A sporting approach to dealing with health issues

Like my columnist colleague here in the Observer, Mr. Kevin (you’ll always be Baby B to me) Blessing, I participated in the global phenomenon that is Movember.

Like my columnist colleague here in the Observer, Mr. Kevin (you’ll always be Baby B to me) Blessing, I participated in the global phenomenon that is Movember.

Facial hair has always been a must in our family – my Dad sported one of the finest beards this side Grizzly Adam’s ranch high in the Californian mountains – and all seven sons at various stages of our lives have followed suit. In fact we are commonly referred to as the ‘Hairy Regans’ for that very fact, so Movember was never going to be too big of an ask. However, a beard is a long way away from a mustache. My brother Davy wore a dodgy one towards the end of the 80s while in London, but we have always preferred the full facial adornment when it comes to matters hirsute.

The modern fad that is the Hipster (if you don’t know what a Hipster is consider yourself lucky, Dublin has become infected with them) has championed the ‘tache and because of its association with this most affected of fashion trends I tended to treat them with some suspicion. Thirty days later I must admit I have become quite attached to the thing; I’d even go as far as to say it has grown on me (no pun intended).

But growing and grooming your mustache is not the reason d’etre of Movember. Its purpose is to use this fun and frivolous pursuit to create a global community that promotes discussion on men’s health – and specifically the cancers most likely to affect men, such as prostrate cancer. Men are notoriously reticent when it comes to discussing their health, going for regular check-ups and even attending their GP even when something is clearly amiss with the health. We see it as unmanly to discuss such matters. We often leave it too late to take action on health issues that can be easily rectified if detected early. Here are a few facts to consider:

Prostate cancer rates in Ireland are the highest in Europe and amongst the highest in the world: in 2010, 3,125 men were diagnosed with prostate cancer in Ireland a small increase on 3,079 in 2009.

Irish men have a 1 in 8 chance of developing prostate cancer. A woman’s risk of developing breast cancer is 1 in 10.

1 in 3 men in Ireland will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime.

Smoking is the single biggest cause of cancer, causing 30% of all cancers.

Non Melanoma skin cancer, bowel, lung, breast and prostate cancer make up over two-thirds of all cancer cases diagnosed in Ireland.

Obese men are five times more likely to develop Type II Diabetes and three times more likely to develop cancer of the colon.

Sport, of course is a great protective factor against many diseases, not just cancer. By training and competing regularly, sports people are more inclined to reach their recommended weekly activity levels of exercise, they tend to be more attuned to health eating and they smoke less. However, international research suggests that athletes – especially those involved in team sports – do tend to drink more than non-athletes, or at least when they do drink they tend to binge drink. It was with this fact in mind that I devised the ‘Off the Booze & On the Ball’ health challenge, rolled out through the GAA’s Alcohol and Substance Abuse Prevention (ASAP) programme in January 2012.

Its premise is quite simple: We challenged members (players and non-players) of the Association to abstain from alcohol for the month of January and give their New Year a healthy kick-start by combining this with some new weekly health promoting activities. As an added incentive all participants received a sponsorship card allowing them to raise some money for their local GAA club in the process. In 2012 members from over 200 clubs registered at www.gaa.ie/asap to take up what we called ‘The Pint Sized Challenge’.

Yesterday in Croke Park, An Uachtarán CLG, Liam O’Neill, extended the challenge to clubs again for 2013. This year we are allowing participants the option of taking up the challenge in February as well as January as some clubs won’t have reconvened early enough to get things arranged in time for January. I’d like to extend the challenge to you all now. I did it last year and really enjoyed it as I was training for the Hell & Back 10K in the Wicklow Mountains on the last Sunday of January. I’m doing the very same again this year with my fellow Gaels Gareth and James Phelan, along with an old college friend Colin O’Driscoll, son of the famous Dublin corner back and multi-All Ireland winner Gay.

I don’t anticipate this one initiative will end all irresponsible drinking but I do hope that, like Movember, it will get us thinking and talking about what is a major issue in this country. It also gives us an opportunity to set a great example for our younger members. (Last year the U16 hurling squad from the Kinvara club in Galway went ‘Off the Fizz & On the Ball’ and gave up fizzy drinks and sweets for the month having been inspired by their senior players’ example of going ‘Off the Booze’. They raised over €800 in the process and bought a new set of jerseys with the money!)

If you would like some more information on the challenge or to sign up go to: www.gaa.ie/asap