By Sara Hodson
Empowering Women’s Health
By Sara Hodson
Have you given yourself permission to improve your health?
If you are a Canadian woman, there is a strong likelihood the answer is no.
As we come upon two years of pandemic living, women have faced an unforeseen burden of stress that has taken its toll on our physical and mental health. In this week where we celebrate International Women’s Day, we must acknowledge that we have to take charge of our health. But we have to tread lightly: this is not another point on the never-ending to-to list.
As women, we have to give ourselves permission to take care of ourselves, not just take care of everyone around us.
According to the Hologic Women’s Health Index , which looks at health data from 2.5 billion women worldwide, Canadian women’s health ranked 43rd out of 116 countries - trailing the United States and the United Kingdom - with our mental health statistics dropping us down in the ranks.
This new paradigm needs a seismic shift. It isn’t enough to talk about self-care, exercise, sleep and nutrition, about breast cancer screenings and visiting your doctor’s office in a timely manner. That health advice has long been given, and rarely heeded.
Our health is complex: we have genetic and hereditary factors that are beyond our control; but we also have chronic health conditions and mental health solutions that are within our reach. No one wants to live with the burden of a chronic health condition, or chronic pain or anxiety or depression. According to a 2018 report submitted to the House of Commons more than 60 percent of us are living with one or more chronic health conditions, and four out of five Canadians are at risk. Non-communicable diseases (NCD) such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and obesity are largely preventable and treatable through health lifestyle choices, such as not smoking and reducing alcohol, while improving nutrition and increasing physical activity.
It is estimated that NCDs cost the economy $190 billion dollars annually - from productivity loss, and direct health care costs. The direct cost of chronic diseases accounts for roughly 58 percent of our health care spending.
And what about mental health? When the headline is “Abysmal stage of mental health” you know that this might be a wake-up call.
How do we change this?
Here are three fundamental ways to empower women to get their health back:
Acknowledge The Elephant in the Room
How often have you asked a female friend or colleague how they are doing and hear “I’m fine” knowing that the opposite is true? How often have you said I’m fine,..when you are anything but? We know that women are not fine: We are dying of heart disease and breast cancer, and going through mini-mental breakdowns. For there to be any solution, we have to acknowledge that there is a problem. We have to talk about mental and physical health openly: we have to prioritize medical screenings and ask our primary care providers to ask important questions - are you taking care of yourself? Are you drinking too much alcohol? Are you getting 150 minutes of physical activity every week? We have to say - it’s ok not to be fine. But let’s do something about it.
Empower women to say yes and no
Say yes to a walk with a friend. Say no to mindless scrolling at night. Say yes to regular mealtimes, and no to skipping meals or eating kid leftovers as we rush between tasks. Say yes to restorative sleep. Say no to meetings after 5pm. Say yes to taking vacation days and no to 40 hour + workweeks. If we are going to take care of ourselves, we have to know how to do it.
Boundaries have become blurred since the pandemic began, with our dining room tables turned into schoolrooms and make-shift offices. We have to create the division between home life and work life again, and this is critical for women. What happens when you have a bunch of windows open on your computer? It freezes and stops working. What’s the best solution? Turn it off, and turn it on again. Women have to know that it is ok to turn off, to take a break and reset.
Our body isn’t able to separate stress - whether it is physical or mental, it all stacks up. This pushes our cortisol levels, which can make us insulin resistant. We then find it much harder to manage a healthy weight. Though this is a simplistic rendition of how stress can affect our bodies, we need to focus on reducing stress levels. We must give ourselves permission to set boundaries again - this is key.
According to a 2018 report, Canadians women exercise less than men. We know that physical activity helps both prevent and treat chronic illness and is an effective tool against anxiety, stress and depression. When we exercise, we release endocannabinoids into our body and our brain, elevating our mood. Regular moderate to vigorous physical activity of 150 minutes weekly greatly improves our physical and mental health, increases our energy and helps us cope with life. I have seen the effect of exercise on people living with diabetes, heart disease, recovering from cancer, obesity and depression and it is astounding - ten minutes of moderate exercise can reduce blood sugar levels, and improve blood pressure immediately, let alone the lasting post-exercise effects.
We need to give women the gift of health, and give them permission to take this wonderful gift. We don’t have to exercise - we get to exercise. In fact, exercise is one of the greatest gifts we can give to ourselves. It is more than self-care: it is health-care.