April 12, 2009
Maintaining Physical Stamina
From watching you, reading your writings, and even being in some of your classes over the years, I can't help but wonder if there is some advice you could give concerning the physical dimension of nurturing and caring for the mind. In other words, when I compare you to other scholars what I see in you is a calmness of mind, a diligence in maintaining your own physical health, and a sharpness and discipline that I find impossible to imagine in a person who has low physical stamina. You've given some great advice for one who wishes to follow in your footsteps, but as I try to pursue my academic interests with the same rigor, I find I lack the energy to do so. Do you take vitamins daily? Do you run daily? Do you meditate/prayer to help calm your mind? Do you eat a well-balanced diet? Or is it all will-power?
I've heard you briefly reference the fact that you have suffered from a neuromuscular illness for some time which affects your extremities. I've also heard you say that you feel God has used this illness to help you accomplish great things in your life. I was hoping that perhaps you wouldn't mind sharing the name and nature of your illness, as well as how God has used it in your walk with Him.
Thanks, and keep up the good work.
Occasionally I like to take a personal question like these to share something of my own life’s experiences by way of encouragement. In fact, Jan and I are only too happy to give personal advice to anyone who asks!
Paul says, “Bodily exercise profiteth little” (I Tim. 4.8). Now notice that Paul didn’t say that bodily exercise is of no value, just that compared to godliness, which holds promise not only for the earthly life but also for the life to come, it is of little value. Moreover, we live in a sedentary society vastly different from the society in which Paul lived and wrote. Much of people’s daily lives at that time consisted of what we would call exercise. Just think how Jesus walked all over Palestine! People in that day and age weren’t the couch potatoes we tend to be today.
Look around: it’s so difficult to stay in shape. I’m told that once you hit 35, you begin to lose a pound of muscle per year and to gain a pound and a half of fat. That sure seems to be true. Moreover, people my age are unbelievably medicated in an effort to solve their physical problems. I’m sure most of these folks would rather not be taking blood thinners, anti-cholesterol medicine, weight loss pills, etc.
In 2003 the Mayo Clinic Health Letter carried the following troubling report on “Exercise and Your Health”:
In 1996, more than 60% of Americans were getting no regular physical activity, despite years of prodding by government agencies and organizations that had issued statements on disease prevention and the role of exercise. In fact, a quarter of the adult population wasn’t active at all. That’s the year the U. S. Surgeon General released specific recommendations for physical activity.
The Surgeon General’s 1996 report recommended accumulating at least 30 minutes of moderately intense activity on most or all days of the week. During activities of moderate intensity, your breathing should allow you to carry on a conversation, but with some effort. Behind the recommendation was considerable data demonstrating the many benefits of staying physically active. These include helping:
- Reduce the risk of premature death, particularly from cardiovascular disease
- Reduce the risk of developing diabetes and colon cancer
- Reduce the risk of developing high blood pressure or reduce already elevated blood pressure
- Promote psychological well-being and reduce depression and anxiety
- Control weight
- Build and maintain healthy muscles, bones, and joints
- Improve the strength of older adults and their ability to move without falling
Then came yet another alarm from the Surgeon General in 2001—excess weight and obesity in the United States had reached epidemic proportion. Among adults, 61 percent were overweight or obese.
Then, in late 2002, the National Academy of Sciences released its recommendations. Considering the size of many Americans and their exercise—or lack of exercise—habits, the Academy reported that 30 minutes of moderately intense daily activity generally isn’t enough to maintain a healthy weight or prevent weight gain. The Academy, basing its findings on an internal database, recommended upping moderate activity time to an hour a day to help prevent weight gain and enhance health benefits.
Can you imagine? An hour a day!
Now this is really challenging for those of us who don’t have an athletic bone in our bodies. My attitude toward exercise was nicely summed up by the crack: “Whenever I feel like exercising, I just lie down until it goes away!”
But the incentive to exercise was given to me by the neuro-muscular disorder mentioned above by Matt. I, like my mom and brother, have Charcot-Marie-Tooth Syndrome, a hereditary disorder that involves the slow disintegration of the myelin sheaths around the nerves in the forearms and legs, resulting in progressive muscular atrophy. Some people afflicted with this condition are terribly disabled, but my case is quite light, affecting mainly my hands and in recent years my calves. It principally means that I can’t go bowling or type—big deal, Jan says! But I could see what was coming (though, I must say, my mom is currently 87 years old and still going strong), and this has spurred me to try to stay in shape and tone my muscles to stave off as much as I reasonably can the effects of the inevitable atrophy.
So I’ve disciplined myself to exercise six days a week. The key to doing this successfully is to realize that you are making a lifestyle choice, not just embarking on a temporary regime. This is for life. You want to make your exercise time habitual so that it just becomes a part of your daily routine and you don’t have to psych yourself up to do it each time. So every day except Sunday, after my devotional time of prayer and Bible reading, I exercise for around an hour each morning.
Oddly enough, one of the greatest—perhaps the greatest—benefit of such strenuous exercise is, as the Mayo Clinic letter mentioned, psychological. You just feel good in your own skin. It gives you such a sense of confidence and well-being to feel your body toned. It gives you the feeling you’re ready to take on the world.
A really great program that I’d recommend is Bill Phillips’ Body for Life. It combines very sensible weight training with aerobic activities. It’s realistically doable, is balanced, can be done at home, and gives real results. (I don’t look like one of the “after” photos in his books, but I was really tickled when a recent blogger described my physique as “athletic”! Ha! —me, with CMT Syndrome!) I lift weights three days a week and jog or stair-step three days a week. I’d encourage you to buy a few free weights so that you can exercise at home and don’t have to get yourself up to go out to a gym.
Now coupled with regular exercise is a nutritional diet. I have the great fortune of being married to someone who is very interested in healthy cooking. We eat a high protein diet with a lot of seafood. We try to balance carbohydrates with protein in about a 3/4 ratio. You can do this roughly by having about a fistful of food high in carbohydrates with a fistful of protein. We don’t eat a lot of sugar, and Jan cooks with natural ingredients (you should try her buckwheat pancakes made from scratch with real maple syrup and strawberries!) We don’t take any vitamins, as that’s unnecessary if you eat right.
In recent years I’ve found it useful to take an occasional siesta after lunch. I feel a little embarrassed about doing this, but when we lived in France, we found that a two hour lunch break was the norm there because folks slept after lunch. It really refreshes you! I follow this pattern especially when I’m traveling and speaking because I need to be really sharp for the evening lecture or debate. At home it’s optional, depending on whether I find myself slowly dozing off as I try to read some dry treatise on abstract objects or theories of reference!
Having CMT Syndrome has affected me in ways other than physical. Having this disorder as a child was hard because other kids made fun of me for the way I walked. I was always one of the last few chosen for an athletic team in P.E. class when we’d pair off. (Why teachers subject kids to this humiliating ritual is beyond me!) Because I couldn’t succeed in anything physical, I threw myself into intellectual and academic pursuits, where I found I could succeed. Having this disease made me very goal oriented, determined to show those who had mocked me that I could succeed. Since becoming a Christian, I’ve come to see that this sort of drivenness is the wrong motivation, but the goal orientation and the desire to succeed remains part of who I am. My CMT is now like an old friend, my “thorn in the flesh,” which God has used to shape and prepare me for His service and for which I give Him thanks.