As just about anybody will tell you, the world’s a fast-paced place and it’s not slowing down any time soon. This is especially true for women these days, who work more and longer hours than ever before. These crazy hours of course have to be balanced with family obligations and some attempt at leisure time. It’s no wonder then that things like exercise and nutrition get swept away in the commotion. Unfortunately, it’s also the case that women are judged on their appearances and are more likely to be criticized and shamed for their health choices than a man.
Let’s go over three of the biggest components of healthy living and how to maximize them. Many think of health as something tedious–as something that has to be checked off the list instead of a helpful habit that makes your already stressful day easier and more enjoyable.
Probably not what you expected first, right? Before we talk about Elliptical machines and kale salads, it’s important to realize that physical health will only follow from a healthy perspective. Many people fail at exercising or eating better because they do too much too fast.
Don’t overhaul your entire diet in one night–you’ll never stick to the plan. Similarly, don’t set up expectations that you’re not confident you can fulfill. When you’re starting out keep a mindset that appreciates little victories. Getting a whole wheat bagel instead of a plain bagel, not putting half and half in your coffee, taking the stairs instead of the elevator—these are all small victories that can be done in the course of a day. By focusing on your victories you’re more likely to feel a sense of momentum and, as a result, more likely to take on more and more challenging health goals. This is how a lifestyle is established.
Part of keeping a good attitude is accounting for the invisible factors of health, the main one of which is sleep. Bodybuilders, professional athletes, dancers–anybody who relies on their body for their livelihood will tell you that sleep is more than a luxury. It helps muscles grow and helps regulate production of the stress hormone cortisol, which causes fat gain and water retention. More importantly, sleep gives your brain a break and allows you to recharge for the next day. It’s almost impossible to make healthy decisions if you’re rolling out of bed exhausted and frustrated to begin with.
Too often, women are forced to think of diet and nutrition as a punishment, as an issue of denial and restriction. We think of diets as crucibles to endure in order to emerge on the other side as fitter, slimmer, more attractive when we should look at it as the foundation upon which our bodies, minds and lives are built.
There are plenty of major diets available online and theories vary from person to person. Here is some basic information that any woman can use to make more informed decisions and lead a healthier life.
First, it’s important to realize that most foods are made up of a few basic ingredients known as macronutrients: protein, carbohydrates and fats. All of these nutrients are important for life and none of them are inherently bad. However, it’s all a matter of how much and how often. Generally speaking, we here a lot of bad things about carbohydrates and this isn’t because carbs are so evil, but because food manufacturers sneak them into everything. A simple rule to reduce calories and feel better is to only eat complex carbs like whole wheat bread and pasta, sweet potatoes and brown rice. These carbs offer more nutrition and energy to the body while also requiring more energy to digest. This means that when you eat complex carbs you’re burning calories as you eat! Another great tip is to eat the bulk of your carbs in the morning—this way you’ll have the entire day to use that energy and burn off the excess calories.
Next, it’s important to realize that the fat you get from food is not the same as the “fat” we accrue when gaining weight. Fats from foods like avocado, peanuts and peanut butter, fish and olive oil are all excellent sources of energy that will let you have flavorful, satisfying meals, but that won’t stay in your body as unused calories. A salad needn’t consist of sad lettuce and tomato—you can add chicken, cheese, nuts and a drizzle of olive oil (with seasoning for an added boost) to make it feel like a real meal. Believe it or not, this kind of salad packs a nutritional punch and regardless of what its calorie content looks like, it’s comprised of easily digestible macronutrients that won’t cling to your stomach.
Lastly, protein is something we maybe associate with high school football players trying to bulk up, when in reality protein affects our mood as well as the health of our hair and skin. Of course, lean meats like chicken carry large amounts of protein per serving, but they’re not the only sources. Nuts, eggs, beans—heck, even bananas have a little bit of protein.
The important thing is to steer clear of the fad diets and instead make a list of the foods and dishes you know you like. Once you have that list, think about the macronutrients involved. If you love pastries, you may need to cut some of them out, but you can also make them healthier by using whole wheat flour and olive oil instead of white flour and butter. Too much of any one food or any one nutrient won’t make you feel better, but if you can find a few examples of each nutrient, you can then find plenty of ways to mix them up.
The worst thing you can do is go on a crash diet, or drastically cut your calories. This will do nothing but deplete your muscles and kill your energy. The scale may read a few pounds less but you won’t look or feel better.
One of the biggest crimes perpetrated by the fitness industry is suggesting that there are different exercises for women and men. This is simply not true. The principles of an effective exercise program are the same for all bodies, male or female, human or even animal.
Here are the basic guidelines:
Do the exercise you like best and that you can do consistently. Whatever it is.
Don’t neglect strength. Women are more susceptible to osteoporosis and strength training greatly helps this. The idea that you will become big and bulky, or overtly masculine from strength training is patently false. Your diet, genetics and hormones affect your body type. Strength work will only make it function better.
All exercise must be built around a progression. This means you start small and work your way towards progressively more intense sessions. Too many times women (and men) get a gym membership, kill themselves the first week, then run out of motivation and energy. Your first few weeks at the gym should not leave you utterly exhausted in sore.
Instead, low-ball your expectations and then add a little more time or a few more reps with each workout. There are fifty three weeks in a year. If you workout only twice a week that’s 106 workouts. If you make some small increase in your effort each workout, that’s a huge change in the course of a year.
There’s no magic bullet to being healthy, especially with the lifestyles women are forced to lead these days. However the path to a healthier life isn’t all about work and suffering. If you ignored everything else, remember this—start small and work your way up. Don’t punish yourself for what you didn’t do, praise yourself for what you did.