June is Men’s Health Month, and there are a number of topics I could have written about for this column. For example, new research on prostate health, or any one of the other health issues that disproportionately affect men, such as heart disease, melanoma, binge drinking and unintentional injuries. But I decided to take a bigger picture approach.
We’ve all been through a lot the past 15 months or so and I see the rest of 2021 as a prime time to reclaim health. Not “reclaiming” in the sense that our health is something to be conquered, however, nor “health” in the limited domain of physical health. Rather, reclaiming health starts with taking stock of what happened — or didn’t happen — over the past 15 months in terms of caring for both physical and mental health.
Odds are you aimed to avoid the doctor’s office during the pandemic to avoid a point of contact with people who were possibly infected with COVID-19. While women have been more likely than men to push preventive health care to the back burner during the pandemic, men are traditionally less likely to be proactive about their health care needs even in “normal” times.
Maybe you’ve missed some vital preventive health care screenings. You might be hesitant to get caught up on those screenings if you’re afraid of what your numbers — blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar — might look like. I talked with Angel Planells, a Seattle-based registered dietitian nutritionist and a national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, about his advice to men for getting their health care house in order as our worlds open up again.
“I would say I am in the same boat as I just celebrated my 42nd birthday in March. I finally made into the doctor’s office for a wellness check as I missed my 41st annual checkup,” Planells said. “We all have suffered in some way, shape or form during the pandemic. Perhaps our eating habits suffered, our physical activity has decreased, our sleeping habits are poor, and maybe we are suffering from some mental health issues. Now that the world is beginning to open up again, let’s go and get back to optimal health with every facet we can. I know on a personal level, I need to get back to the dentist.”
Part of reclaiming health is making a plan for getting back to baseline — or better — that’s responsive, not reactive. This part is key, because with all the alarmist messages out there about our collective drop in physical activity during the pandemic along with a trend toward weight gain, it’s easy to shift into “Emergency! Emergency! I have to fix this now!” mode. But extreme diet or exercise protocols are not the answer, in part because they are not sustainable, but also because it’s easy to think that the solution to our problems is to fix our bodies.
“We can all fall prey to quick marketing gimmicks, like ‘lose 20 pounds in one month,’ or restrict certain food groups,” Planells said. “These ads may target you for the common issues many of us have — not enough time to cook, not enough time to exercise, just not enough time and money.” He said three key elements that help most people get back on track with their health are making mindful eating changes, incorporating some physical activity and building up resources that can help them weather challenges.
Physical activity can support both physical and mental health, but self-reported moderate-to-vigorous physical activity dropped by 41% during the pandemic, with some of the biggest drops seen in previously active people. How should men approach getting back to “normal” to avoid injury, especially if they’re returning to the gym?
“The important thing to remember is that we are all getting older, and we all may have become deconditioned due to the lack of activity,” Planells said, suggesting a slow and steady approach, gradually building up your routine. “Our muscles and cardiovascular system need time to adapt and make changes due to many of us being inactive. Let’s not do the weekend warrior thing and get ourselves hurt now that we can finally get back out there.”
If the past 15 months have felt challenging for you, because of job loss, restrictions on travel, deaths of friends or family, deep fears of contracting COVID-19 — or actually contracting it — then your mental health has taken a hit, too. If you’ve been struggling with stress, depression or anxiety, and then turned to food to cope, both of these situations may feel uncomfortable or even alarming. The stereotype is that emotional eating, binge eating and other disordered eating behaviors are “female things,” but men can struggle, too. Again, the answer is not to react in a rigid, controlling way, and to get any professional help you need from a registered dietitian nutritionist or a therapist.
“The pandemic has definitely affected many of us when it comes to eating, and those with disordered eating patterns may feel triggered by a number of things,” Planells said. “The thing to remember is that no single food is bad.” If the main concern is that nutrition habits have fallen by the wayside, he suggests starting with a goal of making one small, impactful health change when it comes to eating. “This may be as simple as having an extra serving of fruits or vegetables, or cutting out soda and improving your cereal selection.”