When I sat down to write this article, I had planned to take my usual approach to researching a piece like this for a paper or presentation. I start by looking at the macro data, which is often incredibly daunting, especially when it comes to health outlook and risks.
It’s always pertinent to consider gender disparity and gender as a key benchmark in health, even though it’s not often one of the top considerations. Did you know, for example, that a long-term Harvard health study only recently included a group of women? Or that the original glycemic index (GI) listings were based on a sample group of only men? Or that many, many of the published studies I have both read and worked on, when I dig a bit more deeply into the sampling, have been done using male-only study participants? When I ask why, I get the same answers: usually that adherence is higher in male groups and that men offer a more stable sample group for a number of reasons including hormonal and other fluctuations. These answers, of course, make it clear to me that what is needed critically in that case is much more research and a more robust understanding of women’s metabolic responses to different changes.
The typical article starts with ‘this is how bad things are and this is how much worse women are in terms of obesity, income, security, x, y and z’. In the diabesity game, we all know the stats, and they are hard to swallow. Women suffer more from simple dietary and metabolic disease, especially in developing countries. In the current corona game, the stats associating disparity and co-morbidity are even harder to swallow.
So, because it’s International Day of Action for Women’s Health (as opposed to the many other days that alert us to the impending doomsday disease figures, many of which show women are worst hit both locally and globally for a number of reasons from disempowerment and income disparity to simple dietary differences), I decided to do something different!
I decided to ask women what actions they actually take for their health. Daily. I asked a relatively wide-ranging group of women whom I know, love, respect and admire and received some astonishingly simple yet inspired answers!
Why did I decide to ask these women?
Because what I know for sure is that a concept known as ‘bioindividuality’ matters – a lot – when it comes to women’s health and the actions that they can take to improve it. What is bioindividuality? It’s the integrated medical principle that asserts that no one size fits all. We are all unique with different needs, choices, preferences, health needs and nuanced systems that relate to the specific environments in which they coexist. With this in mind, as women with our own unique set of hormones, hopes, histories and needs, this is even more pertinent. What also matters when one considers women’s health is the holistic picture this represents. We know, for example, that for every one woman who does our Eat Better! Programmes about eleven community members – male, children and other women – are positively impacted or influenced. We know that by women living better quality and healthier lives, societies flourish. Melinda Gates said it perfectly in The Moment of Lift: ‘When you’re working globally to include women and girls, who are half of every community, gender equality lifts everyone’.
What works for one person at one time in their life changes and our needs, along with our hormones, identities and perceptions of ourselves and what contributes to health, change as we grow and age as women. I have found a softening in myself and a deepening compassion for myself that perhaps comes with time, or with the softening of the need to be and look perfect as I age and work firmly on health rather than looking good. For me, that counts for a lot in terms of my personal daily actions relating to health. I have stopped fixating on losing pounds and worry more about how good I feel and other health goals. Having struggled with insulin resistance from the age of around 20, I choose this for myself, in an industry and a world that values thin as a key benchmark of success, rather than a life of extreme dieting or caloric restriction that I see so many around me follow and define themselves by. I always knew that my work was bigger, my voice louder than this and that the size of my waistline has very little, if anything, to do with this, provided I was healthy and taking care for my health and wellness. In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf highlights some startling statistics around women’s health and how it is compromised for life from an early age by caloric restriction and limiting beliefs around food. Did you know that 50 per cent more Nepali women than men go blind due to a lack of food or that two-thirds of Asian and half of African women are anaemic due to a lack of sufficiently nutritious food? This is not limited to the developing world: in the US, large studies have shown that parents of boys encourage their sons to eat well, regardless of their size or weight, and girls are encouraged to eat well only if they are slim. ‘Women are taught from birth to go with less than they need’, Naomi says.
I am interested in more than just diet and sleep or the broad brushstrokes of women’s health trends, but what is unique to women and how differently we need to be treated in medicine that better embraces our different needs and life changes. I also know so many women, like myself, that respond differently to different interventions and that display different metabolic reactions. I am interested in creating new ways to better look after women’s integrated health and the best actions we can take to support this. In my country and continent, women fall victim to failed food systems and inaccurate diagnosis to severe detriment to their health.
As I learn more about who I am as a woman, mother, partner, daughter, friend and sister, I also learn more about the range of things that contribute to my health and the nuances of these. They are not all linear and not all measurable on a scale, blood test or with a measuring tape. While these things are part of my personal health ‘barometer’, so to speak, I find the intangible things matter more and more – like my stress levels and sleep, my close relationships and my expectations of myself. The coronavirus pandemic has taught me to focus even more on this area; to drop the story of what it means to succeed, look great all the time or even my own deep drive to accomplish massive volumes of tasks in a day.
But if there is one thing I know for sure, it’s that stats are just that. Numbers that populate charts and graphs and give scientists models to work with that dictate trends, plans and food pyramids and support academia. Now, I am not saying there is anything wrong with modelling but, while I firmly support evidence-based policy, one thing I have learnt from myself and the many remarkable women in my life is that there is absolutely no one way to do things. There is no golden formula and no one single solution. There are just simply so many ways to live. So many ways to parent. So many ways to find and embrace health.
I asked my top list of inspired, inspiring women to share their tips for how they action health in their daily lives. Here are some of their incredible insights.
- Nearly all respondents talked about both the quality and length of sleep they get as being intrinsic to their overall health.
- Nearly all of them start the day by drinking combinations of lemon, ginger and/or turmeric in hot water.
- Drinking enough water was mentioned by most and some talked about its quality too.
- Nearly all respondents spoke about different types of exercise, specifically mentioning yoga, running, Pilates and general cardio. Some also included weight training and dance.
