During Men’s Health Month, a reminder that self-care helps us be successful

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Lately I’ve been thinking about routine maintenance and making sure things run effortlessly. This spring I had some problems with my lawn mower. The machine was so reliable that I took it for granted. I was behind on some routine maintenance items and was hoping I could put them off a little longer. Then the lawnmower just stopped for me. While I had it in the store, my grass grew 6 inches.

When it comes to power tools, a little preventative maintenance will keep them running better and longer.

The whole incident got me thinking because it happens to be Men’s Health Month and if our lawnmowers need regular maintenance, then how much more important is our own self-care?

In general, men tend to focus on work or to-do lists. We tend not to admit when we feel exhausted or need to recharge our batteries. We also have a bad habit of avoiding healthcare providers.

Getting routine wellness checkups is important, but seeing a doctor is not the only way to take care of your health. In this month’s column we cover self-care – inspired by the month of men’s health, but applicable to everyone.

Nutrition: fuel for our life

My little sons play a game where they pretend to be a sports car, race through the yard, and then stop next to me and pretend they’re out of gas. My job is to fill up their tanks with premium gasoline so they can take off again to run more laps in a row. Machines need gas, but people need fuel too, and the fuel we choose matters. High-quality fuel provides our body with the vitamins and minerals it needs and at the same time avoids excess sodium, sugar and unhealthy fats.

My patients often ask me what diet I recommend. There are many good diets out there. Whatever diet you choose, I recommend that you eat mostly plants (i.e., fruits and vegetables) with as little processing as possible. Such a diet naturally contains few things that we would want to avoid – salt, sugar and unhealthy fats. It is also rich in the things our body needs – vitamins and minerals.

Proper diet will help maintain a healthy weight and reduce the chance of blood pressure and sugar problems. Even so, it’s hard to do it all the time. So, if you’re like me and are struggling to completely avoid an unhealthy food, try limiting serving size or the frequency of consumption of that food. For me, that means eating the right thing six days a week and taking a break on the seventh day. This grace day gives me extra flexibility when eating in a restaurant or at a friend’s house, but enough structure to eat the “right” things most of the time.

Exercise: All systems in good working order

I have a generator and if I start it every three or four months it works great. If I forget 6-12 months it will take a few more pulls and some fine-tuning to get it working again. When I go long distances without exercising, I tend to have a similar reaction. As well as keeping our bodies in good shape, exercise is important for maintaining a healthy weight, promoting cardiovascular health, and promoting mental health.

Exercise can take many forms, but the key is getting around 150 minutes a week (say, 30 minutes a day, five days a week). Walking is a great form of low-impact exercise, and we have plenty of parks and hikes here for you to take advantage of. Walking has the added benefit of being beneficial for many forms of musculoskeletal pain in the lower back. Many of my patients have knee or hip joint pain and walking can be difficult. In these cases, try other gentle activities such as swimming, cycling, rowing machines or elliptical machines.

Sleep: More than a charge

Have you ever needed a cordless drill for a project and got everything ready for use only to find that the battery is completely empty? A cordless drill is useless without a charged battery. Charging a battery is a pretty good analogy for the role of sleep in human health, but sleep actually does a lot more than just charge our batteries. Sleep is an important step in consolidating your memory. Hormone levels change and reset when we sleep. Large studies have been conducted that have shown improved health outcomes for those able to sleep well at night.

Our understanding of what makes a good night’s sleep has grown. In healthcare, we know that good sleep habits and practices are important, and we call this “sleep hygiene”. Some of these seem obvious – like 7-8 hours of sleep a night, a predictable bedtime, and making sure the bedroom is dark and quiet. Others aren’t that obvious. Viewing TV, computer, or smartphone screens immediately before bed can affect your ability to get quality sleep. Alcohol before bed also increases the chances of waking up at night. Over time, good habits build up and result in more consistent, quality sleep by training our mind and body to fall into beneficial patterns.

Mental health: connection and purpose help us be successful

Good self-care can support mental health. There are also some other good ideas worth trying out to promote mental wellbeing. One of the easiest things to do is to make time for gratitude. Regularly saying or writing down what you are grateful for can change our own attitudes and affect the way we perceive the world around us and our own experience with it. Building time to be in nature or to be creative can provide a sense of inspiration and reinvigoration. Another worthwhile habit is to volunteer for a good cause. Volunteering connects us with other people and with a purpose that can both give something back to our communities and enrich our own lives.

When I go to work, I want to be the best doctor I can be for my patients. This requires keeping up to date with the latest medical research and standards of care. I want to be the best husband and father. To do this, I have to consciously let go of what happened in the office when I drive home and concentrate on my family. In order to be the best version of ourselves for ourselves and those we care about, you need to take some self-care first.

The recommendations here are simple, but these habits can be difficult to maintain. Over the years, I’ve made many self-care plans that never really worked. The times I’ve been successful are the times I’ve shared my plan with someone else or recruited someone to join me. When my wife knows I have followed a healthy diet, she can keep me honest. If I go on a regular bike ride with a friend on Saturday morning, it won’t fall by the wayside. If you have had difficulty finding time to care for yourself in the past, try finding a responsible partner.

Some of us got out of routines or had to establish new ones in the past year. By focusing on self-care, we are performing the regular maintenance that is required not only to keep a functioning mind and body, but also to thrive and do our best.

Peter Barkett, MD, practices internal medicine at Kaiser Permanente Silverdale. He lives in Bremerton.



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