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Staying healthy

older woman, wearing a hat and gardening gloves, happily working in her garden

Even though having a disability sometimes makes it harder to get and stay healthy, do your best to live a healthy lifestyle.

Eating well

Adopting a healthy eating plan can help you feel better, control your weight, and help prevent illnesses such as heart disease that can cause further disability. Still, eating well isn't always easy. Depending on the type of disability a person has, some of the barriers to eating well might include:

  • Difficulty shopping. Limited mobility can make it hard for some people to get to a grocery store or reach products that are stacked or on high shelves.
  • Difficulty preparing healthy meals. Washing and preparing fresh produce and meats can be hard for people with certain physical limitations or a condition that causes shakiness. Cooking also can take a lot of time. Some people might lack the energy needed to prepare and cook a healthy meal.
  • Problems chewing or swallowing.

People who rely on others for food shopping and cooking face additional barriers. Caregivers must know how and be willing to plan and prepare healthy meals. People who live in a group residence that provides dining services might not be able to choose the foods that are served. People who rely on a personal caregiver might also have limited say over the types of food served. For instance, rather than prepare fresh foods, a caregiver might use less healthy, ready-to-serve products because they can be prepared in advance and then easily reheated when the caregiver is no longer there.

The good news is that even small changes can affect the quality of the food you eat. Here are some examples:

  • Simple changes in the home can make cooking safer and easier. Some examples are hanging a mirror above stove burners so you can watch cooking while sitting; using a rolling utility cart to move things without fear of spilling or breaking; and using knives, plates, and other products designed for single-handed use.
  • Attend classes to learn how to shop for healthy foods and stretch your food dollar.
  • Learn to cook simple recipes that involve only a few ingredients.
  • Ask your caregiver to prepare more fruits and vegetables and fewer unhealthy foods.

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Physical activity

Being physically active is an important part of a healthy lifestyle for all women, including women with disabilities. If you have a disability, getting regular physical activity can help you stay independent by preventing illnesses such as heart disease that can make it more difficult to take care of yourself. Being physically active also can help you to tone the muscles you use less often because of your disability. For instance, if you're in a wheelchair, you probably have strong arms from pushing yourself around. But it's also important to exercise your other muscles, including your leg muscles. Being active also can improve your mood and help you feel better about yourself.

According to the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, adults with disabilities, who are able to, should do the following each week:

  • 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity
  • 1 hour and 15 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity
  • A combination of moderate and vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity
  • Muscle-strengthening activities on two or more days

Try to spread aerobic activity throughout the week and make sure you spend at least 10 minutes in a session.

If you are not able to meet these guidelines, try to engage in regular physical activity according to your abilities and avoid inactivity.

But before you start, talk to your doctor about the amount and types of physical activity that are okay for you to do. With your doctor's okay, start slowly and work your way up to a more intense routine as you become more physically fit.

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Mental health

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Between family life and work life, today's woman can feel pulled in many directions. Living with a disability can make coping with everyday life even harder. It also can put you at risk for depression. Learning healthy ways of coping will help you handle day-to-day stress, as well as any tough times you face. Healthy ways of coping include:

  • Taking time each day to relax and unwind. This could be as simple as enjoying a cup of coffee and a good book.
  • Working out, which in addition to physical benefits, can relieve tension and boost your mood.
  • Having someone outside the home to talk to. Healthy relationships can serve as a source of encouragement and also protect you against isolation and loneliness. Support groups can put you in touch with people who face similar challenges.
  • Volunteering is a great way to get involved and help others in need.

If you find that emotional problems interfere with daily living or your ability or desire to care for yourself, talk to your doctor. Treatment such as talk therapy or medicine can help you to feel good again.

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Substance abuse

The rates of substance abuse among people with disabilities are about two to four times greater than that of the general population. Some reasons people with disabilities might abuse alcohol or drugs are to:

  • Cope with social isolation
  • Ease frustration
  • Lessen long-lasting pain

Alcohol and drug abuse can be very harmful to a woman's health and well-being. Women who abuse these substances are at higher risk of:

Alcohol and drugs also can cause dangerous interactions with prescription drugs a woman might be using. Substance abuse also is a major reason that most adults with disabilities are unemployed.

If you have a substance abuse problem, be sure to talk to your doctor and get into a treatment program. Many substance abuse treatment programs can accommodate people with disabilities.

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Healthy aging

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Well over half of all women older than 65 are living with a disability that limits to some extent what they can do. This means that as you age, you might need to learn new ways of doing things or need more help from others.

People with long-term disabilities also have special health concerns as they age. Many people with long-term disabilities face problems common in aging people sooner than other aging adults. This means that people with long-term disabilities might face problems in their 40s that other adults don't usually face until their 60s. New problems with pain, fatigue, and weakness also can come up, making it harder to work, get around, or take care of routine household chores and personal care. Although changes in function are common, they are not always normal. Functional changes should always be checked out by a doctor. Often, new problems are the cause of new pain, fatigue, and weakness, and can be treated.

Caregiving is another concern for aging people with long-term disabilities. People who were once living independently might need more help than a spouse or other family member can provide. Aging adults with some long-term disabilities, such as intellectual disability or cerebral palsy, often outlive their primary caregivers. Thinking about future caregiving needs and advanced planning is especially important for people with disabilities.

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Related information

Research has shown that women with disabilities have a higher risk of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse than do women without disabilities. Along with common types of abuse such as verbal abuse or rape, women with disabilities can also face disability-related abuse, such as withholding of wheelchairs or refusal to help with personal tasks. Research also shows that women with disabilities who have been abused are more likely to be abused longer and by multiple people than women who do not have disabilities.

Get help if you are a victim of assault or if you are being abused by someone you rely on for help with daily living. You are not at fault. You did not cause the abuse to occur. If you can, reach out to someone close to you, such as a family member, a caretaker, a good friend, or a neighbor and ask for help. Or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE (7233).

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More information on Staying healthy

Read more from womenshealth.gov

  • Fitness and Nutrition - This section of womenshealth.gov provides information on physical activity and nutrition. It also includes information about how to reach and maintain a healthy weight, a list of healthy recipes, and advice on supplements.
  • Fitness and Nutrition - This section of womenshealth.gov provides information on physical activity and nutrition. It also includes information about how to reach and maintain a healthy weight, a list of healthy recipes, and advice on supplements.
  • Get Help For Violence - This section of womenshealth.gov provides abused women and their loved ones with resources and information they can use to get help. This Web page contains links to publications about violence, domestic violence, sexual abuse and assault, dating violence, elder abuse, legislation, and violence resources in each state.
  • Healthy Aging - This section of womenshealth.gov provides information on topics related to aging, such as caregiving, health insurance, safety, age-related health problems, and staying active.
  • Heart Healthy Eating Fact Sheet - This fact sheet provides information on how healthy eating habits can help to reduce the risk of heart disease. It explains what a healthy portion is and how to make heart-healthy food choices.

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Content last updated: September 22, 2009.

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