There are certain ideas and ideals that are tied to what “healthy” actually means; we think that in order to be healthy, women need to be a certain weight, follow a certain diet, and hit certain fitness and wellness goals.
But those ideals can actually put unnecessary pressure on women. Thinking you need to live up to these strict, and often inaccurate, ideals in order to be “healthy” can take a toll, both mentally (in the form of anxiety or self-criticism) and physically (in the form of exhaustion or pushing things too hard).
The truth is, when it comes to women’s health, there’s no one-size-fits-all definition—and these persistent stereotypes of what “healthy” means might actually be preventing women from being their healthiest (and happiest!) selves.
Let’s challenge some of the most common stereotypes about women’s health—and paint a more realistic, accurate picture of what a healthy woman looks like in 2021:
Being healthy isn’t directly tied to your weight
“Eating well, moving regularly, getting outside, meditating, getting enough sleep—those are activities that build wellness and well-being and have nothing to do with the scale,” says Darlene Marshall, personal trainer, wellness coach, and host of the Better Than Fine podcast.
Arguably the most common and persistent myth about women’s health is that being healthy is directly tied to weight—and that women who weigh more are inherently less healthy. But the truth is, being healthy is so much more than a number on a scale.
“Our health ties to cardiovascular, joint, digestive, and even mental health—and none of those are labelled by your weight,” says Marshall.
Body Mass Index (BMI), the metric commonly used to determine whether women are at a “healthy” weight, is also not a great tool for evaluating overall health.
“BMI doesn’t tell us much about our health; it is based only on the relationship between height and weight,” says Jenny Bilskie-Smith, licensed master of social work and certified intuitive eating counselor. So, for example, “a person that has a lot of muscle mass—and very little fat—will be categorized as obese. BMI doesn’t consider fat distribution and bone density.”
“Additionally, this number tells us nothing about our well-being,” continues Bilskie-Smith. “For example, a person could have a ‘healthy’ BMI, but have disordered eating—or have a
serious illness that reduces appetite and causes weight loss.”
The moral of the story? Being below a certain weight or BMI doesn’t necessarily mean you’re healthy—and being above a certain weight or BMI doesn’t necessarily mean you’re unhealthy. So, if you really want to support your health, don’t focus on your weight—and instead, focus on incorporating healthy habits into your daily routine.
Being healthy doesn’t mean following [X] diet
There are a ton of enthusiasts out there that think the only way for a woman to be healthy is to follow a vegan, keto, gluten-free, or [insert diet trend here] diet. But when it comes to nutrition, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.
A vegan diet might be the right diet for one woman—but cutting out meat might be the wrong move for another. A keto meal plan could make one woman feel totally satiated and give her all the energy she needs to tackle her week—but leave another woman feeling tired, depleted, and desperate for carbs.
The point is, every woman is different—so a healthy diet for one woman could look completely different from a healthy diet for another.
“Each person is unique, so to assume that one approach to nutrition would work for everyone doesn’t make sense,” says Dr. Terry Dunn, M.D., FACOG, FPMRS and owner of women’s health practice Foothills Urogynecology in Denver, CO.
In order to determine the healthiest diet for you, first talk to your doctor or nutritionist to get a sense of the nutrients your body needs to function at its highest level. “What is important is that each person gets the important nutrients they need for healthy bones, heart, and other vital organs,” says Dunn. From there, tune into your body and figure out what foods make you feel your best.
“Instead of trying to follow a diet that’s not right for you, focus on listening to your body,” says therapist Alexa Shank, certified eating disorder specialist and owner of the Houston, TX-based practice Relief & Recovery Psychotherapy. “Tune into your internal cues and how your body feels before and after you eat certain foods.”
The point is, tracking how different foods make you feel—and incorporating more of the foods that make you feel vibrant, energetic, and all-around great—will help you build a diet that’s healthiest for you.
Being healthy doesn’t mean working out every day
There’s no denying that fitness is an important component in women’s health. But the idea that you need to go hard every day in order to maximize the benefits of exercise? It’s actually doing more harm than good.
“Going hard every day means your body doesn’t get full recovery,” says Marshall. “Progressively, you’re taxing your connective tissue, muscles, heart, and other systems.”
And that “never miss a day at the gym” mentality can actually harm your health—both in the short and long-term.
“Over time, [overexercising] can lead to injury, but in the short term it’s a form of stress. It can disrupt your mood, sleep, and appetite,” says Marshall. “If you’re working out for wellness, the ‘go hard or go home every day’ mentality is working against your own goals.”
When it comes to fitness, there’s no need to push yourself to the limit every day; giving your body the time it needs to rest and recover is just as important as the time you spend actively exercising. So, if you go on a long run on Monday, give your legs a rest on Tuesday. If you do a boot camp class on Wednesday, take it easy on Thursday with some yoga or a leisurely walk around the neighborhood. Balance your more intense workouts with more relaxed activity and rest time; that way, you can reap the benefits of a healthy, active lifestyle—while still giving your body the down time it needs to recover.
Being healthy doesn’t have to mean being perfectly healthy
Scrolling through social media feeds, it’s easy to think that other people are living perfect, healthy lives. But the truth is, there’s no such thing as perfection, including when it comes to health—and striving for perfection in your diet, fitness, and habits can actually be detrimental to your health, happiness, and well-being.
“Perfectionism in your health routine can lead to obsessive thoughts and rigid behaviors which can end up consuming your life,” says Shank.
For example, let’s say you decide to implement your idea of a “perfect” diet—which translates to restricting any foods or ingredients you deem “unhealthy.”
“[While] this might be achievable for the short term, you can’t maintain perfection forever,” says Shank. “And trying to do so will put you more at risk for getting ‘burnt out,’ and eventually developing the ‘why bother’ mentality…[that drives you to] give up altogether.”
Instead of holding yourself to unrealistic, perfection-based standards to your health, try cutting yourself a little slack. So, for example, let’s say you want to break your takeout habit and eat more healthy, home-cooked meals. Instead of beating yourself up when you order pizza on a Friday night, focus on all the veggie-packed meals you made during the week, cut yourself some slack, and commit to picking back up tomorrow.
“Be kind to yourself,” says Shank. “If your plans change or you aren’t able to implement your intentions, give yourself some compassion. Shaming yourself isn’t going to help you achieve lasting lifestyle changes.”
Bottom line? When it comes to becoming healthier, focus on progress—not perfection.
This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.