Yes, I realize that is an incongruous headline, as I type this on Star Wars Day (May the Fourth). As I think about it, “May the Force stay with you” would be appropriate, too, given that I’m going to talk about one of the most important forces in our lives: our individual health. Tami’s written quite a few articles on health, here, and fitness, there; I’m not going to try to top any of those. Instead, I want to relate a somewhat cautionary tale, in the hope that someone can benefit from my experience.1
In mid-December last year, just before we left for our Christmas trip to Oahu, I went in for a routine eye exam. Routine, in that there wasn’t any particular problem I was concerned about; not so routine in that it had been more than five years since I’d had one.2 As part of the procedure, the optometrist had her technician take my blood pressure. She took it twice, just to be sure of the reading: 177/86.
For those of you unfamiliar with blood pressure measurements (i.e., you younger folks, generally), blood pressure (BP, henceforth) is measured in mg of mercury, just as barometric pressure is. The first number is systolic pressure, the pressure when your heart beats, forcing blood through your arteries and veins. The second number is diastolic, and is the pressure on your arteries when the heart rests between beats.
Normal BP is 120/80, or lower. Pre-hypertension is 120-139/80-89. Stage 1 hypertension (the fancy word for high blood pressure) is 140-159/90-99. Stage 2 hypertension is 160/100 or greater. Here’s the important thing to keep in mind:
If your readings fall into two different categories, your correct blood pressure category is the higher category. For example, if your blood pressure reading is 125/95 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg), you have stage 1 hypertension. [Source: Mayo Clinic website.]
So, looking back at my 177/86 number, I was clearly in stage 2. To put it baldly, given my age (60) and weight (unfortunately, in the obese category), plus my father’s history of heart disease and my mother’s high BP, I was a better-than-average candidate for a stroke, and possibly a heart attack.
You might have a stroke, so go on vacation. Twice.
What did I do with that knowledge? Not a damned thing. Obviously, not one of my wisest decisions, and certainly not one I’m proud of in any way. On the other hand, I passed on climbing to the top of Diamond Head crater, on what was probably the hottest day we had in Hawaii.
When we got back from Hawaii, I laid off quite a bit on eating wheat, and carbohydrates in general. But it was winter, and I don’t like going outside in the cold, especially to exercise. Still, my weight dropped from 220.2 lbs on January 7 to 215.2 on March 8. I suppose, because the weight was coming off at a reasonable rate, I rationalized not going to a doctor. I also slacked off my “diet.” By April 18, thanks in part to almost three weeks in California, a lot more beer, wine, and margaritas than I drink at home, and being in vacation mode, I was back up to 222 lbs.
While in California, one night as I was going to sleep, I could feel my pulse throughout my body. And then I noticed something fairly disquieting (or alarming): it seemed my heart was occasionally skipping a beat. I felt my carotid pulse, and there seemed to be no doubt: periodically, but not any regular basis, my heartbeat seemed to be interrupted for a beat. The subsequent beat seemed, to me at least, to be stronger than other beats.
A better idea: see a doctor!
A few days after our return home from California, I (finally) made an appointment to see a doctor about my blood pressure. I went in on April 23, and my blood pressure was measured in my left arm, via machine, at 200/90. YIKES! The nurse then took it manually, and got 187/94. She then measured my right arm, and got 162/100, which is what was formally recorded. The doctor figured the most accurate numbers were somewhere in between; at any rate, he prescribed 10mg/day of Lisinopril, and guessed that dosage would go up.
That day, I also had an electrocardiogram, which came back normal: no arrhythmia or other apparent issues.3
The doctor also scheduled me for a stress test and a consultation with a dietician, both of which I did two days later. By then, I’d taken two doses of Lisinopril. My BP that morning was 177/90, which my doctor opined was probably real close to my baseline. The results of the stress test were also negative for arterial blockage or other damage, so that was a relief. In fact, both doctors present (my doctor, who is a resident, and his boss, who is one of the directors of the residency clinic and, by fortunate coincidence, a cardiologist) were quite pleased—even impressed—by my performance and the results.
