Like many people, I dread going to the dentist, not because of the threat of pain, or the oddly intimate experience of someone handling the backsides of my teeth. It's the flossing conversation. Invariably I'm asked, "You floss, right?" And invariably, I go pink and stammer some nonsense about trying ... busy mornings ... sensitive gums ... blah, blah, blah.
Because for the record, no, I have never been a regular flosser, despite knowing full well that it is a key part of good health. It's cheap and quick. I should do it.
With that in mind, we wondered, what other relatively easy and painless things should women be doing for their overall health and wellbeing -- but aren't? We asked a group of women's health experts for their insights and here's what they said:
1. Prep before you go to the doctor.
...Or midwife or whichever qualified provider you choose to see. Alice Cooper, a nurse practitioner in the department of obstetrics and gynecology with Duke Medicine asks her patients: "Why don't you think about the three top things that are important to you before you come to see me the next time?'" she said. "That way, we are making sure that your needs are being met, in addition to whatever boxes we need to check off to get the routine things covered."
Of course, for the many women in this country who lack access to quality, affordable health care, getting in to see a doctor is easier said than done. But if anything, that probably makes prepping ahead even more important.
2. Get to know your breasts.
Several studies make the case against monthly self breast exams, finding they both needlessly worry healthy women, and give those who miss lumps a false sense of security. But Cooper disagrees: "I do encourage people to do a check once a month, after their period, in the shower," she said. "Often, they do find their own breast lumps."
The American Cancer Society says that from age 20 on, all women should be told about the potential benefits and limitations of self breast exams so they can do what seems right to them. Those who choose not to do regular exams "should still know how their breasts normally look and feel and report any changes to their doctor right away," the group recommends.
3. Monitor your moles.
"[Checking moles] is very, very important," said Dr. Nasreen Ghazi with the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Pennsylvania. "Women who are fair skinned and have a lot of moles are [often] actually more cognizant of the mole thing, but women who are darker skinned should also be looking out." Pay attention to the ABCDEs -- asymmetry, border, color, diameter and whether and how any given mole is evolving -- and try to do it around once a month. (Use a mirror and ask a friend to help check your back.)
Oh, and wear sunscreen daily, too. "Even if you don't burn, you're still at risk for skin cancer," Ghazi said.
4. Track your period. And your sex drive.
A recent survey found that many women don't understand basic reproductive concepts (like when ovulation typically occurs), but paying attention to your cycle makes it easier to alert your provider to any abnormalities. Potential red flags: "If you're bleeding more days out of the month than not, or experiencing a lot of pain or heaviness of flow," Cooper said.
In the same vein, don't pooh-pooh sexual health concerns, like painful intercourse. "Issues with lubrication, sex drive, or just being overly tired ... these are things that women put on the back burner sometimes," said Eileen Ehudin Beard, a certified nurse-midwife and senior practice advisor with the American College of Nurse-Midwives. But they can be a sign that something serious is going on.
5. Consider folate.
Though the jury's out on the benefits of taking a daily multivitamin, the evidence is clear that sufficient folic acid is important for woman who might become pregnant, because it helps prevent serious birth defects. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all women between 15 and 45 take it daily, because half of U.S. pregnancies are unplanned, and it's most important in the first weeks after conception. You can get your folate from foods like spinach and fortified breakfast cereals, or simply take a vitamin with 400 to 800 micrograms a day, Ghazi said.
6. Move. For 10 minutes.
When you're over-worked, over-scheduled, over-tired -- or perhaps all of the above? -- the last thing you want to hear is that you should get to the gym. But the good news is that moving a little is far better than not moving at all. "I tell patients, even if it's just 10 minutes, do something," Ghazi said. "Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Take a walk." Studies back that idea, finding that 10 minutes of walking a day can help boost women's heart strength and overall fitness.
7. And do something you love for 5.
If you love physical activities like yoga or soccer, well done, you! If not, do whatever (not unhealthy) thing makes you happy. "Identify that thing that gives you great joy and think about how you could integrate it into your daily life for at least 5 minutes a day," Cooper said. Doctors and researchers have found more and more evidence that health and happiness are intertwined. Chronic stress, on the other hand, can lead to all kind of mental and physical health problems.
Getting enough sleep is essential for good health in many, many ways, and there is no replacement for it. But even after nights when you're up with a deadline or a screaming infant, giving yourself just a quick break the next day can make a real difference in your overall wellbeing -- and you don't even have to close your eyes. "My advice, as a provider, is to give yourself time to rest. Give yourself time to be reflective," said Cooper.
Think you can't fit it in? While not necessarily the sexiest of tips, Cooper has a suggestion: "I say, 'When you go to the bathroom, don't let that be the only thing you do. Sit for a few seconds longer, and be alone ... use that as an opportunity to sit in solitude and think about what's going on in your life.'"
"Oral health has implications far beyond just your mouth," said Beard. "It's associated with other illnesses, so [flossing] is extremely important." Not only has periodontal disease been linked to heart disease (the number one killer of women in the U.S.), there are particular risks for women during pregnancy: Gingivitis may be a risk factor for preterm birth, as the bacteria present can trigger an immune response causing contractions and dilation. "Find a dental pick or floss that actually works for you and just carry it in your purse," said Beard. "It's just a matter of incorporating it into your routine." Roger that.