Health Rules You Can Bend After 40

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By Jessica Snyder Sachs

If you're religious about what really matters, you can take shortcuts with the rest. Check out our guide to being a sensible slacker.

1. Work Out 5 Days a Week?

It's not your imagination: Our bodies simply become higher maintenance after 40. Indulgences of food or drink are quicker to take revenge. Muscles require more maintenance. Screening tests become more important. So there's a lot to remember -- and yet the wellness precautions keep coming, with new dos and don'ts every passing year. Can anyone do it all?

Actually, no. And if you try, say experts, you may end up throwing in the towel on some of the essentials, as well as what's helpful but optional. So find out where you can settle for good enough and still enjoy great health.

Rule 1: Work out 30 to 60 minutes a day, five days a week. 
The Midlife Shortcut:
 Catch up when you miss workouts.

To reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, and osteoporosis -- all big concerns for women over 40 -- experts urge us to exercise at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week (and for maximum health benefits, make that an hour rather than half an hour). But daily workouts can be difficult to fit into a life crammed with work and family responsibilities. Then there's the knee and joint pain that many women experience after years of pounding their way through "healthful" exercise.

Why there's wiggle room: The cumulative hours -- the total time you clock each week -- is what really counts. In fact, the weekend warrior has gotten a bad rap, says exercise physiologist Jane Roy, PhD, of the University of Alabama at Birmingham. If you're too busy Monday through Friday, weekends are a great time for getting in two or more hours of enjoyable exercise a day. You can catch up by spending a weekend morning or afternoon playing tennis with girlfriends, taking back-to-back aerobic and Pilates classes, or going for a long walk or run.

Then, during the week, concentrate on interspersing sedentary activities such as computer work with small but frequent movement breaks, Roy adds.

2. Get a Pap Smear Yearly?

Rule 2: Get a Pap smear every year.
The Midlife Shortcut:
 Get tested every two to three years.

Sexually active women under 40 should be tested every year, but women over 40 can stretch it out to once every two to three years once they've had three or more normal results in a row, as long as they're in a long-term, mutually monogamous relationship or are not sexually active, and they're still getting annual pelvic exams.

Why there's wiggle room: When a woman is either not having sex or always has it with the same person (and that person is not having it with anyone else), she's not being exposed to new strains of the human papillomavirus, explains gynecologist Stacy Tessler Lindau, MD, of the University of Chicago Medical Center.

The majority of people who have ever been sexually active have been exposed to one or more strains of HPV. Most women clear the symptoms of the virus within a few months. But in a small minority, the infection causes cells to become precancerous over the course of several years. These are the abnormalities that show up on Pap tests.

What that means is the risk of precancerous changes (and ultimately cervical cancer) becomes very low once women pass through this latency period without being exposed anew by having sex with someone different. Even if you don't have a new partner, says Lindau, "You can be exposed to new sexual partners through your own sexual partner." That's why your relationship has to be mutually monogamous; if you're not sure it is, continue to be tested every year.

3. Eat 5 Servings of Veggies a Day?

Rule 3: Eat your veggies: five servings a day.
The Midlife Shortcut:
 Aim to include veggies in most meals.

Five servings a day add up to a heck of a lot of vegetables. Using USDA food guide serving sizes, you'd need to swallow up to 17 cups of salad or solid veggies a week to meet that goal -- that on top of the four daily servings of fruit you're supposed to get.

Admittedly, as the over-40 metabolism slows, substituting produce for higher-calorie foods and snacks can help with weight control. But as our lives grow exponentially busier, getting down all those veggies can become overwhelming.

"Five servings a day remains an admirable goal," says registered dietitian Christine Gerbstadt, MD, of the American Dietetic Association. And she argues that meeting it can be a lot easier than you think. "Potatoes count," she notes. "Just don't make it french fries every day." You can also add salsa, tomato sauce, or any kind of bean to the list.

But she's also willing to compromise. "A decent daily plan is to include some vegetables in most meals, then concentrate on rounding out the rest of your diet by pumping up the fibrous whole grains and healthy fats."

Why there's wiggle room: If you look at the big nutrition picture and aim for moderate goals, success may encourage you to surpass your quota. But if you don't hit the mark every single day, Gerbstadt says, you can get by with a daily multivitamin -- that will ensure you get the vitamins and minerals that are naturally abundant in fresh vegetables.

4. Brush After Every Meal?

Rule 4: Brush after every meal. 
The Midlife Shortcut:
 Put down the toothbrush and grab some gum.

Or a toothpick. Or gum. Or a glass of water. It's not necessary to brush your teeth after every meal if you do something else to remove the food debris.

Why there's wiggle room: Brushing when you get up and before you go to bed is just fine, according to Edmond Hewlett, DDS, of the UCLA School of Dentistry. In fact, Hewlett says it's a bad idea to brush right after consuming acidic foods or beverages such as wine, orange juice, and most soft drinks. "The acidity slightly softens tooth enamel," he explains. So habitually brushing right after eating these foods can contribute to tooth sensitivity and cavities.

