If you long for the days when you could lose 5 pounds by skipping dessert for a week, or get by just fine on only 4 hours of sleep, you’re not alone. As women, our bodies change quite a bit from our 20s and 30s to our 40s and 50s. Our nutrition, exercise, and recovery needs shift too, which can change our approach to feel and look our best. We are also more susceptible to certain diseases like osteoporosis, anemia, and heart disease. The good news is that by optimizing your exercise and nutrition, you can not only reduce your risk of developing these diseases, but you can also feel and look your best now, and into the decades to come.
But first, a word about the big “O”
No, not that big O. A much less exciting but equally important topic: osteoporosis, a medical condition in which bones become brittle and fragile, leading to easier breakage and more difficult healing. Approximately one in two women over the age of 50 will break a bone because of osteoporosis, and it’s never too early to work on prevention.
Here are some nutrition and exercise tips to cut down on risk factors for osteoporosis.
Calcium is key. Good sources of calcium include dairy products and leafy green vegetables. Women 50 and under require 1000 mg of calcium a day, while women over 50 require 1200 mg. To efficiently absorb calcium, adequate intake of magnesium and vitamin D is essential. You can get magnesium from leafy greens, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. The best source of Vitamin D is from sunshine, and it’s also found in salmon and fortified foods. If you’re not getting enough Vitamin D from time outside, you should consider supplementing with it (check with your doctor).
As much as osteoporosis prevention is about what you eat, it’s also about what you avoid. Excessive alcohol and smoking can both increase your risk of developing osteoporosis and many other diseases.
Finally, don’t forget exercise! Weight-bearing exercises like dancing, tennis, and strength training increase the strength of your bones, helping prevent osteoporosis in later stages of our lives.
Now that the big O is out of the way, here are some tips to help you feel and look your very best in each stage of your life!
You may not be thinking much about your long-term health when you’re in your 20s, but this is the best time to start laying the foundation for a healthy life, particularly if you’re not running after kids. Take advantage of the time you have to focus on building the healthiest habits you can. While it may be tempting to crash diet and follow short-term diet trends, keep in mind that very restrictive and low calorie diets result in higher-than-average muscle loss, just when you could be building it. Muscle acts as armor, helping to protect your joints, prevent injury, and is positively correlated with bone density (a great way to help reduce the chance of osteoporosis later in life!).
To feel and look your best in your 20s, focus on:
- Finding activities and exercise you love to do! Lucky for you, your body recovers the quickest it ever will when you’re in your 20s. Enjoy!
- Building a healthy recipe collection. Find quick, delicious, and healthy meals that can become your go-tos for when life gets busy. Check out this post for tips on balancing all three macronutrients in your meals (Protein, Carbohydrates, and Fats).
- Eating iron-rich foods such as leafy greens, beans, and lean red meat (preferably organic and grass fed). Due to blood loss during menstruation, women of child-bearing years need twice the amount of iron that men do, but they often don’t get enough of it in their diets, making iron-deficiency anemia the most common deficiency among women. If you’re feeling tired and cranky all the time, a simple blood test can determine if you need iron supplementation. Pro tip: iron from plant sources doesn’t absorb as well as iron from animal sources, but you don’t want to overconsume red meat due to its higher saturated fat content. Check out this post for the best sources of iron that aren’t from red meat. To better absorb plant sources of iron, like spinach and lentils, pair these with a food that is high in vitamin C, like strawberries, broccoli, or green peppers.
This decade is often a very busy time for women, who may feel overwhelmed juggling both their careers and home lives. In addition, women in their 30s may find that their bodies become less forgiving when they overeat or get less sleep. It’s not fair, but it’s reality. However, you can still feel amazing! The trick in this decade is to do what you can when you can.
To feel and look your best in your 30s, focus on:
- Fitting in daily exercise, even if it’s just 10 minutes at a time! Studies have shown that exercise “snacks” can yield similar benefits to longer workouts. Depending on a 30-60 minute window in your day to exercise may not always result in success, but using shorter lulls in the day to get some movement in will ensure that you reap the benefits. Remember the muscle and bone density connection in your 30s, too!
- Plan ahead for meals. You know that saying, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail?” Now more than ever that may hold true. Busy days can get the best of you, leaving you grabbing for whatever is convenient – often processed snack foods that don’t align with your goals. While meal prepping is great if you can swing it, just taking a weekly inventory of your kitchen and making a loose plan for which meals and snacks you’ll be making that week and planning a time to shop will put you miles ahead.
- Stay on top of your iron levels, especially through pregnancies. Make sure you take prenatal vitamins and eat iron-rich foods.
Consistency, and doing what you can, when you can will go a long way towards feeling and looking your best in your 30s. Check out this post for a few more ideas about setting manageable lifestyle goals!
This can be a rocky decade for many women. You may be caring for your children at the same time as aging parents, all while struggling to feel vibrant within a pervasive youth culture. On top of it, your risk of heart disease and diabetes increases during this decade. Oh, your 40s are also when most women enter perimenopause (it can actually start in your mid to late 30s) – more fun!
