“Health brings a freedom very few realize, until they no longer have it.” – Bronnie Ware; Author of the book, Top Five Regrets of the Dying
If there’s one subject I research and reflect on most as the writer of this wellness blog, it’s human behavior. Mainly, to understand why people, and particularly men, gravitate towards risky, unhealthy behaviors when it doesn’t serve them or their loved ones well. Despite decades of credible research on preventive health and our own intuition on the benefits of daily physical activity, eating wholesome foods, and being socially connected, most people in our country struggle with making healthy lifestyle choices. Less than 3 percent of Americans meet the basic qualifications for a “healthy lifestyle,” according to a new study. Far more confounding is when people are faced with chronic disease, disability or even death, they still can’t overcome their unhealthy behaviors. It’s not a coincidence that poorer outcomes of COVID infection and death are associated with pre-existing health conditions. Furthermore, men are more likely than women to die of COVID, mainly because of behavioral factors that have led to being in poor health to begin with. Men are also less likely to adhere to preventative COVID safety measures, such as getting vaccinated, practicing social distancing, or wearing masks appropriately. What might not be apparent to the person with risky behaviors and unhealthy cravings of food, alcohol, tobacco or other vices is that it’s not only affecting the quality of their life, but their family, friends and community as well. Sadly, it’s not until a person is towards the end of their life that they regret not valuing their health.
Karl Pillemer, a gerontologist and author of the book “30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans,” interviewed 1,500 people over 65 about what they regret most about their life choices. When participants in the study were asked about their health, many responded by saying that they wished they took better care of their body earlier in their life. Their advice, “treat your body like you are going to need it for 100 years” because if you don’t, the last 10-20 years of your life you’ll be decrepit from chronic disease as modern medicine keeps you alive. I witnessed this unfortunate scenario play out with my dad during his retirement and the last years of his life. I also see how many of my male friends are heading down the same path, often complaining of their aches and pains and “how tough it is getting old” when they haven’t even turned 60 yet! (Watch this short video Make Health Last A Lifetime)
There are certainly biological reasons why women live longer than men, but men tend to sabotage their health with risky, self-destructive behavior. Studies show that men are more likely to die from homicide or suicide; they are more prone to smoking, drinking and drug abuse, and, when it comes to just caring about your health, women tend to be more proactive than men. Another reason men (and women) neglect their health is that we don’t trust the process of making a healthy lifestyle change will actually lead to a happier, and more satisfied life. Instead, we choose immediate gratification, comfort and convenience over what is good for our long-term health. For example, if you had a long, stressful day at work, and feel mentally and physically exhausted, going to the gym or out for a jog would seem to be the last thing you would want to do. However, evidence suggests that exercise is a healthier way to relieve stress as opposed to crashing on the couch to watch TV while having a few cocktails.
There are also social factors that can affect a person’s health and longevity. Women generally are more in touch with their feelings and can express their thoughts and emotions better than men, so they’re more likely to seek out emotional support to cope with life difficulties. Women also tend to have a larger social network and more meaningful relationships than men. On the other hand, men have a harder time expressing their feelings, especially when it comes to their health. Part of the reason is how we’ve been socialized as young boys to “toughen up, have thick skin, fear nothing and suppress any emotional reaction.” This carries over into adulthood where men often value work, money and prestige, over prioritizing their health and having meaningful relationships. A recent study has shown that “one in five men say they have no close friendships”. Social isolation and feelings of loneliness can weaken the immune system, making you more vulnerable to a number of chronic diseases and mental illness.
Practicing a healthy lifestyle isn’t just to prevent disease, but also to have vitality and functional ability throughout your lifespan. The benefit of eating healthy and getting enough physical activity each day shouldn’t just be to lose weight so you can look good in your bathing suit. “As Americans, our culture is focused on appearance, but people don’t realize that long-term health is determined by the lifestyle choices we make throughout life”. The aim should be to improve your quality of life as you age so that you have more energy to do the things you enjoy with your friends and loved ones. The next time you’re tempted by one of your vices, make a healthier choice. If you practice replacing an unhealthy behavior with a healthy one it helps establish a new habit that can be used anytime you’re feeling stressed. Instead of having a drink after work for instance, try taking a long walk to help you unwind or join a yoga class or group fitness class with like-minded people. By doing so, you’ll have fewer regrets at the end of your day, as well as at the end of your life!