- Time alone to enjoy their own company was mentioned by many, with examples being to walk alone, spend time alone in nature, have time out alone during the day, enjoy lunch alone and have time by themselves in silence. Silence was mentioned often!
- Nature and good doses of time in it were mentioned by most.
- Icy swims each day were mentioned as a practice, as were warm saunas.
- Several talked about giving back to those less fortunate, through charities or their work.
- Eating was, surprisingly, not on the top of most people’s lists and, in fact, didn’t feature in many. When it was mentioned, it was in particular reference to:
- real, non-processed foods,
- no or limited sugar,
- colourful or rainbow foods,
- eating together with family and loved ones, and
- the joy of eating the colour green specifically.
What I found particularly interesting was how ALL the respondents talked about their mental health, unprompted, referring to it as a key part of their overall health!
Here were some key and common comments:
- Following my instincts and gut is essential
- Daily or regular meditation
- Gratitude and the practice of it in my life
- Reducing stress and pressure from the world around me, including from family and work
- Choosing how my day will look and actively setting intention
- Sending loving, supportive thoughts to family, friends and my community
- Praising myself for my daily achievements, no matter how small at the time
- I don’t take any one thing too seriously
- Connecting, hugging and spending time (or virtual time) with those I love
- Routines help me
- Feeling the pain when it comes, expressing and communicating the anger or pain, especially in reference to the current world dynamics
- Connection to the beauty of life, in particular time in nature
- Avoiding people who suck the life out of me or pull me down
- I seek laughter and fun
- I learn something new, regularly
- I make time for prayer/my faith and connect to my intention
- Family time
It’s clear from this summary of the many inspired replies I received that there are some big, clear winners: sleep, movement, water, nature, connection and mindfulness in the format that works for you.
What’s also interesting for me here is what people did NOT mention in reference to their health and daily related activities: no one talked specifics about when or what they eat. No one mentioned supplements or medications. They didn’t mention weight. Or illness much, if at all (though I know several personally struggle with health issues and chronic conditions). They spoke with love about themselves and with deep joy around the actions they take each day for their personal health, both physical and mental health seemingly equally important and relevant. No one talked about sex. Or hygiene or even, shock horror, their kids. Or their partners. Other than in reference to quality time with them and also quality time without them, for just themselves. Nor, despite the current status of the world, did anyone mentioned COVID-19 other than in reference to filtering news and media and protecting themselves from the news as an essential part of their wellbeing needs.
They mentioned healthy food , but more in colour, freshness and vibrance than in calories or diet. They mentioned many other things, too, that make up the myriad of healthy, creative, inspired actions they – we – take daily. For ourselves, as leaders of our destinies.
I am deeply touched, pleasantly surprised and, as always, in awe of the many things these women juggle, hold and win at. Especially the committed, self-care love they offer themselves.
Perhaps the big takeaway here is to do many small, conscious actions every day. To listen to your body and its language more closely, more intimately. To respond to it as if it’s the true guide, the true leader in your life, and also the one place that real action can be felt and experienced.
My list is very similar to the many I received. Perhaps I would have added dance higher up but, after some thought, it’s more about movement of any kind that I need each day. The type is less important than being able to move.
Mary Oliver’s poem, Wild Geese comes to mind when I re-read this article and the many inspired responses I got to my question – too many to mention. Women are unique and learn the needs of their bodies in a life long, changing dialogue with their bodies.
“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.”
On that note, I am off to light my daily intention candle, to make a cup of tea and to drink a glass of H2O alongside that, before the next meeting.
What are your top health actions that you can do, today, to support you in your health?
I would like to thank the many incredible female leaders who contributed to this article, in particular:
Kubeshni Govendor, Adriene Olivier, Georgina P-B, Trish Pichulik, Tamzyn Murphy (Nutrition Network), Hevette Ates, Carin Dean-Whales (The Joy Institute), Gerda Kenyon, Fidi Bubenzer, Maija de Rijk Uys (Go2Africa), Bex Cronje (Cultivate Comms), Lisa Fontannaz, Kristin Glenewinkel (Movement Medicine), Zelda Coetzee, Shelly Graham, Cat Glennie, Kzenia Pichulik (Big Magic Studio), Ziska Baumgarten (Tuist), Janien Wilkins Macy (Rock Blue), Alethea Dzerefros-Naidoo, Janeen Bullen (gogo), Mia Steyn (Nia with Mia), Ruby Rose, Erika Stiegerwald Shepard (Inner Fire Wellness), Jana Retief (The Noakes Foundation), Michaela O’Driscoll, Dani Boden, Andrea Rademeyer (Ask Afrika), Caroline Carey (Middle Earth Medicine) and so many others not listed here too!
About the author: Jayne Bullen believes research in healthcare needs better funding and strong minds. Since joining in 2015, she has grown The Noakes Foundation into one of the key research funders in South Africa, an entity that is changing the way the nation eats. As the Chief Operating Officer of The Noakes Foundation she established Eat Better South Africa alongside inspiring colleagues and Prof Noakes. Most recently she was appointed as Managing Director of the Nutrition Network, where she has taken the lead in the process and creation of this educational and networking platform founded by The Noakes Foundation in partnership with an esteemed team of doctors and scientists. After realizing the dichotomy between brand research budgets and human health research, she decided to leave the corporate research world and took the leap into medical and biological research to bring her experience in big biz research into new areas to affect change to human health. Jayne is an MBA, High Dip in Marketing and International Relations graduate. She began her career taking products into Africa and researching local markets in the West and East African block and later moved to the UK to read for an MBA at Leeds University, later conducting Pan European media research and strategy evaluation. She is also a Movement Medicine Teacher, a Mind Body Medicine Practitioner and a mom.