Our first Women’s Health With Evolve column looks at why it’s essential to understand women’s bodies at all life stages, why we don’t know more about female health and what we can do to change this

Women are not small men. Our unique hormonal profile, anatomy and physiology demand specific focus, yet women’s health-related topics—those that refer to the physical and mental health conditions of specific concern to women throughout their various life stages—are all too often treated as taboo or with confusion and shame.

Twenty-five percent of the population menstruate, however women hide their menstrual products from colleagues and talk in code about their periods. Pregnancy is often treated as an ailment with women being told they mustn't 'lift this' or 'eat that'. Postnatally women are expected to 'bounce back', creating unnecessary stress and pressure. And when it comes to peri-menopause, many women report feeling unsupported and uninformed despite the fact that substantial advances in overall healthcare have meant women live almost half their life post-menopausal. We can do better.

At Joint Dynamics Evolve we want to reframe women’s health. Female bodies are amazing and we can learn so much by understanding and nurturing our individual needs. For example, menstruation should be considered our sixth vital sign; physiologically it is. Ovulating monthly is one of our body’s ways of telling us that it is in balance. Working with your cycle and understanding it can improve the way you perform as an athlete, in the boardroom and in the bedroom, if you know what to listen for.

Why don’t we know more about female health?

For many women, talking about urinary incontinence, pelvic organ prolapse, breast pain or sexual pain is uncomfortable and awkward. For others, symptoms may have been dismissed or ignored. Education on these topics is limited in schools with 80 percent of teachers feeling ill-equipped to discuss topics such as pelvic health, sexual health or menopause. Consistently lacking proper information and access to help and support, women ignore their symptoms. A good example is endometriosis, which affects up to 10 percent of the female population and can even impact fertility, yet commonly takes seven years to diagnose. This is in part because society promotes the notion that it's normal for periods to hurt.

Frequently, and understandably, women turn to the internet and social media for advice. However, the huge amount of misinformation and inconsistency in the advice available makes unpicking sensationalist headlines from true evidence-based information near impossible and the stark reality is that research into female-specific health issues is still consistently under-funded.

The same is true of women’s sport. Almost 50 percent of athletes at the Tokyo Olympic Games were women (up 10 percent since 2000), yet only seven percent of research in sport is focused exclusively on women. Women often train and compete with insufficient guidance concerning their menstrual cycle, dietary needs, pelvic health, bra fit, even down to the colour of their sports kit. Leaking urine impacts one in three women of all ages and is prevalent in competitive sports, yet rarely are athletes consulted on this, or educated on their pelvic health.

Change is coming

This month, Wimbledon tennis tournament updated its policy so that from next year female athletes will no longer be required to wear white undershorts. More female athletes are returning to sport postnatally and we are seeing an increase in images normalising women’s bodies. Corporate institutions are including menstrual and menopausal health policy into the workplace. Reproductive health is being openly discussed and countries such as Scotland are providing free period care. The UK and World Health Organisation (WHO) guidance now advocates that pelvic health, including menstruation, hormonal health and sexual education should be taught in schools so that, in generations to come, we will no longer hear the words, "why did no one tell me?".

Many high profile women and top athletes are demanding more. And, fortunately, research in women’s health is growing and our understanding is steadily increasing.

What can we do right now?

We want women to be brave enough to have these discussions and feel empowered to make informed decisions about their own health and wellbeing. Normalising conversations around female health in schools, in the workplace, in sports teams, in our households and with our peers is a good place to start.

In this regular column for Front & Female, we want to help women understand their bodies at all life stages and make women’s health information accessible and manageable. We’ll be covering topics ranging from nutrition and exercise myths, to why it’s not okay to leak, weights for women, understanding our hormones, navigating perimenopause, and why it’s time to throw away those old bras. Stay tuned for this and so much more.

Jenny Fielding is a women’s health physiotherapist and director of the women’s health team at Joint Dynamics Evolve. She specialises in the management of female health across all life stages from menstrual irregularities and pelvic pain, through pre- and post-natal to peri- and post-menopause.

Front & Female’s Women’s Health with Evolve series is a collaboration with Joint Dynamics Evolve, Hong Kong’s first multidisciplinary women’s health clinic with services spanning physiotherapy, osteopathy, rehabilitation, personal training, nutrition and psychology. The series addresses all aspects of female health to support women at various life stages and open up the conversation around women's health topics, from the awkward to the unknown.

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