For the good of man

June is Men’s Health month which has me thinking about the health of the men in my life. In my house live 3 men, my two teenage sons and my husband who is, well, a little older.

I didn’t grow up with brothers, and women sort of ruled my house as a kid, so this whole inside look at how men tick has been a learning experience for me, especially watching my two sons grow from babies to boys to young men. After all, I care about health, and especially the health of my husband and sons for obvious reasons!

I have noticed, on occasion, that my way of trying to be healthy (and the way I tell the boys and men in my life to be healthy) may not exactly resonate with them. I’m very fortunate that they are all pretty healthy so far, but their perspective is definitely different than mine when it comes to what motivates and moves them to make healthy choices.

For example, I’m more motivated by the longer term goal of aging well. I’m also motivated by feeling better — reducing stress, sleeping better, having more energy. I tend to do the smaller stuff, fairly consistently. I am hesitant to take on big goals because I worry I won’t be able to sustain them (chicken I guess?). My husband, on the other hand, is motivated by specific fitness or weight loss goals, and is much better at making bigger changes or reaching a big goal like running a long race, etc.

According to Dr. Derek Griffith, a social scientist from Vanderbilt University who focuses on social influences on men’s health and racial and ethnic health disparities, “Men need to know that their health may affect what is most important to them as men. That way it can be a priority.”

So maybe it’s not that the motivation is less, just different. In an article in the Journal of Health Education and Behavior Griffith explains his research findings among men. “Despite the potential health consequences, African American men tend to treat their roles as providers, fathers, spouses, and community members as more important than engaging in health behaviors such as physical activity.”

His studies have shown that the effort and emphasis men exert in seeking to fulfill the provider role limit their motivation and energy to engage in physical activity. These findings highlight the need for physical activity interventions that consider how health fits in the overall context of men’s lives, like workplace, insurance or church-based programs, or programs that have a monetary reward for healthy change.

Unfortunately hardly any data for Latino/Hispanic men exists. But many of the same barriers are true among our hardworking men here in the Valley.

Health concerns for Latinos, the largest ethnic minority in the United States, merit attention by policy-makers. Given the importance of the Latino population to the economic well-being of the United States, ensuring good health for this group is crucial. Lack of access to health care is the most obvious barrier to maintaining good health for Latinos, but it is not the only important factor.

Sociocultural factors, including acculturation, culturally competent health professionals, immigration status, income, and education are also influential to health concerns. Recommendations to decrease health disparities among Latino men include theoretically based health interventions, better integration of research findings, working with local communities, and incorporating Latino masculine values into both health care and health education.

Given the importance of the sociocultural factors, it’s important to look at influences and factors that reflect our local reality and cultural values.

For example, many of the men I know here in the Valley fondly remember their days of participating in football, soccer, basketball or baseball as young men in high school. While participation in team sports is great for young people, it can often leave behind bad habits in men in particular, who were often encouraged by coaches to bulk up and eat up, or who were burning so many calories working out they could get away with eating more.

Unfortunately, those habits of overeating are carried into adulthood even after they are no longer involved in sports. With more sedentary lifestyles, men in their 20’s and 30’s gain a lot of weight unless they reduce their portions, the type of food they are eating and/or start exercising more.

Another common barrier to men exercising has to do with the way they spend their work days. Men who do physical labor, or who are even on their feet a lot at work (lifting, moving, doing construction work, in restaurants, yard work, etc.) perceive themselves as getting more than enough “exercise” and are often physically tired at the end of the work day.

While the type of work they perform may be exhausting, it most often does not provide them the intensity, type or amount of physical activity recommended to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

So what can men do to be healthier, and how can the rest of us support them?

The conversation about health needs to be tailored for men. Emphasis needs to be on the connection between healthy lifestyle and productivity. Men are more able to be better providers, husbands, fathers, employees, bosses, and buddies if they are healthy.

Friends and family members need to support men in adopting healthier habits. Men face a lot of teasing and criticism for eating healthier. They need to find allies and other men who are trying to adopt healthier habits and gain support for each other. Men often need a specific, shorter term goal in order to change habits, like training for a race, or participating in a weight loss challenge.

They also like to work out with other me, playing soccer, basketball, boxing or other team sports. Monetary rewards and prizes work very well to motivate men too.

Employers, clergy, city leaders and doctors need to target men’s health and address it because it is important — especially in the Rio Grande Valley where one in three adults are diabetic, over 60% of the population has no insurance, 80 percent of men are overweight or obese and we have the highest amputation rates in the country. Men’s health affects the economy.

Men are dropping out of the workforce very young due to illness, disability and even death from chronic diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular disease and fatty liver disease.

Families are affected with the loss, in many cases, of the primary breadwinner. Employers are affected by high rates of insurance and lower productivity.

We all need to work together to support our boys and men to be healthy. Not everyone is motivated by the same things, but we can all work hard to create an environment that encourages everyone to make healthier choices, because Tu Salud ¡Si Cuenta! (Your Health Matters!)