Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Upside of Blood Work

This week I got back the results of my annual blood tests, a preliminary to the annual physical exam.  I don’t love fasting until mid-morning and having blood drawn but this year I was thrilled with the actual results which are a measure of how far I have come – and how much healthier I am – than I was ten years ago.

In my early 50’s my cholesterol had been borderline high but the doctor and I decided to let it go.  By 2000, when I was 55, my total cholesterol was 265, the HDL (good cholesterol) at 80, and the LDL at 163 and the doctor recommended that I start taking statins.  Because of a general aversion to taking medications when I’m not obviously sick, I said, “Let me try diet and exercise instead.”  This kicked off a ten-year quest to finally accomplish what I had wanted to do since my early teens: to get into shape.

During my years in the diet-and-exercise wars I have learned that almost everything works for a while.  This time, in the spring of 2000, I tried the Slim-Fast plan which involves substituting one of their bars or shakes for one meal a day.  I did this for six weeks and lost 10 pounds.  At the same time I started increasing my exercise time at the Y; I had been walking and using a few weight machines but now I started working out on the elipticals.

The following year’s blood work showed that my LDL had gone down 16 points but that was still too high.  I went back to the Slim-Fast program and this time lost about 8 pounds.  I also decided that my balance needed work so I learned how to rollerblade.  At Western Skateland I hung onto the wall and crept around the track while 5-year-olds whizzed by me.  Eventually, I could let go and actually enjoy skating indoors and later outdoors on the newly paved Clear Creek Trail.   My balance improved and I lost inches around the thighs.  By 2002 my LDL was a respectable 109.

By this point I’d become convinced that exercise was magic, that it could transform me into a stronger, healthier person.  In the winter of 2003 when I started having soreness in my shoulders and upper arms I began doing more upper body work.  The pain went away.  For the next few years, things stayed about the same.  I couldn’t seem to lose any more weight and my total cholesterol stayed around 220, a bit high but not enough to worry about.

Then in 2007 I read a great article in the Sunday New York Times magazine about how swimmer Dara Torres, then 41, was trying a new approach in training for the Olympic Games, using lighter weights and stability balls.  While traditional weight lifting uses a limited part of the muscle, stability ball exercises involve stretching, movement, and instability to make the muscle flexible and versatile as well as stronger.  A trainer taught me a few exercises and I found many more in a book called Strength Ball Training by Peter Twist and Lorne Goldenberg. 

By this point, at the end of 2007, I was pretty satisfied with where I was.  My weight had gone from 178 to 155 and my body fat percentage had dropped from the high 30’s to the low 20’s.  My total cholesterol was 208, LDL 106.  But by then I had discovered an unfortunate fact about exercise: if you don’t keep doing harder and harder workouts you lose condition.  In 2008 I began doing training sessions with Greg Simmons, an instructor at Indiana University and a world class weight lifter.  I also tried out some of Tony Horton’s P90X workouts on days when I wasn’t going to the gym.

Last year Greg and his wife Susan, also a kinesiologist at IU, started me on a custom-designed cardio program using technology from New Leaf Active Metabolic Training  An initial test measures how your body uses oxygen.  Based on the results, a cardio workout is designed that improves your body’s ability to burn fat.  With the help of this program, my weight is now 143, body fat around 12%, LDL and HDL cholesterol both in the mid-90’s.  At this point I don’t want to lose any more weight or body fat; it’s a matter of maintaining the present levels   At 65, I feel much better than I did in 2000, I sleep soundly and I rarely get sick.  I feel very lucky to have gotten here.

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