This guest blog post was written by Dr. Bob Murray, co-author of Food & Fitness After 50.
John’s odyssey with weight control, fitness, diet, and physical activity is probably not unusual for a 60-year-old American male. A three-sport high-school athlete (football, wrestling, golf), John graduated weighing 200 lb on a 6’3” frame, borderline overweight according to current BMI standards. After graduation, John began working in a machine-tool shop, got married, started a family soon after, and spent the next 25 years of his life immersed in building his own machining business, along with being a husband and father of two. Building his business meant long hours, little exercise, and bad food choices. By the late ‘90s, John weighed 235 lb and was so out of shape he had a difficult time with even low-level physical activity. He realized that changes were needed.
Relying on the same gung-ho, let’s-get-it-done personality that led to success in building his business, John started running. At that time in his early 40’s, he knew his initial progress was going to be slow and found it helpful to frequently remind himself of that. Gradually, the pounds came off. And kept coming off. A couple years into his running routine, John weighed 175 lb, a normal BMI value, although he was very gaunt-looking for his height. Over the next ten years, John continued running, supplemented by weight lifting and a generally active lifestyle, allowing his weight to rise to a more-healthy-looking 190 lb. In his mid-fifties, when his left hip joint began to give him trouble, John switched to biking as a new way to stay fit and trim. Heavy weight lifting gave way to intense sessions of P-90X, a transition John enjoyed. All in all, everything was clicking: regular exercise, much-improved diet, weight under control, feeling good.
Early on a hot July morning in 2016, John participated in a 5-K charity run. Doing so may have saved his life. Struggling throughout the 3.1-mile event, John recalled being surprised that he was so far out of running shape. Within yards of the finish line, John collapsed face first onto the pavement. Nearby paramedics raced to his side and told him they were taking him to the nearest ER. John agreed, but only if they first let him finish the race. John walked the few remaining yards across the finish line and into the waiting ambulance.
The doctor’s diagnosis was a shock. John’s aortic valve (the valve from his left ventricle into the aorta) was worn out, the result of a lifetime of wear on an undiagnosed congenital heart defect. As it turned out, John’s mother and one of his sisters had the same defect. Open-heart surgery was required to replace John’s worn valve with one fashioned from the heart tissue of a cow. The surgery was a major setback to John’s physical and emotional wellbeing, as would be expected with someone who was by all standards vital and healthy.
It took John about one year after surgery to feel normal again. The strange aches and pains that often accompany open-heart surgery gradually subsided and John was able to slowly ramp his cycling and strength sessions back to pre-surgery levels. Life is good once again. John recognized that his devotion to regular physical activity may have both unmasked a life-threatening issue and enabled him to survive it. He knows that continued activity and a good diet are an important part of living a long and healthy life.
John says his advice to others who share similar struggles is to “find activities that you enjoy and slowly make them a regular habit. I’ve found that interval training is a great way for me to dig myself out of the holes that we all encounter when our diets and exercise habits periodically lapse. I enjoy the variety and challenge of interval training and a hard 20-minute workout sure beats a much longer ride or run for saving time. My interval workouts on a stationary bike or elliptical machine are challenging and very tolerable, the best part being that I can sense improvement from one session to the next. Unlike playing golf, I’ve never walked away from a workout in a bad mood.”
Learn more about how to come back after illness or injury in Food & Fitness After 50, available at Amazon. And, read more about inspiring people in the 50, 60s, 70s, and beyond at my blog, Fit to Eat.