6 Healthy Habits to Start in Your 20s for Better Lifelong Health
By Luisa Galdi, DO, Obstetrician and Gynecologist—Virtua OB/GYN – Cherry Hill
If you're a woman in your 20s, you may be enjoying excellent health—not yet thinking that what you do now can affect your health later. But, your 20s are a crucial time to establish routines and habits essential for a healthy life—now and down the road.
Here are some habits to establish now that can set you up for a healthy future.
Be careful with the convenience foods
Women in their 20s have busy lifestyles. The demands of finishing college or job training, starting a new career, and dating can mean that a carefully planned diet drops to the bottom of your to-do list. Of course, not all convenience meals are terrible for you, but many contain more calories, fat, and sodium than home-prepared meals and often don't include fresh fruits and vegetables.
Take a few hours on the weekend to plan your meals for the week and make a shopping list that includes basics like:
- Whole grains: Whole-wheat bread or tortillas, soba noodles, brown rice, or quinoa
- Lean protein: Canned beans, white-meat poultry, or canned tuna in water
- Low-fat dairy: Greek yogurt, string cheese, skim milk
- Veggies and fruits (fresh or frozen)
When you get home from the grocery store, wash and prep your fruits and veggies, and pre-pack some meals in containers for the days you'll be on the go. If you're new to food preparation and cooking, make an appointment with a registered dietitian who can help you develop a healthy eating plan based on your skills and food preferences.
Curb your alcohol intake
Ladies' nights, girls' weekends, and happy hours can lead women in their 20s to drink more than what's healthy for them. According to national guidelines, low-risk drinking for women means drinking only one alcoholic beverage (12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of liquor) per day AND no more than seven drinks per week.
Realistically, younger women may drink more than this. Bottom line, if you're worried that your drinking is a problem, it probably is. Making changes in those patterns now can help you reverse future health risks associated with heavy drinking. Sometimes young women drink to excess to cope with difficult life circumstances. If that's you, talk to your doctor about self-care and how you can manage your stress and mood.
Plan ahead if you're thinking about pregnancy
Starting a family might seem light-years away, or perhaps you're married and just starting to think about having kids. Ideally, a woman planning to get pregnant should take 400 mcg of folic acid daily, avoid smoking and drinking alcohol, and be up to date on Pap tests, pelvic exams, STD testing, and immunizations. If you have a chronic health condition that requires daily medication, know that some drugs can adversely affect a developing baby. Talk to your doctor about your current medications as early in the planning stages as you can.
Save your skin
Are you wearing broad-spectrum SPF 30 sunscreen every day, all year? If not, start today—especially if you're fair-skinned, as you're at higher risk for skin cancer. Exposure to harmful UV rays adds up over time. So the best time to minimize your risk for skin cancer, spots, and wrinkles is now. Also, if you have a lot of freckles or moles, get familiar with their size and shape. Then you'll know if one starts to spread or change, and you can get care right away.
Don't skip well visits and screenings
Set yourself up for good health by adding these reminders to your to-do list:
- Schedule a wellness checkup with a primary care doctor to manage your general health and make sure you're receiving your preventative health screenings and immunizations.
- Schedule a periodic (usually yearly) well-woman visit with your gynecologist as a part of your preventative health care. Your gynecologist will address contraception, fertility, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), sexual health, your menstrual cycle, or any related concerns you may have. Your visit may include a breast and pelvic exam if needed.
- Start getting Pap tests at age 21 (even if you became sexually active earlier). If your Pap test is normal, your doctor may recommend having a Pap test every three to five years. If your results are abnormal, you may need screenings more frequently.
- Consider getting the HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine if you didn't get it in adolescence. This vaccine protects you from HPV infection, which can cause cervical cancer and genital warts. If you’re 26 years old or younger, you should get the HPV vaccine series if you haven't already, regardless of when you started having sex. If you’re age 27 to 45, you're still eligible to receive the vaccine, but talk with your doctor first to determine if it would benefit you.
- Get your blood pressure checked at least every two years.
- Have your cholesterol checked at least once between ages 17 to 21. Those results indicate the frequency of future testing.
- Get at least a one-time TDAP [tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (whooping cough)] booster after age 19; after that, you need a tetanus booster once every 10 years.
- If you didn't have chickenpox as a child and you weren't immunized against it, it's not too late to get a varicella vaccine.
- Get a flu shot annually.
- Get tested for HIV, which is still a major health epidemic in the U.S. At a minimum, you should get tested at least once in your lifetime.
- Know your diabetes risk. If your BMI is higher than 25, you should have a fasting blood sugar test.
Be mindful of stress and mental health issues
There are female-specific issues that notoriously impact young women, especially sexual assault and intimate partner violence. A health care provider can help you find the health and social services needed for your recovery. If you're struggling with life issues or overwhelming stress, a therapist or psychiatrist can help you find relief and get you on the path to balance.
If you're ever in doubt about a symptom, a concern, or a crisis, know that you can always talk to your primary care provider or gynecologist.
Connect to women's health care
Call 844-896-6367 to find a Virtua Health primary care provider and gynecologist near you or make an appointment.
Updated June 15, 2021