(“Consistent”, “Driven” and “Competitor” are some of the words I would use to describe todays guest blogger, Dan Larson. These are the same words that guide how he has maintained physical wellbeing over the past few years. Dan has a rigorous workout and eating schedule that keeps him in peak physical condition. What some people might not know about him are the details about the challenging road that has led him to embrace his newfound status as an athlete and inspiration for so many. In this blog post, he discusses his journey to physical wellbeing.)
The three recommendations for boosting physical wellbeing are unequivocally the essential elements to being physically well, and are certainly the essential elements to my own fitness. I have achieved what my doctors would suggest is exceptional physical wellbeing as a result of eating right and exercising (sleep continues to elude me). Although my good health is the result of committing to these three recommendations, I consider it to be more of a result of good luck and now an aggressive pursuit of a fit life.
Before I get to how I achieved (and will continue to achieve) physical wellbeing, I need to share the “pre-journey.” Twelve years ago I believed I didn’t have the choice to be physical well. In a matter of four weeks in the late spring of 1998, four life changing events took place. My wife and I welcomed our beautiful son to the world, I completed my graduate degree, I started a new job, and learned of a disease called Myasthenia Gravis.
Living in my new community of Seattle meant a lot of walking. As I would make the daily commute , I would find myself completely exhausted after just six blocks. I could not keep my left eyelid open, and then both eyelids, and I felt generally weak all the time. After collapsing one day after moving my son’s dresser from one room to the other, I decided something wasn’t right.
After a series of tests, I was diagnosed with a neuromuscular/autoimmune disorder that occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue. For people with Myasthenia Gravis, the body produces antibodies that block the muscle cells from receiving messages (neurotransmitters) from the nerve cell. In simple terms, the more moved, the weaker I got. It began with ocular fatigue, and then moved to the rest of my body. After beginning a regimen of drugs that provided little improvement, I began a downward spiral to self-pity and anger. Despite the excitement of being a new father, starting my career, and beginning this new “big city” adventure with my wonderful wife (who by putting up with my bad attitude for so many years is a testament to just how lucky I am) I spent the next 6 months sitting on the couch and deciding what my life was going to be like now that I could not be active.
The cause of Myasthenia Gravis is unknown; however it is believed to be associated with a tumor of the thymus. Removing the thymus has been found to improve the symptoms for 60% of patients within 10 years. After undergoing thoracic surgery to remove the thymus, and spending the next 10 years continuing on the same drugs I started in 1998, I had made no significant improvements. In 2008, however, I got lucky. I met a new neurologist who said she wanted to try a more “experimental drug” which “could” be more effective. I recall being nervous about the risks, and generally skeptical that there would be improvement, but I said “let’s try it.” I transitioned to the new drug, and as the year continued found that I was feeling stronger. I was on my way to a drug dependent remission, and a second chance at physical health.
After a year of improving physically and mentally (actually, the mental wellness is what allowed me to begin achieving physical wellness), I met another neurologist who said during a standard blood draw and fatigue test “You are too young to be satisfied with your current reality of daily medication, so let’s get to work on changing it. The medication and treatments are very expensive and you aren’t sick enough to deserve it”. (Yes, this is actually what she said, and although at first I wanted to walk out, I realized it was exactly what I needed to hear). She continued; “Let’s taper you off of the drugs and see what happens.” I was even more scared and skeptical , but I said, “Let’s try it.”
Sixteen months after I began tapering off of 11 years of drug dependency, I ran my first half marathon. Three months later, I finished my first triathlon, and did so with no medication in my system. I was now in a drug-free remission. I recall visiting my neurologist shortly after my triathlon, and as she looked me over, I said “Thank you for giving me my life back.” With only a slight acknowledgement, she said, “Don’t get ahead of yourself, remission isn’t always long term.” (Perhaps a “colder” approach to patient care, but again, exactly what I needed.) I left her office a little disheartened, however since that visit, every time I train, eat my broccoli and spinach, and compete in a race; I do so with the intent of aggressively pursuing a continued fit life, regardless of the potential of a relapse.
