Your 20s have a way of feeling seriously freeing. You’re finally off on your own — no more rules and restrictions from college/high school/mom and dad’s house — living your life the way you want to live. And while that can be exciting and empowering, this decade is also critically important when it comes to shaping the rest of your life. In short: while you’re out there having fun, now is also the best time to start paying attention to your health.
Danna Hunnes, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., an adjunct assistant professor in the department of community health sciences at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health, tells SheKnows, that our 20s are a time when we set the foundation for how we live. That encompasses everything from the nutrition and fitness habits we establish for ourselves as well as other decisions that impact our health down the road. “We are independent, live on our own, start jobs, and develop habits that will likely stay with us the rest of our lives.”
So what should you be doing? Here, six ways to take charge of your well-being right this second — and why you’ll thank yourself for doing so later on.
Find doctors you like
The U.S. National Library of Medicine has a list of recommended health screenings for women ages 18 to 39, including blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes screenings; immunizations; physical exams; regular (either annual or biannual) trips to the dentist and other preventative measures to take depending on your health. You also want to keep up with pap smears, which screen for cervical cancer and can pick up on cellular changes caused by the Human papillomavirus.
But in order to do all of this, you have to have good medical professionals you trust nearby. Haven’t seen the doctor since you went to the pediatrician as a kid? Was the last person to touch your teeth your orthodontist? Not sure when your last pap was? Log onto your insurer’s website to find a provider near you or ask your healthiest friends for their best referrals.
Keeping tabs on your health throughout the years is easier when there are, well, records (ideally in one place) to go off of.
Add plants to every meal
One of the best ways to maintain a healthy weight as well as healthy blood cholesterol and blood sugar levels is by maintaining a healthy diet. It doesn’t need to be complicated. Hunnes suggests simply aiming to eat more produce, in part by doing so at every meal. “Ideally, it’s a good idea to aim for two to three fruit or vegetable servings for breakfast, three to four servings at lunch, and three to five servings for dinner.”
It’ll pay off: Research published in the journal Circulation found that young adults who ate the most fruits and vegetables had the least amount of plaque build up in their arteries years later, putting them at a lower risk for heart disease.
Being aware of and treating STDs is important at every stage in life, says Brady. But your 20s are a particularly good time to get serious about getting regularly tested. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends all adults be tested at least once for HIV and says that all sexually active women 25 or younger (and those older than 25 with risk factors such as multiple partners) be screened for gonorrhea and chlamydia every year. If you’re in a serious relationship, encourage your partner to get tested, too.
Here’s the good news: STDs are largely preventable by practicing safe sex. And while long-term consequences of untreated STDs can be serious — pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) and even infertility among them for women — they’re largely treatable. But to that end, screenings are an important way of catching them.
“Any family planning clinic or office can do these tests, including Planned Parenthood, which can also provide pap smears and other routine care as needed; internal medicine and family medicine physicians; and gynecologists,” says Brady. There are even at-home tests available now.
Get your skin checked
“There are certain skin types that are more susceptible to skin cancers such as people who burn easily, have a history of sunburns, a history of tanning bed use, immunocompromised patients and lifestyle and occupational exposures to lots of UV radiation,” Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin, M.D., a New York City-based dermatologist and founder of Entiere Dermatology, tells SheKnows. “Nonetheless, skin cancer can occur in all skin types.”
That’s why she generally recommend everyone starts to get annual skin body checks with a board-certified dermatologist in early adulthood in your 20s. It’s easy enough to have done — just schedule an appointment with your derm, who will look you up and down for any irregular lumps, bumps or marks. You can keep an eye on your own skin throughout the year, too, by looking for the ABCDE’s of melanoma.
Why it matters: when caught early, skin cancer is very treatable.
Clock your workouts
Aim for at least 30 minutes a day of movement at a moderate-to-strenuous pace, says Hunnes. “Exercise can include HIIT (high-intensity interval training), running, cycling, climbing stairs, hiking, swimming — anything that makes having a conversation challenging.”
It won’t just pay off for your body but for your brain, too. One study found that active young adults performed better on mental tests at 50 compared to their more sedentary peers, suggesting that sweat has a protective effect on the brain that holds as you age.
Start to take stress seriously (…seriously!)
By now you likely know that stress can take its toll on both your body and mind — and you likely feel it. After all, the 20s can be filled with tons of change and turmoil (new jobs, new cities, new apartments, new partners, new babies). And even the positive changes can be stressful. But over time, chronic stress can leave its mark, increasing your risk for physical conditions such as heart disease, chronic pain, sleep issues, digestive problems, and more down the line.
The best stress-busting techniques (exercise, meditation, therapy, a little R&R) will vary from person to person but one area to pay particular attention to is your job. Research out of Ohio State finds that how happy you are in your career in your 20s can have an impact on your mental health in your 40s.
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