With all the demands of family and work, many women do not make their own health a priority, yet we book our kids’ annual physicals a year in advance or drive our parents to and from their doctors’ appointments. The week of Mother’s Day, May 13-19, is National Women’s Health Week and this year’s theme is “It’s Your Time.” SheKnows spoke with Dr. Peg Miller, director of the Women’s Medicine Collaborative in Providence, Rhode Island, for strategies to help women overcome some of the common barriers to self-care, such as time, money and motivation.
SheKnows: In your practice, what is the most common excuse women have for not taking time for themselves and establishing healthy habits?
Peg Miller: There are two common themes I see: Too many other commitments that take priority over personal health; and women are not exactly sure what to do to establish health habits. There is so much misinformation out there about what is healthy that patients are not sure where to begin and what they specifically need to do to get started.
The challenge of too many roles, commitments
SheKnows: Why is it many women struggle to make their own health a priority?
Peg Miller: Many women feel pulled in multiple directions with the many roles and commitments they have in their lives. The traditional role of wife/mother makes taking care of others the priority. Even women who do not have a domestic partner or children often play the “caregiver” role in some capacity within their circle of family and friends (for example, caring for aging parents, a sick friend or neighbor). Although many men are wonderful caregivers, societal expectations are that men are the providers and women the caregivers. Women often feel overwhelmed, and taking care of their health seems like one more “job.” And if they do take the time, they often feel guilty afterwards. We need to simplify the actions needed to prioritize health and well-being, and reward and celebrate ourselves for making our health a priority. If women are able to shift their thinking, they will realize that when we prioritize our health, we become much more productive, and truly “present” in our roles. When you feel good physically, mentally and emotionally, you are able to bring more to all that you do.
Top health tip: Find things you like to do
SheKnows: What are your top three tips for women to manage their health?
Peg Miller: First, find things you like to do. Your new healthy lifestyle should be fun!
Second, establish health habits or rituals. Building these actions into your day makes it easier to do consistently. Try taking the stairs instead of the elevator, packing an apple for a snack instead of going to the vending machine or going for a walk on your lunch break.
Third, small steps over time will get you to your destination. Don’t try to do too much — don’t overwhelm yourself. Just add one small health action to your day and celebrate your new habit.
SheKnows: What would you say is the biggest health worry for women?
Peg Miller: In terms of diagnoses, many studies show that women worry more about breast cancer than any other diagnosis. While this is an important issue, the fact is that many more women die from cardiovascular disease every year than from breast cancer. It’s estimated that cardiovascular disease, which includes heart disease and stroke, accounts for close to 50 percent of deaths of women in the US. And we have excellent evidence from many studies that healthy habits — physical activity, healthy eating, smoking cessation — can prevent cardiovascular disease.
In terms of what symptoms women bring to me the most, I would say fatigue, headache, insomnia and GI [gastrointestinal] complaints are among the most common in women. I often find that stress is playing a significant role. In many cases, a combination of improved diet, increase in physical activity and stress reduction is very helpful.
Schedule your health appointments into your calendar
SheKnows: How do you keep your own health a priority?
Peg Miller: As with most working women, it’s an ongoing challenge for me. I work full time, have a husband and three kids! I always include my health care appointments on my work calendar and I share that information with my secretary and engage her in helping me not to cancel or defer these appointments. So she knows the names of my doctors, when I’m due for my mammogram, my pap smear, etc. She even set up my colonoscopy for me this year! The point is that we should schedule our health care appointments, including time to walk at lunch or go to yoga class, and engage supportive people in our lives to help us stay on track.
I try to keep it interesting, so I am always changing my routine. From walking to yoga to dancing with my kids, I like to mix it up and keep it fresh and healthy.