I consider my path to physical well-being as taking place in four distinct stages. Each took me about a year. I am on year 4 from being off medications, 14 from being diagnosed. I expect to see several more stages, and perhaps when Ann Marie asks me to reflect on my physical wellbeing again, I will offer a few more thoughts. Until then, here are the four stages that defined my journey:
Stage 1: “Try It”: As I began to feel stronger, I had to experiment to see what my body would let me do. I feared feeling fatigued, as it was hard to differentiate between an attack on my neuromuscular system, or just being fatigued from exertion. I just decided to move more than I moved in the past, and see what would happen. Long walks led to the riding my bike three miles to work. Biking to work lead to 20 minutes, three days a week on the elliptical machine. Elliptical machine led to jogging a mile. One mile led to three, then five, and so on. I then tried added cycling, and then swimming. The more I did, the more I would want to do. Regardless of what brings you to the decision get become physically well, just be curious; “try it.”
Stage 2: I tried, I can, now it’s time to lose weight! As I entered my 30’s, I weighed about 150 pounds. With limited physical activity, and 10 years of nurturing my commitment to being sick by eating comforting cookies, pizza and beer, I slowly “inched” my way to a soft and squishy 185 pounds. I adopted the approach of “Burn more calories than you take in.” This was a simple, basic way of understanding how to drop the pounds, and it worked. Figure out how many calories you are taking in, and how much you burn in a day, and if you want to lose what you have, you either need to reduce your calories, increase your activity, or better yet, do both.
Stage 3: Form a habit: I am a very habitual person. Taking drugs every three hours to ensure I had the strength to maintain what had become a reasonable lifestyle was relatively easy and comfortable. As I found I could become more physically active, I set my exercise routine and stuck with it, and added to it. Once you have done something for three months, the hard part is over – a habit is formed. And in the case of exercise, it’s a sacred habit, and as my family, friends and colleagues would attest, don’t mess with my fitness routine. I lost 45 pounds in a year, and enjoy the fact that I get my 14 year old sons hand-me-down clothes.
Phase 3: Focus on Nutrition: Food = Fuel: As the chapter on physical wellbeing discusses, you have the choice of food that provides net positives or net negatives. I train twice a day six days a week. I burn a lot of calories now, but more importantly, I burn the “right” calories. The occasional afternoon cookie (ok, daily) provided me no net positive towards my journey to fitness. In fact, it’s a detractor, a net negative. It works against my pursuit, so I don’t eat it. Once I discovered I could be active, formed good habits and lost the weight, I transitioned to improving my nutrition. I chose food that enabled me to achieve a higher level of fitness. Broccoli gives me far more net positives than cookies. For me it is that simple. Just to keep things in perspective, however, I did find an athlete dietician/trainer that believes pizza is a good fuel source, and supports my weekend micro-brew as part of my training plan.
Phase 4: Train for Performance: My brother, who also began a journey to physical wellbeing the same year I went in to remission, asked me if I wanted to be just “fit at 40,” or if I wanted to be an athlete. In phase 1 and 2, I was becoming healthy. Being ‘fit at 40” sounded like a good mantra. But, what I found was that being healthy leads to being more healthy. You just have to start. I have still a year from turning 40, and have every intention on being fit. Moreover, I will continue to aggressively train so that I will crush the 20 and 30-somethings that I compete against, just as the 50 year old crushed me in last week’s triathlon. Now it’s about performing as an athlete. Being fit is an enjoyable bi-product, not to mention there are far more trendy clothes for fit bodies.
The truth is, we are all just one step away from losing “remission.” You don’t have to wait until your body teaches you this lesson. I rarely thought about exercise and nutrition prior to battling Myasthenia Gravis. I took my health for granted. Now that I have a second chance, I will fight furiously to live my life healthfully. I do it for my family, and I do it for me. Try it. Stage 1 is the hardest stage, but once you start, the subsequent stages are just a matter of adding the next step – if you desire the next step. My journey to a fit life has made me a better father, husband, son, professional, and colleague. It has made me a better person. I believe I have many more stages to come, and the journey to a fit life has just begun.
Dan Larson is the Associate Director for Facilities and Operations in the department of University Housing and Dining Services at Oregon State University