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The days of freely eating whatever a man wants will likely come to an end in his 20s, 30s or 40s with an aha moment. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

As you read this, a 20-something man of average height and weight has just stepped inside his favorite pancake house in a cookie-cutter town in the American Midwest.

It is not his first visit here, nor will it be his last.

With great cheer he orders a triple stack of blueberry pancakes, side of bacon, three eggs over easy, vanilla milkshake, coffee with cream, and side of buttered toast—because what good are drippy eggs without dippy toast?

Extra syrup for the pancakes? Yes, please. And more butter, too.

For the next 45 or so minutes, this young man’s soul will marinate in the utterly scrumptious pleasure of this high-sugar, high-carb, high-consequence meal.

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Six steps to get healthy (again):

  1. Get a checkup — “For a guy, the most likely long-term health problem he’s going to have is a heart problem, by far,” Dr. Holman said. The best first step to improving your health starts with a visit to the doctor, where you can get a full assessment of your health status and flesh out any underlying conditions. The U.S. National Library of Medicine publishes guidelines and recommendations on physical exams.
  2. Exercise regularly — Your doctor can point you to resources and programs that best suit your current condition. Exercise is a no-brainer to improve your health, and you don’t have to go gangbusters to see results. In fact, you should exercise with caution when you’re first starting out. “If you’re having muscle aches, talk to your doctor to see if it’s more than usual,” Dr. Holman advised.
  3. Eat right — A consistently healthy diet is a surefire way to immediately improve your health. Still, diet is much like exercise—be mindful about your approach and don’t overdo right out of the gate. “If you have an extreme diet, you might even have some deficiencies,” Dr. Holman said. He suggests the Mediterranean diet as the most practical, sustainable approach.
  4. Know your family history — In matters of health care, you can be reactive or proactive. With knowledge of your genetic predispositions, a doctor can help you take steps to improve your health for the long-term. “More and more, we’re finding out when people have a family history of cancer,” Dr. Holman said. “You can talk to your doctor about the types of screenings that are available.”
  5. Get vaccinated — Vaccinations are typically the most frequently overlooked aspect of health precaution, Dr. Holman said. “There’s a new recommendation to boost the new tetanus shot with pertussis. That’s something you do every 10 years—if you cut yourself, you have to go to the ER. Usually that tetanus shot needs boosted, but now it’s boosted by pertussis vaccine. That’s one thing a lot guys aren’t up to date on.” Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B immunizations are required if you work in health care, but beyond that, many men have never been immunized. “Hepatitis A and B wasn’t really required when guys in their 30s and 40s were in school,” Dr. Holman said. “That would be one to talk to your doctor about. And obviously, the flu shot.”
  6. Quit smoking and drinking — Stop smoking altogether and stop drinking in excess, “For smokers, (doctors) even recommend getting the pneumonia shot,” Dr. Holman said.

Over the years, his ferocious metabolism has lulled him into a false sense of security, insomuch as he now believes these gustatory pleasures are saddled with little consequence.

He couldn’t be more wrong.

One day, perhaps 50 or perhaps 100 pounds from now, he will wake up and wonder what the heck happened.

If he’s lucky, his “Aha!” moment will come as an epiphany—when he steps on the scale, or when he gets an especially bad bout of heartburn.

If he’s unlucky, his bolt of lightning will come as paramedics slap a defibrillator onto his chest.

You can draw a line in the syrup to separate two types of guys: On one side, those who will continue to eat, drink, smoke and generally carouse their way to an untimely death; on the other, those who will eventually push the pancakes aside.

Quite often, men in their late 20s, 30s or 40s may find the best inspiration for healthier living comes in a very small package.

“Guys start having kids and they realize, ‘Now I’ve got to be healthy,’” said Harland Holman, MD, medical director at the Spectrum Health Family Medicine Residency Center. “A lot of times guys don’t want to just be healthy for themselves, other than maybe just looking healthy.”

When guys have their own children, they want to take care of themselves so they can take care of their kids as they get older, he said.

“I think that’s one of the biggest things,” Dr. Holman said.

Another big motivator these days: health insurance.

Dr. Holman said he’s been seeing more first-time patients who now have health insurance as a result of legislative changes, and also more men whose employers require health screenings for purposes of insurability.

“They’ll come and see me if they’ve had a cholesterol check or blood pressure check and it’s high,” Dr. Holman said.

The rigors of age can also compel men to schedule a doctor’s visit, particularly if their interest in exercise has been rejuvenated after a lengthy hiatus.

After a year or two—or 10—away from the gym, it’s no longer quite as simple as jumping on the treadmill or hitting the weights. A haphazard, poorly planned approach to exercise is apt to invite injury or inspire little more than a quick burnout.

To put it plainly: It’s a long road to better health when you’re older and you’ve been inactive for a spell, but it’s a road worth traveling.

“It’s true: As you get older, things take a little longer to recover,” Dr. Holman said. “It is a longer recovery time when you’re just getting back at it.”

The good news: “Most of the time, people can work through it.”

And don’t fall for the gimmicks, such as supplements, hormones or fad diets.

“Guys notice that stuff, and they’re looking for an easy solution,” Dr. Holman said. “They start to see supplements (as a solution), but there’s not a lot of good evidence behind it.”

Nothing replaces the basics: diet, exercise and dedication.

Dr. Holman’s encouragement to men thinking about taking those first steps to better health: “Just give it time and you’ll get back to where you were at.”

Take it one pancake at a time.