It felt like someone had punched me in the chest.
I had just walked up three short flights of stairs and I was breathing like I’d just ran the Pittsburgh Marathon.
Goddamn, I’m old, I thought, trying to catch my breath and feeling all of my 47 years.
Thankfully, the feeling quickly subsided but returned with concerning enough frequency throughout the next week. I couldn’t walk up the same stairs with a coworker and have a conversation on the way into the office. Moreover, it didn’t matter if I was simply sitting at my desk churning out all the words and crunching all the numbers. Wham, there it was, the stabbing in the back or slight chest pains. I started keeping a bottle of Tums on my person and on my desk.
“Ever Have An EKG?”
I thought back to the last time my cholesterol and triglycerides were checked — about two years ago or more. Both numbers had been high and I’d promised my doctor I would make some diet and exercise changes. I had good intentions, but didn’t do much to change my ways. I was already gluten-free and vegetarian, and I became even more of a carb-loading machine. Rice, potatoes or pasta — with a generous helping of cheese, please — were part of almost every meal I ate. I enjoyed a mug of ice cream nearly every night.
And forget starting any type of exercise routine because my true nature is Lazy As Fuck. There’s nothing I like better than sitting on the couch or the deck with a good book and a cup of coffee. I am a reader. A writer. I don’t DO exercise, which I HAAAAATTTTTTTEEEEEE with a passion unbridled. I always have, ever since gym class when I was always picked last for dodgeball, which I feel is a sadistic game. I was convinced I wouldn’t be able to graduate high school because I couldn’t run a mile in under 12 minutes. (I could write a whole ‘nuther post — hell, a book — on how the ostracizing of kids in gym class can influence their perspective of fitness.)
So why in God’s name would I want to willingly put myself through that physical and emotional torture three decades later?
In reality, I was playing dodgeball with my health.
Being the summa-cum-laude graduate that I am of the Medical School of Google, I self-diagnosed myself with angina (spoiler alert: I was wrong) and when I called my doctor, she suggested I come in that afternoon. I figured this could be worth leaving work early.
“Ever have an EKG?” asked the nurse practitioner. I said I thought I had one before my gall bladder surgery two and a half years ago.
“You’re about to have another one,” she said.
A Moment in Time
Fortunately, my heart was ticking perfectly fine and although there wasn’t any evidence of a heart attack, we couldn’t ignore my concerning symptoms. The chest pains and shortness of breath when walking up the stairs continued. Upper back pains and stomach woes. Fatigue. A sedentary lifestyle. A ridiculous, off-the-goddamned charts, unrelenting amount of stress and anxiety. (The doctor’s look when I gave her a summary of the past year was…well, something to see.)
I walked out with orders for new bloodwork, a stress test, and an unequivocal command to get myself to the ER if the chest pains happened again.
To no one’s surprise, my cholesterol and triglycerides had gotten worse, with the latter zooming from 150 to 405 within the past seven years. Fortunately, results from the stress test were fine. (“Above average for your age!” proclaimed the cardiologist.)
“Let’s give this six months,” my doctor said. “Six months to lower your cholesterol and triglycerides through diet and exercise. Then, we’ll see where we’re at.”
If things progressed as they were, I knew where we would be at — in the ER (or, worse, in the ground). Best case scenario, we would be talking about statins, something I’d very much like to avoid. I’ve had this conversation with previous doctors, even ones I liked. I know statins work for many people but I just see them as heading down a slippery, cholesterol-slicked road.
Still, something about this particular conversation resonated with me. It felt like a turning point, a moment in time.
Life Doesn’t Come with Lifetime Guarantees
At 47, I have outlived my father now by three years. He wasn’t an athlete, but he was fairly active. He was always working in our yard or on a project around the house. He had recently become a volunteer firefighter for our small town. He didn’t smoke or drink. He didn’t die from cancer, a heart attack or stroke.
He died from complications of the flu. At 44 years old.
So, I’m well-acquainted with the feeling of living on borrowed time and how much of life is a crapshoot. And perhaps that had been part of my exercise-adverse mindset: what’s the point of doing something I hate (exercising) when I could be perfectly healthy one week and drop dead from a virus the next?
Like my father, I have two kids. They are nearly the same age I was when he died. I know what it’s like to feel a parent’s absence during every single major milestone of your life and to miss them on even the most ordinary of days. I don’t want that for my kids.
When put in that context, eating less ice cream and becoming a little more active made complete sense. My motivation may have started with not wanting to go on a statin (and that’s still one of my driving forces in this) but maybe making some significant diet and exercise changes now could ward off serious issues later — or at least make me healthier today, because none of us are promised more than that.
If I’ve learned anything in my 47 years (especially the most recent of them) it’s that life doesn’t come with lifetime guarantees.
All of this happened in July and August. The diet part seemed easy. Being gluten-free and vegetarian was a good start, but I needed to focus on reducing carbs, cholesterol and sugar. I downloaded MyFitnessPal to track everything I ate. That’s been eye-opening and I’ve instituted some healthier changes. I checked out books from the library. I pursued cookbooks and added more blogs to my overflowing Feedly.
But I knew that diet alone wasn’t going to get me where I needed to be. I needed to step up my exercise game bigtime and an occasional walk around the block wasn’t going to do it.
I had an idea what might be in my future and it hearkened back to not being able to run a 12 minute mile in high school.
Maybe, just maybe, I needed to conquer that voice in my head — the one stuck on repeat that says you aren’t, you can’t, you won’t.
Maybe it was time to start running — towards what I could do instead of from what I’ve always thought I couldn’t.
This is the first post in a series (yet to be named) of my Couch to 5K experience and journey towards becoming a runner.