I had planned this final installment of my “Year of Perfect Health” series to begin the way my first installment did, one whole year ago: with me running, running, running on the treadmill of metabolic evaluation. But that treadmill is a harsh mistress, and running on her was just too painful an experience. Rather than relive it in gory detail, I’d like to get it over quickly, so I can begin suppressing it like so much childhood trauma.
Suffice it to say I went back to the Metabolic Institute (910 W. Fifth Ave., in the Deaconess Health & Ed building) last month, where Debbie Judd, an endlessly reassuring woman, hooked me up to the face mask and heart monitor of my eternal consternation and proceeded to measure just how my heart, lungs, body and (to a lesser extent) soul held up following an eight-month convalescence (from a back injury) that stalled my yearlong quest for perfect health.
I can now report, dear reader, that I am officially weaker, slower, quicker to fatigue, less efficient at burning fat and possessed of a slightly lower lung capacity than I was one year ago.
How do you like them apples?
I’m pretty distraught about it. Or I was, until a couple weeks ago. This back thing is a recurring issue with me. I’ve been re-aggravating the same injury every three or four years since college. My last flare-up, in 2006, was much, much worse than this one — yet I took almost twice as long to recover this time. My physical therapist’s diagnosis? Age.
I don’t have any direct quotes from Patrick Schmidt (STAR Downtown; 601 W. Fifth Ave.) about this plague called “aging,” as I was too busy shaking my fists at an indifferent universe. I’ll have to paraphrase. Every time I’d complain about how I seemed to be leveling off, or how these weird little aches were cropping up in various places — that I just wasn’t getting better fast enough — he’d shrug in what I think was meant to be a reassuring manner (and probably is, to those less narcissistic and pessimistic than I) and say, basically, these things take more time as we get older.
In the past, I’ve always felt like the T-1000 from Terminator 2 in regard to injury and illness. Something might break — like my hand in a vat of liquid nitrogen, for example — but my body is always quick to pick up the pieces and put them back in the right spots. Schmidt wasn’t playing to my vanity here, essentially saying congratulations, you’re not invincible anymore.
Though I can’t quote him, I can quote the comedian Louis CK, who meditated about going to the doctor in your 40s: “They don’t try to fix anything anymore ... They just go, ‘Yeah. That starts to happen.’”
I’ve taken comfort (composed entirely of schadenfreude) in knowing I haven’t reached that point yet.
Though I do have a colleague in his mid-50s — a triathlete, in better shape now than I’ll probably ever be, but also locked in a cycle of nursing a hundred little injuries — who reassures me that everything only gets worse at 30. So I have three months of relative youth left.
The sole piece of good news from my trip to the Metabolic Institute was this: I’m three pounds lighter (though still seven shy of my target weight) than last year.
Oooh, you’re thinking, I also never work out. How can Luke weigh less?
Short answer: temperance. The long answer took me through a forest of conventional wisdom to a truth so basic that I think many people (myself certainly included) overlook in the quintessentially American cycle of indulgence and self-denial — binge, starve, binge, starve — and fad exercise.
I’ve always been a member of the eat-what-you-want-and-work-it-off-later school of weight management — the work-it-off part being the essential component. Laid up after the injury, barely even walking, I gained about 7 pounds. I wasn’t eating excessively. I was just way, way less active.
I was, though, eating whatever the hell I wanted. It was comforting for a while. Good food takes your mind off of almost anything, and back injuries are no exception. After a couple months, though, it started to be a problem. I was losing fitness to the point physical therapy started to get more taxing, not less. Climbing stairs, my heart would thump through my ribcage.
I was still on strict no-run, no-workout orders from my physical therapist, so I tried to control the one variable I could. I started eating less. As soon as I could, I began walking to work again every day and everything kind of bottomed-out. When I finally felt good enough to run a significant amount, though, something kind of incredible happened: I lost the weight in two weeks. Ten pounds gone from walking to work every day and a weekly total of maybe 15 miles of (slooooow) runs.
So things were dark after the Metabolic Institute, but the weight loss is something. The temperance is something even greater. I think I’ve gotten to a point where the time it takes to work off my indulgences is no longer in equilibrium with the pleasure they give me. I find a kind of half-conscious weighing of the cost/benefit of plowing into a luscious Reuben from Madeleine’s or the biscuits and gravy at Chaps. And the less I indulge, the less I crave. Also, though, I enjoy what I eat more in just about every circumstance. A 2006 New York Magazine profile of leading lights in the calorie restriction movement (a primer: eating less food than your body needs will help you live to be 150) discusses how, when you’re only eating 1,500 calories a day for your entire life, even the blandest crap starts tasting like foie gras. I’m happy to report that’s true in less extreme conditions as well.
And I’d never want to go that extreme (though after reading the article, I thought it’d be a fun experiment). And neither do I want to become — and I apologize to him in advance — like my incredibly fit 50-something co-worker, whose Adonis-like youth has lately left him a man feeling betrayed by his now-less-than-perfect body. I don’t want every little injury I get in middle age to feel like a stab in the back (et tu, hip flexor?), because staking that much self-worth on one’s ability to run a six-minute mile creates its own kind of ill health.
So, when all is measured, I’m glad I’m a failure. Perfection probably isn’t attainable in these decaying bone sacks of ours, and the closer we get to it, the more fleeting it’s bound to be.
That’s why, rather than perfect health, I’ve decided to make my next year(s) about striving for simple, good health.