Perimenopause is the transitional period that comes just before menopause. During this period, your hormones begin to fluctuate irregularly, and can cause many highly unenjoyable symptoms such as hot flashes, mood changes, vaginal dryness, declining sex drive, and best of all, insomnia and sleep disturbances.
You may escape these symptoms completely, but if you feel like you’re losing your mind and no one has answers, read this post by my pal, Amanda Thebe, fitness and women’s health expert as well as author.
To feel and look your best in your 40s, focus on:
- Exercising is essential in your 40s, not only to decrease your risk of heart disease and osteoporosis, but for stress-reduction and overall well-being. Consider adding HIIT cardio to your workouts, and if you haven’t already started lifting weights, there’s no better time than now.
- Nutrition! It’s never been this essential for not only cutting down on your risk of disease, but also to help you feel and look your best. Try to limit processed foods and simple sugars as much as possible. Instead, focus on fueling your body with protein, fruits, vegetables, and complex carbs. For more on eating for health and weight control, click here.
- If sleep is an issue, avoid caffeine at least 4-6 hours before bed, and talk to your doctor about taking adaptogens such as Ashwagandha to help lower your stress hormones and aid with quality sleep.
- Get support. This period of your life can feel extra overwhelming. Reach out to friends, family, and health-care professionals. It’s okay to ask for help. Medications and hormone replacement therapy could help you sail through an otherwise bumpy time.
It’s in this decade that most women will have hit menopause – no period for 12 straight months not due to pregnancy or sickness. Once hormones level out, many women are free from the symptoms that had plagued them leading up to menopause. However, the hormonal changes that have occurred have also made it much easier for you to gain weight, and to store visceral fat – the fat that’s stored within the abdominal cavity that surrounds your organs, putting you at a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Awesome! Oh wait, I have more good news: your glucose metabolism shifts, which is a fancy way of saying you don’t use those cookies for energy the same way you once did. Instead, foods high in simple carbs like cookies, ice cream, cake, and crackers, get stored as body fat much more easily.
But wait! Middle-aged weight gain is not inevitable, and there are ways to combat it.
To feel and look your best in your 50s, focus on:
- Maintaining your weight. Sure, losing weight can help you cut down disease risk, but so can maintaining your weight, especially during a time when it’s easier than ever to gain it. Don’t underestimate the power of maintenance! For help with maintaining and losing weight, consider the Shapa scale. Shapa keeps the positive elements of the scale while removing the negative ones. This unique system gives you feedback about your weight, but not in pounds. You can read more about how Shapa works here.
- Getting physical activity. This stage of life is often more sedentary than the previous decades, which alone can lead to weight gain. Get up and move! After age 40, women lose 1% of their muscle mass per year if they’re inactive. Muscle mass is important for metabolism, and overall health. A lower percentage of muscle mass can contribute to packing on the pounds. Aim for a mix of cardio like brisk walking, strength training, and other forms of exercise like yoga and pilates. A varied mix will help you not only ensure that you lower your risk of developing heart disease and diabetes, but will also add the muscle you need to help keep your lean body mass up and your body fat down. And it keeps exercise fun!
- Protein is crucial. You need more protein now to stimulate protein muscle synthesis than you ever needed before. Say buh-bye to plain toast and fruit for breakfast! It’s time to add Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, eggs, and any other proteins you love to every meal and snack. Yup! Protein should be the star of every meal and snack. Click here for some of my favorite protein sources.
- Your overall caloric needs have likely gone down from where they were a decade or two ago. Pay extra attention to your fullness and hunger signals. Honor both. Here is a helpful article about real hunger.
Some final thoughts on how to feel and look your best:
Being a woman comes with a unique set of challenges that can change through different stages of our lives. I often hear (and personally experience) how it can feel easy to put yourself last amidst the responsibilities of life. I’m even going to argue that women are given the message that they should put everyone else ahead of themselves. You constantly hear about the oxygen mask analogy – the directions on the plane that tell you to put the mask on yourself first before putting it on others. But why should that be the main reason that we take care of ourselves? We shouldn’t strive to feel our best just because that helps us take better care of others, but because we are worthy and deserving of the best health and quality of life that we can possibly provide for ourselves, in all stages of our lives.
These nutrition and exercise tips are tools for you to feel your best now and into future decades. Small, positive, changes add up in a big way when you stay consistent with them. Don’t wait another day to start down the path towards feeling and looking your best, in any decade of your life.
Looking to sleep better, eat a bit healthier, build a practice of self-care, or just want to feel more energetic each day? Let Shapa be your virtual coach. Shapa focuses your program based on YOUR lifestyle and YOUR goals so you can build healthy habits and achieve lasting results. Learn more about the Shapa difference.
About the author:
Sharone completed her Masters of Science in Nutrition and Education at Columbia University. Having overcome her own not-so-great relationship with food, she is passionate about helping others achieve their health and weight loss goals while finding balance. She enjoys hanging out with her two daughters, husband, giant dog, and cat, especially all together when shenanigans are involved. To learn more about scheduling a nutrition counseling session with Sharone, click here. For more tips and tricks for nutritious living, check out Sharone’s Instagram and Twitter.
Check out more of Sharone’s articles on the Shapa Blog here.