A guide to improving health and fitness for women

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March 8, 2016, is International Women’s Day, so this is a salute to all the wonderful women in the world and these who love them!   Here is a guide to improving health and fitness for women of all ages.

First, I would like to hail the strength and stamina of women everywhere by reminding all of us that women have been involved in every aspect of life since humans hunted and gathered.  Our bodies are designed to be vigorously active for most of the day.  Indeed, our forbearers sometimes walked 16 hours or more each day while gathering foodstuffs, water and fuel for fire.  So when I’m told that a couple hours a day of vigorous activity is just too much, I remind people that women around the world expend this kind of energy on sports, military obligations, family responsibilities and pastimes every day!

Health isn’t something you HAVE, it’s something you DO!   If you’re out of shape due to an injury or illness, a sedentary lifestyle, or obligations that keep you from focusing on your own health needs, be aware that it’s never too late to get healthier.  Remember that the apparent absence of symptoms does not equal health.   If your family and work obligations prevent you from taking care of yourself, it’s important to realize that if you don’t take care of YOU, you can’t take care of THEM!

You can start improving your health right now!  If you cannot exercise now because all of your time is being spent in caring for an ailing loved one, an aging parent or young children, there are many things you can still do right now to improve your health:

– quit smoking

– cut down on drinking alcohol

– eliminate recreational drugs and substances

– get enough sleep

– reduce sources of stress or practice stress management

– eliminate sources of falls and accidents in the home

– reduce fast food consumption

– reduce junk food snacking

– increase fresh fruit and vegetable consumption

– increase whole grains in the diet

– reduce consumption of most processed food

– eat a healthy breakfast, large lunch, modest dinner


Where does your time go now?  If you are convinced you don’t have time to exercise, it might be worthwhile to examine where your time goes now.  Using a spiral notebook and keep a diary for one whole week detailing how you spend your time.  If you find you’re doing favors for people, working unpaid overtime, watching TV, Facebooking, Internet surfing, etc., you might consider borrowing time from those activities or reordering your priorities.

Don’t exercise – play!  If you find you still don’t have time to exercise formally, throw the Frisbee with the dog, chase leaves, dance to your favorite tunes, be rambunctiously romantic, dig in the garden, or walk in beautiful places.

Don’t exercise – be more active all day long!  Take the stairs, walk or bike to work, stand while on the phone, walk at lunch, tighten and release muscles during meetings, and stretch as often as you can.  If those seem like a waste of time, here’s another idea.

Don’t exercise – be productive!  Clean the garage, paint the dining room, wash all the windows – inside and out!  Refinish the floors, wax the car, flip all the mattresses, vacuum the whole house and clean out all the cabinets. You’ll get great exercise and have a lot to show for your time!

There are thousands of exercise options.   To ensure you get optimal return on the time you spend, most people find that purposeful exercise is best.  When you are ready to begin exercising, it’s important to know that there are myriad options from which to choose, but essentially, there are three kinds of exercise:

Cardiopulmonary exercise, often called cardio or aerobics, enhances stamina and endurance.  This includes walking, running, biking, swimming, climbing, dancing, etc. – any activity that continues without stop for a duration of at least 15 minutes to several hours.    Don’t think you need endurance?  Having the stamina to move quickly for as long as necessary is essential when a loved one shouts “Help!” or a toddler falls down the stairs, when you’re late for the train, or a fire alarm goes off.  It also helps when cooking, cleaning and preparing for large parties.   The second type is:

Resistance training, also called strength training, weight-bearing exercise or weight lifting.  It includes lifting your own body or using dumbbells, barbells, bands, kettle bells, TRX, machines and household items – I once used an anvil!  These exercises put a burden on a muscle in order to make it grow and get stronger. Stronger muscles lead to stronger bones – especially important for women as we age.   Don’t think you need to be strong?  Opening a jar, retrieving the home holiday decorations by yourself, moving a piece of furniture to vacuum or carrying groceries from the garage to the house are all easier when you’re strong.  The third kind of exercise is

Flexibility.  This includes stretching, Tai Chi, yoga and Pilates.  Flexible people move fluidly through space with erect posture.  Any movement that stretches the muscle to its full length should, ideally, be performed daily after a sufficient warm-up.  Pulling taffy is easy when it has been warmed—otherwise it snaps.   Warming up the muscles with cardio before you stretch can prevent injury.  Don’t think you need to be flexible? Flexibility not only helps us move easily without pain, but also reach to strap a child into the back seat, retrieve a dropped item from the floor, perform activities of daily living like applying moisturizer/SPF, and ensure a lifetime of independence.

