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You see your doctor each year for a physical, but even a battery of blood tests can't always pick up potential health problems. In fact, doing fast health tests on your own -- like measuring your waist, inspecting your arches, even looking under your eyelids -- can tell you volumes about your physical well-being. "Quick self-assessments help you take stock not only of your health, but also of your health habits, so you can make changes now if something could cause problems down the line," explains Nieca Goldberg, MD, a spokeswoman for the American Heart Association and author of The Women's Healthy Heart Program (Ballantine Books, 2006). Put these 13 quick checks on your to-do list to ensure that you stay healthy and fit.1. Test Your Flexibility
Take this stretch test: Bend over and reach for your toes. If you can easily grab your big toe, you're very flexible. If you can reach only your ankle or shin, add daily stretching to your workout routine.2. Monitor Your Menstrual Cycle
Open up your calendar and note when your last three periods were. "Your period doesn't have to be as regular as your credit-card bill, but normal cycles are timed anywhere from 21 to 35 days apart," explains Suzanne Trupin, MD, an ob-gyn at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. More frequent periods could indicate a gynecological condition like fibroids (benign uterine tumors) or endometriosis (a condition where the tissue that lines the uterus starts to migrate outside of it). If your periods are more erratic, you could have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a hormonal imbalance caused by an overproduction of male hormones -- a condition thought to affect up to 10 percent of all American women. "Some women in their 30s also start to notice heavier or more frequent bleeding due to hormonal changes," says Dr. Trupin. None of these symptoms is a reason to panic, but it's still a smart idea to go to your gyno and get checked out.3. Count the Number of Moles on Your Body
If you have more than 50, you're at increased risk of melanoma, a deadly form of skin cancer, says Debra Jaliman, MD, a clinical professor of dermatology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Dermatology. You should see a dermatologist at least once a year for a skin check, as well as do self-exams on your own every two to three months, especially if you have a family history of skin cancer or have had a significant amount of sun exposure. If you see any moles that are asymmetrical, have irregular borders or varied colors, or are bigger than a pencil eraser, get them checked out. You should also keep an eye out for small fleshy bumps or red scaly patches on your face or neck: These could be basal or squamous cell carcinomas. A recent Mayo Clinic study found that basal cell carcinomas have doubled in people under the age of 40, with women in their late 30s leading the increase. Although these cancers aren't as serious as melanoma, they can still be disfiguring and, if left untreated, in rare cases even deadly.4. Feel the Backs of Your Arms
If you notice little raised bumps, it may be a sign that you're not getting enough omega-3 fatty acids, which help reduce risk of heart disease by preventing your arteries from hardening, says Dr. Hyman. Another telltale sign: small, dry, patchy spots on your skin. You can easily up your omega-3s by taking 1,000 milligrams of fish oil a day and eating fatty fish like wild salmon once or twice a week, as well as by sprinkling a tablespoon of ground flaxseed onto your morning cereal.5. Inspect Your Arches
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, toes straight. Bend each knee, one at a time. If your kneecap falls toward the inside of your big toe, you have pronating feet, making you more susceptible to exercise injuries, according to Lewis Maharam, MD, medical director of the ING New York City Marathon. If you notice any knee, foot, or back pain that causes you to change your form while working out, see a sports-medicine doctor, who can prescribe orthotics.
