June is Men’s Health Month in the United States and International Men’s Health Month around the world. Father’s Day anchors these efforts to raise awareness, prompt action and promote healthy choices among men and boys of all ages and backgrounds.
As a men’s health advocate, I have taken a tough love approach to my brothers – particularly those over 50. While promoting science-based best practices and describing the social benefits of a healthy lifestyle, I have written extensively about the poor track record of men (of all ages) in the US when it comes to their health. The outcomes are no surprise and raise questions as to whether we will ever change the state of men’s health.
According to the Centers for Disease and Prevention, among men 20 and older, more than 40% are classified as obese and more than 50% suffer from high blood pressure. Of men 18 and older, only 28% meet the federal physical activity guidelines for aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities, 13% smoke cigarettes and 13% are in fair or poor health. And, perhaps most alarming, the suicide rate among males is four times higher than females, accounting for nearly 80% of suicides.
The year in review
Within the past year I reviewed the sad state of men’s health, citing two troubling studies. In August, I described a Commonwealth Fund report that documented how American men are in poorer health than their peers in other affluent countries when it comes to rates of avoidable deaths, chronic conditions and mental health. In September, I highlighted a CDC report that found the disparity in life expectancy between women and men grew from 5.7 years in 2020 to 5.9 years in 2021.
As we consider the 2023 version of Men’s Health Month in the context of the past year, it is easy to get discouraged. Year after year, organizations like the Men’s Health Network preach the gospel of healthy practices: diet, exercise, regular screenings and check-ups. But what will it take to move the needle forward? According to the Cleveland Clinic, more than half of the men in the US don’t even want to talk about their health!
Finding a super strong ‘why’
Having grappled with this dilemma for many years now, poring over the science and reflecting on my own lived experience, my advocacy is firmly grounded in what psychologists call psychosocial factors. If we want men to adopt healthy behaviors, we need to give them a strong “why,” and that reason is often found in a man’s social and emotional relationships.
Spouses, partners, children, grandchildren, friends, careers and the like give our lives purpose and meaning. In short, they provide a reason to live and stay healthy enough to enjoy what brings us love and enjoyment.
While it’s important to educate men on cardio workouts, weight resistance training and diet, there is more. Many experts believe that the underlying discipline to live healthy resides in a man’s social relationships. The most notable study in this field, the Harvard Study of Adult Development, represents 85 years of research on the relationships of men (now second generation plus) and their influence on men’s health.
According to study director Robert Waldinger, “our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships (have) a powerful influence on our health.” More significant words have never been spoken when it comes to men’s health. The Harvard study and others make it clear that a big part of the answer to improving the state of men’s health lies in the social sciences and a blending of psychosocial strategies with traditional medicine.
That said, what does this relationship-based motivational model look like on a day-to-day basis? What can be done to reverse these alarming trends and make Men’s Health Month 2023 a pivotal moment where we embark on a new culture of men’s health? Here are my top five strategies.
- Connect the dots. Identify your most cherished relationship in life, reflect on the fulfillment that you derive, and the rewards you bring to others (it’s not just about you). The common denominator to happiness is the ability to be physically and mentally present to engage in these relationships. Never lose sight of this linkage.
- Leverage your relationships. The science is strong when it comes to the motivation for healthy behavior found in our social relationships. Exercising with a spouse or friend increases the likelihood that you’ll stick with the program. The same goes for dieting. It’s personal accountability and support all in one. Healthy behavior is a team sport.
- Build habits, routines and rituals. Establishing a rhythm of healthy practices creates the guardrails that will keep you on track. Habits, routines and rituals are the wiring and plumbing that make up your rhythm. Your personal infrastructure is what keeps you going day-to-day.
- Construct a robust social agenda. It’s one thing to recognize your loving relationships, it’s another to keep them vibrant. A regular series of social events, no matter how small (a weekly dinner with your wife) or big (an overseas trip with the family) will give you something to look forward to, and another reason to stay fit.
- Lose the male stereotypes. One of the biggest constraints on building a culture of health among men is the warped definition of manhood that stops men from proactively seeking medical care, and, as I pointed out already, even talking about their health. Men need to lose this neanderthal perception and take care of themselves. Doctors don’t bite.
To my 50-plus men out there, to men of all ages, and those who love them, let’s make Men’s Health Month 2023 one that starts the process to right the ship of men’s health. We can do this by recognizing that diet and exercise are important, but that they are a means to a larger end game.
Being healthy opens a world of opportunities to enrich the happiness we all seek in life. It is the ultimate motivator with the power to overcome past practices. We have the force within us. Let’s use it.
Louis Bezich, senior vice president and chief administrative officer at Cooper University Health Care, is author of “Crack The Code: 10 Proven Secrets that Motivate Healthy Behavior and Inspire Fulfillment in Men Over 50.” Read more from Louis on his website.