A doctor's guide to healthy living at every stage of womanhood - from pre-puberty to menopause

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  • Regular physical activity has important health benefits for women.
  • These benefits extend from pre-puberty to menopause.
  • Dr Phathokuhle Zondi says women should embrace and learn from each chapter in their lives while caring for their health.

Over the last few decades, women have broken barriers to live in a world that offers equal opportunity, is free of discrimination, and offers equal access to quality healthcare. Although we remain a deeply gendered society, these achievements are worth celebrating.

Beyond this, there is also something to celebrate in every stage of a woman’s journey, says Dr Phathokuhle Zondi, a Sports and Exercise Medicine (SEM) physician and expert on women’s health and fitness for Virgin Active. 

When it comes to our physical and mental well-being, being active can translate to big improvements. Zondi takes us through why there’s a good reason to keep moving in every season of our lives.

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Throw, run, kick – like a girl

“My coach said I run like a girl. And I said if he ran a little faster, he could too.” – Mia Hamm. 

Before puberty, there are no significant differences between girls and boys in terms of speed, strength or any other sports-performance related parameters, says Zondi. In fact, girls are often stronger than boys pre-puberty. She explains:

For the girl child, physical activity is not just important for its health benefits, but also for how it boosts self-confidence, academic performance, and sense of belonging.

Research suggests that girls, in particular, closely emulate their mothers’ actions and that active mothers are more likely to raise active teenage girls. “Being active as a family is a great way to bond with your child and the best way to cultivate a life-long love of physical movement,” says Zondi. 

The key is to make exercise a fun-filled activity that is enjoyable and encourages the development of a new skill. She adds: “In these years, physical activity enables healthy physical development while building social skills  and fostering self-confidence.”

Go with the flow

The physical, mental and social changes that take place in a teen’s life can be confusing and challenging. 

“Encourage your daughter to be aware of how her body changes with age,” says Zondi.

Girls may feel strong and energetic or sluggish and bloated depending on where they are in their cycle, and it’s important that parents and caregivers understand these shifts. 

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During their teen years, Zondi also advocates for women to encourage their daughters to take on new challenges, vocalise their struggles, think independently and find healthy emotional outlets. 

Colour outside the lines

The 20s present a whole new set of challenges and joys for women navigating relationships, careers and life, says Zondi.

“These are the years of social exploration, professional development … In these years, we generally live life flat out: we work hard, we play hard, we love hard, and we fail hard,” she adds.

But remaining physically active in these years helps to prevent depression and manage anxiety and makes us more likely to engage in positive behaviour, ultimately resulting in a better social life and improved productivity, she says. 

“Importantly, managing one's diet, moderating alcohol consumption and staying physically active will help lower the costs of health care later in life,” she says.

Welcoming your 30s and 40s

Your 20s are considered a time for self-discovery, but your 30s and 40s are your years of self-actualisation. Says Zondi:

During self-discovery, one realises the dynamics of their personality, becomes more certain about their likes and dislikes and often starts to set boundaries. Self-actualisation is a progression from self-realisation and involves self-development and self-mastery. It happens when you start to realise your full potential.

Numerous studies have shown that in adults, higher levels of physical activity are related to higher scores of mastery, self-control and vitality, she says.

Exercise is medicine

By the time you’ve crested the 50s, if you haven’t taken care of your health, the cracks soon start to show, says Zondi.

“Diseases of chronic lifestyle, cancer and mental illness tend to announce themselves painfully in this stage,” she says.

However, the good news is multiple clinical studies prove physical activity can effectively reduce risk, improve quality of life, and lower complications in many chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure (hypertension), diabetes and cardiovascular illness. 

Exercise has also been shown to improve quality of life in cancer survivors. According to an analysis released this year, South Africa has the most cancer deaths in Africa. Zondi says that breathing exercises, yoga and mindfulness are increasingly used in various aspects of cancer management to alleviate the anxiety related to a diagnosis.  

Reliable studies have also shown how aerobic exercise improves anxiety, depression, fatigue, quality of life and physical function in cancer survivors.

Post-menopause 

As women reach post-menopause, they are also vulnerable to losing bone mass, which puts them at risk of osteoporosis. 

“Strength training and weight-bearing exercise can help with improving bone density and preventing bone loss as it encourages the osteogenic effect (bone growth),” says Zondi.

Along with a consistently well-balanced diet, this is one of the best ways to prevent age-related fractures and movement-related injuries in the future, she says. 

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In this stage of womanhood, physical activity helps us better maintain health, manage chronic conditions and maintain mental wellbeing. 

“As we celebrate women this month, let’s also celebrate the opportunity to move in every season and how this enriches our lives in so many ways. Here’s to embracing every stage of our journey,” says Zondi.


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