A couple hours later, my wife and I met with the dietician. She was very happy with our diet (other than my predilection for appeasing my sweet tooth, which I’d already been abating), and not so much with my (lack of) exercise regimen. She also introduced me to a website for tracking diet and exercise (which, unbeknown to me, my wife has been using for quite awhile), called My Fitness Pal.
The site has a huge database of foods, and it’s pretty easy to add anything that may not be listed there. It’s very easy to track meals and calories (as well as other factors) against a goal. You can enter any type of exercise as well. I’ve been using it religiously since our meeting, and as at least an indirect result, my weight Saturday morning was a five-year low of 213.8 lbs.
Before meeting with the dietician, I gave a blood and urine sample. One of the key tests was for cholesterol. Probably due to having just completed the stress test, my LDL (“bad” cholesterol) was 130—at the very bottom of the “borderline high” part of the scale. HDLs and triglycerides were normal. So the probability of diabetes, or even pre-diabetes, is low, but I still gave another lab sample on Friday to double-check the LDL number.
I wish I’d done this in January
Since my initial doctor’s visit, I’ve had one day (the next) where my weight remained the same, one day of gain, and every other day has seen a loss of weight. Obviously, as heavy as I was (and still am), the pounds will come off fairly quickly. I know that will start to taper off eventually, but I still have set myself a very reasonable goal to be under 200 lbs by January 1, and 180 lbs by January 1, 2015.
Even better, when I went in on Friday, May 3, my blood pressure was 128/79! As a reminder, 120/80 is the considered “normal.” I’m so very, very close, after only ten days. I’m fairly sure my doctor was equally impressed (or surprised). Clearly, the combination of diet, exercise, and medication is having its desired effect. Even better, from my viewpoint, was no increase in the dosage of my medication.
Even an old dog can learn new tricks
For a long time (too long), I’ve had almost the same sense of immortality that we have in our 20s and 30s. Even when I turned 50, I figured I had a good 30-40 years left. Then I had grandchildren, and my mother-in-law passed away. My parents and my father-in-law either died of heart disease or cancer, combined with bad health habits. But my mother-in-law had been in excellent health (for her age) until she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer shortly after her 80th birthday. Her passing really brought home to me that we are all mortal. Then, when I turned 60 last year, and was as heavy as I’d ever been in my life, with a brand-new granddaughter to watch grow up, my eyes were finally—slowly—opened.
I’m having way too much fun at this point in my life not to do those things that will prolong it as much as possible. I want to see those beautiful little girls turn into beautiful grown women, graduate from college, perhaps get married and have children of their own.
I’m damned lucky, and thankful, that I “only” have high blood pressure and a weight problem, especially with my family history. Sure, I’ve dieted before, and I’ve gone on exercise binges, but it was too easy to slack off, especially without some external force—such as a real, no-shit health issue—to keep me on track.
So don’t follow my example, because here’s the truth of it: The stuff we do to ourselves will eventually kill us. But it doesn’t take much to make smart decisions that will put off the inevitable for decades.
Finally, some wisdom from one of my favorite artists, Jimmy Buffett:
Now don’t get me wrong:
This is not a sad song,
Just events that I have happened to witness.
And time takes its toll as we head for the pole,
And no one dies from physical fitness.
So what the hell, we’ll take it right to the end:
As the days grow more complicated the nightlife still wins.
I’m growing older but not up,
My metabolic rate is pleasantly stuck.
Let those winds of change blow over my head
I’d rather die while I’m living than live while I’m dead.
Let those winds of time blow over my head
I’d rather die while I’m living than live while I’m dead.
- Some of you are aware of the broad strokes, some aware of more than that, so if you think, as you read, “I’ve heard this before,” you probably have. ↩
- For the record, my distance vision remains at 20/20; I require slight corrections—1.0 and 1.25 diopters, respectively—for reading and computer work, mostly due to my age. ↩
- I’m still not sure whether I actually had an irregular heartbeat before then: I keep forgetting to ask if the doctor noted it at all. ↩