Chewing sugarless gum has other benefits besides removing food residue. It also increases saliva, which contains minerals that help replace the enamel lost to acidic food and acid-producing mouth bacteria. That's particularly important after age 40, when your natural saliva production starts to decrease. And if the gum contains xylitol, you'll get an added bonus: This sugar substitute inhibits the growth of cavity-causing tooth bacteria.

5. Sleep for 8 Hours?

Rule 5: Eight hours of sleep every night -- no sleeping in. 
The Midlife Shortcut:
 Sleep late on weekends.

Yes, the human body does need eight hours of sound sleep each night, says Joanne Getsy, MD, of Drexel University College of Medicine, in Philadelphia. "It's a fallacy that you need less sleep as you get older," she says. "You don't need less; you simply get less." Anyone dealing with hot flashes and sleep disturbances knows this too well. But whereas many experts insist that "catch-up sleep" isn't as good as the real thing, Getsy says there's room for deviating from your normal wakeup and going-to-bed times.

Why there's wiggle room: "The aim should be to pay back your sleep debt as soon as you can," Getsy says. Specifically, she recommends scheduling twice-a-week catch-up nights. "Pick one weeknight and one weekend night, and don't plan anything on those evenings," she advises. "Let them be your nights to recover." Daytime napping is okay too, she adds: "Just keep it under an hour so it doesn't interfere with a solid night's sleep."

As for sleep-bingeing on weekends, Getsy advises staying in bed as late as you like on Saturday. Then on Sunday, split the difference between when you'd like to get up and when you have to get up on Monday. That will help ease you back into your weekday schedule.

Even better news: Getsy says that when it comes to sleep debt, it's okay to pay back less than you borrowed. Usually one full night's sleep is enough to make up for a couple of shortchanged ones, she says. "If you feel better in the morning, you've slept enough."

6. Lift Weights 3 Times a Week?

Rule 6: Lift weights three times a week.
The Midlife Shortcut:
 Try for one or two sessions a week.

On top of encouraging us to meet aerobic exercise quotas, the health gurus tell us to get to the gym and pump iron at least three days a week. Strength training is especially important after menopause, at which point a woman's body tends to lose both muscle mass and bone strength.

"When you make the muscle grow, you strengthen the bone that's attached to it," explains Felicia Cosman, MD, of the National Osteoporosis Foundation. Aerobic exercise such as jogging works only about 20 percent of muscle fibers, she says, while strength training with weights engages up to 90 percent.

Why there's wiggle room: There's no magic number as to how often you need to strength train. Aim for regularity, Cosman says, even if it's just twice a week. Nor do you have to schlep to a gym. "Weight machines and free weights are good," Cosman says, "but so are equipment-free Pilates and yoga moves, and push-ups."

7. Do a Breast Self-Exam?

Rule 7: Do a breast self-exam every month.
The Midlife Shortcut:
 Do it often enough to notice changes.

We came of age being trained to search for lumps every month. The mandate feels even more compelling now, given how greatly the incidence of breast cancer increases after 40.

As it turns out, however, there's little evidence that obsessively examining yourself really helps women catch more life-threatening lumps.

Why there's wiggle room: After years of urging women to perform monthly self-exams, the American Cancer Society recently deemed them optional. But what's still important, says ACS spokesperson Debbie Saslow, PhD, is that women become familiar with how their breasts feel and what's normal for them. "For a lot of women, that's still a monthly exam. For others, it's the occasional self-exam or simply paying attention when getting dressed or showering."

Where Not to Cheat

Here's where our health gurus draw the line. Follow these three rules, they say, as scrupulously as you can.

Keep Moving 
Yes, you get brownie points for working out on weekends, but you lose out on lots of benefits if you just sit in a chair the rest of the week, says Jane Roy, PhD, of the University of Alabama at Birmingham. So get up for a stretch break at least once an hour at work (you could walk down the hall to talk to a colleague instead of sending an e-mail), and a few times a day, catch some fresh air with a quick five-minute stroll outside.

If you need extra motivation, consider this: Five one-minute stretch breaks over the course of a day burn just 15 to 20 calories. But over the course of a year, that adds up to over two pounds of fat.

Get a Mammogram Every Year 
When cancer strikes women in their 40s, the tumors tend to be aggressive, which means fast-growing -- so the early detection offered by mammograms is crucial, says the American Cancer Society's Debbie Saslow. After menopause, women tend to have slower-growing cancers, she adds, but the incidence increases. "So going longer than a year just isn't worth the risk," she says.

Maintain a Healthy Weight 
Overweight women are more likely to develop heart disease, diabetes, and many types of cancer than normal-weight women are.

In fact, a recent analysis estimates that 20 percent of all cancer deaths in American women are linked to excess weight. In general, cancer rates increase when a woman's body mass index exceeds 25, says Colleen Doyle of the American Cancer Society. The risk rises more dramatically when the BMI passes 30. Abdominal fat appears to be closely associated with postmenopausal breast cancer and cancers of the colon and pancreas. And some experts say that the risk increases when a woman's waistline exceeds 32 inches.

Originally published in MORE magazine, February 2009.

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