Every month, my Men’s Health magazine arrives in the mailbox. It’s my mental reminder that there are things I can (and should!) be doing to maintain my health. Things like eating better, getting more exercise, reducing stress, and having more sex. I don’t usually do the workout they spotlight every month, but sometimes there’s a recipe I might want to try out, and there’s always some kind of fashion pointers in there as well. Anybody who knows me knows I’m no fashionista, but I’ll take pointers now and then on how not to look like an old fogey prematurely. But mostly I keep re-upping my subscription because of that regular reminder to pay attention to my life. The issues may pile up in my bathroom, but just reading a short piece here and there helps keeps me on track.
The articles tend to focus on things like skin care and grooming, intense workouts, and telling life stories about famous people. But they get me thinking about other areas in my life that may need adjustments to stay healthy.
I was thinking about emotional health, mental health, financial health, and spiritual health.
What do I need to do, as a gay man who’s crossed the 40-year mark (quite a while ago), to maintain an overall healthy life?
Physical health—this is where we all seem to start, where our focus is as we cross over to the other side of mid-life. And we all pretty much know what we should be doing here. Cutting down on red meats (to save the planet as well as our health), reducing saturated fats, eating more fruits and vegetables to get more fiber, and cutting out the sugars. This last thing, sugars, I’m discovering has a greater impact on my overall metabolic health (cholesterol, A1c levels, etc) than anything else. So over the past couple of years, I’ve been phasing out beef (I haven’t cut it out entirely—I need a good burger once in a while), and eating more chicken and fish. I’m more conscientious about having fresh fruit in the kitchen, and eating more fresh and frozen vegetables. And salads? Yeah. Especially in the warmer months, I love a good salad for dinner. Desserts are still a big temptation (I’m a pastry fanatic), but I find if I don’t keep them in the house and don’t add them to my shopping cart, I’m more likely to pick up that apple or pear from the fruit bowl on the kitchen counter.
And I read labels a lot. So I’ve swapped out regular pasta for the whole-grain stuff, buy cereals that contain less than 10g of sugar and more than 5g of fiber. I use whole-wheat flour when I make pancakes or waffles on the weekends. I’ll even mix in some protein powder and extra fiber to quiet my guilt over the carbs. I switched spaghetti sauces because my old Ragu had WAY too much sugar in it. I’ve started using 1% milk (still can’t stand skim, tho) and 2% yogurt instead of sour cream to cut back on the saturated fats. And carbonated drinks have vanished entirely from my house. (Okay, I still keep some tonic water under the counter for the occasional gin or vodka tonic in the summer.)
And a gym membership, that thing that until recently I always associated with either serious muscle-heads or younger guys trying to stay primed to help their hookup life. These days, there’s a gym almost on every corner (alongside the Starbucks) in most major cities, and some of them are very reasonably priced. (When a new Planet Fitness opened up a block from my house with a $10 monthly fee, well, I’d run out of excuses.) And there are as many older guys there as there are younger. (It’s not the place to cruise, if that’s what you’re thinking. Most of the guys have ear buds in, jamming out to favorite tunes in their own private bubbles while working up a sweat.)
A couple times a week on the weight machines there protects against the inevitable loss of muscle mass that comes with crossing the 40 (or 50) year line, then jumping on the treadmill or elliptical for 20-30 minutes to crank the heart rate up a bit—all help keep the weight under control, my blood pressure down, and my body at least somewhat toned.
I’m not likely to ever become a guy completely comfortable walking around shirtless in public, but with those modifications to my diet and exercise, I feel like I’m doing my part to stay physically healthy.
Emotional and mental health
But life isn’t just about having a tight body and low blood sugar and lipid levels. Stability and maturity are important too. Who are you? What kind of man or woman are you? I see memes posted on Facebook almost daily by guys who don’t want to “adult” today, or who “never want to grow up.” And it makes me sad. If you’ve spent any time circulating in the gay community, you’ve run across more than a fair share of 50-year-old 12-year-olds, guys old enough to be parents and grandparents acting like immature juveniles. They can be self-absorbed, short-tempered, often loud and misbehaved. Perhaps because they didn’t have to be responsible for taking care of a spouse and children, they’ve never developed the mental maturity of a decent adult. Or maybe they came out late in life and are going through that painfully awkward “late-life adolescence.”
I get it. Some of us who came out later in life have to go through the same stages of psycho-sexual development as everyone else, but instead of tackling them in our teens, we experience them (often for the first time) as older adults. It’s not always a pretty sight. And hopefully we have enough sense to process it all in the privacy of a few close friends and not at the job or on social media.
Emotional health and maturity play an even bigger role in having a healthy, happy life as you get older. Especially when you enter that serious relationship you’ve been craving your entire life. Nothing brings out the immaturities like the demands of living with another human being. Having a significant other is hard work. You’ll have to make space for him—and that means giving up some of your space. You’ll have to learn to communicate, to express your needs and desires without being selfish. You’ll need to listen, to learn to accommodate your boyfriend’s emotional needs. To deal with money in a mutually responsible way. You’ll have to share, give up, stretch, tolerate, learn to pick your battles, learn to let go of insignificant annoyances and petty grievances. Intimacy is more than just getting naked in bed. It’s about combining two separate lives in the same space without wanting to kill each other or yourself.
It might be a long-term process. Good relationships don’t happen overnight. But the sooner you start dealing with your issues, with making space in your life for someone else, the easier it will be. And if you choose to remain single, you’ll be happier, more at peace—and get on your friends’ nerves less.
