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6 Ways Black Women Can Take Back Our Health

COVID-19 — like so many other diseases — is hitting our communities the hardest. Let’s channel that alarm into action with these simple yet lifesaving measures.

A couple years after hitting 40, I knew the game had changed. Those extra pounds were harder to lose, my energy level took an extended dive and a happy hour that was just a little too happy would leave me struggling to get it together the next day.

Around that same time, I started noticing health challenges among my friends. One learned she was prediabetic, a second was diagnosed with cancer and a third was warned that she was headed for trouble if she didn’t lose weight.

While I’m happy to say that a more stringent gym routine lifted my energy and all of my sister friends also reclaimed their health, that period of time was when all those scary statistics started to hit home. For example, according to the CDC, Black women, and the men in our lives, are more likely to have high blood pressure and diabetes and be in poorer health than some other groups. We are also more likely to die from heart disease, cancer and stroke.

With the coronavirus outbreak, those sobering stats are hitting home for all of us because they form part of a complexity of reasons that African Americans account for a disproportionate number of both diagnoses and deaths in many areas. In Milwaukee County, for instance, as of early April, African Americans made up almost half the confirmed COVID-19 cases, despite being only a quarter of the population. We also know that coronavirus outcomes are progressively worse with advancing age.

While there’s so much about this crisis that can make us feel powerless and overwhelmed, we can channel alarm into awareness and action by focusing on a few critical basics that we can control. We’ve discussed specific measures to protect against the coronavirus earlier here, and as the situation rapidly changes, you’ll find important updates on aarp.org. Now take a look at what health experts tell us are the steps we need to take back our overall health:

Be mindful of maintenance. We don’t have full access to health care right now, which means managing chronic conditions is critical to keeping symptoms from spiking to crisis levels. Don’t let distractedness or stress keep you from taking your meds, getting to sleep on time or checking your blood pressure or sugar. Set a reminder on your phone. Portion out prescriptions in a dated pill dispenser. Look up nutrition information for recipes or takeout meals. For example, if you have high blood pressure, diabetes or kidney disease the CDC recommends no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day.

Be proactive with your care. Kaiser Health News reports that doctors may be less likely to refer African Americans for testing when they show up with signs of coronavirus infection. No one is more vested in our health than us, says Jennifer Ellis, chief of cardiothoracic surgery at NYC Health + Hospitals/Bellevue and an adviser to the American Heart Association. Don’t be afraid to push back on any medical decision that has you concerned. “My grandmother would not have questioned the doctor. She would have said, ‘the doctor says I need to take this’ and that would be that,” says Ellis. But that’s not always the best prescription for success. Ellis recommends asking questions if you don’t understand a diagnosis and doing your own research. If you’re not satisfied with a recommended course of action, ask for a second opinion or even change doctors.

Step on the scale — then take steps toward a healthy weight. Lizzo has proven that we can be beautiful at any size. But we also have to get real about the dangers of obesity, says Ellis. Don’t consider it body shaming for a doctor to comment on weight or obesity during an exam, Ellis says. In a clinical setting, “it’s like noticing somebody’s right-handed.” Obesity is a risk factor for such conditions as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Find out your body mass index, which can help you map out a weight-loss strategy.

Be strategic about stress eating. Yes, we’re all craving carb-laden comfort food. If you have a taste for macaroni and cheese, fill most of your plate with non-starchy vegetables like greens or broccoli, then serve yourself a satisfying spoonful, suggests Shawn McClendon, a fitness entrepreneur from Macon, Georgia.

Get your pump on in the parlor. Your gym may be closed or your regular fitness routine upended. Check out some of these streaming workouts you can do in your living room.

Leverage your sister network. We are influenced by those around us, and we can also motivate each other, says Deidre Johnson, executive director of the Center for African American Health, an organization in Denver, Colorado, that works to improve health outcomes in the Black community. “One of the assets our community has is strong social networks.” We’re group texting, calling and video-chatting with friends more. A friend of mine and her girls use the hashtag #selfcarewin when they share workout stats or healthy recipes they made. Another checks in daily with her sister and asks, “Did you take your meds?”

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