A Guide to Staying Healthy in Your 20s…and BeyondBy Carole Anderson Lucia
In your 20’s, you may not be in the habit of thinking too much about your health and wellness long-term. After all, other than catching a common cold here and there, maybe a few strained muscles and a cavity now and again, you may feel like you’re in top form, with no major health issues yet. Plus, you’ve got other responsibilities competing for your time and attention, whether it’s finishing college, starting your career, tending to your family and personal relationships, or managing your finances.
We get it: It’s a lot to handle and a lot to figure out. Yet it’s important that you start prioritizing your health and wellness in your 20s—not only to stay healthy now, but to remain healthy later. Here’s a look at what you can do to help optimize your health and wellness in your second decade … and for decades to come.
Stay on Top of Doctor’s Visits and Screening Tests
While health concerns are generally less likely in your 20s than in your older years, certain conditions are more likely to develop now, such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and other immune-system disorders.1
To be sure you stay in optimal health, take the time to find a doctor while you are well rather than waiting until you are sick. Schedule a comprehensive physical exam so your doctor can do a thorough health assessment; be certain to let her know if you or members of your family have had any medical conditions, including cancer, diabetes, heart disease or high blood pressure.
In addition to regular checkups with your doctor, the National Institutes of Health2 recommends specific health tests and procedures beginning in your 20s, including the following:
- Blood pressure: You should have your blood pressure checked every three to five years as long as your test results are normal. If it seems to be creeping up (with the top number—the systolic—reaching 120, or the bottom number—the diastolic—reaching 80), have it checked yearly. You may also need to have your blood pressure checked more often if you have diabetes, heart disease, kidney problems or other medical conditions; be sure to check with your doctor.
- Breast health: Ask your doctor if you should be doing monthly breast exams to help screen for cancer. Mammograms are generally not recommended until age 40, but if you have a close relative (mother or sister, for example) who was diagnosed with breast cancer at a young age, your doctor may recommend getting a mammogram earlier.
- Cholesterol: Ask your doctor if you should have a cholesterol screening, which is recommended for women between the age of 20 and 45.
- Dental: Get a full exam and cleaning once or twice per year, per your dentist’s recommendation.
- Diabetes: You should be screened for diabetes if you have a body mass index over 25 and you have other risk factors, or if your blood pressure is above 135/80.
- Gynecological: If you're female, beginning at age 21, you should have a pelvic exam and Pap smear every three years to screen for cervical cancer.
- Immunizations: In addition to getting a flu shot every year, talk to your doctor about other vaccines you may need, including HPV (human papillomavirus); pneumonia; TdAP (tetanus-diphtheria and acellular pertussis); and varicella (chickenpox).
- Vision: You should have an eye exam every two years if you have vision problems, or more, per your optometrist. If you have diabetes, you need an exam at least once a year.
Some experts3 also recommend that you do a head-to-toe skin check monthly to look for new moles and make sure any existing ones have not changed shape, size or color. This is particularly important if you have a personal history of sunburns or a family history of skin cancer, or if you have a large number of moles.
Commit to Sleep
While staying out late on the weekends may happen regularly during your 20s: Remember that getting adequate sleep is vital to your short- and long-term health. Numerous studies4 have shown that insufficient sleep is linked to a number of serious health problems, including:
- Alcohol abuse
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Impaired immune function
- Mood disorders
To ensure that you get healthy amounts of sleep, try to follow as closely as you can your circadian rhythm, the natural 24-hour cycle of light and darkness. The rules are simple: Sleep when it’s dark and rise when it’s light (within reason, of course). In addition to aiding with sleep, living according to your circadian rhythm may help with weight loss5 and can influence many aspects of your health, including hormone release, digestion, depression and more.6
In addition, be sure to sleep in a dark room to help boost levels of the “sleep hormone” melatonin. Also avoid screen time before bed, as the blue light emitted from electronic devices can impair sleep.7
Put Your Phone Away When Driving
It goes without saying: Driving while distracted can be deadly. In 2015, nearly 3,500 people were killed nationwide in crashes involving distracted drivers, with an estimated additional 391,000 people injured.8
Distracted driving is particularly common among millennials. Research9 shows that large numbers of people within the 18- to 34-year-old group admit to “frequently” or “always” engaging in distracted behavior—such as sending or checking texts or e-mails—while behind the wheel. In fact, about 17 percent of millennials text or email while driving, compared with 4 percent of non-millennials.10
So for your own safety and that of the people around you: Put your phone away while driving. It’s just not worth the risk (and your friend won’t mind if you don’t respond immediately, we promise).
