Hi. My name is Barbara and I'm 56.
Is this meaningful to you? More importantly, is it meaningful to me? My age, I mean. Should this number have any impact on how you view me, or how I view myself? In the ideal world, it would not. You would throw me in the same box along with everyone else and look at me through the same lens.
But, our world is imperfect, filled with all kinds of complicated and unfair ways to measure a person's skills, talents, character, abilities, and worth. Age is just one aspect of the human measurement stick.
After turning 50, I made a decision that changed my life: I would never again focus on those measurements that were irrelevant to my happiness, health and well being, and only embrace those that are. My age, for example, is a measurement of my life of which I make note, of course, and celebrate (with joy!) each year. However, it does not define me, as it once did. It is, as it turns out, just a number.
Another is my weight. I knew as I approached 50 that I had gained more than what was considered reasonable for a woman who had been pretty much at "normal weight" for most of her life. After going through menopause and not making the necessary changes to what I ate or how I moved my body, not surprisingly, I gained 15 pounds. After taking control and losing all of it (which took six months), I threw out my scale. I have no idea exactly how much I weigh because it's irrelevant. What's meaningful is that I feel good, fit and healthy. Weight, for me now, is all about health and less about looks.
However, there are measurements essential to our well-being, and these are numbers we should truly care about -- and know -- especially as we age:
Waist size: Visceral fat is a sneaky, evil kind of fat that you can't see. It worms its way around your internal organs, and is metabolized by the liver, which turns it into cholesterol in the blood. Having excess belly fat (even if you're in the "normal weight" category) puts you at much greater risk for all kinds of health issues: metabolic syndrome, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, stroke, dementia, and even sexual dysfunction in men. How do you know if you have it? Skip the scale and bring out the tape measure: your waist size should be less than 35 inches (less than 40 inches for a man). The best way to get rid of belly fat (which is actually much easier to shed than the extra padding around your bottom or thighs) is to move your body by walking (see below) or running at least 30 minutes every day. And cut back on foods your know are not good for you.
Daily steps: It's been established by many sources and studies that walking 10,000 steps every day, not even all at the same time, is essential to good health and overall fitness. And, it will help shed the evil visceral fat for good. Buy a simple pedometer and put it on in the morning and check periodically to make sure you'll reach your goal by evening. Remember this: every single step puts you one step closer to better health.
Blood pressure: Simply put, blood pressure is the force of blood against artery walls when the heart beats and then rests. The ideal blood pressure for women is less than 120/70. BP of 140/90 or higher indicates hypertension (high blood pressure), which means your heart is working a lot harder than it should. Hypertension is directly linked to lifestyle -- smoking, not moving your body, too much belly fat (see above), and eating too much salty processed food. If you make small changes in your life, you can naturally bring your pressure down, however, sometimes genetics plays a part, and meds might be necessary.
Cholesterol: The ideal cholesterol level for women is under 200 total. The HDL (known as the "good" cholesterol) should be higher than 60, and the LDL ("bad") should be under 100. If a woman has a total cholesterol level of over 240, that is considered high. Again, lifestyle plays a major role, but genetics can also influence your number. We know that having high cholesterol levels in your blood, and especially if the LDL level is high, puts you at risk for heart disease and stroke.
Triglyceride: Your triglyceride level is another strong indicator of potential cardiovascular disease. Triglycerides are a type of fat (similar to cholesterol) found in the blood. The acceptable numbers for women are lower than those for men. Even though the American Heart Association says that the acceptable level is under 150, recent studies conducted by the AHA and the Women's Health Initiative suggest that a post 50 woman's risk for cardiovascular disease increase after her level goes beyond 50, and most women (and many doctors) are not familiar with these latest studies. This should be an essential part of the discussion you have with your primary care physician at your next annual check up.
Blood Sugar (Glucose): Your ability to regulate blood sugar is harder once you're over fifty. The ideal level is under 100. Blood sugar levels normally go up and down during the course of the day. If you're taking good care of yourself -- eating well and moving your body -- the shifts are minor. However, if you're not, blood sugar levels can spike and crash, wreaking all kinds of havoc with your body and your brain, and can precede diabetes. The single most effective way to regulate blood sugar is -- drum roll, please -- by eating healthy foods and moving your body every day.
Vitamin D: Vitamin D's importance in promoting bone health and reducing risk of osteoporosis by helping with the absorption of calcium is well established. But there's ongoing evidence that the "sunshine vitamin" can reduce the risk of other diseases, as well. The ideal level of vitamin D is 34 mg/ml or higher. Women over 50 should take between 1,200 and 1,500 IU every day. However many doctors I interviewed confided that they personally take at least 2,000. So do I.
Sunscreen on the skin: We know that too much sun can cause wrinkles, brown spots, and most importantly, skin cancer. Experts recommend applying sunscreen to all exposed areas of the body, rain or shine and all year long, with a minimum of SPF 30 and preferably 50. However, the benefits of going higher than 50 are marginal. Look for broad spectrum sunscreens with the following ingredients: Mexoryl, titanium dioxide, and Parsol 1789.
What's on your measurement stick? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below. The more we share, the more we learn. And remember this: we can't control getting older . . . but we can control how we do it.
I'd love to meet you! I'll be speaking at the BetterAfter50 "SheDidItNY" event on Tuesday, April 16th. Click here for details. And, on Wednesday, April 17th I'll kick off the National Osteoporosis Foundation annual meeting by moderating a panel about bone health for life. It's free! Click here for details.