You could add the mind/body connection to attain optimal fitness (like awareness training, meditation, guided imagery and spiritual practices).   But generally, most other forms of exercise you can think of are combinations of the three basic forms of exercise, from Zumba, plyometrics, pole dancing, boot camp, balance balls, BOSU, ropes, barre, power blade, etc.)

All three basic forms of exercise are important to remain pain-free, sharpen brain function and memory, live independently, maintain a healthy bodyweight, and significantly reduce our dependence on drugs for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and osteoporosis.  Exercise provides a whole host of other benefits, too.   Just ask Cathy!

Where to start?  First, get your health care provider’s okay (and most will jump with joy if you want to begin exercising!)  Start by walking.  Get a good pair of walking shoes, choose a site that‘s safe and get going.  A Fitbit or heart rate monitor will tell you whether you’re walking at a fast enough pace to be therapeutic, but don’t wait until you buy one, just get going!  Walk at a pace that is challenging but doesn’t leave you gasping.  By building up slowly from 10 or 15 minutes a day three times a week to over an hour a day on most days of the week, you’ll immediately begin reducing cholesterol and blood sugar, and will improve your blood pressure and bone density.  Walking is also a great stress manager!  If you experience pain during or after your walk, consult your healthcare provider to rule out serious injury or underlying issues.

Don’t bounce!  After your walk, engage in light stretching because you’re now warmed up.  Start in the kitchen by standing two feet away from the sink, grasp it with both hands and bend forward from the waist, pushing your tush out.  Keep legs slightly bent and feel the delicious release of tension in the lower back, sides of the torso, and the legs.  Gently hold the stretch without bounding and breathe rhythmically.

Many stretches can comfortably be performed in bed (it’s safer, too, because it cuts down on falls and reduces the difficulty of getting down and back up from the floor).  Stretch the torso and back by lying face up, bending your knees with feet flat on the bed and letting the legs fall to the right (keep the left shoulder on the bed).  Then allow the legs to fall to the left, keeping the right shoulder on the bed.  Sit up on the bed and reach for your toes, keeping the knees straight feel it pull behind your knees, calves and thighs.   Spread the legs as far as you’re able and reach for your toes again.

There are thousands of stretches easily learned from popular websites, but mostly— follow your intuition about what you need.  The key words are:  after you’ve warmed-up, stretch gently, slowly, don’t bounce, and breathe throughout.

Once you’ve become accustomed to walking at least a half hour three times a week and don’t experience knee, shin, hip or back pain, step up the pace of your cardio.  Do this by walking faster in intervals.  For example:  for one minute, walk at much brisker pace than is comfortable, then slow down to your usual pace for several minutes.  By repeating these fast/normal intervals for the duration of your walk, you’ll teach your heart and lungs how to work more efficiently under stress – thereby improving your cardiopulmonary, digestive and musculoskeletal systems!

Soon after you’ve started a walking regimen, add weight training.  At the club or at home, move all of the 12 major muscle groups through their full range of motion two to three times a week.  Consult a trainer if you’re unsure what to do or how to do it because there is a risk of injury.  Start with one set of 15 to 20 repetitions for each body part if it’s been awhile since you worked out.  You’re trying to lay a firm foundation for increased activity, and this volume of work provides that base.   You’ll want to do one set of 20 for each of these 12 muscle groups:

  • quadriceps (fronts of thighs) – deep knee bends
  • hamstrings (backs of thighs) – curls on a stability ball
  • calves (backs of lower leg) – heel raises
  • abdominals (front of torso) – crunches
  • lumbar spine (lower back) – bridges
  • external obliques (sides of torso) – side bends
  • pectoralis (chest) – chest press
  • latissimus (middle/outside of lower back) – lat pulls
  • trapezius (upper and middle back) – rows
  • biceps (fronts of upper arms) – curls
  • triceps (backs of upper arms) – presses
  • deltoids (top of arms/outer shoulders) side raises

Do your weight training on alternating days of the week with at least one or two days between exercises for the same body part to allow for sufficient recovery time.  For example:  do your total body weight lifting on Mondays and Thursdays or do upper body exercises on Mondays and Wednesdays, lower body exercises on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  By combining the three basic forms of exercise on most if not all days of the week, you’ll be well on your way to significantly improved health!

In closing, keep this lesson in mind:  It’s never too late to start over.  If you weren’t happy with yesterday, try something different today.  Don’t stay stuck.  Do better!

Cat Sterrett has a Masters Degree in Exercise Physiology from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a concentration in geriatrics.  She is a certified personal trainer and fitness professional with over 30 years of experience, emphasizing work with Special Populations.  Questions?  Contact her:  catsterrett@gmail.com