Talking Men’s Health: What Do We Really Mean by Those Two Words?

When you hear the words “men’s health,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

If you’re like many of us, you might start by envisioning a specific type of guy: six-pack abs, defined muscles and low body fat, perfectly tan skin, and gleaming white teeth. In this mindset, men’s health means looking like the guy on the magazine cover.

But what about the health issues that are faced primarily or exclusively by men? There’s colon and prostate cancer, for example, or heart disease, the leading cause of death for U.S. men — not to mention testicular cancer and other reproductive diseases.

Why is it that a particular physique — rather than these more important issues — is what comes up first when we talk about men’s health?

A One-Sided Discussion

Don’t get me wrong: Looking good is not a bad thing. If you’re one of those guys who has the time, the knowledge, and the genetics to cultivate an Adonis-like body, more power to you. And it goes without saying that many of the things you’ll do in that pursuit — cleaning up your diet, adhering to an exercise regimen — will undoubtedly improve your health.

The problem is that the discussion of men’s health often starts and stops at looking good. This mentality can result in a somewhat unspoken problem: male body-image issues. Certainly, there are a lot of good things about being a guy, but living up to an idealized image of masculine good health can have a negative impact on our mental well-being.

Expanding Our Definition

If you ask me, our definition of male health needs a reboot. I see the problem in my friends, who worry about making gains in the gym but only put in all that work so that they can impress women. To them, health means looking good on the beach, at the bar, or in the club — and some of the behavior that goes on in these places isn’t always that healthy.

I see it on magazine racks, on movie screens, and in online articles. When public attention turns toward men’s health, it focuses on appearance, not on the truly health-related issues that are less pleasant to talk about but are much more prevalent and serious.

It’s one thing to feel inadequate when you see a muscle-bound guy in the movies. It’s another to see that guy and believe that he represents a true picture of health — and to have that image be the one thing you’re striving for in your efforts to pursue wellness.

If this sounds like a small distinction on paper, it’s a huge one in the real world. Our definition of proper male health can absolutely involve being physically fit in a way that makes our bodies look good — and our minds feel good. But that definition should also touch on the things all men are at risk for, from heart disease and prostate issues to male-specific mental health struggles.

Just like a car with a fresh paint job can hide serious issues under the hood, a man who looks good on the outside may not actually be in good health. When more people understand and accept this, we’ll have made big strides in expanding what we talk about when we talk about men’s health.

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