Last year, about two weeks before Christmas, I was exercising–doing Brazilian jiu jitsu with friends—when I started having a dull ache low in my chest, like really bad indigestion. Pretty soon, I was feeling pain and weakness in both my arms was feeling dizzy and nauseous. At 35 years old, the last thing I expected that morning was that my body would start failing me, that there was this ticking time bomb in my chest.
But there was, I was having a heart attack. An hour later, my wife was driving me to the ER and shortly after that I was on an operating table getting 3 stents placed in arteries around my heart.
I remember a very kind nurse, who was trying to keep me calm, telling me to just trust the doctors, that there was “nothing I could do” from here. And that was true: in that moment, there was nothing I could do to fight for my own life.
Fortunately, I had already done something.
Years ago, I bought into the idea that physical strength is important, not just to make you better able to do things, but to make you more durable. Mark Rippetoe famously wrote that “Strong people are harder to kill, and more useful in general.” This suddenly became very very important to me. I was in a really bad situation, mitigated only by my body’s ability to keep going long enough for doctors to save my life. Being strong made my chances better.
And it was really important for my recovery as well.
After my heart attack, I was afraid of physical activity, even though my doctor had cleared me to exercise. I was afraid of exerting myself and putting any strain on my heart, doing anything that might send me back to the ER. But, despite that fear, I also knew that training is necessary to get stronger. That from any point of weakness or frailty, your body doesn’t just make itself better, you have to do that. You have to force your body to get stronger, to get better. So, as soon as I could, I trained.
My first workout was NOT a heavy set of five squats. It was walking, slowly. And I only made it to the stop sign at the corner, half a block away from my front door. The next day, I doubled that distance, and again the day after that. Gradually, I increased the intensity of my exercise—in this case how far and how fast I walked—the same way we linearly increase the weight on the bar when lifting. Pretty soon, I was able to exercise regularly and perform my normal daily activities without being winded and, more importantly, without fear. And, before long, I was back under the bar, doing a basic novice linear progression, training normally.
I’ve had to make other lifestyle changes to be healthier, knowing that I have a propensity for cardiovascular disease. But, the biggest mistake I could have made would have been to NOT train. Training isn’t just something we do when everything is going well and smoothly, or for as long it’s convenient. If you CAN train, you need to train. It’s a necessity, not a luxury.
And that is more true the older you are, when you are recovering from sickness or injuries, the sicker you are, or the more stressed out you are from life or work. It’s part of how we make our bodies better.
This is why strength matters to me: As long as you are getting a little bit stronger all the time, you aren’t getting sicker or more frail. You’re not just surviving, you are making yourself better able to live.