Wellness—as opposed to fitness—is making a comeback among gay men, and with good reason. Where a previous generation thought of wellness as just the absence of illness, these days wellness programs acknowledge that there's a lot more to being well than just not getting sick. And, at different moments of your life, how you assess your wellness, and what you need to do to maintain it, will substantially change. To stay well, you need to be able to gauge your wellness, and take steps to correct imbalances in your life. In this and subsequent pieces, I'll point some potential challenges to wellness at different ages, and direct you to some resources that can help keep you on track. Whether you're in your twenties, thirties, forties, fifties or sixties, there are actions you can undertake to keep well. Today we'll start with some introductory wellness tips for guys in their twenties—but if you've already left that decade behind, stay tuned. In the coming weeks, I'll have tips for the more…mature population as well.
Getting Started: What Is Wellness?
If wellness isn't just avoiding getting sick, then what is it? Wellness experts identify six major areas of wellness. Take a look at them and think about the form they take in your life—bearing in mind that there may be overlap between categories.
1. Physical: Your physical wellness includes all the things you would expect, like your cardiovascular fitness, your strength, and your endurance; but it also includes preventive measures, such as regular testing for diseases, and maintaining a healthy diet, even if you're not overweight. In a traditional wellness program, the physical would be the entire emphasis—notice here that it's only one of six elements. That is because the body's wellness does not exist in a vacuum; it is part of an overall goal of health for the entire individual.
2. Social: Social wellness is not just about having fun. It's also a way of addressing your interdependence with the people around you. You will have a better, healthier life (and body) if you have strong relationships and a sense of community. In fact, studies show that people who have strong social networks tend to live longer. But you will have to actively promote and maintain those relationships, rather than just rely on them to be there when you really need them.
3. Spiritual: We often think of spirituality as necessarily meaning religion. And, for some people, religion will certainly be a key part of a spiritual life. But from a wellness point of view, spiritual fulfillment will more generally mean feeling that there is a purpose to your life. This can range from practicing meditation, to taking up volunteer activities in your community. Anything you do that lets you feel that you are here for a reason, and that you have a connection beyond the purely physical (even in a mind/body sense) will form part of your spiritual life.
4. Intellectual: Your intellectual development doesn't stop after school ends. Later in life you can, of course, pursue another degree—but you can also find other ways of maintaining your intellectual wellness. Creativity can do this, for instance, by stimulating new areas of your mind. Take up a new art, or some writing. Try to find mentally stimulating activities. The idea is to expand your sphere of interest beyond what you already find comfortable.
5. Occupational: You probably spend eight to 10 of your waking hours in a workplace that you hope will be fulfilling, where you are setting and meeting goals, and where you feel a sense of achievement. To get to this state, you want to stay on top of your occupational wellness. Do you do work that you enjoy, and is it satisfying? Do you like both your work and your job, or only one? Does what you do match what you want from life, and how you see yourself? Note that this is not necessarily about financial gain; this is about fulfillment in your job and your profession.
6. Psychological: Your psychological wellness may be heavily dependent on other areas of your life. Problems elsewhere—in your relationships, or your career—will take a toll on your psychology. That's why you need to be able to assess where you stand emotionally, and have strategies for improving your feelings. What would you need to change in your life to feel better about yourself? Are there habits of mind that are keeping you back in life? Is there a form of therapy that you want to think about taking on to work on your psychological wellness, whether traditional psychotherapy, or hypnosis or other more alternative methods?
Even a cursory glance at this list will leave you wondering where to put the various elements of your life. After all, your friendships are part of your social wellness, but if they are work friends they may be part of your occupational situation, and will, sooner or later, cross into your psychological wellness. Most of the elements of your life will not fall sharply into one single category. That's OK—instead of thinking of these as hard-and-fast categories, you want to assess how the elements of your life are interconnected, and how changes in one area bring changes elsewhere. Your goal isn't to separate the pieces of your life into categories, but to try to restore balance when something in your life brings one category out of kilter with the others.
Only you know your own life—and so it's up to you to develop a thorough portrait of what things in your life impact which areas of your wellness. That's why, for this series of pieces, I'm not going to try to tell you how to fix each of the six wellness categories. Rather, I'm going to point you toward some elements that may occur in various areas of your life at different ages that might pull you off a track of wellness, and try to offer some resources to restore the balance.
