Thursday, October 9, 2008

A tale of gut and glory

By John McBeth, Senior Writer

WRITING in Vanity Fair recently, Christopher Hitchens struck a chord with me by recounting someone famous saying that if he had known he was going to live this long, he would have taken better care of himself.

Hitchens then went on to give an amusing account of how, in his 59th summer, he had given up smoking, had his teeth straightened, stopped biting his fingernails and bought himself a US$14,000 (S$20,500) exercise machine.

Not too shabby for a late middle-aged makeover. But as he pointed out, he probably should have started a lot sooner. The truth is we all should have.

Let's face it, anyone can look good in their 20s and 30s. But barring the possibility of being struck down by some fatal disease, I am convinced it is what we do in our 40s and beyond that determines not so much our longevity, but the quality of our later life.

Hitchens is lucky, at least so far. The starting point for me was the loss of my leg to smoking at age 48 and the realisation that if I didn't do something with my body I would end up looking like a blimp.

The answer was a Concept II rowing machine - not in one of those mirrored gyms, but at home. It is the best investment I have ever made in my health, even if I had to pay double the actual cost in transportation and Customs duties.

Home exercise does require discipline. How many times have you been to someone's house and observed a stationary cycle, either wreathed in cobwebs or with a sack thrown over it?

Take a rotund banker friend of mine, who was so impressed with what I was doing that he bought a similar rower and boasted to me how he had got it through Customs without having to pay duty. I think he used it for exactly two weeks. I have now opened negotiations to buy it - at a discount. He claims he is using the chrome rail on the machine for his shot glasses, but I sense his resistance is starting to wane.

An abandoned exercise apparatus must sooner or later begin to gnaw at the conscience, evidence - if any was needed - of a complete failure of fortitude. You really don't need that added pressure when every time you turn sideways to the mirror (if you have the courage, of course) you appear to be vying with Angelina Jolie for the biggest twins of the year.

As someone else once said, the toughest thing about exercise is walking out the door. How true, particularly in a town like Jakarta where actually getting to the health club often takes longer than the exercise itself.

So, for most of the past 12 years, I have machine-rowed in the comfort of my home for an hour every day, watching television sports and news shows as a convenient but necessary distraction.

The benefits of my exertions are a heart rate in the 60s, a craving for endorphins and a Singapore doctor who, after my last medical check-up, was downright effusive about my chances of making it through another year.

He did note, however, that for all of my rowing and general well-being, my gut did seem to be getting...well, bigger. It was something my wife had an annoying habit of pointing out as well. My beer drinking was competing with my rowing - and, unfortunately, it was winning by a country mile.

That's the awful thing about getting old - or at least older. Not only does the spare tyre take a lot of deflating, but also little by little you have to give up all those great habits that governed your once very happy, indestructible life.

Smoking posed a direct threat to my existence, so giving it up was quite important anyway. The prospect of no beer, however, left me in such a state of anxiety, I wondered whether I was an alcoholic. For all my previous prodigious feats in the suds department, I need not have worried. I may still have the odd can now, just as a pleasant reminder, but it hasn't been so bad.

I have finally learnt to sip, instead of gulp - mostly a couple of medicinal glasses of red wine, supplemented now and again with a gin and tonic. The lemon slice is good for you, too.

I also drink water, something I rarely did before, but certainly not in the sort of ridiculous industrial quantities that a lot of people consume in the mistaken belief they are camels.

I'm sure I'm more boring, but my wife has stopped nagging and says nice things about how much slimmer I am. I even turn sideways sometimes and sneak a quick look at myself in a shop window.

That's life, I suppose.

No comments: