A friend recommended an episode of The Drive podcast run by Peter Attia, a physician obsessing about “the applied science of longevity.” I’d listened to one episode a year back and had rejected the series, simply because Attia is incredibly intense, almost too intense to be convincing. But this episode, (#217, would you believe it?) interviews a particularly distinguished exercise physiologist and researcher turns out to be exactly what interests me right now.
So … my situation is that I’ve exercised regularly (albeit never very expertly) for decades. My recent cardiac health scare, far from reassuring me, has unsettled my exercise routines, because I ask myself questions. Questions such as … with exercise seeming more onerous as one ages, is it worthwhile? Surely the longevity effects of exercise accrue with time, so after fifty years of reasonable diligence, isn’t another ten years’ worth of questionable value? Isn’t this phase of life best spent “relaxing a bit”? And so on and so on.
So this episode has, some ten minutes in, has already struck me as revelatory, as both conversationalists seem to be saying that exercise has a much higher impact than diet, something the press seems to express the opposite view on. I think I’ll spend quite some time on this podcast over the next few days, digesting and concluding.
Some folks adore trips to the gym. Others, like me, struggle to get there, oscillating between a sense of achievement and feelings of boredom and suffering. As part of the Health Big Year, I’m attempting to embrace the very modern view that regular gym sessions (that is, more frequently than twice a week) are vital defences against heart attack, strokes, cancers, and Alzheimer’s.
So … the best way I have come across to maintain gym motivation is to make it part of a routine early in the morning. Three times a week, I aim to carry out 5 AM stretches at home, then to head to Visions Gym in Hawthorn before 6 o’clock. Breakfast at 7:15 usually feels great!
“I’m just a city boy,” I recall gasping to an experienced hiker when I embarked on a long, back-country journey with a group. It was true. For sixty years, the closest I came to genuine wildness and “real nature” was mowing the lawn (something I now abhor, lawns, that is). Then I spent a decade jutting myself into “wilderness,” sometimes on the fringes of cities, sometimes way out woop-woop. The experience hurt me, in the sense that I often felt challenged and (yes!) scared (scared as only a city boy can be scared). This period changed me deep inside, but in particular shifted my worldview towards the thinking of those who see the human race as part of our planet’s diverse ecosystems.
Now I’ve changed once more. Suddenly I no longer wish to test my physical limits. Suddenly I can make do with my memories and the surfeit of nature imagery and writing available to anyone seeking it. Suddenly I resent the time imposts of bushwalking/hiking, etc. The one aspect of my former exploration that remains thrilling is birdwatching, so that’s what I’ve enjoyed over the last two years, birding time out in nature without the need to hike and suffer.
Will I change once more? Will the classic mountain hikes (Feathertop, Mont Blanc, Snowdon) call to me? Will inter-village/town treks (Great Britain’s national trails, the byways of Italy, the new vistas of eastern Europe, the river valleys of France) once more fill up my days? We shall see, we shall see.
The last ten days or so, the first real work days of the Publication Big Year, have turned out to be nothing like what I’d planned. I’d planned to schedule some half-days off (grandparenting, a lunch, a busy housekeeping session), with the rest of the time uniformly productive, kicking off with regular early waking times. Instead I’m sleeping in a bit, work in jags of intensity, then slacken off, all of it a chaotic mix of emotions. I’m hitting my hourly targets and the work is pretty high quality (i.e. I’m making progress, as they say), but uncertainty pervades every day.
Well, today I’ve decided to take an extra half-day off to read a bit of philosophy, something I rarely do. Anthony Grayling is giving a talk this evening in Melbourne entitled “For the Good of the World.” I can’t get to it but instead I’ve snapped up a copy of the book and will sink in. The subtitle appeals: Why Our Planet’s Crises Need Global Agreement Now.
Oh, it’s worth adding that the Big Year concept is adding something. I am, notwithstanding the emotional agitation, sticking to the task, day in, day out.
Blood pressure, who pays any attention to that? I never did, over the decades when I thought my fitness, secured through persistent jogging, guaranteed basic health. Well, now that I’m classified as having mild non-obstructive coronary artery disease, and can see that recent assessments mention “mild hypertension,” I need to get a handle on the old blood pressure thingy.
So I bought a thingy, a Blood Pressure Monitor. My Big Year challenge on Wednesday was to learn how to use it. Turns out, it’s a simple process, exactly like what happens at the doctor’s. On Thursday, I forgot to take a measurement, but yesterday and today I remembered, hopefully locking in daily data additions.
So far my three measurements have been 130/90, 132/96, and 149/92. What do those numbers mean? At first glance, yes, I’m a little high, even for my age, but I’ll take a closer look.
Can one reduce blood pressure through healthy living? Again, I don’t know. Yet.
The first week of the Publication Big Year has been a roller coaster. On the plus side, I have been emotionally committed to the end goal over each of the seven days, even on September 1 and 2, travel days. Over four workdays (including a rapidly disappearing today) I’ll get in about 20 hours of drafting, only two-thirds of my goal. I’ve been disciplined in the mornings, wayward after lunch. In my defence, I’ve had three club meetings (including one I hosted, requiring housecleaning and cake baking); have seen my cardiologist, therapist, and physio; and have joyously introduced myself to a new grandson.
But I am disappointed. I’m mired in one chapter and terrified of rejoining another chapter that is mostly drafted but mostly badly drafted.
Okay. Time to regroup. I’ll focus this afternoon on a new week-by-week publication plan, then on diving into the shit chapter. Then Saturday (tomorrow is a grandparenting day) … back in the full swing of a productive day.
Daily more-than-usual attention to something called “health” is not straightforward, at least not to me. Two days ago, I set myself, on my second Health Big Year day, a basic task of volition, calling it “salad.” Yesterday, a day of travel, didn’t offer anything as easy, so instead I turned to another Big Year activity, that of self-education. If I can’t make an actual impact today, let me reach for half an hour (no more, we don’t have time for more!) of reading about the mysteries of health.
And mysteries abound in spite of the confidence of most people about “how to be healthy.” It’s easy to see that such confidence is nonsensical because “most people” disagree with each other.
So let’s start with Why We Get Sick: The Hidden Epidemic at the Root of Most Chronic Disease – and How to Fight It by Benjamin Bikman, a metabolic scientist and author. First off, it’s clear Bikman has a unifying theory on modern human morbidity.
In my allotted half-hour, here’s what I think he’s saying: we eat way too much processed carbs (in particular sugars); our insulin levels spike too often; cells that need insulin to deliver energy start to resist so much insulin; the body produces more insulin to compensate, setting off a bad cycle: and (here’s the theory) all those affected cells break down or do unhealthy things; at the same time, too much insulin floats around in our blood and causes damage.
And the consequence is described by Jason Fung (a kidney specialist and author of clearly related titles like The Obesity Code, The Diabetes Code, and The Cancer Code): “The top two causes of death, as well as five of the top seven causes (heart disease, cancer, cerebrovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and diabetes), are related to chronic metabolic diseases. … You’re about to learn that a lot of it comes down to one root cause: insulin resistance and hyperinsulinemia (meaning too much insulin in the blood).”
My health scare related to heart disease, so that’s why I’m vitally interested in Bikman’s theory. But also if insulin resistance leaves me vulnerable to cancers, stroke, or Alzheimer’s, what can be more important than sorting this out intellectually (and then via action)?
Yesterday was the final day of a week of writing in Margaret River. What makes it stand out for me is that my seven days of deskwork occurred at the same time as Pam’s 130-kilometer Cape to Cape pack carry hike. She’s doing exactly what I used to relish, a tough physical adventure away from society, and she’s had a river crossing drama that in the past would have been part of my life’s narrative.
Why am I not hiking? When asked, I say I’m lazy or not sufficiently walk-fit (this is valid but not a sufficient excuse, I’ve hiked when tender of foot before), but the truth is, I decided writing was more important to me.
So I’ll end up having nothing to talk about on my return home, having foregone a narrative of at least moderate interest to many. Do I now have regrets? A few, mostly around questions of pride: am I not strong enough, brave enough? But at another private level, the writing week I had was as much of a struggle as the Cape to Cape would have been, and I had thrilling moments equal to any I’d have experienced on a clifftop or beach or night-black campsite.
At the end of last month, I got in to see a cardiologist, I guess because my “calcium score” on a CT-CA scan (my GP wanted to persuade me to take statins) was 600, with 400+ being “extreme.” My brother had just had a quadruple bypass and our father had had angina for years before dying of a heart attack. The cardiologist told me to expect the worst and organised me for an angiogram a few days later.
Fronting up, nervous, I listened to his pre-procedure briefing. Again, he warned me. An angiogram is an amazing procedure, shimmying up through a tiny hole in an arm, giving the cardiologist intimate access to the arteries around the heart, all done with a general anaesthetic. I drifted off. When the cardio, sweaty with hard labour, briefed me a little time later, at first I could not comprehend. Apparently, only one artery is partly blocked but not consequentially, and no action need be taken. I have a clean bill of health, can jog to my heart’s content, can hike up steep mountains.
That was my “health scare” that ended up with “good news.”
But I’m not satisfied. Why the giddy calcium score? Am I low risk now for a heart attack? If so, why am I taking statins? Do statins work? What are my morbidity/mortality risks? Was my previous diet/exercise regime (fashioned with some thought) adequate or, better still, optimal? What about other “older person” risks such as cancer and Alzheimer’s? Should my “health scare” prompt relaxation or should I change up how I eat and how I exercise?
All these questions and many more not even formulated prompt me to start this Healthy Big Year, which I’ll actually run for sixteen months (since a Big Year best fits a calendar year but I want to start now). As with all Big Years, I commit to a daily task. In this case, each day I shall either do something positive for health and longevity or I’ll spend half an hour researching what I should be doing.
I sigh, aware that this Healthy Big Year may well prove to dull as dull can be. So be it. By putting focus where I should, surely at the end of 2023 I’ll have resolved all my many questions? Surely?
My nuclear history book has crushed the patience of all those around me. Well over a decade on one book … you’ve got to be kidding, right? But I can tell you, it has more than crushed my patience, it has come close to devastating me, to the extent of threatening the vary basis of the meaning I ascribe to life. Luckily, family and friends have buoyed me, and my first foray into therapy has, to my surprise, rejuvenated my stock of existential meaning, at the same time that a “health scare” that was not a “health event” has widened my window of opportunity.
Hence this latest Big Year, a “Publication Big Year.” It won’t have any physical drama, nor any fascinating “bucket list” events, nor any revelatory investigations. It’s a grifting, grafting, grinding big year. I have a publication plan (which, right now, needs amending), I have as clean a slate of distractions as I can recall, and I have a honed “method” of daily work.
I’ll leave it at that for now. All this big year requires is daily work on the book (with hopefully few days off over the next fifteen months). All that I’ll blog about is the daily battle and the progress against plan.
For some reason, I’m as juiced up by this boring big year as I was over the more dramatic big years in the 2015-2020 period. What a thrill, starting tomorrow!