If I only knew then what I know now.
I try to avoid thinking that because it reeks of regret. However, I find myself saying it often... mostly to women in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Why? Because, as Shakespeare once wrote, "What's past is prologue" and what we do (or don't do) in our younger years will have a huge impact on how we look and feel by the time we enter our 50s. Our earlier choices and decisions can also affect our finances, relationships, careers, and general sense of happiness later in life.
Now that I'm over 50, I look back at my younger self and wish that someone had pulled me aside, sat me down, looked me straight in the eye and told me what I'm about to tell you. For sure, many -- if not all -- of these "commandments" you intellectually already know to be true. However, your current younger you may not be emotionally ready to accept them. You might still be in that glorious, relatively carefree stage of life where you think, "Oh I don't need to think about these things now. I've got plenty of time to think about them later," which is a variation of The Ant and the Grasshopper fable from Aesop. Or, perhaps you're simply too engaged with the business of life to bother. Or, you are caught up in the very youthful idea that you are invincible.
Whatever your reason, you can choose to think about these later and spend a bit of your early 50s playing catch-up, and hope for the best. Or, you can do them now, and be far ahead of the game.
Don't Stop Networking: Whether you choose to stay home to raise children some day or work straight through, you should never stop networking, and building on that network. If you do choose to be a SAHM (stay-at-home mom) try to stay connected to your career by moving from full-time to part-time work, which will make it easier for you to move back into full-time work when you're ready. It's much better to have choices and options, than not. Don't put yourself into a vulnerable financial position, potentially, by not taking the time to think in terms of the "big picture" and long-term goals. Read my article -- "Derailed by the Mommy Track?" on how to successfully re-enter the workforce when you've been out on a sabbatical for awhile.
Do Create a Personal "Board of Directors": Whether you're looking to change jobs or careers, pursue a relationship, or end one, having a trusted group with whom you can review life's challenges, is essential. Invite several friends (or even just one) who will encourage, inspire and guide you (see my Huffington Post article, "Need a Push? Create Your Own 'Accountability Group," on how to start your own group). Having a regular group you can depend on for unbiased and objective views and advice is critical, especially as you are facing major life decisions.
Don't Smoke: Lung cancer is the #1 leading cause of cancer death for women, but it is avoidable. The #1 cause? Smoking, which is also associated with many other illnesses. We are considered the smarter sex, and yet women are picking up the habit more than ever before. On top of the health risks, what about the little bits of tobacco that linger at the bottom of your handbag, or the smell of smoke in your hair, clothes, breath? It's not pretty or sophisticated, and definitely not sexy.
Do Wear Sunscreen: I spent my teenage summers basking in the sun at Coney Island, with baby oil mixed with iodine slathered on my body, a reflector aimed at my face. I threw away the reflector and tried to remember to put on sunscreen, but it wasn't until my mid-40s -- when I saw sun damage on my face (wrinkles, brown spots) -- and I developed skin cancer on my chest, that I got serious. Soaking up the sun feels great and who doesn't look fabulous with a little peachy-bronzy glow. But, if you don't apply sunscreen every single day of the year, including on your neck, chest and hands, you will put yourself at high risk for skin cancer (highly avoidable) and skin that looks much older than its years (wrinkles, brown spots, sagging, leathery skin). Steer clear of tanning booths, too.
Don't Have Risky Sex: Unsafe sex = higher risk for pregnancies and STDs, some of which are life long. Don't think because you are young, you are immune and invincible. You are not. And don't put pleasure before common sense. Make sure you know the scoop on your partner before you proceed, including your boyfriend or husband. Use condoms. Discuss your risk factors with your gynecologist, and get tested for HIV, Hepatitis B and C, and syphilis, especially when you start a new relationship. Insist that your partner does the same.
Do Move Your Body Every Day: Get yourself into the habit of working out, and don't let excuses (even really good ones) get in the way of giving yourself this daily gift. Obesity is the culprit in many serious illnesses, including certain cancers. One third of all cancer deaths are related to obesity, physical inactivity, or poor nutrition. Make fitness a lifelong commitment.
Don't Ignore Your Young Bones: Osteoporosis is a disease of the bones that we associate with aging, and rightly so. But, it takes time to get there. Poor nutrition, specifically a lack of adequate amounts of calcium and Vitamin D (which helps the body to absorb the calcium) is partly to blame. A more powerful contributor is the lack of regular strength-training exercises. I was told that I had osteopenia, the first stop before full-fledged osteoporosis, when I was 50. My doctor told me that every woman should start -- and maintain -- strength-training exercises in her early 20s, and make them part of her life forever. Added bonus? Your body will be toned and sexy, as well as strong.
Do Save More and Spend Less: Retirement is, presumably, years away, but it's never too early to plan for it. The more money you have when you reach 50, the less stress and anxiety you will have. One of the biggest fears among women over 50 is not having enough money to live a good life as they age. Many of the women I interviewed for the article I wrote about this fear admitted that they wish they had made better and smarter financial choices earlier in their lives. It's not always easy to do, but the sooner you start saving (IRAs, 401Ks, and so on) the better you will be down the road. And, take the advice of the top money experts: use a fee-only financial planner to get you on the right path.
Don't Be Apathetic: We're all busy with family, work, friends... but that's no excuse to stop thinking about causes that are important to us and to the world. Americans are weary, it seems, about the economy, jobs, war, politics, and are turning away from getting involved. More than ever, America needs the energy and ideas that youth can provide. For example, the Equal Rights Amendment is still not a part of the U.S. Constitution, which many young women don't realize. This country is looking to you, the next generation, for support. We don't want to pass the baton. We want to hold it out to you, so you can grab it, and hold onto it with us by your sides. Get involved, stay involved. Be the change.
Do Embrace Your Age: Don't fight aging. Embrace it. This doesn't mean you should spend your life focused on getting older, and how to stop the process. On the contrary, live fully engaged with each year of your life, embracing the future ones with joy. It is a very powerful concept -- letting go of your younger self, and embracing and loving your aging self. Treat yourself with kindness and respect, and take care of you -- body, mind, and soul -- as you would your children, your family and your friends.
Share this with the women in your life, and share your own "commandments" with us by leaving a comment.
Every other week, I'll be adding another mile or so to the long run (keeping the two short runs the same distance), and I will be adding "speed work" to my training. Stay tuned!
For more information on the Jeff Galloway Run/Walk/Run Method, check out his website, www.jeffgalloway.com.
Follow Barbara Hannah Grufferman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/BGrufferman