TAMING THE HUNK WITHIN


Re-published from Alive Magazind (alive.com) 2006

The cultural standard used to be that it was okay for men to drink, smoke, or eat to excess. Many did all of the above. Cultural pressure prevented men from taking an interest in and accepting responsibility for their own health.

Now it appears that, increasingly, men are taking responsibility for not only their own health and fitness but also the health and fitness of their families. Could it be that our culture has undergone, or is undergoing, a sea change? For supporting evidence, let’s look at my own behaviour.

That was Then

During the 1970s, I was in charge of a crew of two-fisted beer-drinking archaeologists. At noon every day we would march to the nearest watering hole, where we would belt back a beer (or three), wolf down burgers, and generally spend more money than we earned. The men on the crew did the same. (I always had co-ed crews.) Later in the day, after fumbling through an afternoon of digging, we would return to the watering hole until it closed.

After a few years of this, I realized we were wasting our youth. I talked my crew into challenging archaeologists at a nearby university to an exciting game of broomball. That was in 1975, and we still play today. More significantly, those of us who still play also regularly go to the gym. The hope is we can play better, avoid injury, and fend off the pitfalls of aging.

In my Father’s Day

I am now almost the age my father was when he died of heart failure. I work during the day, teach fitness classes in the evenings and on weekends, dig holes in archaeological sites on holidays, ski when it snows, and play broomball on Friday nights. Lounging at home in front of the television happens now and again, but somehow the channel always seems to be set to Home and Garden TV. And somehow every time I watch Home and Garden TV I end up with a hammer in my hand.

I believe I can say that I have aged differently from my father. I brought up this topic during a conversation with friends after an exciting game of broomball at the watering hole where we now gather for a few post-game bottled waters (more on that later). My teammates said their fathers were still on the couch. One said that for him broomball was a weekly dose of good medicine. We agreed that we are all getting old, but we are aging differently from our fathers.

Men Making Changes

Here are more observations: The Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute reports that more women than men are inactive; 66 percent of women are inactive compared to 60 percent of men. It’s as if men secretly responded to the “Let’s-get-guys-off-the-couch” campaign that has dominated the media over the past few decades.

Another change is afoot: In August 2005 Elaine Morgan in New Scientist reported that 445 fathers stayed at home with their children in the UK in 1986. Two decades later, that number has risen to more than 21,000 men. In fact, in June 2005, the UK’s Equal Opportunities Commission announced that 79 percent of men questioned said they would be happy to look after their young children while their wife or partner went out to work. In a single generation, a behaviour that was once considered eccentric has become mainstream.

Men at Work

Sometimes the demand for societal change of role stereotypes comes from our employers. Many companies today demand that men meet higher standards of health and fitness. This point is demonstrated in my occasional sessions teaching a fitness class at a local government job site. A perk for these government employees is free access to an on-site gym. The result is that, although women have always attended my classes there, now I see more men are working out, too.

Years ago, men used to show up at business meetings with a pack of smokes tucked into their shirt pockets or under the sleeves of their T-shirts. As the intensity of the meetings grew, men needed the oral stimulation of a cigarette to soothe the stress. Nowadays men get their oral stimulation by sucking the hard plastic nipples of designer water bottles they buy on the way to work. Now, instead of air pollution, meeting rooms have noise pollution as water bottles snap and pop from that incessant sucking. More drinking means more peeing–which means many a meeting takes place in front of the urinal, where company principals sew up deals before they zip up. Is it any wonder a litre of designer water costs more than a litre of gasoline?

Tipping the Evolutionary Balance

Genetic researcher Robert Moyzis of the University of California at Irvine reported that a significant proportion (about 7 percent of the total human genome) has been shaped by natural selection in the past 50,000 years. He suggests this is likely due to the development of culture–first from the shift to agriculture from hunting and gathering, then as an adaptation to the shift toward living in densely populated cities. Moyzis speculates that we may have “domesticated” ourselves with the emergence of civilization.

Quoting Moyzis, Holmes writes, “One of the major things that has happened in the past 50,000 years is the development of culture. By so radically and rapidly changing our environment through our culture, we’ve put new kinds of selection [pressures] on ourselves.”

It doesn’t seem to have taken much to tip the evolutionary balance. About 50,000 years ago, modern humans shared the planet with Neanderthals. Eventually, the Neanderthals disappeared, either through being incorporated into the human gene pool by mating, or by being out-competed by humans. Recent investigations at Ortvale Klde Rockshelter in western Georgia, show that modern humans were able to compete more capably than Neanderthals because humans found a greater variety of raw materials for tools. Researchers propose that humans were more mobile than Neanderthals, and this knowledge of a larger region made them more able to compete successfully for resources in the Caucasus mountain valleys–leading to Neanderthal extinction.

It’s tempting to speculate on what the future holds for men as we stumble into the 21st century. Psychologist Dr. Jerry Kennard plays with the idea of men’s changing role in society in his guide to men’s health on the About.com website. Amid articles on circumcision, penis size, washboard abdominals, and prostate awareness is an article encouraging men to visit the doctor. Perhaps the new direction will see men becoming less fearful of medicine.

That’s the funny thing about evolution. If you blink, you’ll miss it. Two decades ago I would spend my Saturday nights in a state of licentious debauchery. Since the urge for domestication took over, I find myself quite content to stay at home nursing a broomball bruise on my shin while balancing the grandkid on one knee and wondering whether I should make a doctor’s appointment.

Men’s Attitude Toward Health

Apparently men have a different attitude toward health than women. A 2005 survey of men in England reported in the Men’s Health Forum showed that men, compared with women, are:

  • more likely to try to “tough out” illness
  • more likely to give priority to work commitments over treatment and rest
  • more likely to deny illness; for them, illness equals weakness
  • less likely to be prepared to discuss their health
  • more likely to fear the consequences of illness and disease

Get Thee to a Medic

Psychologist Dr. Jerry Kennard offers men guidelines about how to behave themselves when visiting the doctor:

  • Seek help early. Don’t let things get really serious before seeing your doctor.
  • Doctors have heard and seen most everything. Let them do their jobs.
  • The doctor is not there to judge you, and probably finds visiting his or her own doctor equally embarrassing and frightening.
  • List key health problems and their symptoms before you go to the doctor. List any additional concerns: money worries, confidentiality issues, relationship difficulties, and emotional aspects.
  • Tell the doctor the truth. Do not avoid facing the facts. Own up to habits you are not keen for others to know. Disclose smoking and drinking and your sexual practices. Honesty will help the doctor make an accurate diagnosis and offer the best treatment.

If you feel unable to talk to your doctor, have little confidence in the advice given, or fail to get the treatment you feel you need, find another doctor.

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