Genetically speaking, I was born to be a fairly lean guy at 5′ 11″ and a healthy weight of somewhere around 160#. I was only about 145# when I graduated high school, but by my mid-20s I was about 160# and a normal healthy size. Unfortunately, I had developed the typically American habit of eating whatever the hell I wanted, and I had also been raised to learn the “grew up in Wisconsin in the 1970s” habit of drinking as much beer as I wanted. I had a fast metabolism and could have probably handled one or the other, but the combination of the two eventually got me. Here are a few pics in my 20s—I was very slowly gaining weight, but I looked normal and was having a hell of a lot of fun!
At age 30 I was probably up to around 170#, and I surely couldn’t wear those Levi’s with the 29″ waist anymore! I was starting to get the typical beginner’s beer gut and small “love handles” and I was gradually buying slightly larger clothes. At that point in life I was mostly writing for a living and I had just gotten started in the advertising production business. Sandy & I met on a shoot and got together when I was 31, and having an awesome cook at home didn’t hurt my porky transformation either—Hahahaha! Here is a pic from this era, and you can see that I was starting to put on a few.
I quit smoking cigs around age 33, and although that was a good thing I was ramping up my beer consumption and began a 15-year era of “work hard, play hard” in the extreme. I was literally doing one or the other or both every waking moment, and although I was psychologically wired to be perfectly happy doing that, my body was suffering physically. By my early 40s, I weighed close to 200# and I can safely say from what I learned later as a fitness freak that it caused my health to suffer substantially. My main problems were serious issues with high blood pressure caused by being fat and gout caused by drinking waaaaay too much alcohol. I used to wake up most days with painful creaky joints from head to toe and a hangover to one degree or another. Of course, all this could be “cured” by a few cups of coffee and another 15-hour day of work! I still remember my doctor telling me that the blood pressure meds were no longer working and that she would have to keep increasing the dosage, OR I could just STOP EATING AND DRINKING SO MUCH.
Of course, I ignored her advice until I learned something very important and had a painful epiphany on my 48th birthday in 2010. The epiphany was both instant and powerful, and I knew my life would be forever changed. It was very tough at the time, but it’s one of the things I’m most grateful for to this day. Hell—I could have already been dead from a heart attack a few years ago rather than battling ALS today. (Again—the irony of life rears its ugly head—Hahahaha!!!)
I decided right then and there that I was going to take a more well-balanced approach to life and get with my physical side which until then had been completely ignored at the expense of the cerebral/business and hedonistic “work hard, play hard” mantra I had chosen to live by until then. To me, “work hard, play hard” seemed quite balanced, but as we get older we have to invest some time and effort in the maintenance of one’s physical health. I was trying to keep driving my 120,000-mile body at top speed without ever once stopping for an “oil change.” What an idiot I was!
Within a day or two of my 48th birthday, I had gone on the Atkins diet and limited my alcohol consumption to 3 Michelob Ultras a day. That might not sound like much of a sacrifice to you, but for a boozing Cheesehead like me, it was like a religious conversion! I allowed myself the 10g of carbs from the Ultra, and the rest came from vegetables only. No bread, rice, pasta, fruit, soda or anything else with a carbohydrate in it. And I stuck to this for at least a year.
About a week later, I joined the gym and was getting up at 5am every day to go swimming. I chose swimming because my gout was so bad I couldn’t possibly walk or run any significant distance. And get this—I was in such pathetic shape that I couldn’t really even swim laps in a traditional sense. The only stroke I had enough endurance to do was one LENGTH of a face-above-the-water, old lady breast stroke and a walk back to the beginning end of the pool and repeat. Seriously?!! I was in pretty bad shape.
But what did surprise me was the relative speed with which my old body adapted and rose to the occasion in terms of both diet and exercise. In a few months or so I had lost about 20 pounds and could swim the real breast stroke continuously, albeit pretty slowly. My gout disappeared relatively quickly so I started walking/jogging and lifting a few weights at home. I had a stationary bike too and added that to the list. I wouldn’t have believed it myself, but within 6-8 months, this old fart could jog 5 miles, swim for 30 minutes nonstop, and lift a few weights! And I got off the blood pressure meds because my BP had dropped back down to about 120/75 and my resting heart rate went from about 80 to 65. Who knew this diet and exercise shit really worked?!!!!
The one mistake I did make though was in doing the same 12 or so weightlifting exercises 2-3 times a week. The problem was that they were all upper body and all pushing exercises (no pulling), and they threw my shoulder joints out of whack to the point that I couldn’t even lift my right arm from the pain! Ever the voice of reason, Sandy encouraged me to ask our neighbors for a referral to their personal trainer, and my days as a gym rat officially began! I’ll say this right now and reiterate it later: NO STEROIDS, drugs or anything other than a healthy diet and exercise were involved in my physical transformation. I’ve been asked/accused, had erroneous assumptions made, and no freaking way did I “cheat.” I was 100% “natty” (fitness-speak for “natural”) all the way.
I told Rachel the trainer what I was doing; she laughed, showed me the right way to train, trained me herself 2-3 times a week in the gym and gave me an exercise plan for home. I trained with Rachel for a couple of years and got really good results for a 50-year-old dude who started out as a fat slob! Here are a few pics after about 6 months on my own losing weight and 6 months in the gym with Rachel. I stayed around 170# and about 15%-18% body fat or so but was continuously losing fat and building muscle.
