Men are finally getting their health act together. Decca Aitkenhead looks at a lucrative trend
Great gender myths: a real man has a dogged disregard for his person. Big boys don't cry and they rarely see their doctor - despite rising rates for prostate problems, heart disease, testicular cancer and stress. What would they say to their doctor anyhow? Men have been socialised to have opinions about the female body, not about their own. They would rather die than talk about, well, things that might cause them to die. It is strong and silent to suffer. As one shame-faced male thirtysomething admits: "It's just one of those typical male things. I expect my body to work, and I don't want anyone to know if it doesn't."

Yet when Nikki Bradford, author of the new book Men's Health Matters, set up a helpline for men, hundreds of calls flooded in. Her findings? Men "live in fear, often too frightened to visit their doctor" because they are convinced something is horribly wrong. Alienated from their bodies, signals are either misinterpreted or ignored. More than 1,000 develop testicular cancer every year, but nine out of 10 men never, ever, check their scrotum for lumps. Most have no idea they need to - nor any idea how to. Result: closet hypochondria.

All of which makes life miserable for men - and those closest to them. "Women are growing weary of not only looking after their own health, but their husband's as well. Every other man's doctor's appointment is made under duress from his partner," says Bradford. As she points out, it took a woman to write a book entitled Men's Health Matters.

A trio of men's health and appearance magazines have gone on sale in the past six months, and will soon announce their first circulation figures. XL and Maxim say they will top 70,000. Men's Health is hoping for 100,000. That means men are handing over more than a half a million pounds a month to bone up on their bodies. And the first ever national men's health conference was staged in London two weeks ago. New days, new ways?

"Formerly, it wasn't seen as macho to be interested in your body," Bradford theorises. "Now it's not macho to be ill-informed, and therefore weak and powerless. Men need simple information, but they don't like making themselves vulnerable to others. Helplines and magazines bypass this problem."

Men are also spending money on private health insurance. Some four million have taken out policies, outnumbering women by more than 400,000. Almost half a million of those men signed up in the past two years. And a recent Sports Council survey found that the number of men taking regular exercise had risen steadily during the past five years. More than one in 10 men now either swim, cyle, weight train or play football regularly. Nearly 50 per cent of men list walking as a regular activity.

So how do new magazines sell health to a traditionally reluctant audience? That old stand-by, sex - pleasure, not pain. An XL feature on shaping up: "Is it hot outside? Are women walking around with not much on? Are you ready to strip off your shirt?" The message is simple: pump iron, feel better - and pull babes.

"For men, health means well-being and freedom from anxiety, and their principal source of anxiety is sex," says the XL editor Simon Geller. "So, from a male point of view, any feature that involves sex is automatically also about health."

Speakers at the men's health conference are more serious. "There is a crisis in the identity of man", announces Sebastian Kraemer, a psychiatrist at the Tavistock Clinic. He believes anxiety about employment and the blurring of gender roles are making men increasing ill. Add worries about the NHS, and men's need to take control of their health becomes urgent.

Cynics might suggest that men's sudden interest in their bodies is about financially embarrassed. No longer able to bank on economic supremacy to secure a spouse, they are resorting to physical allure.

"Man has no automatic rights any more, and his security is badly dented. The weaker sex is actually the male," Dr Kraemer continues. Alarmist statistics rain down: young male suicide rates have doubled. Male drug addiction is rising. Men drink more. Men smoke more.

The change in attitude has been greeted by women as a Good Thing. At last, they beam, men are dealing not only with illness but with their lamentable personal neglect. But will women remain delighted in the all too likely rise in male vanity?

Xl editor Simon Geller laughs at the notion: "You must be kidding. Encouraging a man to be vain is like encouraging a dog to bark." Classified ads in the new titles bear him out: penis enlargement and loans for plastic surgery dominate. Cosmetic camouflage rather than radical change. Still, as conference delegate, Lesley Le-Pine, director of a Bristol NHS trust, sighs and says: "At least we are getting men's health issues on the map. It is a long-awaited beginning."

'Men's Health Matters' by Nikki Bradford, is published by Vermillion, pounds 9.99.