Thursday 18 January 2018

Whatever exercise you do, it's best to do it in company

Jody Corcoran contemplates his mortality after undergoing a recent full-body health check

Jody Corcoran working out last week at West Wood gym in Clontarf. Photo: David Conachy
Jody Corcoran working out last week at West Wood gym in Clontarf. Photo: David Conachy

An official report on the state of the nation's health recently led me to conclude that the first thing that those who read it would want to do was have a health check-up.

Here's why: up to 250,000 people in Ireland have diagnosed heart disease and up to 440,000 suffer from obstructive lung disease; approximately 30,000 new cancer cases are diagnosed here every year, with a further 90,000 people living with cancer. In addition, studies have estimated that 9pc of the population over 45 has diabetes. I'm 48.

Looking to the future, the report's findings were equally grim: it is estimated that the prevalence of major chronic diseases here will increase by 20pc by 2020. The number of people with cancer, heart disease, diabetes and respiratory disease is projected to increase by 4-5pc a year.

And it gets worse: cancer estimates are projected to increase by a shocking 70pc for women and 83pc for men between 2015 and 2040.

When I reported this in the Sunday Independent, quick as a flash the Beacon Hospital in Dublin was on to offer HealthCheck, its consultant-delivered health screening programme.

I felt it would be tempting fate to turn down such a generous free offer, which usually comes at a cost of around €700. The cost, of course, is relative - as it happened, that week I had my car serviced, and re-serviced, for its NCT which eventually set me back over €1,000.

According to the report prepared for Health Minister Simon Harris, approximately 38pc of Irish people over 50 have one chronic disease and 11pc have more than one.

Technically, I do not quite fit into this cohort and, insofar as I am aware, do not have an undiagnosed chronic disease or illness. But I have lived a full life.

According to the report, lifestyle factors including tobacco and alcohol usage, with physical inactivity, poor diet and obesity, are key risk factors for chronic disease, along with high blood pressure and cholesterol.

I drink, smoke and lie on the couch with the best of them.

Now, I have had health checks before, as do many men my age, which usually involved analysis of a blood sample.

In the past my GP has variously recommended that I change my diet, eat less of this or more of that, drink less and, of course, quit smoking.

This I always do, at least for a while, and such has been my concern at findings in the past, I have taken out gym membership on at least three occasions.

This all goes well for a few months until I become, well, tired of the extreme lifestyle and bored of pushing weights or whatever.

That was until almost a year ago, when my mate Ted and I, over a pint and in the smoking area, contemplated that we were not getting any younger. As you do.

So we joined the gym. Again. This time, however, the intention was that we would not live the life of an enclosed monk, but would discuss our progress over either a Saturday night pint or Sunday morning fry-up.

That is, everything in moderation, including moderation itself.

Since last October we have both been going to the gym, sometimes once, mostly twice, occasionally three times a week - although this summer we have let it slide a little, what with holidays and everything. A recent knee injury didn't help either.

From this week, though, we are back at it again - enthusiastically it must be said - but in due course, no doubt, one or other of us will be more enthusiastic depending on our respective moods.

But that is the point: the gym has become more than bearable and is fun, now that I have my gym-buddy Ted to keep me company.

If I was to offer advice to men our age, I would say the key to us sustaining physical activity is collegiality, as many of the cycling enthusiasts up and down the country would acknowledge.

At our age, physical activity feels great. For Ted and me, the gym works; for others it may be cycling, or a vigorous round of golf, or a purposeful jog or bracing walk. Whatever you do, it's best to do it in company.

I recount these events to explain the results of my HealthCheck, which were thankfully good, far better than ever before. This I put down to the gym.

The results were so good, in fact, that there is no need to ease up on those weekend pints and Sunday fry-ups.

That does not mean I was not anxious when I arrived at the Beacon Hospital. I was. Who knew what they would find. But the HealthCheck team is nothing if not professional. It was all over in a few hours after measuring height, weight and body mass index, blood pressure, urinalysis, stool test for blood, chest X-ray, glaucoma test, resting ECG, full blood bio-chemistry for liver function tests, renal and bone profile, lipid profile, diabetes test, lung function, full blood count, prostate test, thyroid function tests, hearing test and a physical examination as well as lifestyle assessment, including diet and advice.

Within three hours I was sitting in front of Dr Niamh Carroll, a consultant in general medicine.

We discussed two issues: my smoking and cholesterol. In short, if I quit smoking my risk of heart disease over the next 10 years would drop to 5pc from 15pc. So that is the next challenge. The cholesterol is fine but my bad cholesterol is a little high. More cardio in the gym then, and fewer weights.

I put the generally positive results down to my recent active lifestyle, which I would recommend to all middle-aged men.

That report for Simon Harris also reveals that within the acute hospital sector, 55pc (€1.68bn) of the budget is attributable to care of patients with chronic conditions. Eighty-six per cent of deaths and 77pc of disease burden are caused by chronic disease.

The report also repeatedly emphasises that the Department of Health's aim is to enhance health and well-being, not just to provide services, adding: "Prevention is therefore a vital part of any strategy.

"The benefits of physical activity are extensive. Not only does physical activity prevent disease, it also promotes wellbeing."

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