Healthy living: the gift we take for granted

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I have had eight surgeries in my almost 59 years on this planet. Other than the first, which was to excise a cyst below my tailbone, my surgeries were all the end result of the active lifestyle I have always lived. With any luck, my surgeries are over.

Ankle surgery in 1989 was followed up with three shoulder surgeries, two on my right and one on my left. Then came two knee surgeries, each for a torn meniscus in each knee. Finally, this February, I had two herniated discs repaired. Today, I feel great.

I credit my insistence that the physical therapists I have worked with over the years treat me like an athlete and not someone who dreads the pain and work involved in getting back what was lost due to injury. I credit the George Sheehan quote, “We are not all blessed with the God given talents of being a professional athlete, but we can all train like we are one,” for inspiring me to push myself. It may seem a bit over stated, but our bodies really are temples and how we treat them goes a long way toward how we age.

Surfing is great exercise (Tim Forkes)

Today, I take pride in each of my workouts. I think long and hard about what I intend to do, what I hope to accomplish, and then set about doing it before finally recording the results. Without a plan, a workout is just a time killer that yields very little because the person going through the motions is thinking about other things. Whether I am doing strength work in my home gym, going on a long bike ride out in the countryside, or pushing the cardio on some indoor equipment, I am constantly evaluating myself. “How’s my breathing? Do my legs feel fresh or do they feel like they are dragging sand bags? When did I last consume water? Do I need to refuel? Can I push the pace just a little longer? Don’t forget to ease off and get in my stretching.” My mind does not stop.

There are no guarantees that come with enjoying a love of fitness like I have. I won’t necessarily live any longer or be immune to any major diseases. I have come close to being killed a few too many times on my bike. I have questioned whether or not I should cut back to just three or four workouts a week. I know I will not set any PR’s for my fastest this or heaviest that. Still, I can always come up with a reason to workout and it essentially boils down to one thing; it’s what I love to do.

Because of this love, I am a bit too anal about my weight. I see the photo of me out in my gym finishing a10K race in Arcadia in 1984 when I weighed 141pounds and looked like a guy who needed to eat a few cheeseburgers. I am currently working to drop below 160 pounds and from there, I will shoot for getting down to 155. Once you have had one back surgery that worked out as well as mine, you want to make sure you are not in that situation again and one way is to keep your weight down. This has resulted in me taking on a gluten free, dairy free diet, ceasing my evening beer or two, skipping dessert, and increasing the tempo of some of my workouts, which had become a bit too predictable.

We’re given one body and with it comes the built in DNA that we have little control over. Some of us are predisposed to certain maladies than others and many of us wish we could be that 102-year old who still drinks and smokes instead of having to watch what we consume. However, I firmly believe it is when we push ourselves to a physical extreme that we learn the most about ourselves because we cannot reach our full physical potential without overcoming huge mental and emotional obstacles. It is no accident that public school test scores reveal the students who score highest on their physical fitness testing are also the ones who tend to score highest on academic tests. The mind and the body are one if we allow it.

Good food (Ron Irwin)

Unfortunately, for too many in our society, we seek ways to avoid anything physical. It seems for many, we expect life to come with either an app or a pill to help us overcome what a little sweat and hard breathing will do. We now know exercise decreases the risk of almost all cancers, heart disease, diabetes, and stroke, but for most, we do not know how to exercise. Instead, we turn to friends to distract us while thinking they are a workout buddy. We hire personal trainers to whip us into shape and then drop them like a sack of rocks when we realize how much it hurts to get our bodies back.

Our excuses are endless. The fact is, too many choose to have mush for bodies because they are afraid all their work will not pay off with a gorgeous body. Odds are, it won’t. Bodies are not meant to be gorgeous. Mine sure isn’t. However, they are meant to be functional which means being strong, flexible, and having enough wind to climb a few flights of stairs without the need to call 911 for oxygen.

Getting out of shape is easy. Sit all day, eat crap all, day, drive in commuter traffic, load up on fattening caffeine drinks, then cut loose all weekend and remain sleep deprived. It takes discipline to wake up early and hit the gym or go for a brisk walk or run in the predawn hours, but it is worth it. A fit body requires on the average of two hours less sleep per night and when it is asleep, it rests more peacefully. Those extra two hours is enough right there to get in a workout.

A fit body burns more calories while at rest so sitting at your desk or behind the wheel of a car is less harmful to you over the course of time. You will feel better about yourself and because you do, you will be more likely to take part in other active things like playing in a local softball league, joining a dancing group, or going on a long hike on your weekend.

Age is not a factor either. Multiple studies show it is still possible to add muscle mass and increase bone density through strength training in our nineties. Yes, that’s right. You can be that man or woman who others look at and marvel or you can be slumped in a chair waiting for the Grimm Reaper.

When you value your body, you do not just make sure you exercise, you take care to be more mindful of what you eat, drink, and do with it. I know I should not do some things I used to do when I was younger because of the increased likelihood of injury. However, I also know better than ever what I can do and make sure I go to great lengths to enjoy doing those things because they not only bring me pleasure today, they add to an overall higher quality of life. This means I make sure to do specific rehab exercises and hold a few yoga moves rather than perform a few more strength exercises I used to do.

Riding a bicycle is great exercise
(Tim Forkes)

People who do not like to exercise will point out their life expectancy is only about four years less than a person who loves to workout. However, what they fail to realize is the difference in quality of life. A fit person of seventy has the same strength, bone density, and aerobic capacity of someone half their age that does not exercise. It’s our choice whether or not we want the body of a 70 year old when we are still in our thirties or if we want the body of a 35 year old when we are heading into our eighth decade on this planet.

Perhaps if we all went to greater lengths to value our body and quit making excuses for it, we would not have the healthcare mess we are in today. Again, most cancers, diabetes, heart disease, and strokes are the result of lifestyle choices. In other words, they’re our fault. Imagine just how cheap health care would cost if we eliminated the self-inflicted diseases we flood doctors offices, ER’s, and Urgent Cares with.

It really is our choice what we do with our bodies. We can twiddle our thumbs and hope a magic pill is invented to rid us of our need to take care of ourselves while we destroy the one thing we have total control over, but so far, this attitude has not resulted in a fitter nation.

Eventually, we all pay for the sins of our choices. I have paid with a few surgeries but am happy to report I am no worse for the wear and tear of pushing myself. I know plenty of others that are like me because fit people tend to be drawn to others who are fit while we also know misery loves company.

Top photo by Claudia Gestro