It is always good to get a regular physical to ensure that nothing is wrong and, if there is, to catch it and start treatment early. Going in for a health physical can be anxiety-inducing for some patients. However, this is not an excuse not to make an appointment, as you can find out a lot about your health, both good and bad.

A regular physical may consist of a short, quick exam or it may be a longer, more-detailed exam with a number of tests. Depending on your age and health level, it may be recommended that you go in for a physical on an annual basis or it may be more infrequent.

What does a basic health physical consist of?

Your physical exam will start with reviewing your health history. You will also be asked about your personal health behaviors such as exercise, diet, alcohol use, smoking, and sexual health. Be as honest as you can, even if it is difficult.

Your vital signs will be checked next, often by an assistant or nurse. These include heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, height, weight, and sometimes your respiration rate. Next your lungs, heart, neck, head, extremities, stomach, and skin will be examined. You will be taken through a series of neurological exams to check your balance, reflexes, muscle strength, nerves, and mental state.

If you are a female, you will have a breast and a pelvic exam, often including a pap test. Males will experience a hernia exam, prostate exam, and testicular exam.

As far as lab tests are concerned, these will vary according to any concerns that you and/or your doctor have. Routine tests that are common, however, include a urinalysis, chemistry panel, and complete blood count. A cholesterol test is also fairly common. These tests may be done at the time of your regular physical or you may have to make an additional appointment at a separate facility.

As you get older, you will have more recommended tests. Regular screening for colorectal cancer is highly recommended for patients starting at age 50. Mammograms are recommended for women after a certain age, although this age has been debated recently.

In the past, the standard recommendation was to begin annual mammograms at the age of 40. Although the Mayo Clinic and American Cancer Society continue to follow this advice with continual mammograms every year, there are some concerns with this procedure. This has changed the recommendation of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force to starting mammogram screening at age 50 and repeating only every two years.

According to the Mayo Clinic, some concerns about mammogram screening include the exposure to radiation, which may actually increase the incidence of cancer, and the chance of a result that turns out to be false positive. The bottom line is that you should speak with your healthcare provider and weigh the pros and cons. Ultimately, when you start and how often you get a mammogram is up to you.

How frequently is a physical recommended?

In the past, annual exams were recommended for almost everyone. However, as with mammogram screening guidelines, times have changed. According to WebMD, leading medical groups and doctors have determined that people in general good health do not need a physical exam every year.

It is still recommended to keep a close eye on your body and symptoms. Even if you don’t have an annual physical scheduled, you should make an appointment for anything new that is concerning to you.

Those who are in poorer health should still continue with annual exams, as it is important to keep on top of any changes that are occurring. Additionally, if you have a bad health behavior, such as smoking, you should make an annual trip to your medical doctor. Smoking causes harm to every organ, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and reduces your general health, and it is imperative to keep tabs on your health status.

You should continue with an annual physical exam if you are the type who worries incessantly that something is wrong with you. Walking away from a physical with a clean bill of health will help ease your mind, at least for awhile.

How can you avoid regular physicals?

Staying healthy is the key to keeping your physical visits to a minimum. If you eat healthy and exercise regularly you should be able to keep visits to your doctor relatively infrequent. Staying active, having a dynamic social life, and keeping your mind challenged will also keep you healthy.

Does health insurance cover physicals?

Most health insurance plans help to cover doctor visits for physicals. In fact, many insurance plans will pay for one wellness exam every year, before the deductible kicks in. These wellness exams are meant for those with no specific medical complaint.

Review your insurance coverage and see if there is a wellness benefit. If you are allowed a free wellness visit, you might as well take advantage of it. Keep in mind that there may be additional charges for any lab or diagnostic tests.