Thursday, February 22, 2007

“Nothing is Better…” (An Ode to Oatmeal)
— A Miniseries (3 of 3)

Sorely missed?
Earlier I mentioned two actions that were key to this story: an act of omission and another of commission. The omission was my doctor’s office dropping the ball in failing to re-up my prescription for Lipitor when I requested it in mid December of last year.

The act of commission was that of possibly the second most important woman in my life right now besides my lovely wife, Michelle, and it figures — she’s all about action. No dilly-dallyin’ around with this lady. She means what she says and says what she means. But she ain’t heavy; she’s my trainer.

I’m not sure how much I’ll be talking about her, so I’ll take the easy way out on the “what-name-to-come-up-with-for-this-person” dance I have to do each time I introduce someone from my real life into these stories; I’ll just call her Killah, because that’s what she does. She destroys me multiple times per week.

Killah is the in-house trainer at the fitness center on the grounds of my employer, The Company. She’s been there for a little more than a year, and after a period of adjustment for her in-your-face personality, she’s someone with whom I’ve become extremely comfortable trusting my fitness to. You see, in all the years I was a gymnast, I had some great coaches on whom I depended greatly. I depended on them to keep me going, because basically I’m a big baby. I have a difficult time putting myself through pain. But if someone else makes me do it, hell — I’ll run through a wall.

Killah is a great motivator. She’s in the mold of my all-time favorite gymnastics coach, my JC coach from my first two years of college — the first of which we won a National Championship as a team and the second of which I won one as an individual.

What made that 1976 season so special for me was the breakthrough I made personally, in large part through the pain-in-the-ass nagging of my coach. He had a way of making you so mad — at yourself, not him — that you’d do whatever he said just to shut him up.

Killah’s a little like that. She had me sized up, pretty much from the get-go, and doesn’t allow me to perform at anything less than the level to which I’m capable. And to her credit, she meets each and everyone else at that same individually based level. I came to respect her and her opinions on all things fitness from very early on.

She is essentially the reason I decided to go off my meds, and reintroduce oatmeal into my diet.

Back in December, a few days after running out of my prescription, I overheard Killah talking to a woman about the benefits of oatmeal. She said it was one of nature’s most perfect complex-carbohydrates and an excellent complement to a healthy diet, not even to mention its qualities as a cholesterol-reducer.

I pretty much made up my mind right at that point. Now you may be asking why, given its other healthy aspects I wouldn’t simply want to eat oatmeal for its nutritional value alone in addition to supplementing with Lipitor? Why stop using something that had provided such dramatic results (which I’ll detail in a later story), especially in light of my overall health picture?

The answer to that question is based upon a couple of things. One, I hate taking pills; always have. I take a baby aspirin (for my heart) and a multivitamin every day, and that’s bad enough. Those are two things I will continue to take for the rest of my life, and it’s reasonable to assume that at some point, as I grow older, I’ll need to add other daily medications to the mix as well. So why not eliminate one now if I can get away with it?

However as good a reason that is, it pales by comparison to the main one: muscular soreness. This is a well-known side effect of Lipitor and most other statin-type drugs. Some people are more susceptible to it than others, and had it not been for the horror stories detailed by my stepmother a couple of years ago, I likely wouldn’t have put two and two together with regard to my own circumstance.

Back in 2004, when Michelle and I traveled to SoCal in the first of what would be two such trips that summer to my former homeland, My doctor had just begun giving me Lip.’

Helen, my Pop’s wife was aghast.

“You take Lipitor? That stuff is horrible!” she exclaimed. “Nearly crippled me a few years ago! I had to get off of it. Doesn’t it hurt your legs?”

I went on to explain that I’d had no such symptoms, and that I was sorry to hear of her bad experience with the drug. Privately I wondered whether or not her age might have had anything to do with her reaction to it.

Now keep in mind that this was barely six months into my current two years-plus regimen of working out twice a week. Back then I wasn’t nearly as consistent as I am now, and the type of workout program I was engaged in was more aerobics-based than the strength training paces that Killah now puts us through, week-in and week-out. All that to say, I don’t believe that I was in as receptive a position to actually feel the effects of any soreness side-effects at that point, so I didn’t give a whole lot of credence to the aspersions my stepmom had cast upon this wonder drug.

The epiphany I had regarding my muscular soreness didn’t arrive until this past fall. After having then been involved with fitness training well over a year and a half, feeling really good, and pretty much seeing my body mold back into a shape which at least resembled that of my competing days, something happened that really opened my eyes.

Tennis (elbow), anyone?
It was a Saturday in early November, and I was performing my dreaded annual ritual of raking up the tiny elm tree leaves that would choke my back yard lawn into oblivion should I leave them (no pun intended) unchecked. The new grass that had sprouted from our early-September over-seeding had matured to the point that it could withstand light raking without extensive damage; and it had to be done before the cold, wet winter weather set in, or otherwise render a merely sucky job, pert’ near intolerable.

The tall, mature twin elm trees in my back yard are the only remaining originals that existed there before our house did. We specifically instructed that they be spared when the lot was cleared from its heavily wooded beginnings back in the fall of 1993. The two trees were actually one of the main reasons we chose that particular home site in the first place. They may not have been the most beautiful trees in the world, but they were perfectly positioned. Now directly in front of our deck, they provide shade for the back yard and a protective perch, from which the hundreds of birds that visit us each year can swoop down to Michelle’s well-stocked bird feeder below, just a few feet adjacent to them.

Michelle loves her birds, and we have always loved our big trees.

