Governor Bob McDonnell and First Lady Maureen McDonnell discuss men's health, her cancer scare and teaching their children the importance of living a balanced life.
OH: Men tend to lead less healthy lifestyles than women. They are more apt to smoke and drink and more likely to be overweight. Consequently, the average life expectancy for males in the United States is five years less than for females. In your opinion, how do you feel we can address the men’s health problem
You are correct that, according to the CDC life expectancy for men both nationally and in Virginia is almost five years less than that for women. Of course, there are many reasons for that since, throughout the world, males generally have a higher mortality rate than females at every age – including the first year of life. You mentioned smoking and obesity, which are two of the lifestyle issues that are closely connected to chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, emphysema, diabetes, and many more.
I think that we have to begin addressing men’s health early by addressing the health of infants, children, and adolescents. We need to help parents and communities by promoting healthy communities that provide increased opportunities for healthy food choices and physical activity while striving to prevent the initiation of tobacco use or underage and binge drinking. In addition, health problems can be addressed by developing and reinforcing programs in a variety of settings, including faith based organizations, worksites, as well as traditional health care systems. Health care providers can also help by screening for risk factors such as obesity, limited physical activity, or excessive alcohol use and promoting behavior change.
OH: What advice would you give to men that may them help jump start their healthier lifestyle?
I think that the common sense advice to eat a healthy diet, get enough exercise, and eliminate tobacco use and binge drinking remain the most effective means of obtaining and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. These things are both simple though, for many people, incredibly difficult. However, a man that is striving for a healthier way of life can start with small steps – eat more fruits and vegetables and less red meat as well as fewer sugary drinks. Go for a walk or take time to participate in a sport that he enjoys. For men that smoke, call the Virginia Tobacco Quitline at 1-800 QUIT NOW (1-800-784-8669) for counseling, information, and self-help materials, and limit alcohol to no more than two drinks per day. Some men may use food, tobacco, or alcohol in a belief that it helps reduce stress while, in fact, a poor diet, tobacco and binge drinking will increase the physical stress in the body.
In addition, it is important for men to see their physician for regular check-ups and to follow their physician’s instructions. Men should know their health numbers; blood glucose, blood pressure, cholesterol, and weight. For the man that has already developed a chronic disease, he really needs to consult with his healthcare professional to ensure proper medical care and for assistance with lifestyle changes.
OH: Women tend to be the person in the family who orchestrates the “family health calendar” to ensure both the children and adults maintain regular visits to the doctor and stay up to date on immunizations and screenings. While it is terrific to have someone help support you and guide you toward a healthy lifestyle, should it really be the responsibility of a spouse or partner to make sure an adult man is keeping up with medical appointments and screenings and other health-related needs?
Good health begins with each of us. I do all that I can despite all of the travel and meals away from home required of my job, to eat well, exercise when I can. We are all responsible for our own health, as no one can be with us every day to remind us of healthy choices. I’ve been fortunate that my wife has always been an advocate for preventive healthcare and wellness efforts in our home. She’s made the issue one of her key focus areas as First Lady as well. Several times a year she welcomes underserved children from the community to the Executive Mansion to help plant and tend herbs and vegetables. After planting in the garden, the kids have the opportunity to cook their harvest in the kitchen and further discuss maintaining a healthy lifestyle through proper nutrition and exercise. We hope to demonstrate to these kids that eating healthy can start at home and in their own neighborhoods.
OH: Healthy living should begin at an early age. The problem most young men think they are invincible, especially through their 20s and 30s. How have you and the First Lady encouraged your children to live a healthy lifestyle early on in life?
We’ve always encouraged our children to be active in sports, including swimming, cross-country, cheerleading, soccer and more. In addition, we’ve raised them to make good decisions when it comes to snacking – reaching for an apple for example, rather than a bag of chips. Maureen and I believe if you develop good habits when you are young, it’s significantly easier to continue them for your entire life.
OH: Have you ever had that “gut check” scare; a time when you thought you might be facing a serious health condition which made you take a different direction in the way you take care of yourself?
When my wife was 17, she discovered she had a breast tumor, the same year her aunt underwent a complete masectomy. Going into surgery, she had to sign a consent form allowing the doctors to proceed with a complete mastectomy if the on-the-spot biopsy proved malignant. Fortunately, the tumor was benign, but the doctors informed her she was pre-disposed to breast cancer. That event has helped frame our outlook on health, nutrition and exercise—pushing Maureen and I to do all that we can proactively to lead healthy lives. Prevention is often the most important and reliable disease-fighting tool that exists today.
OH: As the Governor for the Commonwealth of Virginia, your schedule clear stays full. How you find time to eat well, exercise, maintain regular visits to the doctor, stay emotionally balanced, etc.?
It all comes down to everyday living and the healthy choices we make in our daily diets, exercise programs, annual check-ups, and other tests that are so important. I admit it’s not easy—I have an extremely busy schedule—I don’t go on runs as often as I’d like, but maintaining a commitment to living a balanced life is vitally important.
OH: When it comes to diet and exercise, what’s your favorite healthy meal and what type of exercise do you like to do that helps your physically and mentally?
There are few things I find more enjoyable than throwing the football or playing a round of golf with my two sons. Combining family time with physical activities is a great way to build memories with loved ones and stay in shape at the same time. When time allows I greatly enjoy a run around Virginia’s beautiful Capitol Square, which features the capitol building designed by Thomas Jefferson. But a treadmill gets the job done as well.
When looking for a good, healthy meal thankfully you don’t have to look far. We are blessed to live in a state with so many incredible agriculture producers who provide an abundance of fresh products for Virginians, from Virginia apples to fresh seafood. We try to take advantage of the many healthy food options we have available right here in the Commonwealth.
OH: In thinking about your positive health habits, what message do you hope will most resonate with your children as they grow older?
I believe that we have to do all that we can to help our children learn to take responsibility for their own health. I hope that the principles we’ve instilled in our five children will be carried on to the next generation now that they are grown and starting adult lives of their own.