Physical fitness is like saving for retirement: we all know the basic outline of what we should do, but we want a shortcut. We know it’s a lifelong process that can’t be accomplished all at once or with some silver bullet solution. It takes hard work and sacrifice that lasts a lifetime and pays off in the end. In concert with National Women’s Health Week, which begins on Mother’s Day each year, let’s examine what makes women healthy.

We start with the golden triangle of health:

  • Eat a healthy diet, rich in plant foods and light in manufactured foods, saturated fats, added sugar and salt, and preservatives.
  • Get at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise each day. Exercise should raise your heart rate to at least 50% of maximum for your age. Mix strength training and stretching into your routine for maximum benefit.
  • Get at least seven hours of sleep each night.

These three apply to men as well, of course, and among them, sleep is often the element most overlooked.

Reams of scientific research have concluded that shortchanging ourselves on sleep is extremely detrimental to our health in myriad ways beyond fatigue.

We also know that diet, exercise and sleep are all related, with each contributing to the ability to achieve the other two. That is, a healthy diet and daily exercise help us sleep better, while a healthy diet and sufficient sleep allow us to exercise closer to our maximum ability.

Next, what not to do:

  • Don’t smoke! If you already do, get help to quit. Smoking will shorten your life, period.
  • Limit alcohol use to one drink daily. You may have heard that there are health benefits of wine consumption, but that is only in moderate amounts.
  • Don’t use illicit drugs or abuse prescription drugs.

Then, make smart choices:

  • Wear protective equipment when playing sports. That includes wearing a helmet when biking, skating, skiing, etc., and eye protection when playing racquet sports.
  • Put away your phone when driving. Studies show that talking on the phone while driving saps your concentration just as much as driving drunk. Texting while driving is like operating your vehicle with your eyes closed. Every day in the United States, 1,000 accidents and 9 deaths are attributed to distracted driving, and cell phone use is involved in 80% of those cases.
  • Wear your seatbelt. The government estimates that roughly half of all front seat passengers (including drivers) and a quarter of back seat passengers killed in car crashes, could be saved by seat belt use. Automobile wrecks are the number one cause of death among Americans under the age of 55.
  • Always apply sunscreen when going outside, even on cold days and cloudy days. The sun is still out there shining harmful UV rays on your skin.
  • Maintain a healthy weight for your height and body type.
  • Take at least 400 mcg of folic acid if you are a woman of childbearing age.
  • See your doctor regularly.

The role of oral health

Oral health plays a huge role in women’s overall health. New research over the past decade have found a link between gum disease and heart disease, the number one killer of American women. People with gum disease are have nearly twice the risk of suffering a fatal heart attack.

Gum disease has also been linked to stroke, diabetes and a host of other health issues, including pregnancy. Research has found links between gum disease in the mother and premature birth.

Take care of your body; it’s the only one you’ve got, and the one your baby relies on for the first, critical, nine months of its development.