After 30 years, it finally happened: I was on the verge of going to seed.
Bereft of a desire to exercise, but happily pinioned to a demanding graduate school program and a new writing career, I was feeding my mind but spending a prodigious number of hours on my bum. Hours that would have normally seen me outdoors on a run or ride were filled by slouching in front of, say, a string of Frederick Wiseman documentaries, or composing reams of content for Sustainable Play, an e-zine devoted to celebrating the human-powered activities I was now avoiding like the ebola virus. Unable to shut off my overstimulated and increasingly hypertrophic brain come eventide, I had taken to gobbling Ambien like M&Ms to induce a few hours of shallow sleep. Upon rising, I would drink very strong coffee, down a bagel with peanut butter, and call it good until evening, when I’d binge eat. And start all over again.
I knew I was walking a razor’s edge between health and despair, and I, more than most, had a compelling reason to change my profligate ways, and find my own true path to “sustainable play.” This effort was gonna require a bit more than a stand-up desk.
On April 4, 1983, at approximately 11:30 p.m., Richard H. Rassler, an athletic and handsome 44-year old commercial real estate entrepreneur — my father — stepped out of his West Bloomfield Hills, Michigan home for a late-night run. Five hours later, he was found dead on a neighbor’s lawn, where he had been felled by a massive heart attack.
His father, Jack, had died of the same condition just eight years prior, at age 62. Julian, my mother’s father, had suffered a stroke at 50, and died of heart failure 11 years later. And my younger brother, who certainly hadn’t intended to follow in our father’s footsteps, stopped by an ER in 2008 because he wasn’t feeling quite himself, and four hours later he had four new tubes feeding his heart muscle. He was 43 when he had the quadruple bypass, and thanks to the heart surgeon, he’ll turn 50 this summer.
But mine is not exactly an auspicious family medical Hx.
Richard H. Rassler (right) 1938 – 1983 / Rassler collection
I was 21 when my father passed, and his death hit hard. I swore not to succumb to the same premature fate, so I set out to understand how I might make my arteries slick as teflon. I adopted the Pritikin diet, and launched into a running habit that morphed from 30 miles a week into an obsessive and increasingly fast 90. When I became so emaciated that I could tie a standard bandana around my waist with fabric to spare, my mother and stepfather made clear that I looked unwell — like a concentration camp internee, they said — and the bade me to lighten up on my ascetic ways. (The long-distance running crowd I had taken to hanging out with was warped enough to consider the “you look as skinny as a concentration camp prisoner” a compliment of the highest order).
But truth was, I was a fit and happy young animal. And so I remained until I hit my 41st birthday, when weird stuff started to happen. I began to experience episodic chest pain so severe that I became habituated to emergency room protocol. I was sent home after each of the eight or so times I had rushed to the hospital, with a prescription of Prilosec in hand, but no idea of what was causing my distress. A false positive on a nuclear treadmill test led to an angiogram that revealed pristine pipes, but it wasn’t until this past year that a UCSF gastroenterologist concluded that esophageal spasms had been my bane. But that diagnosis came after a host of other niggling medical concerns, some quite legitimate, some bizarre and some, frankly, fueled by my increasing anxiety (which kicked in in earnest in my 44th year), that I’d drop dead as suddenly as my father had.
At 52, I’ve exceeded his lifespan, and up until the past year or two, have stayed fairly active and fit. But given my troubling family history, I’ll have to be vigilant about my health to make it to 75, the average life expectancy of a Caucasian U.S. male. And if I’m not destined to become an outlier on the far side of the bell shaped curve, I hope to wiggle past its apex. I’ve still got stuff to do. But my current path isn’t going to take me there.
Sitting’s the New Smoking
A plethora of studies have been released in the last many years positing that exercise is a “non-negotiable” to attain a healthy body and mind. In addition to the basics: improved cardiovascular system, lubrication of joints, staving off diseases, maintaining memory, etc, exercise also acts as an anti-anxiolytic, an anti-depressant and even a catalyst for creating states of euphoria (the hormone anandamide, released when engaged in endurance activities, contains endocannabinoids — our bodies’ very own marijuana analog). Whether it’s running, cycling, hiking, walking – it doesn’t much matter what a body does, as long as it doesn’t just sit there, because sitting, peer-reviewed studies have shown, is deadly. The new smoking, in fact.
In theory, I simply needed to consistently move my body vigorously to reap a host of benefits that, if not lead to a longer life, certainly contribute to one with more vitality. In practice, however, I knew from years of exercising that nothing kickstarted my mind’s resolve to set body in motion like a compelling athletic goal; especially one I considered beyond my ability.
So a goal I’d need. And I’d need help to accomplish it.
