Pacific Northwest | July 27, 2003Pacific Northwest MagazineJuly 27, home
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A Work In Progress
Learning to keep in shape is learning to pay attention
A young Richard Seven goes right to the top for direction.
As you can see from this childhood photo, I'm not above asking for help.

Three months ago, I introduced myself as the temporary fitness columnist and a fallen jock in need of a thorough re-education. Readers, trainers, health-club professionals, professors and entrepreneurs generously shared their ideas, support and methods to get me back on track.

One of my many bosses told me that when his wife read I hardly eat, she blurted out something to the effect of, "What an idiot!" I'll take that, and his clear delight in passing it along, as constructive criticism.

I bring up my many flaws and attempts to right them to show how easy it is to become complacent and distracted from what is important. Like all of us, I'm a work in progress, but in just a few months I've learned from and have been inspired by amazing people who incorporate fitness into their lives and brush off limitations. I've tried all kinds of techniques, systems, gadgets and supplements. I've made mistakes and lost considerable time through injury, but I've found a focus that had been lacking.

A quick recap: Three months ago I was too busy to exercise regularly, drank too much coffee, ate and slept too little and battled the daily uncertainty the early stages of multiple sclerosis brings. I was on auto-pilot, somehow failing to notice my decades of healthy living had left me.

My coffee addiction was the easiest change. In one day, I went from a daily average of 10 cups to two. No withdrawal headaches or jitters. I found I could still type without a cup of caffeine keeping me company, that decaf is a reasonable substitute and water is better still.

With coffee under control, I slept better. Sounds obvious, but from experts, research and a night in a sleep center, I also learned about the mechanics of sleep. I learned self-hypnosis to focus on relaxation. That was an epiphany.

With sleep came the energy to exercise more. This proved tricky. My zeal far outpaced my capabilities, my sense of adventure out-yelled my common sense, my memory of athletic glory days bullied present harsh reality. Now, I wrestle with being limited and exercising without a score. That's hard.

Suddenly, exercise is full of complicated questions like, how do I start, maintain, recover, rest, fine tune? Whom do I listen to? Where's the time? As usual, much of what I've learned was from hard knocks, but many of the lessons have been pleasant enough. Pilates helped me rethink core movement. I tried yoga and functional movements, and re-examined posture through an evaluation from a Feldenkrais practitioner. I had my system analyzed by a computer program designed to tell me when my body is in optimal mode for a particular workout.

Some trainers worked me too hard because they expected me to be rational and alert to my limits. I got injured somewhere between power weightlifting and teetering on a bouncy balancing ball. Everybody who evaluated me said I sure didn't look my age, but I sure felt it. Some trainers, on the other hand, were so gentle that I got little from them. The bottom line here is that you're the best judge, so listen to your body.

Last month, I returned to see Dr. Emily Cooper at Prevention Solutions, where I began my baseline assessment three months ago. She gave me a firm lecture on how scattershot my approach has been, then advised: Be sensible and focused; build a solid foundation; track progress; make the time for health; get serious.

Scott Jurek, a physical therapist who works with Cooper, evaluated my strength and balance and gave me a series of core exercises to build that base. Jurek is five-time defending champion of the Western States (100-mile) Endurance Run. You'd think my situation would be a little basic for someone with his résumé, but Jurek's mother has fought MS for 16 years. He gets it.

I'm still eating too lightly, but my calorie consumption has doubled in this time, and it will pick up as I step up the exercise again. Bellevue nutritionist Heather Nakamura helped get me to think about eating, which is an accomplishment. I'm not anal enough to measure cups or servings, so she had me simply track what and when I ate and write down how I felt before and after.

I now make appointments with food. I use the reminder function on my computer to force myself to snack in mid-morning and afternoon. Breakfast — what a strange custom — still goes down hard, but the quicker and simpler it is, the more likely I'll eat it.

Many of these challenges likely don't apply to you, but we can all use a little focus. Fitness, I've come to realize, is as much mental as physical. You just have to pay attention to the most important thing in your life.

I'm starting over, but at least I'm out of the gate and moving the right direction. Now, I just pray I don't hurt myself.

Richard Seven is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer.

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