8 NOVEMBER 2003, Page 54

Fighting fit

Jonathan Ray

My wife believes that men fall into two categories: those who take to their beds and whinge at the slightest cold — which they call flu — and those who grit their teeth and carry on manfully despite having sliced off their arm. I have no qualms about admitting that I belong to the former fraternity; after all, who knows what sinister ailment that runny nose and headache might herald?

Men visit their doctors four times a year on average, compared with women's six. Apparently, chaps dislike the idea of sitting in front of a stranger discussing embarrassing ailments, preferring simply to confide, repeatedly, in their nearest and dearest. Whenever [attempt to tough it out at home rather than bother the quack — being the rugged sort of bloke that I am — my wife rolls her eyes and tells me that I must either go to the doctor or stop complaining. Occasionally, in a hissy fit of 'I'll show her', I call her bluff and book into the surgery, where, it must be said. I have also begun to notice a certain amount of eye-rolling.

My proudest medical moment, and one that I recall fondly whenever sickness strikes, is the time I had to cut short a holiday because of an allergic reaction to my 63 — sixty-three! — mosquito bites. So inflamed and pustulous were they that I could do up neither my shirt cuffs nor my shoes. 'Wow!' declared my then doctor. 'I've never seen anything like it in 20 years' practice!' I was so thrilled by this reaction that I fairly skipped home with delight.

Recently, my usual unexplained aches and pains notwithstanding, I have felt rather well, although I am not fool enough to believe that this means I am well. This was brought home to me the other evening during a sombre dinner with two old friends — like me, in their early forties — who had just had medicals. Andrew picked at his salad having been warned off shellfish, red meat and cheese owing to his soaring cholesterol levels, while Mark stared gloomily at his glass of water, having been forbidden alcohol until his liver achieved some semblance of equilibrium. Both had also given up smoking. There was a lot of one-upmanship between them as to who had the highest blood pressure and the most painful gout, and I felt both left out and unnerved: was that tightness in my chest really just indigestion?

After a restless night. I decided immediate action was necessary and splashed out £495 on a Bupa Wellness Premier Health Assessment. This is Bupa's highest level of MOT and boasts more than 40 tests, spun out over two hours, including vision and hearing tests, resting electrocardiogram, cardiovascular risk score, blood and urine analysis, dynamic cardio-respiratory exercise, body-mass index calculations, prostate examination, general lifestyle survey and so on. Best of all, as far as I was concerned, was the promise of the undivided attention of a doctor for at least 45 minutes to discuss the results.

Things started pretty smoothly. I managed to deliver my urine sample without the usual embarrassing shutting down of the waterworks, and my hearing and sight were judged to be top-notch. My blood pressure passed muster too, with Carrie — the physiologist conducting the tests — congratulating me warmly on my 116 over 78. It Was only when I was invited to change into T-shirt, shorts and trainers that I began to feel uncomfortable, especially when I discovered that the last time I had worn sports kit and consciously taken exercise was before Carrie was born. She weighed and measured me and began to tut-tut. Apparently, at 89 kilos I should be a lot taller than 177cm, and at 96cm my waist was 8cm in the wrong direction (it should be no more than half one's height).

An enormous sample of blood was taken before I underwent a bio-electrical impedance test to measure my body fat and to see where the lean tissue had gone. 'I can see that most of it has gone on your waist,' muttered Carrie. 'And I would suggest that your muscle mass could be used a little, er, more efficiently.' I began to feel rather gloomy. After a glass of water and a biscuit. I was taken upstairs and introduced to Dr Mace, the senior Bupa physician who was to oversee the more serious of my tests. He exuded avuncular reassurance. and I felt slightly happier as I was strapped to various wires and tubes preparatory to the cardiorespiratory exercise test. I found the required eight minutes' cycling (which seemed to last an hour) wheeze-inducingly exhausting, but was soothed by Dr Mace's encouraging comments as he sat looking at the computer screen and printouts that were measuring my heart rate, lung capacity and blood pressure. To my utter astonishment, I was marked as being at the top end of 'moderate fit'. I can hardly believe that there are any potatoes more couchbound than me, but apparently I take more exercise than I had realised and the amount of walking I do, plus the occasional cycle ride and breathless game of snooker, have made all the difference.

'Your overall level of aerobic fitness is really not bad at all,' said Carrie. 'Even at 43 you have the capacity to get really fit. Despite being slightly overweight, your heart and lungs are in very good shape, and your muscles are in a fine enough state to become quite honed.' Well!

Dr Mace brought me down in an earthwards direction with his post-test consultation, by which time the results of my urine and blood tests had arrived. Although pleased with my aerobic results, he was none too happy with my diet which, he told me, relied too heavily on red meat and dairy products, and he found it hard to say anything positive about my alcohol consumption. I must have misheard — despite my 100 per cent score in the hearing test — but I thought he said that it was three times the recommended level. There was nothing abnormal in my pee, and my blood showed only that I had a slightly raised level of cholesterol. Alarmingly, however, once all the data had been collated, my Coronary Heart Disease Prediction Score calculated that I had a 5 per cent chance of having a heart attack in the next ten years. 'Best think of it as a 95 per cent chance of not having one,' Dr Mace added hastily.

I have taken on board the 'must try harder' conclusions from the assessment, and far from treating the results as a licence to carry on as before (tempting though that is). I will try to tweak my diet and alcohol intake here and there while also attempting a bit of exercise. I feel confident that anything sinister would have been picked up in the tests, and I reckon it was £495 well spent, buying enough peace of mind even for this hypochondriac. For the time being.

After I got home. I overheard my wife whispering and giggling on the phone to her doctor friend, Alice. 'Yes, he's fine,' she said. 'But deeply despondent that he's in such good health.'