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Sedentary, and at real risk

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Esther Cepeda
July 24, 2011
— Here are two realities completely at odds with each other: Millions of Americans celebrated last week’s Women’s World Cup final during which some of our strongest, fittest female athletes battled it out for on-field supremacy, and yet we disregard the millions of American women whose health is deteriorating to the point that they’ll have shorter lives than did their mothers.

It’s shocking that 39 years after the landmark Title IX legislation that effectively made it possible for our soccer goddesses to be celebrated on the world stage, there is still a common perception among some women that sports or any kind of physical activities are out of the question.


This terrible mind fog isn’t the result of some unfortunate lack of childhood opportunities or gender discrimination but an increasingly common symptom of motherhood. Women who either participated in sports as children or stayed physically active in their young adult lives hit a wall when they start combining careers with relationships and families.


“That’s what happened to me,” said Barbara Hannah Grufferman, a Manhattan-based feminist and author of “The Best of Everything After 50.”


“In my late 30s, I was the quintessential workaholic and gym bunny, but then I met my husband, started my family, had my second child at 41, and was still working, still wanting to have friends, be involved in the community and do it all. Exercising was the first thing that dropped out of my life because it was just impossible to fit it in. Had I really stopped to think about it then and realized how really important it was to look ahead to my future, I would have made the time.”


American women’s lives depend on them making that time. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington recently released data showing that, in a major reversal of public health progress, women’s life expectancy is shrinking in 313 U.S. counties. Other public health statistics show that more than 60 percent of women are overweight, about 35 percent are obese, and, even worse, less than half of all women 25 and older meet the federal physical activity guidelines for aerobic exercise compared to 51 percent of men.


That’s a function of either lack of resources or overwork. Women are more likely to live in poverty—which alone makes them less likely to have adequate resources for exercise—than men, and married working women spend an hour more than men performing household activities and caring for household members, including children and parents, and half an hour less per workday engaged in leisure and sports than their husbands.


“All of a sudden you turn around and you’re 50, the kids are gone, you have osteoporosis or going through a difficult menopause you say ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do?’” Grufferman told me. “The only answer is to prevent that by making yourself a priority now, today, without feeling guilty about it.”


Women of all shapes and weights are reducing the quality and length of their lives because of a lack of physical movement. By the same token, women of all ages, sizes and income levels can benefit from even the tiniest additions of exercise into their lives, especially because so many work at desk jobs that keep them on their rears all day. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, someone with a completely sedentary lifestyle can realize health benefits from as little as five to 10 minutes of activity such as walking every day.


“Don’t give more of yourself to work or take on that extra project for the school board, give it back to yourself now,” says Grufferman, who at 55 has gotten into the best shape of her life. “Forget about having money for a gym or a trainer—walk for 15 minutes and do some strength training. One action begets another. Once you start doing one healthy action, it connects to another healthy action. You just have to start.”


Most moms will take these words of advice as well-meaning, but completely impractical—simply out of the question.


But, ladies, while it’s great to cheer your families and heroes from the sidelines, there’s someone just as important and worth getting the heart pumping: you.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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