women, especially those involved in activities that have a heavy emphasis on weight and physical appearance. It’s characterized by energy deficiency, amenorrhea (menstrual disturbances), and osteoporosis (bone loss), which can leave you tired, anxious, and unmotivated—an equation for poor performance. It can also put you at risk for serious health problems such as muscle loss, dehydration, and stress fractures.
Female service members can be at risk for developing the Triad if they don’t get enough calories (underfueling) and if training is too intense. But you can prevent it easily by focusing on your overall health and nutrition rather than your weight and by following these tips:
- Eat when you’re hungry and include a variety of nutrient-rich foods such as lean sources of protein—lean fish, poultry, beans, nuts, and low-fat dairy products—along with whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Skipping meals and snacks or severely restricting your food intake will keep you from getting enough calories and other important nutrients such as protein, vitamins, and minerals.
- Eat a recovery snack that consists of carbs and protein after your workout. Carbs are your body’s primary fuel source to keep you energized, and you need protein to build and repair your muscles.
- Talk to a registered dietitian (RD) for an individual nutrition plan. An RD who specializes in sports nutrition can help you choose the best foods and the right amounts to optimize your performance.
Remember, food is the fuel that helps you to perform at your best. For more, read this handout from the Female Athlete Triad Coalition.
Listen up, ladies! Women are more likely to engage in physical activity if they do it as part of a group and if they have friends who are active. Whether you’re looking for a group exercise class, a spotter for strength training, or a partner to join you on your run, social support from friends or family increases your chances of sticking to an exercise plan.
Women also enjoy activities more when they’re done with others instead of alone. Feeling better about a workout leads to more minutes of exercise per week too. Surround yourself with others who want to stay fit and have similar goals. You can decide whether you want to join an organized exercise group or keep it small and informal by asking one of your friends to participate in an exercise routine. Either way, get motivated!
For more about Women’s Health Month, visit the Military Health System website during October.
Exercise leading up to and during pregnancy has many health benefits. Recently, the effects of exercising during pregnancy have been found to benefit the birth process as well. Regular exercise with pregnancy can contribute to a healthy birth weight for your baby without increasing the risk of premature birth. It may even decrease the risk of needing an unscheduled cesarean birth. For these reasons, continuing your exercise routine could help you have a healthier and safer birth. Staying active contributes to a healthier pregnancy. It also helps you maintain a healthy weight and establishes exercise habits that, if continued after your baby is born, help you get rid of the weight gained during pregnancy. There are many ways to keep up with your physical fitness during pregnancy while still keeping you and your baby safe.
The benefits of exercise in the postpartum period (six to eight weeks after delivery) include decreased physical, mental, and general fatigue, in addition to improved fitness and motivation. It may even reduce depression, as long as the exercise relieves stress rather than provokes it.
Some women who exercise during their pregnancy and immediately resume exercise after giving (vaginal) birth aren’t at risk for post-partum complications (such as excessive or prolonged bleeding, uterine inversion, or infection). However, most women don’t meet the recommendations for exercise during pregnancy, so when you do resume exercise, you should do so gradually.
You may be concerned that exercise could decrease your milk supply; however, exercising women who drink enough fluid (stay hydrated) and eat enough to meet their caloric needs continue to produce enough breast milk. Composition of breast milk remains the same with moderate exercise intensity, but vigorous exercise can cause lactic acid to appear in the milk, which could affect how well your baby accepts your milk. Consider nursing before participating in vigorous exercise.
Returning to physical activity after giving birth depends on the individual. Be sure to discuss your exercise habits and plans with your doctor before resuming your regular workout routine. Visit this web page from The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists to learn more about exercise in the postpartum period. Stay healthy for you and your baby!
The month of October is Military Health System’s Women’s Health Month. There are more than 350,000 female members of the military (16% of the total military force). While it’s important for all military members to consume nutritious diets, women have special nutrient needs: iron, folic acid, and calcium.
