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For more than 20 years, a study originating at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital has been gleaning valuable information on factors that influence women's health. Dubbed the Nurses' Health Study because all of its respondents are registered nurses, it has gathered information, at two-year intervals, that reveals interesting patterns in women's lifestyles and their corresponding states of health.

Though it's not a controlled study, which is necessary to test the effects of specific agents in relation to health, the Nurses' Health Study does allow researchers to suggest general lifestyle choices that appear to influence health. They include the following, according to the Harvard Women's Health Watch:

Breast cancer risk appears to rise with the use of hormone replacement therapy of five years or more, alcohol intake and possibly obesity. Having children at an early age, early menopause and a diet high in fruits and vegetables, on the other hand, all appear to reduce the risk.

Ovarian cancer risk appears to fall among women who use oral contraceptives or have tubal litigations.

The risk of colon cancer rises with increased smoking, obesity and a diet high in red meat, but is reduced by exercise, folate and the use of aspirin.

Adult-onset diabetes risk is increased by smoking and obesity, and is reduced by magnesium, regular exercise, low body weight and high fiber intake.

From these four areas, a pattern is already emerging that body weight, exercise and diet have a significant influence on our risk of developing disease. Our best defense is a low-fat, nutritious diet and a regular exercise program that helps maintain a healthy body weight. A well-rounded fitness program includes regular aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, jogging, cycling or dancing, at least three times a week, paired with flexibility exercises and resistance training performed at least two times a week.

The following exercise is a variation on a traditional squat, which works the major muscle groups of the hips and legs. It can be done to your favorite music as you wind down from an aerobic workout. Just be sure the music tempo is slow enough to allow you to perform the movements with good technique.

Begin by standing with your feet close together, toes pointing forward. Lift your right heel, bend your right knee, and turn your upper body slightly to the right as you prepare to move in that direction (shown in photo at left).

Step out to the right, planting your foot firmly on the floor slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Your toes should still be pointing forward. As you step out, turn your shoulder forward, shift your weight back toward your heels, and think of "sitting" back onto something (photo at right). Your waist should not bend. Keep your abdominal muscles pulled in and your chest lifted.

You can place your hands on your thighs for support as you step out, if desired. Repeat the movements 10 to 15 times with your right leg, then reverse for 10 to 15 reps with your left leg.

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