Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Flashback 1987: Stress Test - One man's fitness odyssey

     The 35th anniversary of my joining the staff of the Sun-Times is Wednesday. I browsed my 1987 clips, looking for something to share in celebration, and was struck by a few things. First, I forgot how uncomfortable I was with the whole asking-people-stuff aspect of the job. The stories are peppered with quotes from college pals, plus my future wife and her friends. I obviously turned to them to get their opinions. Both oblivious AND lazy. In my defense, before the internet, tapping random strangers on diverse subjects wasn't quite so easy. Still, I was lucky not to be fired.
     Second, and this came as a real surprise, is how personal some of the pieces were. I had no trouble writing about my first date, my childhood memories, or this story, about measuring my heart and body. The usual way to do it would be to observe another person going through this process. The future columnist way—and I am obligated to point out, the easier way—was to simply do it myself.
     Notice the voice of this: confident, slightly humorous, exactly as I would sound now. So either points for consistency, or demerits for failure to change. One difference is that I never say how much I weighed, my attempt to draw the veil and give myself a bit of privacy. 

     I asked my girlfriend if she thought I was fat.
     "No, I don't think you're fat," she said. "A little extra, but you're not fat. You're not skinny, but I don't like skinny men."
     I asked my mother if she thought I was fat.
     "No, I don't think you look fat," she said. "You are very well shaped."
     I asked Dr. George Lesmes of Northeastern Illinois University's Human Performance Laboratory if he thought I was fat.
     He said nothing, but arranged for me to take a series of fitness evaluation tests that would answer the question, not with opinions, but with cold, unlying numbers.
     "The thing that is important for people who are looking to change their lifestyles is feedback," Lesmes said. "There's no better feedback than numbers. If I can say to you in May your oxygen capacity is 3, and show in July it's up to 3 1/2, that shows progress and is good for motivation."
     The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that individuals over 35 take a fitness evaluation test, not only to gauge any improvement that might come from an exercise and diet regimen, but to make sure they don't have any cardiac problems that might be aggravated by strenuous exercise.
     Before the test, a lab assistant went over a lengthy form that stated, in essence, that I realized I might drop dead at any time during testing and, should that happen, there would be no hard feelings between us. I signed, changed into sweats, and soon found myself sitting on an examination table.
     The first test, a stretching test, was simple. Sitting with my legs on the table, I stretched forward and, arms straining, reached as far as I could past my toes. Piece of cake. I scored a 12 and, not knowing that meant I had the flexibility of uncooked spaghetti, felt quite good about it.
     Next, electrodes—plastic discs with small metal nubs in the middle—were attached to my chest. Hairy men, such as myself, might be a bit surprised to realize that the spots where the electrodes are to be attached must first be shaved. I certainly was surprised, if not horrified. I picked forlornly at the clumps of hair as they fell over the table.
     "Do you want me to save it?" the lab assistant asked. She told me that Evanston firemen, who take the test each year, say it grows back and, at worst, itches for a while. I comforted myself with the thought that if burly firemen allow themselves to go through this, so could I.
     She handed me what looked like a sock made out of netting and told me to slip it on to hold the wires in place. I took the sock and examined it dubiously.
     "This fit people much, much larger than you," she said and, after a bit of struggle, I slipped the netting over my torso.
     Electrodes now held in place by the netting sock, I shuffled over to a treadmill, dragging an electrocardiogram machine behind me.
     Running on the treadmill is the part where, if you're going to have a heart attack, you do. I don't know why, but I had pictured a leisurely jog, trotting along to the bips and bleeps of heart machines.
     What I got was a mad, exhausting dash. Every three minutes they increased the speed and the angle of the treadmill. After seven minutes or so my personality shrank away and I was reduced to an unthinking bundle of flailing muscles and gasping lungs, staggering instinctively forward as the white coat on my right took my pulse, the white coat on my left jacked up the treadmill, the third white coat watched the monitor and the fourth coat, a man—the same man who told me not to lean so heavily on the railings— added insult to injury by jamming a nose clip over my nose and having me breathe through what looked like a hair dryer hose.
