Jan 31, 2023 What Healthy Women Know

illustration of a group of diverse women

Learn about 5 keys to optimal health.

Women go through many life stages and their health needs change accordingly. Staying healthy may seem daunting, but it’s not complicated. “Preventive health is extremely important,” says Nadia Aurora, MD, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Jersey City Medical Center (JCMC). “Beyond having an annual physical— which every woman should do—there are screenings and tests that women should have at different ages, as well as steps they can take on their own, or in tandem with their health care provider, to help ward off disease.”

Nadia Aurora, MD
Nadia Aurora, MD

1. Maintain Your Gynecologic and Reproductive Health

Starting in adolescence, women should have an annual gynecologic checkup that includes a pelvic exam, a Pap smear (generally every one to three years), a breast exam and other age-appropriate screenings, such as HPV tests. “Your needs and priorities will change, of course, as you get older,” says Dr. Aurora. For instance, before a woman becomes sexually active, she should speak with her OB/GYN about birth control options and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. If she decides to plan a family, she should consult with her doctor about how to prepare her body for pregnancy— and, if she cannot become pregnant, about other options such as fertility treatments. “All women should know how to do breast self-exams,” says Dr. Aurora. “And starting at age 40, women at average risk of breast cancer should have a mammogram every one to two years.”

2. Eat a Healthy Diet

The adage “you are what you eat” is more than just a cliché. “All women should maintain a healthy diet that, generally speaking, includes a balance of lean protein, healthy fats, complex carbohydrates such as whole grains and a variety of fruits and vegetables,” says Dr. Aurora. Women who have special dietary needs, restrictions or health issues should consult with their primary care provider and/or a registered dietitian or nutritionist. “It’s important to limit salt and sugar intake and to choose fresh foods rather than processed foods whenever possible,” says Dr. Aurora. What you eat affects literally every system in your body, not just your digestion. A balanced diet will also help you maintain a healthy weight. In addition, studies have shown that there is a correlation between the foods you eat and your moods.

3. Exercise Regularly

“It’s important to do some form of exercise every day,” says Dr. Aurora. While every woman’s needs and abilities are different, regular exercise is essential for optimal health. Take a walk, ride a bike, swim, dance—just get moving, and aim for at least a half hour of moderate exercise per day, incorporating strength training twice a week. “Being sedentary is not just bad for your heart, it’s also bad for your bones,” says Dr. Aurora. Inadequate exercise can also affect your mental health. Studies have shown that exercise can help alleviate some symptoms of depression, stress and anxiety and can also help with self-esteem. Be sure to check with your health care provider about a regimen that’s appropriate for your specific health needs. Stretching is also important, and, for people who have mobility issues, there are options such as chair yoga, which can help alleviate stiffness and keep muscles supple.

4. Get Proper Sleep

Sleep is more important than many people realize. “It is one of the few things we cannot live without,” says Dr. Aurora. “Like water and oxygen, it is essential to our survival.” Yet the majority of people either do not get enough sleep—usually seven to nine hours a night—or enough quality sleep, which means restful, restorative, uninterrupted sleep. To get restorative sleep, be consistent with your bedtime habits (i.e., try to go to bed and wake up at roughly the same time every day); sleep in a dark room; be sure your bedroom temperature is comfortable and not too warm; avoid large meals, caffeine and alcohol before bedtime; and turn off electronic devices, including your phone. “Exercising during the day will also help you sleep better at night,” says Dr. Aurora.

5. Don’t Neglect Your Mental Health

Simply put: Mental health is health. Your mind is part of you, and, when it comes to staying healthy, it’s impossible to separate your body and your mind. It’s important to address and manage stress, anxiety and depression and to know when to seek professional help. Exercise, yoga and meditation can help alleviate mild symptoms, but if you begin to feel overwhelmed, you should seek professional help. Stress can have a profound effect on your physical health, especially your heart health, because it can induce the release of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, which in turn cause an increase in blood pressure and injury to the inner layer of your heart vessels (endothelium), leading to a heart attack. “Women may be more susceptible to depression at certain life stages, such as during and after pregnancy and at menopause,” says Dr. Aurora. “Know that you are not alone. If you experience symptoms of depression, help is readily available.” Talk to your provider, who can refer a mental health specialist.

3 Essential Tests Every Woman Should Have

1. Blood Pressure Test. Blood pressure should be tested at your annual physical. A healthy range is generally 120/80. If yours is above normal, your provider will advise you accordingly.

2. Lipid Profile. This tests total cholesterol, LDL, HDL and triglycerides and should be done annually.

3. PAP Test. This test is used to check for changes in cervical cells before they turn into cancer. Pap tests are recommended every one to three years, depending on your overall health and whether you’ve had an abnormal result in the past.

In addition, women should have an annual eye exam and dental exam. Starting at age 40, they should have a mammogram; at age 50, a colonoscopy; and at age 65, a bone density test (for osteoporosis).

Learn more information about women’s health services at Jersey City Medical Center (JCMC).