Guys, it's never too late to start taking care of your health. It's also never too early. Too many men, however, fail to make health maintenance a part of their MO. Buck that trend and get proactive. Start by bringing up these six questions with your doctor.
1. Do I always have to watch my diet?
Yes, most days. A day off once a week is fine -- that's realistic. But eating right most of the time is an essential part of taking care of yourself.
Raul Seballos, MD, the Cleveland Clinic's vice chair of preventive medicine, says no matter how much you work out, you can't maintain a healthy weight unless you stick to a healthy diet. So be sure to satisfy your appetite with good-for-you foods, and make an effort to keep an eye on calories.
"Men are often surprised that even though they are exercising four days a week, they are not losing weight," Seballos says. "Exercise is great. But if they can't tell me the number of calories they are getting, I know they are not watching their diet. You have to eat three meals a day, but it's all about portion control -- that's the key." For example, he says, many men drink beer. To burn off the 150 or so calories in one can of beer, the typical man needs to jog a mile in less than 10 minutes or do 15 minutes of stair climbing.
Brett White, MD, a family medicine specialist at Oregon Health & Science University, says men tend to pay attention to numbers such as test results when he discusses their health with them. "I really stress the objective evidence that tells me something is wrong," he says. "If they have a fasting blood sugar level of 115, for example, I tell them that they will likely develop diabetes if they stay on that path." Then he gives them specific targets and a specific diet to help meet those targets.
2. Why do I need to exercise?
It's simple: To get or stay fit, you have to get and stay active. According to the latest federal guidelines, that means a cardio workout of at least 30 sweat-inducing minutes five days a week plus two days of dumbbell workouts or other weight-training activity to build and maintain muscles. Crunched for time? Kick up the intensity to vigorous exercise, such as jogging, riding a bike fast, or playing singles tennis, and you can get your cardio workout in just 25 minutes three days a week.
Exercise protects against so many conditions -- from heart disease to colon cancer to depression -- that the best choice is to start exercising now, no matter how healthy you think you are. But if you're older than 45, discuss your exercise plans with your doctor before you start. Together, you can tailor a workout your body can handle and benefit from.
Seballos says simple steps can have a significant impact, especially if you're just starting to get in shape after a long stint as a couch potato. So park your car farther from work than normal and walk the extra distance. Climb the stairs instead of taking the elevator. He advises many patients to wear a pedometer to measure how many steps they take each day. A good daily goal to shoot for is 10,000 steps.
3. What can stress do to my body?
Stress is harmful, no question. It can wreak havoc on your sex drive, increase your blood pressure, and overwork your heart. That's dangerous. In a 2011 study, middle-aged and older men who reported years of moderate to high levels of stress were more than 40% more likely to die than men with low stress.
Unfortunately, as every man knows, there's a lot to stress over. "Men come in worried about being fired or laid off, or if they are in a managerial position, they have stress about having to lay off friends and co-workers," Seballos says. Long hours and work-related travel can translate into tension at home, he says. And that often leads to unhealthy behaviors, like eating too much or drinking more than usual. Over time, you increase your risk of weight gain, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
What does Seballos recommend? Working out. "Guys who handle stress the best are those who exercise the most," Seballos says. "The best Prozac out there is exercise." White tells many of his patients to try yoga or meditation in addition to exercise.
4. Do men like me get depressed?
Absolutely. At least 6 million men in the United States suffer from depression each year, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health. However, many guys don't like to talk about their feelings or ask for help.
"It's rare for a guy to say, 'Doc, I'm depressed,'" says Seballos. "But I bring it up. I ask them about their mood, whether they're losing sleep or having trouble concentrating, or if they have lost interest in going out with friends."
White calls it "drilling down" -- getting at the issues a lot of men are reluctant to discuss. Identifying those problems is a crucial part of any man's checkup. Depression is more than simply feeling sad, unmotivated, and without energy. Depression is a real illness, and it can be life-threatening. That's especially true for men because it increases the risk of serious health problems, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke.
Depression is also the leading cause of suicide -- and men are four times more likely than women to take their own lives. "I discuss how common it is so they see they are not isolated," says White, who screens men for depression during their annual checkups. "Too often, it takes until they reach the end of their rope before they come to see you about it." Medication, exercise, and therapy are all treatment options, White adds.
5. What about sleep -- why is it important for me?
It's hard to overestimate sleep's importance. Diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease are all linked to not enough sleep. So are excess weight and mood disorders. A recent study showed that young men who skimp on shut-eye have lower levels of testosterone than men who are well-rested. Meanwhile, older men risk high blood pressure if they don't get enough deep sleep.
Sleep disorders can also have physical causes. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), for example, disrupts breathing and forces you to wake up to draw a deep breath. It affects an estimated 4% to 9% of middle-aged men (twice the rate in women), yet as many as 90% of cases go undiagnosed. OSA raises the risk of heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure as well as car crashes, which are more common among the sleep-deprived.
You can vastly improve your sleep, White says, by having good sleep habits: Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, exercise regularly and early in the day, avoid caffeine in the afternoon and evening, don't eat large meals at night, skip the alcohol right before bedtime, and use the bedroom for sleep and sex only. If these measures don't help, see your doctor. For chronic insomnia, your doctor may advise cognitive behavioral therapy to help you develop healthier sleep habits.
6. Does my sexual health affect the rest of my health?
You bet it does. For example, erectile dysfunction (ED) is a concern that goes beyond the bedroom. "This is not merely a psychological or sexual problem," says Seballos. "ED is a risk factor for heart disease."
In a 2010 study published in the journal Circulation, men with ED were twice as likely to have a heart attack and nearly twice as likely to die of heart disease as other men. And, Seballos adds, men who have trouble with erections tend to be overweight or obese, and to have high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
"I am particularly worried when a younger man complains of erectile dysfunction," says Seballos. "The younger you are, the more likely your erectile dysfunction is a sign that you are at risk of heart disease."
White says other factors are frequently at play with ED. Low testosterone levels as well as diabetes, substance abuse, stress, and sleep deprivation can affect your sex life, not to mention your overall health.
Many of the men White sees for ED ask for quick fixes such as erection-enhancing drugs. For a long-term solution, you need to make some lifestyle changes. Sexual health depends on getting and staying fit, physically and mentally.