Deciding To Live

The pain woke me up.

It wasn’t the first time—not by a long shot—but tonight was bad. Here and there, deep inside my calves and thighs, embers of pain burned. The pain was dull,  stubborn, and pulsed with my heart.

I tried to tell myself I was having cramps. Something exercise-related. That happens, right? Means you need to eat a banana. I flexed my ankles and calves, trying to work the cramps out without waking my wife. Nothing helped.

And then, clarity: I’m going to die.

I’m a former enlisted U.S. Marine and Naval Officer with twelve years of service, and I’ve been one kind of martial artist or another most of my life. I know what it’s like to be in peak physical condition. Here’s me twenty years ago, at the rail of a captured smuggler in the Persian Gulf, with the mother ship riding shotgun on the horizon:

Summer 1997: 27 and in peak condition

But now I run a software company, and I travel more or less continuously. Four or five days a week I live in a hotel and eat in restaurants when I’m not dragging the weekly laundry through another airport. I probably spend too many weeknights in bars.

Also, I’m a coder. And when I’m in the zone—which had better be often—I spend hours on end sitting in a chair without moving a muscle beyond what it takes to click a mouse or tap a keyboard. I’m… elsewhere.

A few years of this kind of living, coupled with the stress of a failing marriage, produced radical changes in my body composition and overall state of health. Here’s me at 45, just a couple of months before that long, dark night. I weigh 195 lbs and my body fat is a good 28%. If I look a little sleepy for a guy on vacation, it’s because the leg pains have just begun to keep me awake:

January 2015: 45 years old, 195 lbs, 28% body fat

Add the road-warrior lifestyle to the endless hours of sitting and you have a ticking time bomb, health-wise. A poor diet and not enough exercise or sleep combine with hours and hours of sitting to produce Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT): blood clots deep in your body, which at any moment can take a ride through your bloodstream and lodge in lungs or brain, producing pulmonary embolism or stroke.

And the most common first symptom of either of those conditions? Sudden death. Do not pass GO.

Deep Vein Thrombosis

I couldn’t just stop working. I was a victim of my own success: I had a wife just launching a music business, a stepson in middle school, a mortgage to pay, a condo association to run, and a growing business of my own, and they all needed needed all of my attention, all the time. I was achieving the life I wanted for my family, if not for myself, and it was killing me.

I was terrified.

That night was just under three years ago. As soon as the sun rose I went out and got a gym membership and a personal trainer and began the long march back to health. There were injuries and setbacks along the way, but after about a year and a half I had a trainer I liked, a routine that worked pretty well, and I felt like I was out of the woods. The pain in my legs was gone.

The trouble was, I wasn’t very far out of the woods. The leg pain was gone, but everything else hurt. I only got in one or two workouts a week, and after each one I wondered if perhaps I’d reached the point in life where age was the limiting factor. I had a physical exam at the end of the summer, and the results were depressing: blood pressure, triglycerides, and bad cholesterol all too high, vitamin D and bone density too low. I wasn’t in trouble, but I wasn’t far from it, either.

My training regimen and my state of health had plateaued. I probably wasn’t going to stroke out in my sleep, but I was getting cortisone shots in my shoulder, I remained one careless movement away from a serious lower back spasm, and I had a belly that just wouldn’t go away. I weighed 189 lbs, I had reduced my body fat to 18%, and I was miserable at home and in my own body. That was a bit more than a year ago.

August 2016: Plateaued, demoralized, and in pain. 189 lbs, 18% body fat

Then, one week at the end of August, two events turned my life completely upside down.

One is easy to explain: I finally bit the bullet and walked out of my failing marriage. After a week of sheer terror it hit me that I’d already lived through all the worst parts and my outlook immediately, dramatically improved. Enough said about that.

The other was much more subtle. My trainer made a couple of suggestions—not for the first time—and, for a change, I listened. As an experiment, I made a couple of minor changes to my diet.

Coincidentally, I had just begun another period of intensive travel, so I was spending a lot of time in hotels again. One night a day or two into my first trip, out of sheer boredom, I went down and worked out in the hotel gym.

It didn’t hurt.

Encouraged, I did it again the next night. Not only did I not hurt… I felt great!

It took about four weeks to figure out that something extraordinary had happened. By this time—in four weeks, remember—my weight had dropped from 189 to 174 lbs, and my body fat had dropped from eighteen percent to… eight.

You read that right. A few minor dietary changes, plus an hour of moderately intense exercise 3-4 times a week, reduced my overall body fat by over half… in a month! My clothes were falling off.

I immediately made an appointment with my doctor to rule out cancer. Just my luck, I thought. But when the blood work came back, the results were shocking for an entirely different reason. Every metric that had previously been a cause for concern had shifted to the other end of the scale. Every. Single. One. Not only had I packed a year’s worth of body composition improvement into just four weeks… my effective age, as determined by my blood work, had rolled back twenty years, and I’d done it without exercising much discipline or even really giving it much thought at all beyond those initial dietary changes.

Plus I didn’t have cancer. I felt like I’d discovered a time machine.

So now I was interested. I bought a fancy scale with an app to track weight and body composition. I started paying attention, reading, asking questions, and trying to understand just what was happening to me. My goal was to learn what was causing the effects I was experiencing so that I could produce them on purpose, rather than by accident.

I also resolved to start taking a selfie after every workout, as a way of tracking qualitative changes in my body. Here’s the very first one I took in October, just four weeks into this experience:

October 2016: Four weeks in. 174 lbs, 8% body fat

If I look a little bemused, it’s because I feel great but none of my suits fit any more. Nice problem to have.

Fast forward another year. The workouts got pretty intense. Not because I was on some kind of a mission… mostly just because I could. Along the way I learned some lessons that I think apply far beyond the gym, lessons that have impacted my business, my relationships, and the way I approach the world. I learned how to solve hard self-discipline problems in the real world the same way we used to solve hard math problems in engineering school: by transforming the hard problem into an easy one and then solving that one instead.

So where am I now?

September 2017: The one-year point. 158 lbs, 3.5% body fat

I actually hit this point about six months ago, and except for getting slowly stronger, I’ve been stable ever since. So we’re in maintenance mode.

Just to be clear:

  • I travel at least four days a week. I stay at the same hotels and eat at the same restaurants as you do.
  • I work out 4-5 days a week, but rarely longer than 90 minutes at a time. When all I have is a hotel gym, I make do.
  • I’m kind of a foodie. If getting here had required an unpleasant diet, it would have been a non-starter for me.

So why am I telling you all this? I’d like to share what I’ve learned:

  • The critical insights into diet that set my feet on the road to health.
  • The workouts and routines I’ve developed that have enabled me to train intensively and efficiently on whatever equipment I can find.
  • The tactics and tricks I use to eat well and stay healthy at home and on the road.
  • The novel approach to self-discipline that has transformed the way I live in my body, run my business, and experience the world.

If you’re a road warrior and have any interest in dying of old age, I probably have your full attention right now.

More to come.

death is patient but
nothing cheats the reaper like
deciding to live

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