"Guy walks into a doctor's office..."
That's not the start of a joke — that is the joke. Men don't go to doctors unless they're in serious pain or really spooked about something. We have our reasons, as squishy as they may be. In a 2007 American Academy of Family Physicians survey, 58 percent of men cited specific factors, such as lack of time, lack of insurance, and lack of extreme symptoms, as reasons for avoiding physicians. But another 6 percent actually gave the grown-up equivalent of "the dog ate my homework," saying "something else" always prevents them from going.
The head-in-the-sand approach isn't much of a health-maintenance strategy. Sure, a number of miscellaneous ailments resolve themselves without medical attention. But denial can also leave you dead. A smarter move: Regularly assess your health with a few morning inspections that are easy and accurate. They aren't replacements for routine doctor visits — our legal department wants that made clear — but these DIY checkups can help you sort the trivial from the troubling.
Check for... gums of horror
What's the big deal? Any redness, inflammation, or bleeding of your gums might be due to gingivitis, a condition that can progress to periodontal disease. This, in turn, is linked to heart disease — the number one killer of men. How? The bacteria from periodontal disease enter your bloodstream, potentially causing inflammation elsewhere in your body, including your heart. The result: atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease. What's more, periodontal disease can signal diabetes. "Blood vessels deliver oxygen and nourishment to body tissues and carry away the tissues' waste products," says Robert Pick, D.D.S., a gum specialist at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. "Diabetes causes blood vessels to thicken, which slows the flow of nutrients and the removal of harmful wastes. This can weaken the gum tissue's resistance to infection."
Gums that are salmon-pink in light-skinned people, or a bit darker in dark-skinned people, indicate that your mouth is healthy and bacteria are in check, says Dr. Pick. But if your gums are red and swollen, and they bleed after brushing, you may have gum disease — or worse. Begin daily flossing, and see your dentist for an intense, below-the-gumline cleaning and application of antibiotics.
Check again in: 1 week
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Check for... clogged nasal passages
What's the big deal? Take a deep breath. Did you inhale through your nose or through your mouth? If it was your mouth, then your nasal passages may be obstructed, probably due to allergic rhinitis, the symptoms of which can include sneezing, itchy eyes, runny nose, and general stuffiness. Or if those symptoms accompany coughing and wheezing, you might have asthma. "Asthma can permanently reduce lung function if it's not treated quickly," says Bradley Marple, M.D., a rhinologist at the University of Texas Southwestern medical center. Clogged nasal passages can also contribute to sleep apnea, a condition that's usually also accompanied by snoring and about 20 pounds of extra body weight. Consult a physician right away if you have all three symptoms.
To flush out the allergens, pollutants, and mucus that either cause or worsen congestion, try a nasal lavage before bed. Mix 1/4 teaspoon of salt into 2 cups of warm water, and fill a bulb syringe with the solution. Bend over a sink, cock your head to one side, and insert the tip of the syringe no more than a half inch into one of your nostrils. Squeeze the bulb until all the saline solution has run out through the other nostril. Repeat on the other side. (Not good with recipes? Try Simply Saline, an OTC saline solution with a built-in applicator.)
Check again in: 1 week
Check for... runaway heart rate
What's the big deal? Your resting heart rate (RHR) indicates how hard your heart is working to pump blood. It's not only a good indicator of your overall fitness, but it can also signal diabetes or heart disease if it's high. In fact, Italian researchers found that having an RHR above 70 beats per minute (bpm) increases your risk of dying of heart disease by at least 78 percent
To check your resting heart rate, pee first; a full bladder may elevate your heart rate. Then sit for a minute or two before taking your pulse at either your neck or your wrist. Count the number of times your heart beats in 15 seconds, and then multiply that number by 4 for your bpm. As a rule, 40 to 60 bpm indicates a high level of cardiovascular fitness, notes Adam St. Pierre, M.S., an exercise physiologist at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine. "A regular cardio exercise program should knock a beat or two in your heart rate within 2 to 8 weeks," he says.
Check again in: 1 week
Check for... the wrong kind of belly
What's the big deal? Men gain weight around their middles, and studies have shown that deeply seated abdominal fat (called visceral fat) bumps up your risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and some types of cancer.
Unlike the fat that resides just under the skin, visceral fat collects deep within your abdomen, filling the spaces between your organs and increasing the risk of inflammation throughout your body. Worse, it can lead to insulin resistance, which forces your pancreas to boost insulin production in order to clear your bloodstream of glucose, says Michael Jensen, M.D., a Mayo Clinic endocrinologist. (Insulin resistance is a precursor to diabetes.)
Your belly is bulging from visceral fat if you can't pinch or grab a fold. Have some belly to burn off? Step 1: Watch what you eat. To figure out how much you should be taking in, simply multiply your target body weight by 11. That's your daily calorie allotment. Then make sure you're burning about 2,000 calories a week through exercise. In a Duke University study, that amount of activity reduced visceral fat stores by 7 percent.
Check again in: 1 week
Check for... moles behaving badly
What's the big deal? Most men diagnosed with melanoma — usually after age 40 — have had it for some time and either ignored the signs or simply didn't notice them. Melanoma in a guy is typically found on his head, neck, or upper back, so it's tough to spot and catch early.
"After your shower, scan your skin for anything that looks unusual," says Linda K. Franks, M.D., a clinical assistant professor of dermatology at New York University. Specifically, check for the ABCDE's of mole surveillance: asymmetry, borders (blurry or jagged edges), color (black or multihued), diameter (more than a quarter inch across, or growing), and evolving (changing size or shape). If you note any alarming marks, have your dermatologist eyeball them and perform a biopsy if necessary.
Of course, the best way to beat melanoma is to prevent it, so use sunblock as well. Dr. Franks recommends Olay Complete SPF 30 Defense, a nongreasy lotion that provides UVA and UVB protection and also includes a moisturizer.
Check again in: 1 month
Check for... stiff muscles
What's the big deal? Poor flexibility in your upper back can predispose you to lower-back pain and injury. If you sit at a desk for long hours without moving, or if you're doing a lot of lifting to build your chest muscles but not stretching them out and not strengthening your upper back, your shoulders and neck will hunch forward, notes trainer Bill Hartman, P.T., C.S.C.S. This will limit your upper-back mobility, causing you to overuse your lower back and leading to pain and discomfort.
Stay limber with a pec stretch. Stand in a doorway with your right forearm and palm resting fully on the jamb, and your arm bent 90 degrees. Now lean into the doorway and away from your arm until you feel the stretch. Hold for 30 seconds, and repeat with your left arm. Follow this with your favorite barbell row, dumbbell row, or cable row for 2 to 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps to balance your pushes.
Check again in: 2 weeks
Check for... lousy memory
What's the big deal? Can't recall where you just placed your socks? You're probably stressed out. The stress hormone cortisol temporarily short-circuits memory.
Check your memory — and improve it — with an "N-back" exercise in the morning. Pick a word, such as "economy," while you're watching the morning news. Every time someone says the word, come up with the word that person said two (or five) words before it. "This exercise can evaluate how much you can deal with mentally at one time, and then boost it," says Bridgid Finn, Ph.D., a research scientist at the Memory Lab at Washington University in St. Louis. Then consider going for a run. Cardiovascular exercise shunts extra oxygen to your brain, boosting your mental acuity in general. In fact, a recent Duke University review of studies found that cardio work improves attention, brain-processing speed, and memory. It'll help bust that stress, too.
Check again in: 1 week
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