Find a Job You Love
Sure, everyone wants a job they’re excited to go to day in and out. But did you know the work you do beginning in your 20s can affect your mental health years later? According to researchers from Ohio State University11, people who reported low job satisfaction between the ages of 25 and 39 reported higher levels of depression, sleep problems and excessive worry in their 40s. They also scored lower on a test of overall mental health and were more likely to have been diagnosed with emotional problems.
Have a job you’re not thrilled about? The good news is that the researchers found that improvement in job satisfaction early on in one’s career helped mitigate the health problems listed above.
Keep Weight Gain in Check & Adopt Healthy Habits
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention12 reports that people tend to gain a disproportionate amount of weight between the ages of 19 and 29, with women gaining an average of 12 pounds and men gaining an average of 9. Yet gaining weight in your 20s goes far beyond aesthetics and being able to fit in your favorite pair of jeans: It can affect your long-term health.
Research13 shows that middle-aged men and women who had gained between 11 and 22 pounds after the age of 20 were up to three times more likely to develop heart disease, high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes than those who’d gained 5 pounds or less.
What’s more, your weight and waist size—along with the amount of weight gained since your mid-20s—can increase your chances of developing several health problems, including:
- Cardiovascular Disease
To help maintain a healthy weight, try incorporating more fruits and vegetables into your diet; limit the amount of sugar you eat (and watch out for it in these common places); eat plenty of lean protein; make exercise a part of your daily life; watch your portion sizes; and get adequate sleep.
Find Work-Life Balance
It can be hard not to burn the midnight oil when you’re relatively new to the workforce and are eager to prove your dedication to your career and your employer. But it’s important that you try to establish a healthy work-life balance—not only because it’s good for your social and emotional health, but because it can be hard to change habits once they’re established (and once your co-workers are accustomed to your 24/7 availability).
Use these tips to help establish a healthy work-life balance:
- Set reasonable limits. Try to establish sensible work hours—and expectations—from the outset. Let your co-workers know that you don’t routinely work during your off-hours … crises, deadlines and occasional heavy workloads notwithstanding, of course.
- Set healthy boundaries for yourself. Resolve not to check email or voicemail from home—and turn off your phone notifications if you have a hard time ignoring every text and email that comes in.
- Take your vacation time. Not only is it vital to unplug from work once-in-a-while, but taking a vacation may also be good for your health. Research14 has shown that among men who were at high risk for heart disease, those who took regular yearly vacations had a lower risk of dying during the study period, compared with those who didn’t take a vacation.
- Find ways to reduce stress daily. Exercise, meditation, listening to music—do whatever works for you to help reduce your stress levels. Also consider reading for pleasure: Research15 shows that doing so can reduce stress by up to 68 percent.
And if you’re finding that you can’t quite make the commitment to work-life balance now, you may find the motivation to do it toward the end of this decade. Researchers16 have found that people in the last year of their 20s (as well as those in the last year of their 30s, 40s and 50s—what they call the "9-enders") often are more reflective of their lives and more likely to make dramatic changes.
We hope these tips help you start prioritizing your health and wellness starting now. Even though your later years may be a long way off, the steps you take today to safeguard your health can have dramatic impacts down the road.
Do you need more help instituting healthy habits? Contact Jenny Craig for a free appointment and get started today!