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On Fitness
Fit For What?
An aging jock learns it's about more than winning
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As a Little Leaguer in Eugene, Ore., No. 5 Richard Seven learned early to equate fitness with competition. But an older, wiser Richard sees things a bit differently now.
Let me introduce myself. That's me, No. 5, a slick-fielding, weak-hitting shortstop for a third-grade Little League team. Well, that used to be me. Now I'm middle-aged, older than Michael Jordan but at least younger than our managing editor. And I'm also your temporary fitness columnist while Molly Martin is off on a luxurious six-month leave.

Little League was a moment of epiphany, leading to a lifelong sports obsession. Playing ball, I learned I loved competing, or more specifically, winning. Growing up among the youngest of 10 children, I learned early about winning and losing, from snatching dinner scraps to battling sisters over whether the one TV set would be showing "Combat" or "Dr. Kildare." You had to be tough in my family. But it wasn't until I wore a mitt that I found purpose.

Winning brought rewards, like free ice-cream cones. I was good enough to get hooked. Then came basketball, then football, soccer and track. I wrestled my brother, a collegiate champion and 12 years older. He just tossed me around, but I didn't take it that way at the time. After college I got wrapped up in handball, an elegantly arcane but demanding sport. I weight-trained, but always with competitive advantage in mind. I ran miles and miles, but always grudgingly if it didn't involve a race.

Fitness meant success, and success kept me blissfully arrogant. My heart rate, cholesterol and body-fat counts were always excellent — even though I never gave them or other dull subjects like diet or sleep any thought.

My perpetual smirk vanished for good one morning in 2001. I woke up and couldn't find my health. I'll spare you the details, but it's called multiple sclerosis, a lifelong disease with severe effects on how your body functions. Epiphany No. 2: Never, as my mother would say, take your health for granted.

Last year was a washout. I did nothing but work and rest. I've been faithful about my MS treatment and am not as affected as many with the disease — yet. By the first of this year, I began going on long walks and lifting light weights. For the first time, I was listening to what my body was saying. Yet, through it all, I clutched delusion as if it were a warm blanket. I mean, I still looked fit.

Epiphany No. 3 came one recent morning when I took a fitness test at Prevention Solutions, a Seattle health clinic. I stepped on a Precor EFX, strapped a mask over my nose and mouth, and a heart monitor across my chest, and got a smooth, deceptively easy 25-minute workout that left me drenched.

"You did great," said Dr. Emily Cooper, who was recording heart rate, oxygen-burning patterns and my perceived exertion levels, "but it looks like you're carbohydrate-starved."

Bottom line: I rob fuel from my muscles because my carb account is so depleted. I burn fuel as efficiently as an SUV engine in a motorcycle's body.

Things got worse when she asked lifestyle questions.

Eating patterns? I barely eat — 700 calories a day, a third of what I should — and usually not until after work. Sleeping patterns? Wildly erratic, some nights one or two hours. Coffee? About 10 cups a day. She nodded and smiled, letting me dig deeper with shovel after shovel full of excuses. Maybe you've used one of these: work, family, too tired, wandering mind. I, of course, used my disease, then stooped to the ridiculous, saying I felt I had banked health over the years.

"You know, your health should be a big part of your daily life," she said in her direct, even tone. "A part you can't skip." I know what you're thinking: Duh! But I hadn't seen it through the daily fog before then.

I scanned the material she gave me on nutrition, lifestyle, training goals and the rest. Even eating in the mornings sounded hard. She said no coffee after 10, and I immediately countered with noon. Still, I blurted, "You know, I'm going to do all this!" Even as I said it, I wondered how many times she has heard empty words masked as commitment.

But I am sincere. I'm ready to learn, and thanks to this column, it's sort of my job. I hope I can relate to the sports-minded zealots because I was one, the physically challenged because I am one, and those who see fitness as a process as well as a result.

I want a rematch with Cooper and that Precor machine in six months, but this column is hardly going to get too serious. I'm looking for people, trends and other stories encompassing fitness. One thing I promise: The old baseball picture goes back in the scrapbook. The glory days are over!

Richard Seven is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff reporter.

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