But unfortunately, there’s a downside to our precious elms: the leaves; those tiny, arrowhead-shaped rascals that float to the ground each fall. Not only does their size make them difficult to rake and pick up, they are also highly acidic and damaging to the grass they come to rest upon. So getting them picked up is pretty much a “gots-ta” situation, especially when the potential victims are the newly-emergent seedlings that will be depended on to keep that area beneath the trees from becoming a mud pond during the balance of the year.

So I’m always sort of between a rock and a hard place with regard to this circumstance. If I wait to over-seed until after the leaves have fallen and raked up, it’d be too late in the season at that point; the grass seeds wouldn’t germinate, due to the already inclement temperatures of the late fall. On the other hand, if I do nothing and allow the leaves to remain, their inherent acidity would kill most of the seedlings.

Tough call, ain’t it?

So I rake, knowing full well that I’m also uprooting a fairly decent percentage of my new grass plants in the process. Call it the lesser of two evils, I suppose. But one of those evils not only applies to the health of my lawn, but to mine as well through the toll that job takes on my body.

Raking those boogers is tough enough, but doing so without destroying the tender grass plants they cover is even more so. It requires a steady, consistent repetition of light, shallow strokes with the rake, and it’s an extremely tiring exercise.

I’m always exhausted when I finish this yearly chore. Because of the amount of repetitive effort required, I typically hurt for a couple days afterward. However this most recent episode didn’t just tucker me out, it absolutely blew me away.

Later that evening, I felt my left elbow begin to tighten. The next morning I could barely move the joint without excruciating pain. I’d had elbow soreness before, but nothing like this. It was obvious that the stress of the repetitive raking motion on my forearm/elbow area was the cause, but this wasn’t exactly my first rakin’ rodeo. Why was it so sore this time? I was scared. The pain continued for weeks with only moderate subsidence. I felt weak as a kitten. Would I feel this way forever?

My doctor said it was classic tennis elbow, which is basically just tendinitis. The only cure is rest, but how do you rest your elbow without putting your arm in a sling? I backed off using my left arm during the dumbbell exercises that Killah routinely puts us through in our weekly workouts, but I was becoming more discouraged as the weeks passed.

Fast-forward to mid-December and the aforementioned prescription lapse with my Lipitor, coupled with the subsequent lapse of follow-up by my doctor’s office. A funny thing happened during the 5-7 days that all this was transpiring: my elbow stopped hurting. And then it hit me: nothing was hurting, really. In addition to the elbow issue, I had long since assumed that the “normal” soreness I experienced on a daily basis was to be expected from my workouts. I had often felt some exasperation over the idea that having been at this for so long, I was still getting sore at all; and sometimes my discomfort was considerable. As a competitive athlete for over 25 years, I was no stranger to the rigors and associated after-effects of training, but for just two lousy days a week, this just didn’t seem right. But again, there was always the thought, “Well, maybe it’s just old age…” I didn’t like it, but I just accepted it as such.

But now, not more than a week after my prescription had expired, my pain does too? What’s goin’ on here?

Que the light bulb!

Oh-my-GAWD! Could it be the Lipitor after all?

Beginning the first week of 2007 I decided to begin a self-imposed clinical test on the effects of oatmeal versus Lipitor on my cholesterol levels and overall feelings of well being.

I also decided to do something else that I should have from the outset; something that would certainly provide additional positive benefits. I resolved to add an extra day to my workout regimen, bringing it up to three per week, which I’d known for years is considered the minimum number of weekly vigorous exercise sessions necessary for real improvement of one’s fitness level.

I had tried my best to convince myself that I couldn’t sacrifice the time, but c’mon, AJ, what’s an extra 90 minutes a week from your life? I really don’t believe they’ll yank Law & Order off the air if you miss an episode or two.

So far, so(re) good
It has been eight weeks since I began my test; ten weeks since I stopped taking Lipitor. I’ve had my morning bowl of Quaker Oats at least six days a week (and usually seven) ever since and I feel great.

I’ve also noticed that in adding that extra workout day, my stamina has increased, my musculature has become better-defined, and that occasional late-night cookie rendezvous doesn’t seem to affect my midsection as affirmatively as it used to.

While I can’t say that I never get sore, there has definitely been a decided decrease. This is despite the fact that Killah’s program continues to progress, becoming more and more daunting with the passing of each six week period, as those of us participating in the Monday-Wednesday-Friday group become more and more fit. That I can live with.

But then again, I wonder; is it all in my head? Was my soreness anything more than the normal course that my body needed to take before breaking through to the next level, and now, in so doing, did that point just happen to coincide with the slip in my Lip’ prescription?

Am I doing myself more harm than would be wise at this point in my life; especially in view of my family history and my own known disposition for maintaining unhealthy levels of LDL cholesterol?

Time will tell. Actually I’ll know in about another month when I go back to my doctor for my six-month blood-work re-eval and annual complete physical. But what happens if he tells me I’m a dope for doing this without consulting him? What happens if even after eating oatmeal every day for twelve weeks my cholesterol is back up over 200?

But what if it’s not?

What if my EKG sings like a bird, proclaiming that my heart is ticking more strongly now than it has in years; what if my cholesterol is still at safe levels as a result of my increased exercise and healthier eating habits?

What if I can skip ‘The Lip’ for good?

Well, I’ll tell you what: that will be a great day, my friends; better health, an improved self-image; an extra thirty buck-a-roonies in my pocket each month…

Heck, that’s cause for a celebration!

Margaritas, anyone?

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