This article originally appeared in Hampton Roads Magazine, July/August, 2007

When I turned 40 years old, I could only remember having taken two physicals in my life: a sports physical as a high school athlete and an entrance physical for the Army. Since then, nothing. I’ve never visited the doctor unless I was sick or injured; in fact, I never even had a personal physician, opting instead to visit the Emergency Room when medical crises arose.

If you find that attitude shocking, brace yourself…I’m the norm. At least, for men I am. American men make 134.5 million fewer physician visits than women each year. 70% of Americans who haven’t visited a doctor in the last five years are men. They are less likely than women to be screened regularly for high blood pressure, cholesterol, and cancer. The truth is men conduct more preventive maintenance on their cars than they do on their bodies.

The reasons we men avoid regular checkups are as plentiful as they are weak: ideas of masculinity, a dislike of situations out of our control, the embarrassment of a stranger probing below our beltlines. Typically, women clear this hurdle in their teens with their first pelvic exam followed by regular visits to a gynecologist. For men, regular checkups aren’t expected and as time goes by doctors’ offices gain a forbidding mystique.

There is, of course, the fear that something bad will be discovered. “But, if I don’t go, they can’t tell me there’s something wrong. Then everything will just stay as it is now.” That’s the type of logic we like to apply to our internal machinery.

My father is a perfect example of this mentality. A lifelong, unrepentant smoker, he avoided the doctor for decades. At the age of 62, after much prodding by my sister and mother, he acquiesced and went in for a physical. The doctor did indeed discover something bad—prostate cancer—but he found it early enough to be treatable. My father quit smoking the day after his diagnosis, had surgery within weeks, and is in good health today. Had he not gone in for a physical though, he wouldn’t have known about the cancer until much later, when it was too late to do anything but mourn.

My father’s exam served as a wake-up call for me. I, too, had avoided physicals for much longer than I should. Once upon a time I was a thin, athletic, paratrooper, and I still like to think of myself that way. But a look in the mirror tells another story; that lean soldier was many pant sizes ago. Now I’m an average American, which is to say unhealthy, overweight, and at risk for a host of problems ranging from hypertension to heart attacks.

I have male friends who are suffering through heart disease and adult onset diabetes, and I particularly feared being diagnosed with one of these. But, if there’s one lesson I took from my father’s checkup, it is better to discover the problem sooner than later.

I asked around for recommendations on a good doctor—I asked women, of course—and found an excellent family physician who was near to home. My 40-year physical wound up being less painful than a trip to the dentist, or the DMV for that matter. A few pokes and prods, some measurements, a needle jab, the “dreaded finger,” and it was all over. In addition to the doc giving me a medical thumbs up, he also demonstrated exercises I could do for my bad knee and provided sensible advice regarding diet and nutrition.

Most of all, the visit provided me with relief, alleviating fears that something bad was lurking within. Since I don’t want to start losing sleep from worry again, I plan to maintain my comfort level by following a sensible schedule of visits to my doctor. No more excuses. There’s not one I can think of that is worth dying for.

To fit an examination schedule to your specific needs, follow the guidelines given by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force Guidelines.

A good rule of thumb is for men to see a doctor twice in their 20s, three times in their 30s, four times in their 40s, and every year after 50. Men should also have their cholesterol tested every five years starting at age 35, a yearly prostate-specific antigen (PSA) blood test starting at age 50, and a colonoscopy at age 50 and every 10 years thereafter. These guidelines might need to be adjusted for an individual based on his personal situation and family history.

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