    The purpose of the test is to put as much strain as possible on the heart, to see how it reacts. Later, I learned my heart redlined at 188 beats per minute. My first question, after I had given up, been helped off the treadmill and lay in a panting, sweating heap on an examination table, was: If people are in bad shape, why put them through this? Isn't having a heart attack on the treadmill under close scrutiny just as bad as having a heart attack running around a track somewhere?
     "Sure, but running real hard on the treadmill, we'll be able to monitor you with the best equipment possible," Lesmes said. "We'll also be able to identify at what point in your exercise problems occur. Then we can sit down with you and make sure we design an exercise program that will benefit you without putting you at risk, or getting to that point where problems occur."
     Lesmes went on to explain that, for instance, if the EKG showed that my heart started to do the tango at 160 beats per minute, they would design an exercise program where I would be able to approach my limit without overstraining my heart.
     The body fat analysis started simply enough. I sat next to a machine called a spirometer and expelled as much air as I could into a tube. My efforts were displayed by a large, Plexiglas cylinder and recorded on a cylindrical graph. Urged on by the cheerleading of the lab assistant, it was rather fun, like a game one might find at a state fair.
     The purpose of this test was to find out how much air was in my lungs so that in the next test, the hydrostatic weighing, the reading would not be thrown off by excess air.
     Hydrostatic weighing was not so much physically taxing as it is psychologically icky. I had to climb into a square metal tank filled with warm water, and sit on a harnesslike thing attached to a scale. Once on the harness I had to dip my head below the water, blow all the air out of my lungs, and wait until the assistant took a reading.
     While I was showering and getting back into my street clothes, the data was compiled into a small booklet, which we then reviewed. The good news was that my heart was "strong," which meant that it was quick to recover its "resting" rate after exercise and did not change rates in rapid jumps, but gradually.
     The news quickly got worse. My oxygen consumption was average, flexibility fair, lung flexibility good. The real knife-twister was body fat: 23 percent. According to their table titled "Normal Values of Percentage Body Fat for the Average American Population," I had the body fat of a 47-year-old man, which I suppose would be fine if I were 47, and not 26.
     They calculated my ideal weight (170 pounds) and—perhaps on the assumption that I was stupid as well as fat and couldn't do the math myself, perhaps just to grind my face in it—they calculated how many pounds I would need to lose to get to that ideal weight.
      Then we then went over the mysteries of calorie intake, types of exercise and importance of warm-ups.
     "We don't want to just tell you you're fat," said Diane Reynolds, a graduate assistant. "We want to work with you to reach a goal."
     My goal at that point was lunch, and, after going on a tour of the gym that people who pay $65 for the test are free to use, I conducted a test of my own, which involved measuring my response to a big bowl of teriyaki chicken. I passed.
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, June 7, 1987


  1. Great column. I'll take that 47 year old body today.

  2. I don't know why your consistency should be questioned. You wrote fine columns then, as you still do. What change would be needed? Also, then and now, you're certainly more than "slightly humorous," when you want to be.

    You successfully made it through 3 opinions unscathed before that taskmaster Diane Reynolds had to go and call you fat!

    Regardless, this was an interesting report. I've long wondered what my body-fat percentage is. I know it's not very good, but I wonder how it compares to average. I would hope that it's at least somewhat better, though I've refrained from a dip in the dunk-tank to find out.

    If "Normal Values of Percentage Body Fat for the Average American Population" are based on the actual population, rather than a theoretical ideal, one would tend to speculate that those values are significantly higher today than they were in 1987...

  3. The 35th anniversary of your joining the staff of the Sun-Times is today? That is nothing to sneeze at. Or to wheeze at. Especially in the newspaper business. You didn't get axed in any staff purges, and you didn't piss off the wrong people and get yourself fired. Those are worthy accomplishments, Mr. S, deserving of kudos. Mazel tov, boychik. Zei gesunt.


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