Set The Stage
Treat yourself well before 40 and you'll enjoy good health for years to come

By Catherine Monahan

Lynda Swan started running during college to escape from academic stress. Now 34 and a new mother, she continues to mark the miles each week in the park near her Denver home, adding in swimming, biking or weight training on alternate days. "I definitely feel different than I did in my 20s, but I still feel young," says Swan. "I have a lot of energy."

Swan's regular exercise routine tackles the three most important preventive health goals for women aged 20 to 39—building bone density, strengthening cardiovascular capacity, and increasing lean muscle mass. In addition to keeping herself trim and energetic, Swan is lowering her risk for diabetes, heart disease, obesity and osteoporosis—conditions that are largely prevented by exercise and healthy diet.

For many young adults, this commitment comes too late. During their 20s, women and men are in their physical prime, and aside from developing a few laugh lines or gray hairs, turning 30 shouldn't change things much. But it does. Weight gain, low stamina and indigestion often plague 30-somethings, and the reason has more to do with upkeep than with age; a decade of poor diet and scant exercise is hard to hide. "Everything in your 20s is setting you up for your 30s," says Tod Thoring, ND, a Los Angeles practitioner.

The trouble is, wellness is often overshadowed by the demands of young adulthood. Social life, career and children can leave little time for health. To be fair, it's easy to take the body for granted when it's working well, but neglect can have unfortunate consequences.

"Seemingly unrelated health issues later in life are interconnected early on," says Justina Trott, MD, director of Women's Health Services in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Because health is a measure of many factors, including genetics, nutrition, environment and relationships, overlooking just one of these can lead to cancer, stroke and other health problems in unexpected ways, she says.

Life In The Fast Lane
The 20s and 30s are a good time to assess the lifestyle decisions you've been making. Consider your sexual practices, work schedule, diet habits and health care patterns to determine if you're looking at a healthy middle age—or if a few changes might increase your wellness odds.

Some of the most serious health disorders among young women stem from a single oversight: not using a condom during sex. Experts estimate that 15 million Americans become infected with a sexually transmitted disease (STD) every year. Two of these, chlamydia and gonorrhea, can lurk asymptomatically for years, scarring fallopian tubes and increasing a woman's risk of infertility, pelvic disease and genital cancer. Venereal disease can strike at any age, but younger, more sexually active women run the greatest risk. Young men are equally prone to infections, yet because their symptoms are more apparent and the diseases more readily diagnosed, they tend to have fewer complications.

Strong personal relationships carry you through later years. Both men and women suffer the costs of nonstop stress during their 20s and 30s. Long work days or sleepless nights tending to a new baby can send cortisol levels haywire, disrupting blood sugar levels, immune function and inflammatory control. Those who don't take time out are more susceptible to infections and tire easily. Long-term cortisol fluctuations can contribute to diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.

"Work is like an endurance sport when you're in your 20s," says Thoring. "You have motivation, you have physical stamina, you have strength." That's why it's the perfect time to start exercising. In addition to strengthening bones, adding muscle and controlling weight, regular exercise improves mood, sleep and energy levels. When combined with stress-relief techniques such as stretching or meditation, it's even more effective.

The same principle applies to diet—eating well is a habit best learned early in life. "Much of prevention lies in your everyday consumption," says Thoring. "If you make good food choices a part of your life in your 20s, there is no transition later on—your back doesn't have to be up against a wall." Keep in mind that quick and affordable meals such as pasta, bread and take-out create a sense of fullness but often deliver near-zero nutrients. Focus instead on a diet that includes lean meats, fish, soy and vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables.

Even when otherwise healthy, men and women in their 20s and 30s should have complete physicals and get baseline readings on blood pressure, cholesterol and other vital statistics. Having those numbers handy makes later health changes easier to detect. A monthly self-breast exam is a must for young women and should be combined with annual mammograms closer to age 40.

Before age 30 and again prior to turning 40 are also good times to assess emotional health. "Now is the time to develop healthy relationships," says Trott, and friends, children, lovers, siblings and parents all count. Emotional well-being predicts future health, she explains, and the bonds formed before 40 are especially critical; if they're strong, they'll support you through the challenges of your senior years.

Commit To Wellness
Trott tells patients of all ages, "Don't compromise yourself," and wellness will follow. It's good advice that applies just as well to sleep-deprived new parents as to graduate students or committed careerists. If not a personal priority, health will fade away.

Wellness demands commitment, and with time the responsibility will become a joy, as Swan learned soon after she began exercising. "When I first started running, I knew when I finished the run I'd feel great," she says. "It's happened so many times that at this point I just go. It's autopilot. I know what the rewards are."

Catherine Monahan is a freelance health writer and a frequent contributor to Delicious Living.