A physical examination evaluates your body from top to bottom, flagging any potential health or medical issues and, if things go well, approving you for certain types of work and recreation. But when should you get a physical and how often should you get one?
Scheduling Your Physical
Scheduling a physical is the easy part. For most people, a physical is a preventative screening that can be scheduled well in advance, so it makes sense to schedule it with your primary care physician. If you need a physical more urgently, or if your primary care physician isn’t available for many weeks, you may be able to get a physical examination at an urgent care facility.
Physicals are relatively inexpensive, especially if you have insurance. In most cases, your insurance policy will pay for your physical outright. This is a preventative measure designed to help you prevent significant negative health outcomes, so insurance companies consider it a kind of investment – as should you.
When scheduling your physical, try to schedule as early as possible, especially if you anticipate this being a busy season. As an example, many parents rush to schedule physicals for their children in the weeks leading up to a new school year or a new sports season, so try to be at least a few weeks ahead of everyone else if you want to maximize your chances of being seen.
What’s Included in a Physical?
What types of examinations and assessments are made in a typical physical?
This may vary depending on the doctor you see, but most physical examinations include the following at minimum:
- Recording of vitals. During your physical, your vital signs will be recorded and compared against their values in the past. Your health care provider will analyze your heart rate, blood pressure, respiration rate, and other factors. If any of these signs register as abnormal, they can be analyzed further with subsequent tests and evaluations.
- Health risk assessment. After looking at all your vital signs and reviewing your medical history, your physician will provide you with an overall health risk assessment. They can identify specific risk factors associated with your lifestyle, help you understand which health risks are most relevant to you, and guide you in better habits and proactive treatments that can keep you healthy indefinitely in the future. For example, if you’re currently overweight, if you have high blood pressure, and if high blood pressure runs in your family, you could be at very high risk for heart disease. Your doctor may recommend specific supplements, dietary changes, or an exercise regimen for you.
- Visual examination. Your physician will provide you with a physical examination as well, inspecting your body for any signs of potential medical conditions.
- Physical examination. You’ll also undergo a physical examination, with your physician listening closely to your heart and lungs and performing various tests of your motor functions.
- (Potentially) lab tests. In some cases, your physician may want to conduct laboratory tests to perform further evaluations. Routine blood work, for example, can allow your doctor to evaluate the levels of specific substances and nutrients in your body; they can recognize deficiencies or abnormalities so they can be addressed before potential issues develop.
How Often Should You Get a Physical?
How often should you get a physical?
The answer is “it depends.” For most people, it’s advisable to get a physical annually or every 2-3 years. However, this recommendation is going to change based on the following variables:
- Age. The older you get, the more important it is to have regular physicals. Accordingly, the frequency of recommended physicals increases with age. If you’re in your late teens or early 20s, you can get away with a physical only every 3 years. In your 20s and 30s, you should step that up to a physical every 1-2 years. After around age 40, you should have a physical at least every year or at an interval recommended by your doctor.
- Current health concerns. If you have any current health concerns, or a family history of medical issues, it’s more important for you to get physicals regularly.
- Recreational plans. Physicals are recommended, and sometimes mandatory before beginning certain physical activities.
- Specific lifestyle habits. If you partake in risky lifestyle habits, like smoking, you should get physicals more often.
When in Doubt, Ask Your Doctor
If you’re not sure how often you should get a physical, or if you’re feeling uncertain about your health in general, have a direct conversation with your doctor. They’ll help you understand the context of your current medical situation and make a recommendation for how to proceed. Your health needs to be one of your highest priorities, so don’t neglect the prospect of a physical examination.