Rachel eventually got a real job as a physical therapist for the benefits, and I moved on to Julian and Dave, two of the trainers who owned “The Yard,” the gym where I was training with Rachel. I was in pretty good shape already, but those guys had been chomping at the bit for a couple of years to get their hands on me and train me like one dude trains another. In their minds, Rachel was good for the beginner that I was but now I was ready for the real deal!!
Julian was a younger guy about 30 who regularly entered bodybuilding shows and had even won a couple. Dave was a retired wrestling coach about my age, and I nicknamed him “Dr. Triceps” because he was a master of that particular muscle as you can clearly see from his photo! They both took me to school on the finer points of weightlifting, and I achieved both strength and a look I never thought possible in my 50s. Julian took more of an overall body approach using a lot of traditional strength training exercises like the bench press, lunges, shoulder presses, lat pulldowns, etc.
Dave on the other hand was more of an isolation guru and would invent his own exercises to specifically target certain muscles in certain ways. His particular specialty was the triceps muscle because according to his logic, it was the largest muscle in the arm and needed to be properly targeted for maximum upper arm size. I certainly think photos of both he and I prove that his theory was sound! Here are a few pics of me around age 52-54 after a couple of years with Julian and Dave. At this point I was about 160# and 10%-12% body fat and at my physical peak before my disease started a short time later.
If it seems like I’m bragging in words and pics, I definitely am, and there are two reasons for this. (And, hey–I posted my fat, ugly pics at the beginning, so fair is fair–Hahahaha!) First and foremost, I want to impress upon everyone reading this that they too can achieve things they never thought possible and at any age. I had no idea I could achieve what I did, and I don’t want anyone else to underestimate their potential. Too many people invent bogus excuses in their minds about why they can’t do something (particularly diet and exercise related!), and I’ve heard them all since I became fit. I’ve had literally hundreds of people essentially ask me some version of of question about what my “magic” diet or “special” exercise regimen is (and I’ll repeat myself again for those who think I must have “cheated” in some way–It never involved steroids or anything other than a few completely legal nutritional supplements available anywhere!), and when I tell them my story, I always hear some version of an excuse about why they can’t do why they couldn’t possibly do what I did for 100 bogus “reasons.” I’m telling you in all honesty that I never even intended to take things this far or would have believed it were possible. My original intention was simply to lose 25 pounds and tone up a bit, but my endorphins kicked in and got the best of me–Hahahaha!
Most people who asked me about fitness were really only looking to lose weight (or more accurately body fat), and I told them I had very good news for them. Weight loss is typically 80% diet and 20% exercise, so if they hit me with excuses about their “bad knees” or “busy schedule” preventing them from spending a few hours a week exercising, my answer was “No problem at all. Just stop stuffing your face with too much of the wrong food, and you will lose a pound a week.” I often showed them the meme below when the excuses for being overweight led in the direction of “secret, magic, trendy diets.” There is way too much of that bullshit going on these days. I simply told them to pick the one which most agreed with their taste buds and to stick to it. This pretty much says it all…
The second reason I’m bragging about my physical success is that I believe people should be proud of their achievements in any area and advertise the fact (within reason, of course!) Someone has to lead the way and set the right example, and although it wasn’t my initial intention to lead anyone in this area, it’s become my role to help people whether I like it or not (and yes, I liked it—Hahaha!) And I work in advertising, so I know damned well that people don’t buy the “product” unless you make it look its best and sell the shit out of it by any means necessary! Be proud, act proud, talk your shit up, and encourage others to do the same.
Here area a few more pics, and I had also taken up trail running at this point. Sherry had gotten me into hiking with her, and I soon discovered how much I loved the trails. While she was at work, I would run the trails alone, and I was one of those crazy guys who did 5-6 mile runs in South Mountain Park in July when it was 112 degrees outside. I would laugh at the signs saying it was too dangerous and loved having the trail all to myself (except for the snakes, Jean–Hahahaha!) As I think back on it, I’m damned lucky I never wiped out and knocked myself unconscious on the middle of the trail somewhere. I would have likely died from the heat because nobody would have found me for a day or so. Irony is everywhere…
It became my intention a few years ago to become a personal trainer and probably open a small gym as my “semi-retirement” career. I had thought advertising would eventually slow down for me, but it never did, and then I became too ill with ALS to work at all. As part of my preparation for my next fun career, I wrote a couple of simple nutrition primers which I planned to give to my future fitness clients. That never happened, but they really are about 90% complete, so I’m going to attach them here in case anyone wants to check them out and benefit from some simplified but effective guidelines for weight loss. I know most people won’t overcome the weight-loss inertia if they have to buy and read an entire book on the latest trendy diet, so I did my best to condense what worked for me into just 7 pages total. My approach is low-carb, low-fat, but others will work too. But mine is only 7 pages, it works, and it’s free!
Honestly, I was so far ahead of the fitness game for someone my age that I’m guessing it helped me stay a step or two ahead of my disease as I went down fighting. I’m proud of the fact that I exercised as long as I could to the point of doing it in a wheelchair until the resulting physical fatigue was so great that I couldn’t do anything else. And I’m still really bummed about that, but part of my “55 rock star years” were my 8 years of physicality and fitness. It is something I’m still very grateful for and remember with joy in my heart…