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Healthy habits that can save your life

The opening salvo

I should know better, I do but…

I should have done better, but I didn’t.

When it came to my own habits I was as lazy and disorganised as other people.

I had a heart attack when I was forty-four years old. 

Thats young, my doctor said.

Even poor habits shouldn’t have caused my body to try and reject me in this fashion, but it did.

The heart attack wasn’t a good sign. It was my bodies way of deciding enough was enough and this was how it chose to tell me.

As heart attacks go it was quite a biggie. Five coronary artery stents and in total, a couple of weeks in hospital helped me believe what the doctors and nurses told me — heart attack wise, small is much better than big.

Big means you really need to get your act together as your body is pissed off at the way you are treating it. This was just the opening salvo, a shot across the bows. Next time…well, there might not be a next time.

Okay, lesson learnt I’ll be good from now on. Yeah right, I was way too stupid.

I did stop my daily cigar rituals and cut back a bit on the fatty foods but that was about it.

Thoughtful advice on habits, ignored

Thoughtful advice isn’t very useful.

If you need advice, I mean really need advice, then you what you actually need is for someone to scare the shit out of you in the hope that might make you actually listen instead of nodding and smiling.

Sorry, back to the advice. The advice from a lovely nurse was:

  • to exercise for at least thirty minutes per day
  • eat a minimum of five portions of vegetables and fruit
  • take your tablets when you should
  • avoid stress.

To encourage exercising they sent me to Cardiac Rehabilitation which was actually really good and useful. I continued the classes for two years post heart attack, a testament to how good they were. Other than the twice weekly classes, I have to be honest, I ignored the advice and didn’t do a lot.

As I said, I was stupid.

My wife is a talented cook and at the time we were running a catering business (stress?) so, we ate pretty well. She was also determined that I would comply with as much of the thoughtful advice as possible, so I have.

The shock I needed but didn't want

I guess, in hindsight, I probably wasn’t as stupid as I’ve made out but I certainly could have done a lot better than I did. 

I was lucky. My indolent lifestyle didn’t upset my body sufficiently to provoke any further lessons.

Life continued much as before until the end of 2016 when my father became suddenly and unexpectedly ill, passing away five months later.

After a number of hospital admissions, months of tests and a steady decline they finally realised dad's heart was failing. The damage was so bad that it would keep failing until it stopped.

This brought me up short. 

The heart connection very abruptly brought everything sharply into focus. 

I took a long hard look at myself without the rose-tinted spectacles and was shocked by what I saw.

Time to actually start implementing some of the thoughtful advice I had received nine years earlier.

Getting my shit together - exercise

Exercise, I have since discovered, as well as reducing bulging waistlines and reducing the wheezing and panting when you break into a gentle jog , keeps your heart in tip-top condition. 

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, I’m not an enthusiastic exerciser, never have been but I was prepared to overcome this aversion and get started.

I had previously been a member of a gym, so I opted to try the gym again. I was surprised. The equipment is modern and controlled by an electronic key, which connects to an app and allows my inner geek to monitor how I’m doing.

Very satisfying and motivational. Also each month the gym runs a competition that tracks a different activity - weight lifted, kilometres run or walked. I have featured in the top 20 twice which gave me a huge boost.

I wouldn’t for a moment say it’s been plain sailing but taking the good with the bad, has started to have the desired effect.

My waistline is reducing, albeit slowly, and my fitness levels are through the roof. Which sounds great but the bar was very low when I started.

My biggest challenge during the cold wet months of a British winter is summoning up the enthusiasm to leave a nice warm house and walk for fifteen minutes to the gym. I mostly do but…

Getting my shit together - diet

My next challenge was dietary. 

Having a wife who is an amazing cook has certainly helped. She is mostly successful in curbing my passion for hot-buttered toast and homemade cake. 

However, my single biggest issue was portion size. I enjoy food and consequently I’ve eaten what I wanted and in whatever quantity I chose. Now I’m training my body that it’s okay to leave food on the plate and satiety is a signal to heed.

This I was sure would be a problem but actually has been far easier than I thought. Having the extra motivation of a reducing waistline in addition to no longer feeling uncomfortable works.

Getting my shit together - mental health

The third healthy habit for a long and productive life actually came from my wife. I pooh-pooh the idea as too hippy and new age. But over time and seeing the positive impact it had on her, I was gradually won over. 

What was it? Mindfulness. 

Mindfulness is a form of meditation that encourages you to live in the moment, shut out distractions and quieten the internal noise we all have in our heads. You know, the voices telling you you’re crap and useless and shouldn’t bother trying to be who you want to be; or is that just me?

To begin with the act of focussing on my breathing and not letting my mind continue with its nonsense was extremely difficult. That phase only lasted for a few sessions and then calm happened. 

My stress and anxiety levels have plummeted. I am now finding that I can focus on the things I need to do and I can sometimes ignore the background chatter. This improves week by week.

I was sceptical but I wholeheartedly recommend giving it a try. I use an app called HeadSpace which is excellent but there are a number of other apps and programs out there.

So, any point?

God yes!

Making the effort to transform your habits from dangerous to healthy will change you.

It has impacted every area of my life, transforming me away from the potential train wreck I was in danger of becoming, into a solid work in progress. 

I still have a long way to go but the thing is, once you get started and feel a bit better continuing just makes sense. I mean, why would you choose to feel shit if you didn't have to?

Has developing healthy habits been easy? 

Simple answer is no but it hasn’t been as hard as I expected and as you go on and strengthen the habits it gets easier and easier.

An unexpected bonus is that the exercising has improved my creativity and productivity as well as giving me a new sense of purpose. 

The mindfulness has shown me that I don’t need to live an anxious stressed out life. Cutting back on the calories has meant that I am looking and feeling better than ever before.

Worth it? Definitely, let me know how you get on.

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