Tips for Twenty Somethings
So, your twenties. Here's a general breakdown on a lot of guys in their twenties. You are probably in an entry level career, with limited funds. And your social life is changing rapidly—for the first time, you're on your own, learning to define your own boundaries and finding your limits. It's a great learning time for you, but also a potentially dangerous one. From a physical point of view, even if you're not totally fit, odds are you haven't yet done so much damage to your body that you can't come back from it. So, here are three important things you can do to keep the good, given where you are, and avoid some trouble down the road.
1. Get Fit Now
Your twenties are the time to lay a fitness foundation you can use for the rest of your life. But, you don't have much money. Here are two ways to do fitness on the cheap:
- Jump rope your way to a heart-healthy lifestyle: A jump rope is a cheap piece of equipment that you can use anywhere—and a jump rope routine is at your fingertips here on RealJock. Go check out my jump rope workout, and feel free to start slow if you're new to it. Just try the first half of the video until you feel strong enough to do the entire thing. You should think of doing this kind of intense cardio, whether jump rope or something else, five to seven times per week.
- Use your body-weight for fast circuits: If you want some muscle-building on a budget, try circuits that use either body weight or very simple and inexpensive equipment (an exercise tube is an incredibly cheap and versatile tool). There are two awesome workouts of this kind on RealJock, for instance: Mike Clausen's Outdoor Circuit Workout, and James Parker's Fighter Training Workout. Either one will get you in great shape even if you can't buy a gym membership.
- Join up: Your local community center may have recreation leagues that you can join. You are still young enough to take the speed and knocks of sports—so why not play a little? Plus, you'll make some friends, part of maintaining social and psychological health as well.
In your twenties you hopefully won't have a lot of health issues to worry about. But you should continue to see your general practitioner at least once a year for an overall health check. Most important, you need to watch out for one thing in particular: testicular cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, 7,500 to 8,000 young men in the U.S. are diagnosed each year with testicular cancer. But here's the good news: If the cancer is caught early, it has over a 90 percent survival rate. So it's worth grabbing your boys on a regular basis for a cancer check:
- When to check: You want to check your testicles when they're warm and fully dropped. So, after a shower, hot tub, or sauna. Don't even try when you have an erection or are cold.
- How to check: Take hold of each testicle with your fingers and feel around it. It should feel smooth to the touch. There may be some ridges or bumps, and if so, you should get these checked, particularly if they are hard. The vas deferens runs across the testes, but it is usually soft. So, you should be particularly on the lookout for hard spots. Other symptoms include abnormal sensitivity, abdominal pain, or blood in the semen. If you have any of these, you should see a doctor.
- Study up: For further instruction and information, check out the CheckMeLads web site.
Gay guys in their twenties today have the very good fortune not to remember the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and early 1990s. That, along with "message fatigue"—just getting sick of being badgered about safer sex and condoms—no doubt explains why there is a spike in infection rates among gay men in their twenties. There's also the fact that many guys in their twenties are just coming out, and getting into first relationships. It's hard to say no to things that seem pleasurable and fun.
Recreational drugs sure are that—recreational—but it's a lot harder to say "put on a condom" if you are experimenting with drugs at the same time that you experiment with sex. Meth in particular is associated with increased rates of HIV infection. As you can see, these lifestyle choices cross various areas of wellness—but that's the point. The meth you take while you get up the nerve to sleep with a new guy will have an impact on your physical, social, psychological, and potentially even occupational wellness. Your choices about meth and HIV risk are part of the social task of educating yourself about what it means to be part of the gay community, and learning to manage your social relationships in the interest of your long-term physical health. You want to think all of this through before you take what seems like a fairly simple risk.
There are a number of online resources that can help gay men find out more about drug use and HIV. The fact is, while some gay men now think AIDS is not a terrible disease, those gay men are decidedly wrong. Part of your wellness program as a sexually active gay men needs to include thinking about that even as you are making new friends and lovers. For more on meth and HIV, go to Tweaker.org or the Speed Project.
About Devin Wicks: Devin Wicks (ACSM-HFI, USAW Club Coach) is creator of the RealJock Strength Foundation 12-Week Workout program and the fitness operations director at the University of California, Berkeley, where he is coordinating a pioneering new campus employee wellness program.