Your 20s can spark a rocky journey into self-sufficiency that makes it very easy (tempting, even) to put your health on the back burner. For many of us, it can feel like a hamster wheel of working and socialising and doing Big Things—while things like sleep, nourishment, and exercise fall by the wayside. (Take it from this seasoned 28-year-old.)
It also doesn’t help that we’re often told we’re “so young!” and “have nothing to worry about!” even when it may not feel that way. Your 20s are filled with people telling you that you have your whole life ahead of you, that it’s totally OK to just relax and enjoy yourself. And while that’s all nice and valid, it can also contribute to a pretty lacklustre attitude around taking care of yourself, especially if you’re generally considered to be in good health. The thing is, it’s a whole lot easier to maintain good health than it is to reverse course once something is wrong. So even though phrases like “preventive health screenings” and “flexible spending accounts” might make your eyes glaze over (same, TBH), it’s worth thinking about this stuff in your 20s and setting good habits as early as possible. It can also just feel good to be more mindful about your health in this often transitional, stressful time of our lives. You’re looking out for Current You and Future You. “The earlier you start to get into a routine of these healthy habits, the easier it is to keep them in your life when it gets…more complicated,” Erin Snyder, MD, an associate professor of medicine and clinician-educator at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine, tells SELF. With that in mind, here are nine health habits experts recommend nailing down in your 20s.
1) Check in with a primary care doctor once a year
“Most women in their 20s are generally healthy and pretty busy, so many don’t seek medical attention until they have a problem,” Amber Tully, MD, a family medicine physician at the Cleveland Clinic, tells SELF. Sure, options like visiting the nearest urgent care centre can be great in a pinch. But you’ll benefit much more in the long run from establishing a relationship with a primary care practitioner (PCP), Dr Tully says.
This means finding a great doctor you trust whose approach and values align with yours, Dr Tully explains. For instance, you may be most concerned with finding a provider who will be a validating LGBTQ+ ally or who has a certain approach to care that you find helpful or validating.
The next step is making (and keeping) an annual checkup with that person. This will help you stay up-to-date on general health screenings and build a clinical history. Then, when something like a scratchy throat or swollen vulva pops up, “You already have someone who knows you and your history, and who you feel comfortable talking with,” Dr Tully says. (They’ll also probably be more likely to squeeze you in for a last-minute appointment, Dr Tully adds.)
2) Find ways to move that you actually enjoy
You already know that getting exercise is essential to good health at any age. But incorporating working out into your regular routine in your 20s can set the stage for lifelong physical activity. “Your 20s are a great time to get into this habit of exercise,” Dr Snyder says. “When life throws you curveballs, you’re able to roll with things because you’re motivated to figure out where to put your exercise time.” For instance, if you spend a year or two really into boxing or lifting or yoga, you’re more likely to prioritise time for that activity even when things get hectic (or especially when things get hectic).
If you haven’t yet discovered what kind of physical activity you really enjoy, now’s the time to experiment. Maybe you like to knock it out with spurts of full-body HIIT or take your sweet time in shavasana. From hiking to rowing to, hell, underwater rock running, there are so many possibilities out there.
Once you do figure out what you like, think about what a sustainable workout schedule looks like for you, Dr Snyder says. What time of day works best? How many times a week is realistic? Do trendy boutique classes or a gym membership fit into your budget, or are you more into apps or no-equipment, at-home workouts? Here are some more tips on starting a fitness routine from scratch if you have zero idea where to start.
3) Learn to cook a few things that you actually like eating
If your culinary prowess is currently limited to the microwave, it’s worth getting more comfortable in the kitchen. “Learning how to cook is such a vital skill to cement in your 20s,” Dr Snyder says. The goal is to build up a repertoire of meals you love to make (and devour), Dr Snyder explains. This makes it so much easier to fuel your body and mind in whichever way helps you feel best, plus it can be a great way to save money.
Try setting aside a couple of nights a week to make dinner for one or meal prep, and think of how to make it fun even if it doesn’t come naturally to you (yet). Try a discounted trial period for a meal-kit delivery service or find a cooking class on Groupon for you and a friend. Incorporate seasonings you’ve never tried, whip up a gourmet version of a childhood favourite, or join the slow-cooker movement.
Cooking doesn’t have to be hard, so don’t feel intimidated. There are tons of unfussy, budget-friendly recipes out there. You don’t even have to chop, dirty more than one pan, or make a special trip to the grocery store if that’s not your thing.
4) Get enough sleep. Seriously
People in every decade of life are missing out on valuable rest. But people in their 20s may be particularly prone to neglect sleep because it can feel easier to get by on a few hours or rebound from all-nighters, Dr. Tully says. Ah, youth.
But, don’t do this. The drawbacks of sleep deprivation aren’t just limited to next-day irritation and brain fog. If you’re already prone to health issues such as anxiety and depression, chronic sleep deprivation could leave you even more vulnerable. If you drive while too tired, your drowsiness could put your life at risk.