Iron. Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency among women. Poor dietary intake of iron combined with intense physical activity can lead to fatigue, weakness, and pale skin—all signs of iron-deficiency anemia (IDA). Iron-rich foods include meat, poultry, fish, spinach, beans, and fortified cereals. Consume these foods with vitamin C–rich foods such as strawberries and oranges for better iron absorption. HPRC discusses other reasons for IDA in this article on “Iron deficiency.”
Folic acid. Women of childbearing age need enough folic acid to reduce the risk of birth defects. But even if you’re not pregnant, folic acid helps make blood cells that boost your immune system. Folic acid can be found in leafy green vegetables, beans, peas, and fortified cereals and bread.
Calcium. Compared to men, women are at greater risk for osteoporosis, in which bones become weak and are more likely to break. Women need to start getting more calcium at an early age to keep bones strong. Calcium-rich foods include low-fat dairy products, tofu, kale, and fortified cereals and juices. Vitamin D is also important to help the absorption of calcium. Read more about vitamin D in HPRC’s Vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin.”
All of these nutrients can be found in supplement form, but as with any dietary supplement, consult your doctor first to determine if they are necessary and safe. For more information on supplements, read HPRC’s “Women's health and dietary supplements.” Remember, most people can achieve adequate intake of these nutrients with a balanced diet. Poor nutrition puts you at risk for injuries and makes it harder for you to perform at your best.
If you’d like to know more about women’s health, visit the Military Health System's web page.
The Air Force recently launched a new website to support pregnant Airmen: Pregnancy A to Z. It provides information from real parents and physicians through videos that provide tips for the first trimester all the way through to delivery and post-partum. Check out the exercise library too—keeping fit while you’re pregnant is essential for a healthy pregnancy and an easy recovery. And the site isn’t just for moms. Dads-to-be will find helpful information as well.
There are more than 200,000 women in the military today—almost 15% of active duty members. Not surprisingly then, pregnancy in the military has become a hot health topic as more and more women choose to serve. Even though most women should exercise during pregnancy, pregnant women still engage in less physical activity than their non-pregnant counterparts. Being active during pregnancy has a lot of health benefits, including maintaining a healthy weight and reducing risk of gestational diabetes and preeclampsia, stress, operative or assisted deliveries, and labor time. Remember this very important message – Don’t ignore pain or fatigue; listen to your body and consult your healthcare provider if you have concerns!
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recommends that healthy pregnant women engage in moderate-intensity aerobic exercise at least 150 minutes a week, which comes out to around 20-30 minutes a day. Women who already engage in vigorous-intensity exercise can continue physical activity at this level as long as they remain healthy and check with their healthcare provider about when to adjust activity levels (and what limits they should keep in mind). A healthy fetus is not adversely affected even by vigorous exercise, but be careful that you don’t overdo it. Remember that your body is changing with pregnancy—it may take more effort to do the same exercises you did before you were pregnant, and you may not realize when you’re pushing yourself too hard. Monitor your heart rate and use tools such as the talk test to gauge intensity. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) has adopted the age-based heart rate ranges for pregnant women from the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada.
After giving birth, you may find that the “baby weight” gained during pregnancy is stubbornly hanging around. Excess weight carries a whole host of adverse health risks, so keep moving—even walking for 45 minutes three to four times per week at low to moderate intensity can reduce risk of chronic disease. As with any exercise program, resuming activity after giving birth should be a gradual process (after consulting with your Doctor).
Certain general precautions should be taken with exercise during pregnancy. Avoid contact sports and exercises that increase the risk of falling. Avoid exercises that require stomach-down (supine) positions, with the exception of swimming during pregnancy, which doesn’t place stress on your joints like other forms of exercise do. Regular exercise before you get pregnant can help you prepare for the physical changes that occur during pregnancy and keep you ready and resilient for your family and your military service.
If you’re pregnant, keep in mind there isn’t any consensus about exercising at altitude, so it’s even more important to know the symptoms of acute mountain sickness (AMS). Take time to acclimatize if you travel to altitudes above 2500 meters and allow two or three days before exercising moderately. Wait for complete acclimatization before engaging in heavy exercise.
