I’ve been trying to get back into exercise lately. Actually, I shouldn’t say back into exercise since I was never really into it in the first place. One of my go-to jokes is to ask people if they know why I don’t lift weights, and when they inevitably say no, then I say, “because they’re fucking heavy.” It gets a solid chuckle basically 100% of the time.
But one night, about a month ago, I made this connection:
It was almost too simple. And I’ve stuck to it nearly every night since.
This new exercise habit gives me a jolt of energy that propels me into a writing session, even at ten o’clock at night. It has helped speed up the time between thinking about what I’m going to write and actually sitting down to write it.
I’ve since been told I haphazardly stumbled into a technique called habit stacking. Meaning, since I’ve been in the habit of consistently writing daily for over a year now, tacking on my exercise habit beforehand makes it more likely that I’ll stick to the new habit.
The nighttime exercises have been a start, but I know I need to do more to get into better shape. It’s not just that I’ve been steadily putting on a little more weight and my belly is getting a little more prominent each year. It’s not just that I’m turning 44 at the end of next month. No, the real catalyst came from a positive test. And no, it wasn’t a positive COVID test.
Earlier this year, one of my cousins found out he has colon cancer. It happened a few months before his 44th birthday. The good news is his doctor caught it early. I felt awful for him because he had been making a concerted effort to exercise and eat better the past few years. He’s naturally a much bigger guy than me, but with a ton of hard work and an improved diet, he has lost a significant amount of weight and he’s feeling healthier.
The news sent him into a dark place mentally. He was able to talk to my dad about it before my dad passed away after battling cancer for nearly five years. At my dad’s celebration of life event, my cousin spoke and said the conversation with my dad helped him turn things around and realize he has a lot of life left to live.
After hearing the news of his diagnosis, and several months of prodding from my mom, I contacted my doctor about getting an early colonoscopy. Typically, doctors wait until their patients are at least 50 years old to order one. But back in May, The American Cancer Society released new guidelines reducing the recommended age to 45.
I thought it wouldn’t be a big deal to get a referral for the procedure. After all, it was only a little over a year away from my 45th birthday anyway, and I had a family member who received a colon cancer diagnosis before his 45th birthday. Yet my doctor said my insurance company likely wouldn’t cover it unless he was a closer family member, like my brother for example. And even if no one in my family was diagnosed, some insurers wouldn’t even cover it at the new recommended age of 45 (I’ll spare you a rant about prevention vs treatment in the U.S. healthcare system for now). So instead of referring me for a colonoscopy, my doctor put in an order for an at-home fecal immunochemical test (FIT), which is more simple and tests for hidden blood in the stool.
I picked up the test from the hospital lab the next day. That evening, I discovered—and I know this is TMI, but I thought it was funny—I’ve apparently always urinated and had bowel movements simultaneously. But, in order to not screw up the test, I had to hold in my urine. It was a bit weird and uncomfortable, but I got through it. Then I quickly snagged some of my stool with the little sample collector, sealed it in the container, and dropped it off at the lab the next morning.
Later that same day, I got a call from my doctor’s office with the test result: positive.
Much to my dismay, I would be getting that early colonoscopy referral after all.
Hearing the word “positive” knocked me into a daze and I wasn’t sure how to properly react. Oddly enough, one of the first things I remember thinking about was this tweet idea:
After tweeting that out, I opened a new browser tab and googled “positive FIT result cancer” or something similar. It turns out, the chances of a positive FIT indicating colon cancer are slim, but even today it still gives me some anxiety when I think about it. And now I have to wait until the 30th of this month to get the colonoscopy done and learn the full extent of the issue.
A few days after receiving the result, my wife Allison, my daughter Em, and I picked up my mom and her dog Sparky to drive to Samuel P Taylor State Park for a long walk. It’s a spot we’ve gone to several times now because it’s about as close as we can get to hiking—shaded by massive California redwood trees and enveloped in the clean scent of the forest—while still being able to push Em’s specialty stroller on a paved path.
On the path, there are families sauntering and couples jogging. There are cyclists saying the customary, “On your left,” before speeding past.
At one point, we passed two older men—probably in their 60s—who were chatting and drinking water at a picnic table. They were decked out in their fancy cycling clothes—shorts and jerseys and short-billed hats covered in cycling-related brand names. I couldn’t help but notice that both of them had rather large bellies, while the rest of their bodies looked more fit. Sure, those tight outfits aren’t exactly flattering on most men. But it struck me as odd and I thought about how my belly has been steadily expanding and how I had just received the positive test result and how I’m not getting any younger.
I wondered about their relationship to exercise when they were my age. It seemed important to them now. I mean, they were clearly out there getting exercise that day. But was it always that way for them? Did they take their health as seriously when they were younger?
Am I destined to be the skinny fat guy, who kind of looks like he’s in shape but really isn’t, no matter what I do?
Thanks to Allison and her love of healthy cooking, I’m eating better than I ever have in my life. And I barely ever drink alcohol—so little, in fact, I entered zero drinks per week on the patient intake form I filled out online for the colonoscopy. Yet, despite these health improvements, it’s as if my metabolism is declining at a faster rate than my healthier lifestyle choices can keep up with.
I imagine some of you who know me in real life might be rolling your eyes as you’re reading this. It’s true that I’m unlikely to be considered overweight. I’m lucky to have been born with advantageous genetics in that way. I recognize that. But I still don’t feel as healthy as I think I should, and it would be unfair to me if I suppressed those feelings.
So I knew I needed to do something else to stay ahead of the curve. To stave off my expanding belly. To feel better about my body, even if I’ll never be cut like an Olympic athlete.
It was time to find another habit to stack.
Em had started her special ed preschool classes the week before our trip to the State Park. Her classroom is less than a mile from our house, so Allison had been walking her there each morning and jogging back home. Last week, in an attempt to stack more habits, I asked if I could join her. I was excited to get started in earnest and work my way back up to running 5K and 10K races—once the pandemic subsides (whenever that will be)—like I’ve done in the past.
And here’s how that went:
It was shocking how much it hurt and how long the soreness lingered.
It’s easy to feel like this is all unfair. But my body is not only getting older, but it has also become accustomed to a more sedentary lifestyle since I spend so much of my time sitting at a computer. So of course it’s going to hurt when I push it more.
I must remember that I’ve skated through most of my life when it comes to my weight. When I went to restaurants with friends in the past, I used to look at the menu and say, “Let’s see, what’s the most unhealthy option here?” Like most jokes, there was a bit of truth to it. For the majority of my life, I could get away with eating just about whatever I wanted without any real consequences.
But now things are different.
I need to keep stacking healthy habits. I need to keep pushing myself to exercise. I need to fight through the soreness and the urge to eat a midnight snack (like right now as I’m typing these words).
I only have one body. And—regardless of how the colonoscopy goes—it’s time to take care of it like it’s here for good.
Someone else’s words to read:
The other evening, we got back from a family walk and tried to open our garage door. But when Allison put in the code on the number pad and hit enter, the door only went up a few inches. After a few more tries, it was clear something was amiss.
My shoulders slumped and I sighed in the way I usually do when something in the house breaks, especially when that thing will almost certainly be expensive to fix. But then my mind flashed to a hilarious and cautionary tale I recently read from Michael Estrin about his new garage door.
Michael is a pro at observational humor. I’ve actually LOL’d when reading his work many times.
Click the big box below to give his garage door story a read. I think you’ll enjoy it too.
And if you enjoyed my story today, please let me know and give the heart below a tap. Thanks.