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Man Up: The Influence of Physical Activity and Competitiveness on Men’s Mental Well-being

Author: Ed Draper

Men’s Health Week 2020 is upon us and amidst a global pandemic it is sobering to consider that suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45 in the UK*. Here, Sky Sports presenter, broadcaster and lifestyle writer Ed Draper shares his views on the influence of physical activity and competitiveness has on men’s spirituality and well-being, and how understanding ourselves can help better manage it.

Globally, in 2016 the World Health Organisation stated there were an estimated 793,000 suicides which, as Helen Schumacher wrote for the BBC last year revealed that ‘most of them were men.’

Clearly, that’s part of the catalyst for many of the men’s mental health movements now running globally with CALM and the Whole Man Academy to name just two, which are accompanied with a vital avalanche of messages about how men should talk more.

There is cogent and convincing research to support the notion that men tend to be driven to contemplating suicide with more frequency than women because they are more likely to bottle problems up*. Incidentally, a quirk in the stats seem to be that women are more likely to attempt suicide than men, but far less likely to complete it – another nod to the complex and nuanced area of mental health and gender.

But in the spirit of the preemptive health and wellness – an emphasis that attracted me to hosting events at the Cheltenham Wellbeing Festival last year – what about if we try and aim at a situation where we don’t have to get to the last-ditch talking stage? Or, at least, we don’t get there as often with so many men?

With that in mind, what therefore does a pre-emptive lifestyle to safeguard men’s mental health look like? Is it talking more openly when initial problems arise? Quite possibly. But listening to comedian and spiritualist muse, Russell Brand reflect on podcaster Joe Rogan getting a $100 million deal from Spotify caught my attention. I wondered if sitting around talking about stuff partially misses the point?

Maybe it’s about movement. Maybe masculinity and being a man is actualizing mental health and spiritual wellbeing through the body?

Now, clearly this isn’t a binary topic – the effect of exercise in treating depression in men AND women is compelling. But some of Brand’s observations, specifically in regard to men, resonated with me. See what you think:

“A lot of what he’s (Joe Rogan) doing is men’s wellness and men’s spirituality. “

With his interest in the UFC, hunting, wellness and supplements he fulfills a neglected aspect of men’s health.

“Men’s health is usually, not necessarily, but usually about physical stuff. Being fit, doing weights, cycling, hunting. But because he’s into psychedelics, and consciousness, you could argue, he’s promoting the spiritual aspects of wellness,” Brand said on his Facebook page.

What do you reckon? As a man who’s been obsessed with sport and exercise, both personally and professionally, the observation resonated with me. Like Joe Rogan, I work as a broadcaster covering combat sports – in my case, mainly boxing. Unlike Rogan, I’m not a practitioner. But like him I hold clearly in my mind a conflict over the brutal futility of men and women hurting each other, but also a never-ending respect and reverence for their courage, skill and sacrifice.

My personal physical hubs of mental health have been swimming, football, tennis and weights. And I feel Rogan’s reveling in that physical aspect of wellness, is a big draw to his show for me – I first listened to it two years ago when he had boxer Deontay Wilder on. He articulates repeatedly the physical and mental health benefits of exercise. The clarity of mind and relaxation that comes from working out is a common topic.

A game changer for me too was his championing of sleep. Sleep guru Matthew Walker’s appearance on the show has been dm’d to me so many times, I’ve lost count. Realising I was chronically sleep deprived and have been for 15 years was a revelation in understanding my own mental health. Again, get the body right and the mind will follow. I rarely feel anxious or depressed (outside of huge life events) when I’m well slept, which can be a challenge to achieve, as we all know.

Hunting is presented as a largely spiritual adventure on the Joe Rogan Experience – where humans create a connection and respect for their food and nature. It’s a connection that most of us have largely lost due to the mass industrial agricultural system. Rather than depict hunting as something that’s cruel he perhaps creates a more accurate impression that it’s a more honest reality of being a carnivore or omnivore– as opposed to buying meat wrapped in plastic sheaths at the super market.

Rogan advocates organic food and supplements, (particularly vitamin d). He doesn’t preach on his own, but educates through a network of experts who queue up to appear on the show. Again it’s a proactive, hands-on, ‘in-control’ approach to health that may appeal to men compared to the passive approach of waiting until things get too much and then open up to someone.

Physically, he represents an acceptable vessel for men to consider their health, be open about their vulnerability, become proactive AND contemplate the big questions of existence. A muscled, shaven-headed man, who takes psychedelics and considers the meaning of life with philosophers, scientists, fighters, doctors, authors and more.

He has plenty of women on the show and is not sexist or misogynist. Rather he presents a way in which men can live up to traditional masculine ideals – strong fit, protectors – and be empathetic and sensitive to all, including women. There’s no tribalism, but an unabashed honesty about the importance of being himself, of being a man.

Rogan’s a father and clearly besotted with his daughters. But he’s candid about being under equipped to always deal with the emotional complexity of living with females. I can appreciate that as a husband and father of a five year-old daughter I can also empathise with his sense daughters seem like more developed humans than their fathers from an early age, from instinctive emotional empathy to basic hygiene (hand washing)!

Rogan is also a comedian and the show is often humorous. And I wonder if that social camaraderie is a big draw for men and possibly what’s missing in modern life for a lot of us who are past our youth. Outside of the elite ruling class (who had a pretty sweet deal), men have gone from cannon fodder to co-carers in two generations and often you wonder, with work commitments showing no signs of decreasing, where is the time for socialising?

Opinion from Psychology Today points to research suggesting men are more likely to experience isolation and loneliness than women because of relatively poor skills at community building.

Again, I appreciate women will be reading this with little sympathy. They manage to work, care (and still are most often the PRIME carer of children in my experience) and socialize with their friends. Perhaps because they have a talent for nuance – new mothers shift to coffees with friends as opposed to drunken nights out whereas ‘a coffee with a mate’ often sounds very dull to a man. And so when fatherhood and work pressures curtail the boozy night out, men’s socializing falls off a cliff – or at least mine did for a time until myself and my friends realized things had changed and Jaeger bombs weren’t a good idea if you were likely to be up at 5am with a baby.

Circling, back to the top. The Joe Rogan Experience at its core emphasizes proactive physicality as a route to mental health, but also offers conversation and company. It presents a template for attempting to be a non-traditional male who listens and understands his own and others’ emotions, but also one who can be strong and tough. I suppose, The Rock, would be another example of this trend in masculinity, which may be less toxic but no ‘weaker’ than previous incarnations.

It also underpins a thread I’ve found with my friends – ‘talking with someone’ doesn’t have to be serious. It can be being ridiculous and taking the p*** out of old friends and having it taken straight back.

Clearly, with billions of downloads it’s not just men listening to Rogan and maybe it provides an insight into a male perspective and psyche that many women haven’t had– because the men in their life are typically unwilling or incapable of articulating these issues.

As Russell Brand puts it, Rogan “addresses a long-neglected aspect of masculinity.”

Let’s hope men can start addressing things. Maybe those terrible suicide numbers will go down. Maybe it starts with movement? A walk around the block or a set of press-ups even, with a pal (safely distanced)?

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