First and foremost, however, if you become pregnant, consult with your healthcare provider before starting or continuing any exercise routine. Also, each service branch has its own policies regarding pre- and post-natal exercise ().
Military servicewomen are exempt from physical fitness tests for a minimum of six months after giving birth. For many, though, this may not be enough time to get back to pre-pregnancy fitness levels. To date, studies have found that after pregnancy many active-duty women had slower run times, were not able to do as many push-ups, and had lower overall fitness scores compared to their pre-pregnancy fitness tests. One Air Force study found that sit-ups were the only component of the fitness test that didn’t change after pregnancy, despite increases in abdominal circumference. While exercise is generally recommended for women during pregnancy, there are many reasons why a lot of women stop, decrease, or are unable to do physical training during this time—having a baby is exhausting! Lack of sleep and sleep disturbances, quality and quantity of family support systems, breastfeeding needs, hormonal changes, and the physical stress of childbirth all impact recovery and performance. Getting back into an exercise routine takes time and patience. Discuss any possible restrictions with your doctor before starting. Begin slowly and at lower intensities until you feel stronger. Brisk walking, especially with your baby, is good exercise and good bonding time.
About half of all military personnel use some dietary supplements, and military women most commonly use weight-loss supplements. But is there a place for dietary supplements in enhancing women’s health? Dietary supplements, by definition, are intended to “supplement the diet” and can contain a dietary ingredient such as a vitamin, mineral, herb or other botanical, amino acid, or combinations of these and/or other substances or constituents intended to be consumed by mouth.
Active women may require more nutrients, but vitamin and mineral needs normally can be met by eating a variety of nutrient-rich foods. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans focus largely on the recommendation that nutrient-dense foods and beverages—such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, lean meats and poultry, eggs, nuts and seeds—can provide all the nutrients needed by most everyone. These recommendations are based on research that shows a varied, healthy diet lowers the risk of most diseases.
Some dietary supplements have been found to be beneficial for women’s health, such as folic acid, iron, and calcium. Folic acid, a B vitamin involved in the production of new cells in the body, has been shown to help prevent birth defects. Women who are thinking of becoming pregnant or are pregnant should take a supplement that includes 400 micrograms of folic acid per day. Fortified foods such as green, leafy vegetables, enriched whole grain breads, flour, pasta, rice, and most ready-to-eat cereals also contain folic acid. Adolescent girls, women of childbearing age, and especially pregnant women also need more iron, which is a mineral involved in the transport of oxygen in the body. Women in these groups should choose iron-rich foods, particularly red meat, fish, and poultry, as well as iron-fortified foods. When iron levels are low, symptoms may include feeling extra tired and weak, along with a decrease in immune function. A healthcare provider or dietitian can determine the need for supplementation if diet alone cannot maintain iron levels or for those who have iron-deficiency anemia. Calcium is an important mineral that helps maintain strong bones, healthy teeth, and proper functioning of the heart, muscles, and nerves. All women should strive to get their calcium from foods such as low-fat milk, yogurt, cheese, dark-green, leafy vegetables, and foods such as orange juice and soy milk that have been calcium-fortified. Those who may need more should discuss calcium supplement options with a dietitian, since there are many forms available and it is important to determine how much and which kind is suitable for your particular needs.
Some dietary supplement products marketed for weight loss are targeted toward women. Do they work? According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), some weight-loss supplements contain hidden prescription drug ingredients. For additional information, see Operation Supplement Safety’s (OPSS) “Are there any safe supplements to help me lose weight?” Furthermore, women looking to enhance their performance may turn to dietary supplement products. OPSS has additional resources for competitive athletes to search for particular products that are certified, as well as helpful red flags on what to avoid.
Some women’s nutrient needs differ from those of men, and they can vary over the course of a lifetime. From adolescent girls, to women of childbearing age, to women over 50, these needs change based on the demands of the physiological changes that occur in the body. One thing is certain: A variety of nutritious food is really the spice of life and should be the basis for fueling all of life’s stages.