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When Should You Really Get a Physical?

In our first year of life, we’re at the doctor almost as much as we’re in our cribs. Babies go in often for weight checks, immunizations and other health milestones. As we get older, our doctor’s visits usually slow down, but we still hear about the “annual physical.” At a physical, a primary care physician typically checks your vitals, like your blood pressure, and offers some reminders on how to live a healthy lifestyle. 

“It helps us keep up with your overall well-being,” says Dr. Dennis Besong, a New York-based family medicine physician. “We can review medications and touch base on mental health.”

But is it actually necessary to go for an annual check-up? A few factors — mainly your age, health and who you ask — play into your answer. 

How often should you go for a physical?

The US Preventive Task Force does not give a recommendation on the annual physical, but it does provide guidelines for tests that doctors often perform during these check-ups. For example, annual blood pressure checks are a good idea for people 40 and older, or adults with risk factors such as obesity or high-normal blood pressure. Patients ages 18 to 39 without these risk factors can get blood pressure checks every three to five years.

Children need frequent immunizations; for adults, however, Dr. Howard R. Sussman, a New York-based family medicine physician with Stony Brook Medicine, calls the term annual physical “antiquated.”

“The average healthy American can be seen periodically,” he says. “There’s really no magic to being seen every single year.”

To Sussman’s point, some research suggests that even though regular health screenings can lead to significantly increased diagnoses, they don’t necessarily lead to fewer patients dying of things like cardiovascular issues or cancer. Besong, however, points to the patient relationship as reason enough to see your PCP at least once per year.

“Getting a physical exam gives us an opportunity to reevaluate your health and gives you an opportunity to ask the doctor and have conversations about sex education, lifestyle and mental health,” he says.

If nothing else, it may give you peace of mind. Periodic exams can help deliver information about preventive services and reduce patient worry. These visits can also encourage providers to customize plans for their patients overall, scheduling physicals based on age, risk factors and other medical data. 

Does it matter when you get the physical?

Should you wait until cold and flu season so you can knock out your annual flu shot and physical at the same time? If you’re prone to allergies, should you go during allergy season to get advice on how to manage symptoms?

Besong says it’s up to you. Many patients schedule the appointment around their birthday because it’s an easy way to remember when to go — but, he points out, your health isn’t going to suddenly change the day you turn one year older. 

One factor to consider is your insurance coverage. Many plans only cover one wellness check per year, so be sure you’re scheduling physicals at least 12 months apart. 

Should you go to the doctor more often as you get older?

Potentially. If you haven’t been seeing a doctor annually, it’s essential to start as you get older, especially when you hit age 65.

As you get older, you become more prone to certain comorbidities, such as high blood pressure and type II diabetes, which may require medication management and check-ups multiple times per year.

What health conditions require more frequent visits?

Besong and Sussman agree that any condition that requires chronic medication will need close monitoring by a primary care physician. What that means will vary based on the severity of the disease, and patients should discuss frequency with their doctors. It could entail anywhere from two to four check-ups per year or more.

These conditions include:

  • Hypertension
  • Diabetes
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Cancer
  • High cholesterol
  • Mental health, if the physician is handling medication management

Get the most out of your physical

Whether you go infrequently or annually, here are some ways to make the most of your physical. 

  • Keep a list of any questions about your health. 
  • Bring a record of medications you are on, whether they are effective and any side effects you are experiencing. 
  • Inform your doctor of any changes to your family or personal medical history, such as a recent pregnancy or a parent who died of cardiovascular disease. 

Ready to book a doctor’s appointment? Visit Zocdoc.

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The Paper Gown, a Zocdoc-powered blog, strives to tell stories that help patients feel informed, empowered and understood. Views and opinions expressed on The Paper Gown do not necessarily reflect those of Zocdoc, Inc. Learn more.