To avoid sleep deprivation, prioritise getting seven to nine hours of rest a night and practicing good sleep hygiene, like by sticking to the same sleep and wake times as much as possible. Yes, this might feel impossible in your 20s. You don’t have to be perfect—just try.
5) Carve out time for regular stress relief
Clearly, your 20s can be full of upheaval. To cope, figure out what forms of self-care and stress management help you deal with whatever life flings at you. It can be anything, really. Exercise can help mitigate the effects of stress. So can mindfulness meditation, journaling, quality time with good friends, ballet, curling up with tea and a book, therapy, and unplugging from tech. The key is that it’s something you do just for you, Dr Snyder says.
Whether it’s stepping away from your desk at two pm every day to recharge or a weekly date night with your partner, make your stress relief happen consistently in order for it to become a habit. “You need to block out time,” Dr Snyder says. You can even earmark time for stress relief on your calendar if that will help.
6) Wear sunscreen every time you go outside
The single best dermatological action you can take in your 20s is literally just wearing sunscreen, Dr Tully says.
Exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun (and tanning beds) causes damage that can lead to skin cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). If you’re concerned with signs of ageing, like wrinkles, know that UV damage can cause that prematurely, too.
To protect yourself, wear sunscreen on your face and neck every single time you’re going outside, Dr Tully says. (Go for a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 30 to protect against multiple types of ultraviolet damage. Sorry, but makeup with SPF doesn’t cut it.) You should also slather any other exposed skin with sunscreen before heading outside. Beyond that, wear sunglasses with broad-spectrum UV protection and a broad-brimmed hat for extra protection, and generally limit the amount of time you spend in the sun, especially mid-morning to late afternoon. Of course, sometimes you just want to enjoy some sun in the middle of the afternoon, which is fine. Live your life. Just be sure to stay on top of your sunscreen application while you’re at it. Finally, don’t set foot near a tanning bed, please. If you really want a tan, consider getting it sprayed on instead.
7) If you’re not trying to get pregnant, find a birth control method that works for you
If you’re sexually active with anyone who can get you pregnant but you don’t want to have kids (now or ever), you could obviously benefit from some birth control. But there are so many options out there—both hormonal and non-hormonal—so it’s worth thinking about what exactly you want from a contraceptive method.
If you’re not sure which birth control would work best for you, talk to your ob/gyn. Be honest with them about anything you’re looking for in addition to pregnancy protection (like if you want to stop your period) and when (if ever) you might want to have kids. That will help inform your choices. For instance, if you want to have a baby soon and like the reassurance of taking a pill every day, oral contraception could be right for you. If you’re not having sex very often and you don’t really want to be on a hormonal method, condoms may be just fine. The important thing is that you’re using whatever method you choose consistently and correctly.
You should also be realistic about what kind of contraception fits most easily into your life. The success of many forms of birth control (like condoms, pills, the vaginal ring, and the patch) can change depending on whether you use the contraception perfectly every single time or typically (as in, you mess up taking it at some point). It’s also important to be pretty content with your method of birth control so that you stay on it. If the side effects are making you unhappy, talk to your ob/gyn about trying something different instead of letting your birth control lapse.
8) Have safe sex every single time
Safe sex isn’t always about pregnancy protection. It’s also about protecting yourself from sexually transmitted infections as much as you can. Unless you and your partner have both been tested and are in a monogamous relationship, that might mean using an external condom (worn by a person with a penis), an internal condom (worn by a person with a vagina), or a dental dam for any oral/genital action. This won’t protect you from all STIs, since infections like herpes and human papillomavirus can be transmitted via intimate skin-to-skin contact. But it’s better than nothing. Your 20s are also a good time to practice taking control of your sexual and reproductive health by, you know, actually talking to sexual partners about getting tested.
9) See an ob/gyn once a year too
Just like with a PCP, building a relationship with an ob/gyn you love can be invaluable. Seeing your ob/gyn every year will typically entail a pelvic exam and breast exam. It also gives you a chance to discuss any concerns about your sexual and reproductive health, like wanting to try new birth control or experiencing a weird pain during sex. Also, you need Pap smears pretty regularly in your 20s, and cervical cancer screenings are one of the most essential evaluations for people with vaginas in their 20s, says Dr Snyder. In your 20s, you should get a Pap smear to check for abnormal cervical cell changes at least every three years, according to the US Preventive Services Task Force. You may need them more frequently than that depending on the results.
Finally, you should be tested for STIs regularly. All sexually active people with vaginas under 25 and those over 25 with certain risk factors (like new or multiple sex partners or a partner with an STI) should be tested for gonorrhoea and chlamydia annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Depending on your relationship status and how much sex you have, it may or may not make sense to have these kinds of tests once a year, or it may be best to have them more often. Talking to your ob/gyn at your annual appointment is a great way to figure out what makes sense for you.