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Men's Health League: Transforming Men's Health One Man at a Time

By Fia Curley

Long work hours, lengthy commute, family demands…and another day went by without exercising.

Sadly, this becomes a very unhealthy pattern very quickly.

About 26 percent of adults engaged in vigorous physical activity for about an hour a week in 2000, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2007, 31 percent of Americans reported having some type of leisure physical activity regularly.

These low numbers result in the high rates of obesity and chronic disease, but that hasn't deterred the Men's Health League Exit Disclaimer in Cambridge, Mass

Staffed completely by men, the organization works in the community, offering physical activity, education and peer support programming Exit Disclaimer specifically geared toward men of color.

It was a Men's Health League poster touting these features that first grabbed George Dixon's attention.

Dixon's long career in the health care industry was doing fine, but the same couldn't be said for his health. He was vigilant about his annual doctor visits. However, it was the lack of physical activity that was leading to problems.

In his late thirties he was at risk for heart disease.

While growing up, he had been active and involved in school athletics. But as he got older, the demands of adulthood took over.

After nearly a decade of spending thousands on wasted memberships, Dixon said he needed an "intervention."

"There comes a certain point when you've got to take drastic action to change whatever behavior you need [to change]and you need some external folks to help you do that," Dixon said, "and that's why I refer to it as an intervention. I needed a structured program that would help me to kind of jumpstart to change my life."

Dixon enrolled in the Men's Health League Fit for Life program, a 12-week commitment that pairs a man at high risk for heart disease, stroke or diabetes with a mentor as they hit the gym three times a week and participate in workshops about nutrition and physical activity.

"This was a jumpstart [for] me physically in terms of working out," Dixon said. "It was a jumpstart [for] me medically in terms of seeking out attention. And it was a jumpstart [for] me spiritually, which doesn't get addressed in the program but has been a side benefit."

Though Fit for Life only lasts 12 weeks and takes in 10 to 13 men per cycle, the men are encouraged to become engaged in different programs the League offers.

Whether it's the Men's Health Team, whose participants serve as mentors for Fit for Life participants or the Fitness Brothers, which puts 50 men onto teams to compete for prizes by logging hours in the gym, Dixon said he appreciates the diversity of programming.

In addition, the League organizes spring and summer bike rides, shopping tours to practice label reading skills, an annual Men's Health Breakfast and the Navigated Care program in order to ensure that men are receiving primary care and have health insurance. Regardless of the program, the League aims to incorporate participants into community health events.

"Research has shown that one of the best ways to support men is to meet them where they are," said Albert Pless, the League's project manager. "It's hard to reach men in general. Men are not going to come running down the street to discuss men's health, but at the same time if you design something in a certain way, men will come."

It's the element of brotherhood that distinguishes the League, Pless says.

"What I think is unique about the program is the peer support-men mentoring other men around nutrition and physical activity and helping them get primary care and understand the importance of primary care," Pless said. "From our research, men really do well when they have social support, someone that can remind them to take better care of themselves. I think that's what we're trying to build here, a sense of brotherhood in which men feel they can trust one another."

Pless admits that "getting healthy is sometimes not the most exciting thing, so we try to make our activities exciting and fun," and educational.

"We find that a lot of men are not aware of some of the basic things they can do to take care of their health," he said, noting "there's not a lot of information out there that men can access."

"A lot of men play sports, a lot of men are doing things, but are they prioritizing their health?," he countered. "Are they really understanding what it means to be physically fit for the long haul? That's why the health education component is so crucial to each aspect of our program."

Amid the support, brotherly competition and educational aspects, Pless sees the challenges facing men's health. But he also sees the daily changes men are making.

"Men, in particular men of color, do not have health as a high priority," Pless said. "It's a huge issue in Cambridge as well as the rest of the country. The men in our program have definitely become more proactive about their health, which we're proud of. They've made a step and want to change."

To hear Pless tell it, getting a man to the gym is great, but helping him truly transform his health status and life is better.

And although men's health in general may not rank high on society's priority list, that hasn't stopped the Men's Health League from creating ways to change that norm one man at a time.

Fia Curley is a writer for the OMHRC. Comments? E-mail: fcurley@minorityhealth.hhs.gov

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Content Last Modified: 8/30/2011 12:13:00 PM
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