And hey, pick up a book now and then. Or read a magazine article. Even a blog. Something to stretch your brain a bit—so I’m talking about something other than Entertainment Weekly. You need mental stimulation, something that makes you stop and think, even debate with. (Umm, maybe avoid the political stuff too, if you want to maintain your mental health.) Read something on health and wellness, spirituality, or how something works. Read about travel or life in other parts of the world. Or, just pick up a best-seller, and spend some time in another character’s reality. At our age, it’s easy to become narrowly focused, so we need things to help us stay engaged with the world and introduce us to new ideas and experiences. So make reading a deliberate part of your lifestyle. Intelligence—it looks good on you!
What about money? Financial health. I’ve heard it said that the three biggest factors in a relationship are communication, sex, and money. For most guys, sex isn’t the main hurdle. Communication and money are. Especially as an older guy, you need to prioritize getting your financial house in order. That means, living within your means, paying down—and keeping down—your credit card debt. Not buying every toy you want or indulging in everything you run across online. It means not buying or financing a car that bites into your paycheck too severely, or having a home whose mortgage or rent is more than 20-25% of your salary. It means putting aside some money out of every paycheck into savings or a retirement account (hopefully both).
And we all know we should have a “cash safety net” in the bank for emergencies, like for unexpected car or home repairs, or to cover 3-6 months of living expenses in case you lose your job. You should be putting aside a little money to save up for that romantic vacation you want to take your honey on. Or to buy that wedding ring one day. (Guys are lucky in this department. A $200 tungsten band is often preferable to a big diamond ring.)
And hey, let’s not forget giving. You may not be a religious tither, but giving—sharing your resources with those who need it—is a component of a healthy financial (and spiritual) life. Whether it’s to your church, a local LGBTQ community center, a homeless youth program, or feeding children on the other side of the world, part of being a healthy and mature adult means looking out for your neighbor.
So what do you do if your credit score is a mess and you’re up to your ears in debt? Baby steps.
Financial advisers often suggest getting a second job, but for most of us, that’s not realistic. It can begin with just making minor adjustments, little tweaks here and there. Like, not having the “premier” internet package. Maybe cutting down your cable package (or altogether), and using Netflix, Hulu, Sling or some other app instead. Eating out a little less. Cutting down how much you drink at the clubs, or making your own coffee and skipping the drive-through morning latte. Take a look at your cell phone plan. Or, more painfully, look at your car payment. Do you really need a car that costs that much? Then taking that little bit of extra money you gained by trimming here and there and paying extra on your debt. Take a look at your credit card statement. In America, they’ve all got a section on payment information, and how long it will take to pay off if you make only the minimum payment. Look at what your payment would be to pay off the balance in 3 years. If you’re not already paying that much, make that your monthly goal.
And if you’re in a relationship, talk to your boyfriend or spouse about ways you can work together to reduce spending. Make it a mutual effort. Talk about your plans for the future and how you can get there by getting better control over expenses.
I’m not saying you can’t have a comfortable life or that you shouldn’t enjoy yourself. A quality of life is important to being a mature adult. But if want to have more peace now, if you want to reduce the stress on your relationship, or if you want greater security in the future (it would be nice to retire someday, wouldn’t it?), putting a basic plan into place to get your financial situation in order will go a long way to accomplishing that.
So, that’s physical, emotional, and financial areas of life. What about spiritual?
I have a growing number of acquaintances who have migrated towards atheism. Or their spirituality is changing, taking on new forms and meaning. A number of friends are going deeper into their faiths, while others are exploring and adopting spiritual practices from other religions, taking a more global, unified approach to finding meaning and richness in spirituality. Though the approaches are different, they all tend to reflect a general discontent with maintaining a spiritual status quo. They (we!) want to grow. We want the liberty to challenge the boundaries we grew up with, to ask ultimate questions, to delve deeper. After spending years of our lives focused on building a career, finding a partner, getting established in life, many of us are now seeking “the more” to life beyond the material. (This magazine is dedicated to that life-long journey of LGBTQ spirituality and faith.)
I won’t try to sell you on any particular approach. You have to find what feeds your own soul. But I encourage you to spend some time doing it. Become deliberate about it. Make it an intentional practice. Whether it’s doing 20 minutes of meditation in the morning, or spending your quiet time with an open Bible and prayer. Or you embrace the spiritual component of community and social activism—the “we’re all in this together, really!” approach. Whether it’s a rededication to reducing your carbon footprint and living more eco-responsibly, to save the earth as an act of stewardship or in unity with all creation. Explore the non-material aspects of life.
And then share some of your insights with younger gay and queer friends. Our younger LGBTQ brothers and sisters are occupied finding and defining a space for themselves in society, and often are still struggling with the bigger picture. They too want a richer life that involves more than just paying the bills and getting laid. Life can be overwhelming at times and many younger people are looking for connection with wiser, more mature friends. And who knows what becoming a mentor to someone will do to your own sense of well-being?
Just do it—for yourself
Life is a rich, complicated, even confusing, multi-dimensional blend of components. Work, play, love, money, friendships, spirit. There’s still so much for us to do, to learn, to grow, to stay healthy. And to contribute to others around us. Especially after 40.
Make some time for yourself today. Take a quick mental inventory of your life and see if there are areas you’d like to build on or improve. You’ve come a long way, but don’t settle for where you’re at or be content with how far you’ve come. The journey of life continues, and you’re not done yet.
Post originally written July 1, 2017