I recently had the privilege of delivering a workshop as part of the innovative Manmade programme designed by Terry Rigby from Forward for Life. And I say privilege because I feel I have been part of something quite amazing; a service that focusses on delivering health and wellbeing awareness to an often over-looked group – unemployed men, in mid-life, who have gone through some tough times. This programme aims to empower them to have strategies and coping skills to manage the challenges they experience as a result of job loss, reduced financial income, loss of time structure, isolation, loss of purpose and changes in identity and relationship status.
Each week has been filled with education, training and dispensing “tools” needed to improve wellbeing. Surprisingly, though the most beneficial aspect has been that Forward for Life has given the men a safe space to talk. Yes TALK! Talk about problems, feelings, opinions and emotions with not a grunt to be heard. What I did hear was gratitude, a sense of relief that someone was listening and a desperation to be heard without being judged.
So, my week, of course, was “physical activity and health”. Faced with a group of middle-aged blokes, out of work, dealing with many difficulties, I was feeling a little apprehensive. How could I (a middle-aged Asian women!) engage these guys? How could I help them overcome barriers and motivate them to be more active? Very quickly though, I realised that in this unique space where they could just be themselves, they were open and honest, interested and totally engaged.
I learnt as much from the lads as they did from me, especially about male beliefs and behaviours in health. Generally men link their health to masculinity; think about the image of a perfect, healthy, fit man: rippling torso, athletic, strong. It’s all about looking manly, competing with other men, sexual prowess, being seen to be the best, to be strong and independent, in control. . Younger men, with time and opportunity, with the motivation to look good to attract a partner and with desire and passion to be the best, to be the winner may be able to achieve this. But how does that cultural/social norm impact a man in mid-life who neither has the means nor motivation to maintain his masculinity (aka health)?
Throughout their lives, men have learnt that poor health behaviours (drinking, smoking, poor diet etc.) are linked to masculinity and are encouraged whereas positive behaviours (seeking help, walking more, healthy eating) are seen as feminine. How can a man overcome these learnt social norms to improve his health when there is no longer a “need” to look good, when opportunity disappears, pressure to be the provider results in stress and exhaustion, and a feeling of futility sets in? To be honest I think this is quite a vulnerable group. Not quite old enough to feel the effects of lifestyle and aging on health and no longer young, self-obsessed and carefree; kind of drifting along caught in the middle,too stubborn to ask for help, too scared to be seen as unmanly and at risk of being left out of public health interventions.
The men in our group talked proudly of their sporting skills and achievements of the past; football, Martial Arts, athletics, boxing etc. The practical session was really interesting. When asked to go find a piece of equipment/exercise that they could use to increase their cardiovascular fitness (heart and lungs) they all went straight for kettlebells and press-ups.There was a real reluctance to try the hula hoop, skipping ropes and aerobic step(too girly?). After being bullied into trying,they found it challenging and fun.
They also talked about their present situation; the reasons they couldn’t exercise again and the barriers they would have to overcome (time, money, family circumstances, health). For some, pride in appearance, health and “feeling good” were the motivating factors in keeping active but there was also a feeling of futility in some:
“It’s too late to make a difference”
“What’s the point of exercise if it doesn’t hurt?”
“I just can’t do that anymore”
What I saw were these men are fully aware of what they need to do to improve their health, like walking more, eating more fruit and vegetables etc. but these behaviours are seen as “not manly enough”. Macho beliefs such as “no pain, no gain” and their desire to “be the men they used to be” were stopping them from engaging in more gentle, health-enhancing forms of exercise which become more and more important to physical health as we age. Walking, aerobics, stretching, yoga etc. are seen as “girly”and yet would certainly benefit middle-aged, out of shape men.
Telling a bloke to take up walking, build it up slowly and gradually is simply not going to cut it .For him, it’s just another insult to his manliness (on top of job loss, marital problems etc.) even though he knows that it is the only way he has any chance of getting anywhere close to his fitness levels of the past.
Simple tools like a pedometer and a 10,000 step daily challenge may help motivate some. Apps and gadgets are great ways to engage men, where they can see what they have achieved…and then show it off!
Sporting elements in health interventions will almost always motivate blokes to get out of the house.
The recent variation of football – walking football - is a great way to get older men back into exercise by making it fun, achievable and still appealing to their sense of masculinity. The brilliant project FitFans, targets men aged 40-60, who are overweight or obese.Its success is that it not just deals with weight loss but it provides support, cameraderie and friendships so improving mental health and confidence too. More of these types of interventions are needed across the country.
I hope through the workshop, the men learnt the miraculous benefits of moderate exercise as opposed to more competitive and intense forms they may have been used to in their younger years. But to make a real difference it is important for health promoters to engage men in this stage of life, aged 40-60, to challenge their beliefs on what it is to be a man with respect to health. Engaging men to focus on short term, meaningful goals (better sleep, less stress, improved management of a chronic condition) will help those in mid-life achieve a meaningful outcome and that will only reinforce positive behavioural changes.It is crucial to educate men that although increasing physical activity levels may not give them the masculine, athletic physique any longer, it is still of immense value to their overall mental and physical health.
Staff from Dudley council kindly agreed to come in and tell the men all about the free exercise opportunities available. I hope that the guys are able to overcome those cultural restrictions and get up and active again. With organisations like Forward For Life working closely with Public Health and Councils, the future is bright and there is hope that these invisible men, real super heroes, will not be overlooked but supported to acheive better health and well-being.