My Life After 50

Now it’s time to get serious.
When a medical condition demands a sudden change in lifestyle,
the only thing to do is get moving.

Part I

“Well” said the doctor, “let’s look at the numbers.”

Colonoscopy path of endoscope“The numbers,” an indecipherable series of test results from my recent exhaustive physical, filled half a dozen pages, each of which he scanned soberly before flipping to the next.

As I waited for the verdict on that afternoon last autumn, I wondered whether all this recent concern about my health was worth the trouble.

It had begun three years earlier, when I turned 50, and my wife insisted I have a colonoscopy. (Having been a Hollywood screenwriter for many years before switching careers, I suppose I was used to such indignities.) The results of the colonoscopy were fine. But now my wife suggested that it might be a good idea to have a complete physical. The works.

Dutifully, though reluctantly, I spent half a day being pricked, prodded, drained and wired up. Various fluids were sent to various labs. When the results were back, I expected to thank the doctor for his trouble and free him to go treat really sick people.

So much for expectations. I was stunned to learn that my cholesterol was high, and my glucose tests showed I was “what we call pre-diabetic,” my doctor said. Having had retina surgery years ago, the specter of impaired vision, or worse, loomed in my mind.

I left his office with strict instructions to change my diet, begin an exercise regimen and learn how to test my glucose levels at home. I realized that, when it came to assumptions about my health, I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

Not that weight loss and fitness were new concepts to me. I’d been struggling with extra poundage ever since a reporter described me as “avuncular” in a magazine article a few years ago. Besides, I live in L.A., the land of Pilates, power yoga and plastic surgery; of extreme makeovers and celebrity diets.

Now the stakes were higher. This wasn’t just about appearance; it was about how long I was going to live, and the quality of my life. I had a family for whom I wanted to be around for a long time. And I wanted to be in relatively good shape for as much of that time as possible.

Suddenly I was remembering how many aches and pains I’d been feeling lately. How long it took to recover when I’d banged up my knee during a recent game of touch football. How I seemed to huff and puff just climbing a flight of stairs.

As I thought about it more, I realized that attending seriously to one’s health, especially at midlife, goes straight to the heart of issues vital to everyone: choices they’ve made about career, lifestyle, even where they live. It’s basic quality-of-life stuff, mercifully masked during the rush toward achievement and security in our 30s and 40s, now much less mercifully pushed to the forefront when we reach 50.

Was there a way, I wondered, to lose weight and get fit that took into consideration who I really was, and what I could be expected to do? In other words, what does fitness mean, what does it look like, in a relatively sedentary person older than 50? After all, we live in an era when men are getting pectoral implants, for God’s sake. When health magazines promise Olympian-like bodies, perpetual youth, eternal sexual vigor.

In the face of such over-the-top claims by fitness gurus and self-help authors, there’s the reality of me: a 53-year-old professional man, suburban husband and father, who would have to challenge lifelong behavior patterns when it came to meals and motion. An Italian-American child of the ’50s, raised on the East Coast, my idea of dinner usually involved red meat, bread and a fair amount of pasta (which we used to call spaghetti, but now seems more commonly referred to as a carb). Then, after polishing off dessert, some rigorous manipulating of the TV remote would provide my only allotment of physical activity.

Obviously, all this had to change. Theoretically, I was all for it. But in fact my medical condition demanded it.

You’d think that would make it easier. You’d think.

But First, A Plan Of Attack

In retrospect, I believe it was this awareness that change would be really hard that led me to approach the whole fitness issue systematically. I needed a plan.

The first step was finding a dietary program I could live with. Wading through the pile of diet books on my night table, I settled on a variation of the Zone Diet. It sounded a little less hysterical than Atkins (“Go on, have three or four steaks! Only wimps worry about clogged arteries!”), though reading cheerful descriptions of the Zone’s suggested late-night snack gave me pause. A slice of turkey, strawberries and three peanuts? The image of those three forlorn peanuts rolling around on a plate, my culinary reward at the end of a hard day, was disheartening, to say the least.

For exercise, I decided to start small: 30 minutes on the treadmill while I watched CNN, the cardiovascular benefits hopefully outweighing whatever the day’s news did to my blood pressure. After that, 30 sit-ups and some stretches I vaguely remembered from an aerobics class I’d taken 20 years ago.

Finally, in keeping with tradition, I’d start on a Monday.

As I learned over time, these particulars were not important. Whatever program of diet and exercise one uses, the most important new habit to learn is being conscious – of what you’re eating (and how much), and of how your body reacts when it’s moving. Most important, you must be aware of what you’re feeling. This means paying attention to emotions that seem to trigger the need to eat; noticing, for example, which foods you use to self-medicate in times of distress and noticing whether you’re really hungry at all.

I didn’t know any of this then, in those early weeks after the doctor’s visit. That awareness would come later, after a protracted, up-and-down slog through my own psychological landscape, grappling with deeply ingrained behavioral habits.

For now, as I warily began Day One of my fitness program, all I knew was that I’d taken the tentative first steps on a new path. And that despite the promises of fitness experts and diet doctors, despite the wealth of scientific evidence touting the necessity of exercise and the antioxidant properties of blueberries, I had no idea whether my new-found determination would last. Would I, I often wondered, nibbling my three peanuts and sipping from my water bottle, even last a week?

It was then that I recalled the words of philosopher Antonio Machado, about having too much faith in highly touted plans. “Traveller, there is no path. Paths are made by walking.”

So. I stepped on the treadmill, cranked up the TV volume and started walking.

Part II

A gung-ho start on a life-changing fitness plan quickly gives way to resentment.
But the course becomes easier once you accept that you’re never really finished.

