Men’s health: Fighting fit at every age
Dietitian Karissa Woolfe provides health checklists for men in their 20s through to their 60s, to help keep you healthier for longer.
It’s a cliché, but many men are more likely to take better care of the health of their cars than that of their own body.
If this sounds like you maybe it’s time to start thinking of your body as a machine (or if this sounds like someone you know, pop this under his nose and see he reads it to the end). If you take measures to keep all the parts of the machine running well, through regular check-ups and tuning, you’ll keep humming along nicely for a long time.
Forming healthy habits, just like regularly servicing your car and keeping the oil and water topped up, can help prevent serious health problems now and later in life. Here are key steps men can take, whatever your age, to eat better, live longer and be happier.
In your 20s
Young men’s 20s are all about ‘life in the fast lane’, and their approach to health can often go one of two ways – ‘all in’ or ‘opt out’. Neither extreme is healthy in the long term.
One example is going ‘all in’ with nutrition and fitness – focusing on gym training and muscle gain. While it’s healthy for young men to be active, striving to attain an idealised physique can create body image issues and lead to taking unnecessary, or even harmful, supplements.
Conversely, ‘opting out’ of a healthy lifestyle could involve hours spent playing video games, smoking or binge drinking with mates, which can develop into risk-taking behaviour and even violence.
Young men’s large appetite is partly driven by a higher ratio of lean muscle mass to body fat, so they can appear to eat what they want and get away with it – but the evidence is clear that this isn’t the case in the long run.
The last National Nutrition Survey found young men have takeaways, hot chips, soft drinks and energy drinks more often than other demographics. It also doesn’t help that some fast food, energy drink or sports drink brands market poor nutrition choices as ‘macho’ or ‘manly’ options for young males.
The problem is that takeaways and processed fast foods are high in kilojoules and saturated fat, salt and sugar – a recipe for type 2 diabetes and heart disease in the long run, if eaten to excess. The good news is there’s something you can do about it.
Checklist for your 20s
- Cut back on fast food: When ordering, request simple tweaks, such as extra salad, veges, or a thin pizza crust, and avoid processed meats, such as bacon and salami
Get a skin cancer check: New Zealand and Australia have the highest melanoma rates in the world and it can kill you in your 20s. Get in the habit of getting a check, and be sun smart
Be protein savvy: Many protein supplements are loaded with sugar. Opt for unprocessed protein, such as milk, eggs, chicken and lean meat
Avoid binge drinking: Set a limit before going out on Friday or Saturday nights, and make sure you stick to it.
In your 30s
The 30s often mark a man’s entry into partnering and parenting, and with it can come major changes in socialising, meals, fitness and sleep routines.
Couples often give up their unhealthy habits, such as smoking and breakfast-skipping, as they prepare for or experience pregnancy, aiming to create a healthier environment for their family.
What men eat matters for their family – and not just for their own health. Research shows that if men don’t like veges, they’re less likely to be included in the weekly shop. The health risks linked to low vege intake, such as an increased risk of cancer, can then ultimately filter down and affect the rest of the family. Nutrition is also really important for dads-to-be. A diet rich in antioxidants helps protect the DNA carried in sperm. So a regular fix of selenium from nuts and eggs, lycopene from tomatoes, beta-carotene from orange vegetables, along with vitamin C from fresh fruit is important. A small US study found the amount and type of fat in men’s diets also affects the quality and concentration of sperm. Men who ate two handfuls of omega-3-rich walnuts a day had better-formed sperm – so go nuts!
Quitting smoking and cutting down on alcohol can, likewise, create fighting-fit sperm, while losing weight helps improve sexual performance.
Checklist for your 30s
- Get out there, get active: Find a gym buddy or take a brisk 45–minute walk with a mate
- Quit smoking: Phone Quitline (0800 778 778) to boost your chances of success
- Really go nuts! Pack a small container (30g) of walnuts to snack on every day
- If you’re overweight, aim to drop a trouser size: Seeing a dietitian or qualified nutritionist can help
- Cut the booze: Aim for more alcohol-free nights, or switch to low-alcohol beer.
