During Men’s Health Month, a reminder that upkeep of self-care helps us thrive
Lately I’ve been thinking about routine maintenance, making sure things run effortlessly. This spring I had some problems with my lawn mower. The machine was so reliable I took it for granted. I had been behind on some routine maintenance items and hoped I could put them off a bit longer. Then the lawn mower stopped on me. While I had it in the store, my weed grew 6 inches.
When it comes to power tools, a little preventative maintenance keeps them better and longer.
The whole incident got me thinking because it just happens to be Men’s Health Month, and if our lawn mowers need regular care, how much more important is our own self-care?
Generally speaking, men tend to focus on work or to-do lists. We tend not to admit that we feel exhausted or that we need to recharge our batteries. We also have a bad habit of avoiding health care providers.
It’s important to show up for routine wellness check-ups, but seeing a doctor isn’t the only way to start taking care of your health. For this month’s column, we’ll cover Personal Care – inspired by Men’s Health Month but applicable to everyone.
Diet: the fuel of our lives
My young sons are playing a game where they pretend to be sports cars and spin around the yard then stop next to me pretending to be out of gas. My role is to fill their tanks with super gasoline so that they can start again for more laps while continuing. Machines need gasoline, but people need fuel too, and the fuel we choose matters. High quality fuel provides our body with the vitamins and minerals it needs while avoiding excess sodium, sugar and unhealthy fats.
My patients often ask me what type of diet I recommend. There are many good diets. Whichever diet you choose, I encourage you to eat mostly plants (i.e. fruits and vegetables) with as little processing as possible. Such a diet is naturally low in the things we want to avoid – salt, sugar, and unhealthy fats. It is also rich in the elements that our body needs – vitamins and minerals.
Eating well helps maintain a healthy weight and reduce the risk of blood pressure and blood sugar problems. Still, it’s hard to do it all the time. So if you are like me and find it difficult to give up an unhealthy food altogether, try limiting the portion size or how often you eat that food. For me that means eating all the good stuff six days a week and giving myself a break on the seventh day. This Grace Day gives me extra flexibility whether I’m out dining or eating at a friend’s house, but enough structure to eat the “right” things most of the time.
Exercise: All systems in good working order
I have a generator, and if I start it every three or four months, it works fine. If I forget it for 6 to 12 months, it takes a few more pull-ups and adjustments to get it back to work. When I do long stretches without exercise, I tend to have a similar reaction. Exercise not only keeps our bodies in good working order, it is important for maintaining a healthy weight, promoting cardiovascular health, and improving mental health.
Exercise can take many forms, but the key is to get around 150 minutes per week (eg 30 minutes per day for five days per week). Walking is a great form of low impact exercise, and we have many parks and hikes here that we can enjoy. Walking has the added benefit of being beneficial for many forms of musculoskeletal low back pain. Many of my patients suffer from joint pain in their knee or hip, and walking can be difficult for them. In these cases, try other low-impact activities like swimming, stationary cycling, rowing, or elliptical trainer.
Sleep: More than a recharge
Have you ever needed to use a cordless drill for a project and got everything ready to find that the battery is completely dead? A cordless drill is useless without a charged battery. Charging a battery is a pretty good analogy for the role of sleep in human health, but sleep actually does more than just recharge our batteries. Sleep is a critical step in consolidating memory. Hormone levels change and reset when we sleep. Large studies have shown improved health outcomes for those who are able to get quality sleep at night.
Our understanding of what goes into a good night’s sleep has increased. In health, we recognize that good sleep habits and practices are important, and we call them “sleep hygiene”. Some of them seem obvious – like sleeping 7-8 hours a night, having a predictable bedtime, and making sure the bedroom is dark and quiet. Others are not so obvious. Watching TV, computer, or smartphone screens right before bed can interfere with your ability to get high quality sleep. Alcohol before bed also increases the chances of waking up during the night. Over time, good habits strengthen and lead to more consistent, high-quality sleep by training our minds and bodies to adopt beneficial patterns.
Mental health: connection and purpose help us thrive
Good personal care can promote mental health. There are also other great ideas worth trying to promote mental wellness. One of the easiest things to do is take time for gratitude. Regularly saying or writing what you are grateful for can change our own attitudes and influence how we perceive the world around us and our own experience of it. Building in time to be in nature or to pursue a creative endeavor can provide a feeling of inspiration and invigorating. Another worthwhile habit is volunteering for a good cause. Volunteering connects us with other people and a sense of purpose that can both give back to our communities and enrich our own lives.
When I go to work, I want to be the best possible doctor for my patients. This requires staying up to date with the latest medical research and standards of care. I want to be the best husband and father. To do this, I have to intentionally let go of what happened in the office when I get home and focus on my family. To be the best version of ourselves for ourselves and for those who are dear to us, we must first pay attention to certain personal care.
The recommendations here are simple, but it can be difficult to maintain these habits. Over the years, I have developed many self-care plans that never really took hold. The times I’ve been successful are the times I’ve told someone else about my plan or enlisted someone else to participate with me. When my wife knows that I am committed to healthy eating, she can keep me honest. When I go for a bike ride on Saturday morning with a friend, it doesn’t go wrong. If you’ve struggled to find time to take care of yourself in the past, try bringing in a responsible partner.
Some of us have gotten out of routines or had to establish new ones in the past year or so. By focusing on personal care, we perform the regular maintenance necessary not only to maintain a functioning body and mind, but also to thrive and perform at our best.
Peter Barkett, MD, practices internal medicine at Kaiser Permanente Silverdale. He lives in Bremerton.