If you are what you eat, what you eat has a lot to do with how you think about yourself, says a QUT PhD researcher whose study is part of an international research project on the healthy ageing of women.
Queensland University of Technology nursing researcher Rhonda Anderson said self-efficacy had emerged as a strong influence on women's decision to do more exercise or eat more healthily.
She surveyed more than 560 South-East Queensland women aged between 51 and 66 on their exercise and diet habits and found that although women in their 50s were keen to make healthier diet and exercise changes, they had few effective strategies to draw upon.
"This is an age when women's weight tends to peak, and almost two-thirds of the survey group were overweight or obese," Ms Anderson said.
"Self efficacy is our belief that we can produce the result we want to produce, so a person with high dietary self-efficacy believes they can eat healthily no matter what - even when bored, upset, tired, on holiday or at a party.
"A person's level of self-efficacy determines how hard they try and how long they stick at things in the face of difficulties. People with high self-efficacy are motivated and optimistic - when the going gets tough, they keep going.
"People with low self-efficacy avoid difficult tasks and when things get tough they are more likely to give up. We can improve our self-efficacy by developing skills, having role models and getting encouragement from others."
Ms Anderson's study found being overweight or obese was a key influence on self-efficacy. "Women who carried a lot of excess weight were more likely to have low self-efficacy and to not believe they could stick to an effective healthy exercise or diet program," she said.
"Education is also a factor - women with a tertiary education were more likely to have high self-efficacy for exercise."
Ms Anderson said her findings were timely given the population was ageing and women lived longer than men.
"We are going to have a lot of older women and if they are obese at age 60 they are not well placed to have a healthy old age. Carrying excess weight has been linked to diseases including diabetes, heart disease and breast cancer," she said.
Ms Anderson said that most of the women in her study who had made an effort to exercise more took up walking and those who had tried to eat more healthily had mainly cut down on fat.
"But going for a stroll and not having butter on your bread won't have you lose 30kg. Women need specific education and support to be successful in improving their health and losing weight.
"We need to reach the many women juggling work and motherhood and feel guilty if they take time for themselves.
"A lot of women in their 50s are keen to improve their health, and we need to take advantage of that, but if we can support them in taking care of themselves from an earlier age, so much the better."
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