The Power of Coaching
I’ve seen all manner of endurance athletes come up lame when their enthusiasm outpaced their connective tissues, exercising so hard they were working counter to actual fitness. And who can blame them? It seems the public is introduced to new truths in exercise and diet every year, and the myriad voices are confounding and often contradictory. It seemed prudent and expedient to reach out to people whose lives were devoted to grokking the truth, and to rely on them to filter the bits that were most relevant to me.
As an organizational development consultant and executive coach, I’ve been approached by ailing organizations wanting help. I’ve been trained to help them solve their own problems, building capacity and organizational self-sufficiency to solve their own problems. Gather metrics, create a strategic plan, and chart progress. I wanted to work with fitness and health professionals who operated in a similar manner.
Coach and collaborator, Julie Young / Julie Young collection
Several years I go I wrote a feature for Tahoe Quarterly about the region’s top 10 guides and coaches, and met Julie Young, founder of O2 Fitness. Young was a leader on the women’s professional cycling peloton in the 90′s, and she’s won many races, but none as prestigious as the 1992 Tour de l’Aude, a stage race often called the women’s version of the Tour de France. She’s still an elite athlete, winning or placing in nearly every human-powered endurance sport as can be found practiced in the Sierra Nevada. As fine as an athlete as she is, however, Young has the reputation of being an even better coach. When I interviewed her, she had impressed me with her commitment to develop her clients’ minds as well as their bodies, leveraging their aspirations and passion to catalyze their training plans, and helping them develop richer lives through sport. She works with her charges in person, even trains with them. She struck me as a kindred spirit when it came to working with people – and I made a mental note that should I ever want a coach, I’d call on Young.
Dr. Andy Pasternak / Pasternak collection
Given my family history, I didn’t want to embark on the Brad 5.2 reset program without metrics, and I thought it prudent to work under the observation of a doctor. My primary health care physician, Andy Pasternak, is a University of Michigan-trained doc who was awarded Northern Nevada’s 2013 Physician of the Year. He’s also an avid Nordic skier, tennis player and trail runner. Pasternak, it turns out, partners with Julie Young through his Silver Sage Sports Performance, which sits astride his family practice.
My decision to work with Pasternak and Young was an easy one to make.
Strapped Down and Maxed Out
On Friday, February 14 — Valentines Day — I headed down to Silver Sage Sports Performance Center after a 12-hour fast, for what would be the first of many tests to come: this time, it was a resting metabolic rate test (RMR), which would determine my body’s consumption of calories when, say, I’m sitting around in my pajamas on a perfectly beautiful Saturday afternoon, writing these very words. Results of the RMR will tell us how much to subtract from calories I’ll burn when I get around to exercising, which in turn will tell us how many calories I’ll need to maintain or lose weight.
Young, who administered the test, described it as straightforward; all I needed to do was chill in a chaise lounge for anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes. Easy enough. But I was meant to do so with a facemask trussed to my cranium, so as not to allow any of my outbreaths to escape into anything but the corrugated pond tubing that trailed from the mask into a device called a Parvo – a name I associated with a particular canine virus. A registered claustrophobic, I found myself thinking about the movie Alien, and the facehugger that inseminates the unfortunate John Hurt character whilst clamped to his mouth, but I attempted to banish the disturbing (but apt) image to concentrate on the present moment while I wondered why the mask’s designer hadn’t taken Semitic noses into account, since mine had the schnoz pocket at full capacity. Young remained in the room, and though tempted to whinge, I truly didn’t want her to think of me as girlie man – just yet – so let the test run, and thankfully it ended after 30 minutes rather than 45.
Attempting to cultivate Parvo mindfulness / Brad Rassler photo
Pasternak came up to the plate next, and with a set of skinfold calipers, went about measuring gobbets of my thigh, waist, and yes, dear reader, what I had come to think of as my chest, but will now refer to as my breast. My height was measured, along with my weight, my waist, arms and breasts, and I recoiled when I was told that 22 of my 163.8 pounds were pure fat. Skinny fat, I think the term is called. In other words, cleave me from the nave to the chops, and you’d find my innards well-marbled. Kobe beef. Veal piccata. Pasternak surprised me by telling me it wasn’t too bad a number, not bad at all, actually pretty good for a sedentary kind of guy – but clearly, I have my work cut out for me.
And so here I am, having survived the poking, prodding, near-suffocation. Soon more tests will come, but Young wants to get me off my lardo butt before plugging me into any additional Parvos. I receive my first assignment on Monday. That gives me the remainder of the weekend to slouch. And slouch I will.
My plan is to concoct an audacious athletic goal to kickstart my exercise mojo and tease me back to into the daily habit of moving my body. The pursuit itself will be a pleasant end result. The process — reestablishing healthful habits — will be the real reward.
I’ll chronicle the journey as the mood suits, and you’re welcome to come along. Just be sure to pack a hefty ration of schadenfreude.