In your 40s
The 40s usher in mid-life, when a man’s body can start to show the signs of wear and tear from bad health choices and the stress of juggling work and family.
Your metabolism starts to slow down, which can mean losing lean muscle and developing a ‘middle-aged spread’ of belly fat. Fatty liver, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and insulin resistance can all potentially pose problems.
Keep an eye out for signs of a mid-life crisis. The stress and responsibilities of modern life can take their toll, and men are more likely to internalise their emotions than women.
The ‘man cave’ may offer a place to relax, but if you retreat there to regularly binge on alcohol and high-fat foods, it could signal the blues. One in six New Zealand adults has been diagnosed with a common mental disorder at some time in their lives. Men are less likely to talk about their mental health and can be slow to get help. Don’t be afraid to let people around you know if you’re not feeling great. Visit depression.org.nz to learn more.
Checklist for your 40s
- See your GP: Book in a health check with your GP. Visit menshealthnz.org.nz for a list of specific checks
- Find balance: Take time out to meditate, or go for a mind-clearing nature walk and think about things you enjoy
- Measure your waist: For men, a 94cm-plus waist increases risk of chronic disease; 102cm greatly increases risk
- Bump up the fibre: Eat more whole grains, fruit and vegetables
- Don’t ‘self-medicate’: Alcohol and prolonged sleep make depression worse.
In your 50s
It’s vital in this decade to get into a pattern of regular check-ups and screening tests, so the next time you book the car in for a service, book a GP appointment too.
The big ‘Cs’ and big ‘D’ – cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes – are health issues to watch out for in the 50s. More generally, don’t overlook problem snoring, daytime sleepiness and changes to bowel movements.
New research from the UK has shown that for each centimetre a man’s waistline expands, so does his risk of bowel cancer. Bowel cancer kills more men in NZ than prostate cancer, but 75 per cent of bowel cancers can be cured if detected early enough. Men can help themselves by plating up fibre-rich foods at each meal. Filling up on veges, lean meat, fish, legumes and whole grains makes less room for kilojoule-heavy extras, such as takeaways, pastries, hot chips, cakes, biscuits, lollies and soft drinks.
Checklist for your 50s
- Eat a Mediterranean-style diet: Base meals around veges and heart-friendly fats, such as olive oil, nuts and oily fish
- Lower cholesterol naturally: The fibre in baked beans and oats naturally lowers cholesterol and protects against bowel cancer
- Choose oily fish twice a week: It helps promote healthy circulation in blood vessels
- Cut back on the salt: Look for reduced-salt foods, and swap the salt shaker for the pepper grinder
- Screen the likely suspects: Test your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar and discuss prostate and bowel cancer screening with your GP.
In your 60s and beyond
Turning 60 puts sexual health firmly in the spotlight. The main health issues for men are erectile dysfunction (failure to maintain an erection) and prostate health.
Erectile dysfunction affects up to half of all middle-aged and older men, and is a warning sign heart and blood vessels aren’t functioning well. It’s already known that regular physical activity, such as walking up to five hours a week, can help improve blood flow to the penis. Eating a diet rich in flavonoids (often vividly coloured fruit and veg) can also reduce the risk of erectile dysfunction by 21 per cent, according to new research.
Prostate cancer is the most prevalent type of cancer in men, but survival rates are high. Around 3000 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer every year and it’s most common among over-65s. Symptoms can include more frequent urination (especially at night), a painful or burning sensation when passing urine, and the feeling that your bladder can’t fully be emptied.
Checklist for your 60s
- Spot the signs: Early detection is vital. Speak to your GP if you begin to notice any changes to your usual urination or bowel habits
- Eat more beans: Not only are legumes good for bowel health, a recent study found men who ate more of them halved their prostate cancer risk compared with men who ate the least
- Load up on tomatoes: Men who ate two to four serves of lycopene-rich tomatoes every week reduced their incidence of prostate cancer by a quarter, according to one large study
- Keep on moving: Inactivity is possibly a risk factor for prostate cancer, and exercise can improve erectile dysfunction.
What’s your score?
Complete the Men’s Health Survey at menshealthweek.co.nz.