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Life Stages for Girls and Women

Before the age of 10, learning a new sport is pretty easy. Young girls can compete with boys and juggle many activities—the more activities, the better. This will prevent burnout in a sport and also allow for muscle, bone, and posture development that is well balanced. In particular, girls are encouraged to participate in sports or recreation that requires upper arm strength such as climbing and swimming. Activities that challenge balance, such as dance, skating, or court sports are also recommended. Mixing these activities will allow muscles to develop equally and make participation in all types of sports later in life easier and more enjoyable.

During adolescence, there are some challenges. There is a lot of peer pressure to be thin; this is when most girls try dieting. Adolescence is actually the worst time to diet, as young women are still growing and need nutrition to supply their developing body. Girls must be especially careful to eat a diet rich in calcium, at least 1,200 mg a day. This is the time bones are gaining their greatest strength for the rest of your life.

Balancing school, sports, and social life can be difficult. There can be peer pressure to try drugs, tobacco, and alcohol. Stress levels can be high. If you are feeling overwhelmed with your schedule, consider dropping an activity. If your friends are not supportive of your busy schedule, find new ones. It should be easy with all you are involved in. Try to maintain your baseline health as much as possible by eating three well-balanced meals a day with snacks, taking a multivitamin, and drinking at least eight cups of fluid (soda does not count!). Try to get seven to eight hours of sleep and incorporate seeing your friends into your life of school and athletic activity.

As an athlete, ease into a new sport or sport season. Stay conditioned during the off season, and rest if you feel sore or tired. Maintain overall body conditioning throughout the year. Take at least one day of rest from athletics a week. These strategies will prevent overuse injuries.

Young Adult
At this time of life, you are figuring out where sports fit. If you are a college or competitive athlete, you are spending much of your day training and doing sports. You should especially make sure you are eating well and continuing with calcium and a daily multivitamin. Dieting can be tempting, but keep perspective of your healthy weight and muscular athletic physique. You should be getting your period every month. If you are not, you might be overtraining or not eating enough. Discuss this with your doctor.

Regular exercise is your greatest benefit. It keeps you physically and mentally healthy, controls your weight, makes your skin glow, and energizes you. It also strengthens you and allows you to participate in all activities without problems. Nutrition, as in all stages of life, is important. Weight is often a concern. Remember, the best way to be at your optimum weight is to avoid junk foods and sugary foods and eat well-balanced meals. Take a multivitamin and calcium supplement daily.

If you are a competitive or elite athlete, make sure you allow your body to rest at least one day a week. See a doctor if you have any pain or weakness that limits you for more than a few days. You should be getting your period every month. See your gynecologist every year and do your monthly breast self-exams.

Mature Adult
Maintaining bone strength, preserving cardiovascular health with aerobic activity, and maintaining flexibility and posture are important exercise-related goals for health at this stage of life. You want to avoid the hunched posture so common to older women, as this decreases your lung and breathing capacity, decreases height, reduces overhead shoulder motion, and causes shoulder, neck, back, and rib pain. To prevent these complications, you should be doing upper body strength training with an emphasis on upper back and shoulder muscles and stretches.

As you go through menopause, your symptoms of night sweats, hot flashes, irritability, and moodiness will be reduced by regular exercise. If you are taking hormone replacement, make sure you are on the lowest dose, and do not take them for more than five years. Alternative treatments for your menopause symptoms include black cohosh and soy products. (Do not take either of these if you have estrogen-dependent cancers.) Medications to treat mood are also very effective to help with menopausal symptoms.

Incontinence can be troublesome. There are strategies to decrease this problem, including Kegel exercises, medications, insertable devices, and surgery. Other body changes that can be a problem for active older women include a decrease in sweat gland function, which can be noticed by having less tolerance to exercise in hot temperature. Also, as you age, your maximum heart rate goes down, although this should not affect your activity level.

From The Active Woman's Health and Fitness Handbook by Nadya Swedan. Copyright © 2003 by Nadya Swedan. Used by arrangement with Perigee, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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