Written by Helen Vong  |  Photography by Paul Buceta

As modern women, we know that not only does physical activity make us look hot in a tight dress, but it also wards off some pretty terrible diseases. And so each day, we lift, run, and crunch our way to a better body—and presumably better health. But are we only scratching the surface?

When it comes to conditions that attack our bodies underneath our exterior, it can be easy to assume a dedication to the gym makes us untouchable against cancers and cardiovascular diseases; that those ailments are reserved for the unfit, the elderly, or men. But new research is showing that exercise is not always enough to reduce the risks—especially for women. Here, we take a look at four of your most precious body parts—your organs and what you need to be doing now to keep them as fit as your physique.

Fact: Every minute a woman dies from heart disease worldwide; more than all types of cancers combined.

What it does: No bigger than the size of your fist, the heart works at a rate of 100,000 beats per day. The right side of your heart moves oxygen-poor blood that is returned from the body onto the left side, where it gets re-oxygenated and shot back outwards throughout the whole body.

It’s biggest threat: Heart disease, or more technically, cardiovascular disease. This umbrella term includes numerous conditions such as heart attacks, strokes (when an artery to the brain gets clogged by plaque), congestive heart failure (when the heart doesn’t pump blood sufficiently), and arrhythmia (an abnormal rhythm of the heart). And though not all heart attacks are fatal, cardiovascular diseases account for one-third of all women’s deaths worldwide.

Why you’re at risk: You’re a woman. We ladies tend to brush off heart disease as a problem that affects men, but the truth is, more women than men die from it each year.

Keep it healthy: The good news for women is that our hearts respond better than men’s to healthy lifestyle changes such as getting more sleep and eating better. Increase your daily dose of Omega-3 fatty acids, making sure oily fish like salmon or mackerel, avocado and olive oil are a part of your meal plan. If you’re a smoker, butt out. And if you have the aforementioned risk factors or a family history of heart disease, consider getting tested.

Fact: Two-thirds of Americans with Alzheimer’s are women.

What it does: Your noggin’ calls the shots when it comes to every action the body makes. It locks away memories, keeps your heart pumping, tells your legs to put one foot in front of the other, and lets you know when you ought to drop the dumbbells because your muscles are maxed out. It also stores memories of physical pain to remind you not to make the same mistake again.

It’s biggest threat: The most common form of brain deterioration is Alzheimer’s disease. This slow and fatal disease of the brain affects one in 10 people over the age of 65, however there is growing evidence that it can begin to develop well before symptoms appear, as early as age 40.

Why you’re at risk: Unfortunately, the strongest risk factors—age and heredity—are things you can’t control. And the current stats aren’t promising: having a direct relative (parent or sibling) with Alzheimer’s makes your odds three times greater than someone who does not.

Keep it healthy: Currently there is no cure, but researchers are finding that what’s good for the heart is good for the brain. Studies show cardiovascular conditions such as high blood pressure and stroke can increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s, so taking care of your ticker is a good place to start. Heart healthy foods, such as walnuts, have been shown to have positive impacts on memory and cognitive function.

Fact: Every one in 16 women are expected to develop Colorectal Cancer (CRC) during her lifetime.

What it does: The colon is the large intestine, which is broken up into six parts that work synergistically to absorb water and minerals, and to form and eliminate waste from the body. Muscles and healthy bacteria line the colon’s walls, squeezing its contents along to maintain a healthy balance within the body.

It’s biggest threat: Colon cancer is also known as colorectal cancer (CRC), bowel cancer, and rectal cancer. Luckily, timely removal of these polyps (easily done during a colonoscopy) can prevent cancer from developing. Though the sobering news is that nearly half of those diagnosed find out too late.

Why you’re at risk: Having a history of inflammatory bowel diseases, or previously diagnosed with polyps or early stage colon cancer puts you at a higher risk.

Keep it healthy: Plain and simple: focus on nutrition. If you are prone to digestive issues, eat more high-fiber foods (think lentils, fruits and vegetables) to promote better bowel movements. Eat less red meat as research has linked high red meat consumption to a higher risk of CRC. And increase your intake of yogurt and fermented foods, or consider taking a probiotic supplement. A 2013 study found that people with colon cancer have less variety of different bacteria in their gut than healthy people.

Fact: Just one blistering sunburn before age 18 doubles your chances of developing melanoma later in life.

What it does: Skin is the largest organ of your body and therefore performs many functions that are often taken for granted. For example, shivering when you’re cold is a response given by the brain to the skin telling it to keep heat in. Conversely, when you’re hot, the skin sweats as a way to reduce your body temperature. Skin is also a waterproof barrier against ultra-violet radiation (UVR) and infectious microorganisms.

It’s biggest threat: Skin cancer. When sunrays (UVR) strike the skin, it scatters, is reflected, or is absorbed. The UVR that is absorbed is made up of UVB (the burning rays) and UVA (the aging rays), and both harm the cell’s DNA and compromise the immune system. This damage, in turn, weakens your natural defense to cancer.

Why you’re at risk: A 2014 report by the Canadian Cancer Society found that melanoma is one of the fastest rising of all cancers. People who are most at risk are those with fair skin that burns or freckles, rather than tans; and those who spend a lot of time in the sun, use indoor tanning, or live (or have lived) in a hot climate such as Florida, the Caribbean, or northern Australia. Equally important to know, anyone can get skin cancer, even people who have darker skin.

Keep it healthy: Wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a minimum SPF of 30 on your face, neck, and on exposed arms and legs all year round. Keep in mind that 70 percent of UV rays can penetrate through clouds, so even on overcast days it’s wise to wear sunblock. And if you’re planning on hitting the slopes this winter, be sure to cover your epidermis, as sunlight reflects off the snow so you can get a double dose of sun rays.

STRONG Fitness Mag
STRONG Fitness Magazine is a trusted source of cutting-edge fitness and health information for the modern woman who lives to be fit. STRONG’s sophisticated editorial voice combined with raw, powerful imagery and a modern, athletic design reflect the direction fitness has taken in the last decade.