If it's more than 11 pounds, aim to shed that amount; this will go a long way toward improving your health and lowering your chances for disease. "Studies show an increased risk of the most common cancers if you've gained more than that," says Melanie Polk, RD, a nutrition consultant for the American Institute for Cancer Research. In fact, according to a study from the American Cancer Society, women who gained more than 20 pounds after age 18 had a 40 percent higher risk of breast cancer than women who'd stayed within five pounds of their teenage weight. Conversely, losing weight reduces your overall risk for cancer. To keep weight off, join a structured weight-loss program, whether it's face-to-face counseling or online. A recent Brown University study found that people who followed these programs were able to lose weight and stave off regain more effectively than dieters whose only treatment was monthly newsletters.7. Track Your Toxic Fat
Lie down on your back and tense your abdomen, preferably in the morning before you've eaten breakfast. "If your stomach is flat you're in good shape, but if you see any sort of a pooch that makes you look pregnant, you probably have too much visceral fat, a type of inner abdominal fat that builds up around the organs like your liver and kidneys," says Pamela Peeke, MD, a professor of medicine at the University of Maryland and author of Body for Life for Women (Rodale Books, 2005). "I've dubbed this 'toxic fat' because it's been linked to an increased risk of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, even if you're thin." The best way to beat this sort of bulge? A combination of healthy eating and exercise. A recent Duke University study found that women who engaged in vigorous activity (the equivalent of jogging 20 miles a week) lost 7 percent of their visceral fat after eight months compared with sedentary subjects, whose belly fat rose by nearly 9 percent.8. Measure Your Waist
It should be no more than 32 inches; recent research from the Medical College of Wisconsin has found that women with waists smaller than that have the lowest risk of heart disease. "We now think that your waist size may be an even better predictor of your heart disease risk than what you weigh," says Dr. Goldberg. The reason: Women who are "apple-shaped" (larger around the middle) tend to have higher cholesterol levels and are more likely to be glucose intolerant, and both conditions increase your chances of cardiovascular disease. If you've got a wide waistline, you're already at risk, so see your doctor to get your cholesterol, blood pressure, and glucose levels tested. You'll also need to start dieting and exercising. Consider eating more low-fat dairy foods like yogurt: A University of Tennessee study found that women who were regular yogurt eaters lost 81 percent more fat around their middle than those who avoided it.
If you saw the frown face instantly, you've got good attention skills, which is a sign of intelligent memory, the thought process that allows you to be creative and make fast decisions, says Barry Gordon, MD, PhD, director of the Memory Clinic at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. But if it took you a few seconds, you need to boost your ability to focus. Try to avoid multitasking (for example, chatting on the phone while replying to an e-mail while surfing the Web while grabbing for your ringing cell). "It may seem efficient, but it's much more tiring than just focusing on one thing at a time, so it takes you that much longer to get anything done and do it well," says Dr. Gordon.10. Note How Often You Have a Headache or an Upset Stomach
"If it's more than once a month it's a sign that you're experiencing emotional overload," says Bruce Rabin, MD, PhD, medical director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Healthy Lifestyle Program in Pittsburgh. About half of all women in their 30s suffer from tension headaches. See your doctor to rule out a physical cause, but if it's stress-related, you still need to deal with it. Research shows that chronic stress weakens your immune system and increases your risk for heart disease. One easy stress buster? Laugh. A University of Maryland School of Medicine study found that when people laughed during a comedy, their blood vessels expanded, increasing blood flow to their arteries and reducing their heart disease risk.
Still sneezing and sniffling even though you've beaten your winter cold and spring is still months away? You may have undiagnosed allergies. Do this quick self-test: Pull down your lower eyelid and look at the inside. "If there are little bumps that look like cobblestones, you're probably allergic to something," says Mark Hyman, MD, editor-in-chief of the medical journal Alternative Therapies and author of Ultraprevention (Atria, 2005). Some of the most common culprits are dust, pet dander, and mold. You can help reduce allergens by investing in a HEPA filter in your bedroom, using antiallergenic mattresses and pillow covers, and keeping any pets out of your bedroom or, at least, off the bed. If those steps still don't bring relief, consider seeing an allergist, who can run a series of blood tests to pinpoint the problem and prescribe medication to relieve your symptoms.12. Take Your Temperature When You Wake Up
"This is when your body temperature is at its lowest and most consistent -- if it's below 98.6, that could indicate a condition known as hypothyroidism, or an underactive thyroid," says Dr. Hyman. If you've got other symptoms, such as constipation, dry skin, cold intolerance, irritability, or fatigue, see your doctor, who can do blood tests to measure your thyroid levels. An underactive thyroid can also cause weight gain, even if you've been exercising and carefully watching your diet.13. Monitor Your Breathing
"We're designed to breathe through our nose -- mouth breathing is an evolutionary response to stress," explains Christiane Northrup, MD, an ob/gyn in Yarmouth, Maine, and author of Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom (Bantam, 1998). "When you breathe through your nose, you stimulate your vagus nerve, which helps reduce stress by slowing down your heart rate and relaxing blood vessels." You'll feel more alert because you're taking in more air (a deep breath through your nose travels all the way to the bottom of your lungs). If your sinuses are blocked, see your MD: You may have allergies or sinusitis, which can be treated with medication.
Originally published in Fitness magazine, February 2006.