Women's Fitness Needs,
Milestone By MilestoneAn Excerpt from the book By Pamela Peeke, M.D., M.P.H.,
Author of Body-for-LIFE for Women: A Womans
Plan for Physical and Mental Transformation
I've worked with thousands of
women. Twenty-somethings to 50-plus career women. Anorexics and starvers to
bingers and bulimics. Top athletes to women who were so obese that they could
barely walk a block. For all of them, a customized fitness "prescription"
became an essential part of their self-care.
Although women of every age reap
tremendous physical and mental benefits from regular physical activity, age is
a factor in how much and what kind of activity their bodies need in order to
get fit, energetic, and strong. Here's a Milestone-by-Milestone description of
a woman's physical activity needs.
Milestone 1: Menstruation to First Pregnancy
Women in Milestone 1, with their
surging estrogen and burgeoning breasts, hips, and thighs, typically have 21 to
32 percent body fat, well within a healthy range. They can keep this optimal
level with regular physical activity. And because there's evidence that heart
disease and diabetes can begin to develop in adolescence -- even childhood --
being active now, and staying active, can help protect them from heart disease,
cancer, and diabetes down the road.
The benefits of fitness extend
beyond physical health. Research shows that physical activity eases stress and
depression in girls and that girls who play sports have a more positive body
image and higher self-esteem than those who don't. For that matter, girls who
are active in sports are less likely to contemplate suicide than girls who
aren't; they tend to spend more time concentrating on their physical
accomplishments and the fun of teamwork than obsessing about their weight.
Another study shows that when preteens and teen girls get in just 30 to 40
minutes of exercise each day, they can lower by 30 percent their likelihood of
developing breast cancer later in life.
Milestone 2: The Reproductive Years
Women don't get fat from
pregnancy. Their bodies simply are gaining the necessary reserves on hips and
thighs to fuel the extra 500 calories a day required for breastfeeding. Women
who enter pregnancy fit and stay physically active throughout the pregnancy are
less likely to gain excess weight, and therefore, they have less to lose after
they give birth. And being strong can definitely improve your endurance for the
marathon of labor!
Of course, once the baby is born,
a woman has to work to lose that excess fat, and the older you are when you
deliver, the harder it is. Then, amid kids, career, the partner, and the
whirlwind of everyday life, women in Milestone 2 face a most formidable
challenge: to make physical activity a regular part of their high-stress lives.
According to one study, being a mom cuts a woman's time for exercise by at
least 20 percent. But putting in that sweat time is essential.
Regardless of whether a woman
bears kids or not, beginning in her thirties, she normally loses 1 to 2 percent
of her muscle per year, slowing her metabolism. She can even begin to lose
bone. Regular physical activity revs up metabolism, preserves muscle, and slows
It also safeguards her future
health. Regular moderate-to-strenuous physical activity reduces a woman's risk
for certain female cancers triggered by estrone, a type of estrogen that
increases with higher-than-normal body fat and is associated with an increased
risk of breast and uterine cancer. If you do regular physical activity from
3 hours a week from your teens to about age 40, you'll cut your risk of breast
cancer by 20 to 30 percent. Four or more hours a week can reduce the risk
almost 60 percent.
It's pretty simple: Move the
weight, remove the weight, and reduce your risk.
Milestone 3: Perimenopause and
Remember the way your body morphed
at puberty? One day you were a beanpole, the next an hourglass. Well, once you
hit 40, you're shape-shifting again. Although premenopausal women gain fat in
the lower body to nourish children, women in Milestone 3, whose reproductive
years are drawing to a close, gain it in their upper bodies. Think larger
breasts, the emergence of back fat, weird little fat pouches near your armpits
that hang over your bra, and the menopot. Hot flashes and other symptoms
triggered by the swoops and dips of estrogen only add to the fun.
However! There's a huge difference
between Milestone 3 women who are active and those who aren't. Women who stay
fit through these years of hormonal fluctuations are less affected by the
typical symptoms of menopause. They pack more lean muscle, have faster
metabolisms, and can control their weight and body fat better. Physical
activity also helps them control their blood sugar, blood pressure, and blood
cholesterol, which become an issue for many women in this Milestone.
Milestone 4: Beyond Menopause
The goal of Milestone 4 women is
to retain their functional independence and prevent disease. To do it, they
need to pay special attention to achieving and maintaining adequate endurance,
strength, and flexibility.
As a result of declining sex
hormone levels, lack of physical activity, chronic stress, and overeating,
women in this Milestone are at high risk for accumulating Toxic Fat. That's bad
news, because apple-shaped women are at greater risk of heart disease than are
pear-shaped women, who carry their weight on their hips, thighs, and bottoms.
This extra weight can lead to chronic knee and back pain, which limit a woman's
ability to get around.
Hormonal changes can also cause
bone loss, raising a woman's risk of osteoporosis. In a recent study of nearly
90,000 women ages 50 to 64, almost one-third had bone density low enough to run
an increased risk of fracture.
Happily, it doesn't take much
physical activity to keep women in this Milestone fit and healthy. Weight
training can build muscle, preserve bone, and improve strength, and simple
walking can keep hearts beating strong. In one study, 73,743 women ages 50 to
79 were asked about their exercise habits, and those women who walked briskly
or who engaged in more-intense exercise at least 2 1/2 hours per week were
both 30 percent less likely to
develop cardiovascular disease than women who didn't do either.
I recommend that women in all
Milestones -- especially 3 and 4 -- seek out an experienced trainer who
specializes in working with women 50 and over. Most midlife women have never
lifted weights, and they need guidance to reduce the risk of training-related
injuries. The price? Reasonable, and you need only a few sessions to learn
proper form and technique, followed by perhaps monthly check-ins to make sure
you're progressing well.
Reprinted from Body-for-LIFE for Women: A Womans Plan for
Physical and Mental Transformation by Pamela Peeke, M.D., M.P.H.,
F.A.C.P. (April 2005; $26.95US/$38.95CAN; 1-57954-601-3) © 2005
Pamela Peeke, M.D. Permission granted by Rodale, Inc.,
Click here to purchase
Life for Women: A Woman's Plan for Physical and Mental
Pamela Peeke, M.D., M.P.H.,
F.A.C.P., is a clinical assistant professor
of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, a Pew Foundation
scholar in nutrition and metabolism, an adjunct senior research fellow at the
National Institutes of Health and the author of the bestselling book, Fight Fat after Forty. A regular
contributor to Good Housekeeping,
Dr. Peeke is frequently quoted in O
Vogue, Fitness, Glamour, and Redbook. She is the chief medical
correspondent for Discovery Health TV and the spokesperson for its National
Body Challenge. She appears as an in-studio expert for CNN and the networks.
She maintains her private practice in Bethesda,