I thought the first week would be the hardest.

After getting the news that, at 53, my cholesterol was high and I was at risk for diabetes, I embarked on a serious fitness program. As I described in last week’s article, I chose a modified Zone Diet (basically, low-carb), combined with 30 minutes of moderate exercise every day.

Frankly, I was concerned that such a radical change in my relatively sedentary, meat-and-potatoes lifestyle would prove difficult, if not impossible. Especially as I filled a grocery cart with skinless chicken breasts, cartons of blueberries and strawberries, and enough leafy green vegetables to start my own produce business. All in preparation for Monday – Day One of my new regimen.

Then Monday came – and, to my utter surprise, it was a breeze. As was Tuesday, and the whole rest of that first week. I was not only motivated, but almost exhilarated to find myself restricted to five small meals a day. As well as the half-hour every evening on the treadmill, watching CNN and keeping track of my heart rate.

I couldn’t believe it. Rather than feeling deprived, I felt empowered. Suddenly, I viewed fried foods, rich sauces and sugar-laden desserts with scorn. Commercials for fast-food restaurants filled me with disgust. Physically, I could swear I already felt lighter, better–a lean, mean fitness machine.

Sure, there was some unsightly huffing and puffing whenever I dared increase the speed gauge on the treadmill, some middle-aged aches and pains during the stretches afterward. And, yes, at mealtime, giving up second helpings often had a decidedly Dickensian quality.

Then Came The Second Week.

All of a sudden, like an overconfident marathon runner, I hit the proverbial wall. What had seemed an exciting challenge, in service of laudable health goals, had lost its self-congratulatory fervor. I realized that my reward for a week of dietary discipline was just going to be another week of dietary discipline.

I faced the sober reality that any fitness program, to be effective in the long term, required the adoption of new habits. Not just a week-long vacation from old ones but the slow, insistent development of new ones.

This highlights a salient issue of midlife: Most of us, regardless of circumstance, have become pretty set in our ways by the time we reach our 50s. We cling to our habits, prejudices, even small pleasures; in a way, they’ve come to define us. That is why change is so difficult, even when we aspire to do so.

There were other setbacks. At every party, it seemed, danger lurked. Spring rolls and tortilla chips, like tiny assassins, would leap up from innocent- looking buffet tables. Even the carrot and celery sticks were invariably situated next to deadly dipping sauces.

There were times when I really felt like just chucking the whole thing. What was I trying to prove, anyway? I wasn’t training for the Olympics; it was way too late for me to make up for not getting on the track team in high school. I felt suddenly foolish, a 53-year-old professional man reduced to trimming the fat from a hockey-puck-sized piece of steak after a hard day’s work.

Then I remembered my doctor’s sober face, looking down at the results of my physical.

A Gift, Not A Chore

So I redoubled my efforts to stay the course. I developed a simple maxim: “If it’s white, don’t bite,” referring to refined sugars, potatoes, bread and other carbs. Of course, the 12 seconds of gratification that came from devising this helpful tool were no match for the feelings of self-pity and irritability caused by actually following this credo every day.

But I did it. Week after week, month after month. How?

First, I challenged myself to be aware of my real feelings at any given time: Was that emptiness in my stomach hunger, or just anger at some work-related problem; or sadness at some loss; or fear about some future event?

The psychologist Carl Jung said drug use could be seen as a spiritual issue, in the sense of an emptiness in the soul. Using food as self-medication might be seen similarly.

The second thing any life-style change requires is commitment, though you have to be careful how you use that word. I learned that if I saw fitness as just another onerous task in a day full of tasks, I’d resent something that was actually for my benefit. So I framed it as a gift I was giving myself. And I stopped thinking merely in terms of goals.

When I finally let myself sink into the day-to-day journey of my fitness program, rather than obsess about weight goals and target training rates, the whole enterprise became easier.

To return to our marathon runner: The “runner’s high,” or second wind, happens not at the finish line, but deep in the middle of the race, when he or she achieves a kind of “flow” state, not thinking about much, merely lost in the motion of running.

I think something like that is what happened with me.

Somewhere in the second month, it no longer became a fitness program, but rather just what I did. I had long since lost the excitement of some new venture, but neither did I feel like some kid struggling with a perpetual, self-denying homework assignment.

Not that there haven’t been lessons along the way. Some deep and important, like the value of delayed gratification and the satisfaction of mastering something difficult. Some more mundane, like learning what a reasonable portion of food should be.

But perhaps the hardest lesson is learning you’re never really finished. That true good health is the result of a daily attention to who you are, how you feel and the choices you make.

Five Months Later

Five months after starting my fitness regimen, I had another physical. To my great relief, my glucose levels were now in the normal range and my cholesterol was fine.

Most gratifying of all, perhaps, was that my first response on hearing the good news wasn’t to run down to the Krispy Kreme to celebrate.

Maybe because the most striking result of all my efforts was a new relationship with myself in terms of diet and exercise.

If I had to put a name to it, I’d call it my “80-20 system.” I try to stay within my fitness guidelines 80% of the time. The other 20%, usually reserved for vacations, social functions and the like, I allow myself (in moderation) to re-experience a baked potato, the occasional slice of French bread, the profound joy” of a fish taco.

But I listen to my body now. Which is a lot easier and less stressful than listening to my doctor, those eight months ago, as he explained, in clinical terms, how I was essentially going to hell in a hand-basket.

Given the choice, I’d rather spend the future listening to my body.

Article written by Dennis Palumbo, reprinted from the Los Angeles Times, October 18, 2004.

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