Men can age gracefully too


By Brian Goslow

Middle-aged men have heard it all:

•Lose weight.

•Adjust your diet.

•Exercise three to five times a week.

•Quit smoking.

•Eliminate heavy drinking.

•Reduce your stress levels.

But do they listen?

No. And the extent to which they have ignored the messages has the potential for dire consequences.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Healthy People 2020 Project, which began in 2000, 50 percent of the country’s adult men engage in no leisure time physical activity, a finding mirrored by The American Heart Association, which found half of U.S. men 65 and older were sedentary.

The health warnings have been out there for decades, so why isn’t the message getting through?

“Men don’t want to admit that they’re vulnerable,” said Edward H. Thompson, Jr., a recently retired College of the Holy Cross sociology professor who, along with Lenard W. Kaye, professor of social work at the University of Maine School of Social Work and director of the UMaine Center of Aging, co-authored A Man’s Guide to Healthy Aging: Stay Smart, Strong, and Active (John Hopkins University Press).

“Typically, men don’t focus on themselves until midlife and at that point, what they need to do is reclaim their lives and not give up years of their life and die sooner because of heart disease,” Thompson said.

The idea for the book originated during a late-1990s Aging and Health seminar at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, where a lecturer asked the audience which health symptoms differentiated men from women.

The silence that filled the room made it clear that attendees hadn’t pondered how aging affects a man’s body and lifestyle and that men didn’t have a male version of the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective’s groundbreaking Our Bodies, Ourselves, which was released in 1971 and has been updated several times, and its 2006 follow-up, Our Bodies, Ourselves: Menopause. The two publications have served as essential guides for millions of women.

Enter Thompson and Kaye, who began to formulate their book after attending that aforementioned seminar, but didn’t start compiling it in earnest till 2006. Its 584 pages are packed with information on dozens of subjects ranging from how to age healthily through eating better, working out, addressing stress levels and maintaining vital relationships to later-life sexual intimacy and caregiving for a loved one with faltering health to end-of-life-matters..

Yet, having that information readily available in one place doesn’t mean that men are going to rush to their local bookstores or download it onto their reading tablets and iPads. Unless they’ve faced adversity, it’s simply not the way most men are. They like to see themselves as supermen.

“When men grow up healthy, there’s a sense of being invulnerable,” Thompson said. “Most men, typically, well into their 40s, go through most of their life doing what is required to be a man: get a job, find a partner, buy a house, have children. They don’t really pay attention to their internal lives, either their bodies or their minds, until they’ve gotten past all those external parts and by that point, they’ve done damage.”

If it isn’t their own personal health problems that cause men to re-evaluate their lifestyle, seeing a close friend or relative facing a health challenge sometimes will. “In our 40s and early 50s, that’s when we first begin to notice that either a close friend or an uncle is going through a serious health emergency,” Thompson said. “That’s when we start paying attention.”

Even after a man acknowledges the need to make some major lifestyle changes, Thompson said, he can find himself avoiding following through because he can’t imagine spending endless hours at a gym or walking around a track, let alone giving up his favorite foods or drinks.

But, Thompson said, there are invaluable, small steps that can be taken to begin, starting with breakfast:

•Watch what you put in your coffee. “It’s Yankee New England to ask for a regular coffee and it comes with cream and sugar. It’s the two sugars — and the half and half — that gets you. If you have three or four of those, that’s a lot of calories.”

•Learn to eat smaller food portions. “It takes the brain five minutes or so to get all the signals that say stop eating. So if you have a huge portion in front of you, you don’t get that signal.”

•Take the stairs instead of the elevator. “It’s better for you and it takes two minutes longer.”

•Build an exercise habit. Start slowly, then increase your time by five minutes. Keep it up over six months and you’ll have changed your life. “Once you get on the bike, you kind of like it,” said Thompson. Similarly, walking can have multiple benefits. “There’s kind of a Zen thing to it. If you get out and look around you and walk and just put your ear buds in, you can really zone away from the stresses of everyday life,” he said.

•If you go to a gym, don’t get drawn into the competitive aspect of it. “When you go to a gym to get a personal workout, it’s OK to compete with yourself, but it’s not OK to compete with others. You’re there for a workout, not to see how long you can go.”

For his own exercise, Thompson uses an exercise bike and treadmill, increasing the tension as time goes on, which can result in burning more calories over a shorter period of time. In warm weather, he goes out for walks.

“When I first started walking, a mile would be tricky,” he said. “I certainly didn’t go to a high school track and go around four laps, but I went on a walk. And the next day, I slowly picked up the pace to where it’s supposed to be and extended the walking distance.”

Those kinds of workouts have multiple payoffs. “It’s not only adrenaline — we’ve got all kinds of hormones flying through our bodies, natural hormones, that are activity-based that feed the brain and they tell the brain, ‘Enjoy yourself,’ ” Thompson said.

This results in something similar to a “runner’s high,” which, when you’re regularly active, fills a spot in the mind where you’d have been craving food. And if the reason behind exercising is to lose or maintain weight, you’ll pay closer attention to what you’re putting inside you, and in most instances, find yourself reducing your food intake.

“So when you go to make a sandwich, you don’t just slam something together. You think and actually put a sandwich together you enjoy,” Thompson said. “You don’t eat it as fast anymore, with chips and all that other junk you used to eat.”

While changing one’s lifestyle ultimately is a personal decision, one shouldn’t make those changes alone. Thompson and Kaye make it clear at the start of their book that it “isn’t intended to substitute for medical care, and treatment should not be based solely on its contents”; rather, “treatment must be developed in a dialogue between the individual and the physician,” and that they wrote the book to help with that dialogue.

Thompson said people should have positive thoughts about what they can do and what medicine can do for them. “The best way that’s going to happen is by maintaining a relationship with your primary physician,” he said. “If you’re pre-diabetic, they’re going to start telling you to diet earlier and the end result is your quality of life is better and you won’t have to face the horrors of what people experience with that (diabetes).”

The good news is that even a man who has ignored his health for most, if not all of his life, can, by making major changes in his daily routine and reversing destructive habits, can generally earn back years he might have otherwise lost. And, Thompson pointed out, “It’s not just the amount of time, it’s the quality of the time.”