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Research reveals that every woman should take steps today to protect her fertility, whether she has babies on the brain now or can't imagine being a mom for a while (or ever). This step-by-step plan will not only help you have a healthy family, it'll keep you strong and fit for years to come.

What every woman should do now
Yes, fertility does decline with age, but your lifestyle and your environment have a huge impact on your pregnancy potential. "If you're proactive about protecting your heart and your brain, you're also safeguarding your reproductive health. It's a nice bonus," says Pamela Madsen, founder and executive director of the American Fertility Association in New York. "We call it 'Lifestyles of the Fit and Fertile.' " You may be surprised by how many of the steps on this list you're already taking to stay healthy.

Reach a healthy weight
If you carry extra pounds, you have an increased risk of diabetes, hypertension, and cardio vascular disease; losing weight will improve your health and your ability to conceive. A body mass index (BMI) of 18.5 to 24.9, the best indicator of a healthy weight, is most favorable for fertility. (Calculate yours at A recent study published in the journal Human Reproduction found that the more weight a woman gained between pregnancies, the longer it took for her to conceive. Being over- or underweight can throw your hormone levels out of whack-and an imbalance of estrogen, the key hormone for ovulation, will reduce your odds of getting pregnant. Once you conceive, an unhealthy weight also makes carrying a baby more difficult-and more dangerous. "There's a clear link between the obesity epidemic and the rise in pregnancy complications in this country, like gestational diabetes, high blood pressure, and prolonged labor," says Mary Jane Minkin, M.D., a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Yale University School of Medicine. On the other hand, an underweight woman's body may not be prepared to deal with the extra nutritional demands of pregnancy.

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