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10 steps men can take to better health

Ahead of Father's Day this weekend, Julia Molony looks at the little things men can do to improve their wellbeing

Every year, in the run up to Father's Day, International Men's Health week takes place in a bid to encourage men all around the world to attend to their physical and emotional health. And for good reason. In Northern Ireland the average life expectancy for men is 78.3 years, four years less than the average life expectancy for women at 82.3 years. Those figures have been unchanged from 2012-14.

Adult men are at higher risk than women of cardiovascular diseases, respiratory diseases and cancer. They are also more likely to be admitted to hospital with psychiatric symptoms.

These are big problems. But small changes can make a dramatic difference. Here, we've put together our top ten small steps for men.

1. Don't delude yourself

Men in Northern Ireland are inclined to be over-confident when it comes to their health. Optimism is a healthy trait, but complacency is not, especially when it is an impediment to taking steps towards a healthier lifestyle. Alas, men are also less likely to consult a doctor. The message if clear: if you are concerned about a health issue, then make an appointment and seek advice. Remember that early intervention can be key.

2. Don't grin and bear it

Men are more likely than women to ignore symptoms or put that GP appointment on the long finger. Behavioural studies have demonstrated that men are slower to notice signs of illness, and when they do, they are less likely to consult their doctor. This is why men often don't do as well as women after being diagnosed with a health condition. In other words, seeking help later can result in poorer health outcomes, and indeed has been widely implicated in unnecessary premature mortality for men.

3. Beat the binge

While elsewhere on these pages we run a feature on how a beer could have unexpected health benefits, moderation is key. Experts say that no amount of alcohol is risk-free, but how much you drink matters a lot when it comes to alcohol's impact on health.

It's estimated that four in 10 men drink more than the recommended daily guidelines. Men in Northern Ireland are also more likely to binge drink than their European counterparts - thanks to a culture that believes every occasion is better marked for getting sozzled. Recently, the idea of developing a healthier relationship with alcohol by drinking "mindfully" is gaining traction amongst those who want to cut down. A study from University College London demonstrated that just a few minutes of mindfulness training can help heavy drinkers reduce their intake. But drinking mindfully is also about carefully tracking how much you drink, choosing high-quality drinks and savouring them, and stopping before the tipping point where inhibitions are lowered and you are likely to throw all caution to the wind.

4. Get up from your chair

Modern life requires us to spend the bulk of hours in any given day sitting down. No wonder an estimated 45% of men here don't take adequate exercise. And inactivity, according to the WHO, is the cause of 5% of all deaths worldwide. The answer, according to GP and health writer Dr Rangan Chatterjee, is not another underused gym membership, but rather to "make the world your gym".

Instead of punishing work-outs, he advocates a simple change of attitude in his book The 4 Pillar Plan. Instead of seeing exercise as something you do in a designated space at a designated time, "it's much better for us to see our whole lives as a potential workout". He suggests thinking about "movement" rather than exercise. Walk to work, take the stairs. Do a set of squats, lunges or press ups while you're waiting for the kettle to boil. Incorporating regular short bursts of activity into daily life can have a big health impact.

5. Invest in relationships

We are currently living through an epidemic of loneliness. A recent survey carried out in the UK found that over one in eight men say they have no friends to discuss serious topics with, and that figure rises to one in four in the 65-69 age group. There is a growing body of evidence which suggest that loneliness can be as damaging to health as obesity and smoking, and it is linked to depression, dementia, inflammation and higher all-cause mortality.

Numerous studies have demonstrated that the risk of illness is higher for single men than those who are married, so it pays to invest time and energy in building a happy home life. But for those who are divorced, widowed or bachelors, there are simple ways to seek out and benefit from companionship, such as joining a men's group, participating in a sports club, or inviting a neighbour for coffee.

6. Head to the Shed

Mens Sheds or Community Sheds are non-profit organisations that originated in Australia in the mid-1990s and rapidly spread to New Zealand, Canada, England and then here on the island of Ireland. The first Mens Shed in Ireland opened in February 2009 and since then over 220 have sprung up; some 50 of these are in Northern Ireland. Top of their remit is to reduce social isolation in males and help them connect with their communities and peers, through skills, activities and open conversation. All men are welcome to join the culture of trust and respect that flourishes in a shed.

"Becoming a member of a Community Men's Shed gives a man that safe and busy environment where he can find many of these things in an atmosphere of friendship. And, importantly, there is no pressure. Men can just come and have a chat and a cuppa if that is all they're looking for," says the association. For further information and to find a shed in your area go to www.northernirelandmenssheds.org

7. Quit the cigs

You've heard it time and time again, but for good reason. In the UK one person dies from a smoking-related disease every four minutes. Smoking causes lung cancer (around 90% of all lung cancer deaths), heart disease, bronchitis, strokes, stomach ulcers, leukaemia, gangrene, as well as other cancers, for example mouth and throat cancer.

It can also worsen colds, chest problems like bronchitis and emphysema, and allergies like hay fever. As if that's not enough, it also has unpleasant side-effects, causing wrinkles and bad breath.

Still not convinced? Smoking is also a cause of erectile dysfunction, and fertility problems in men.

If you've had enough of cigarettes, help is available through smoking cessation programmes and Nicotine Replacement Therapy. For further information and useful tips go to www.nidirect.gov.uk/news/help-available-if-you-want-quit-smoking

8. Don't forget the sunscreen

Rates of melanoma skin cancer are on the rise among men and are increasing at a faster rate than those diagnosed in women, according to a report published last year. Mortality rates are also growing faster in men than women, and "male melanoma patients tended to be diagnosed at a later stage than females", according to the report. Experts unanimously advise covering up in the sun with a hat, clothing and liberally applied, broad-spectrum SP. And if you notice any skin changes, consult your GP.

9. Tackle job stress

A new study just published in The Lancet identified that men who have pre-existing health conditions are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of job-related stress. Researchers from University College London found that those who suffer cardiovascular disease, diabetes, or who have previously had a stroke were 68% more likely to die during the duration of the 14-year study. Stress did not impact the mortality of healthy participants or women. The key take-home message? Stress management strategies are extremely important for men with health conditions.

10. Don't let stigma stop you from seeking help

Northern Ireland has the highest rate of suicide in the UK, official figures show. In 2016 a total of 221 men and 76 women committed suicide here - the youngest was a male aged under 15. Since the Belfast Agreement, more people have taken their own lives in Northern Ireland than were killed in political violence during the Troubles between 1969 and 1997.

Statistics on the state of mental health in the region show that since the peace deal about 4,500 suicides were registered in the region. An estimated 3,600 people died in shootings, bombings and other killings during the Troubles.

One in four people will experience a mental health problem at some point in their lives. But the good news is that "most people who experience mental health problems recover fully, or are able to live with and manage them, especially if they get help early on". To find out how you can get help go to www.aware-ni.org

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