seniors exercising on beach 2048 x 1370

How do you live a long life? Take a two-mile walk every morning before breakfast.

Harry Truman
33rd U.S. President, who lived to 88

DAWN, n. The time when men of reason go to bed. Certain old men prefer to rise at about that time, taking a cold bath and a long walk with an empty stomach, and otherwise mortifying the flesh. They then point with pride to these practices as the cause of their sturdy health and ripe years, the truth being that they are hearty and old, not because of their habits, but in spite of them. The reason we find only robust persons doing this thing is that it has killed all the others who have tried it.

Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary 

I started taking long walks with my close friend Bob 35 years ago when we were students in Holland. We would walk and discuss the things that young people ponder, passing time in the brisk beautiful outdoor landscape of Northern Europe. We always maintained a quick pace, but never minded the effort, because the activity was filled with ideas and always-inviting scenery.

When I returned home, walking was a habit that stuck with me. When Bob and I lived in the same town, we’d get together regularly to walk the dogs. On my own, I found that I could go out for a stroll and think, chewing on whatever I was working on and, getting a little distance from it, find perspective. Elaine and I still walk, constantly, and that’s where we get some of our best talking in. Walking has been respite from the rush, a place to hash out conflicts or work out plans, a way to meditate and regain balance.

When I left my post at the University of Florida about 20 years ago and returned home, I traded a landlocked town for the coast. As quickly as I could, I resettled within a few blocks of the beach in a small community on an island off Jacksonville, in Northeast Florida. Then, as now, I was literally within a 5-minute walk of a 300 foot wide, hard-packed, sugary white sand beach on the Atlantic, stretching for miles both north and south. In addition to the spectacular, always changing beauty of a vibrant seascape—birds, dolphins, turtle nests, fish and other sealife; the boats and ships just offshore; the surf rolling in and lapping the beach—it was perfect terrain for a habitual walker.

Even so, as easily accessible as it is, and though I know lots of people long for just this sort of environment, there have been periods when I lost my discipline when I took the opportunity for granted and somehow just didn’t get around to it.

Then came the moment 5 years ago when I unexpectedly had open heart surgery, a 5-vessel CABG, the result of lousy genes and the gradual relentless buildup of plaque choking off my blood vessels. During the procedure, they collapsed and then re-inflated my lungs, and I knew it would take work to ameliorate my shortness of breath. I started walking again immediately, through the halls, on the second day in the hospital following my surgery, and by the time I left 3 days later, I was up to walking more than a mile a day.

I continued when I returned home and worked through recovery, and, though, increasing my distance went slowly, I kept at it. During a follow-up with my surgeon, he commented, “The best thing you can become is a walking fool. It’s low impact, steady, and its good for you in all kinds of ways, especially with what you’re up against.”

And then, again, time passed and I got comfortable and distracted. I skipped my walks and then they trickled away until I was just walking weekends again. I told myself that I was really in OK shape, but the truth was that I put on weight and that I had slipped into a malaise.

Recently, I had a discussion with a good friend, a preventive cardiologist, who gave it to me straight. I had shared the numbers from my last blood panel. “Look,” he said, “you’re not taking this seriously. Unless you get your LDLs (the bad cholesterol) down below 60,  you’re going to continue laying down plaque, and the risk increases. If you’re interested in doing what you can do, you need to get religion on this. Get lean. Eat carefully and ramp up your exercise.”

And so I have.

So we’ve cut out most breads and sweets. Cookies are out. Our diet is mostly fruits, veggies, and fish. Once you get your head around it, it makes sense and you gradually lose the longing for the comfort foods: a milkshake, macaroni and cheese, or a fried fish sandwich.

And then there’s the walking. It’s a flat 3 miles, 50 minutes door-to-door, down to the lifeguard station on the beach and back, walking fast. Right now, in the NE Florida swelter, I’m soaked through when I return. I do this twice a day. On my suburban beach, around 6AM, there are 200 people out there walking before work. After work, you see a lot of them again.

An embarrassing quantity of pounds has melted off. I’m becoming leaner and stronger than I’ve been in years. The next blood panel will tell. When I’m tempted by some forbidden food, I think of 60 and my will to shrink the plaque that’s strangling my vessels.

And I walk.

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