PUMPING IRONY: Affairs of the Heart

News of George W. Bush’s heart surgery left me thinking that my slacker fitness routine might be OK after all.

When I heard last week that former President George W. Bush had been admitted to a Dallas hospital to repair a blocked artery, I have to admit that I caught myself smiling — not because I wished the old chickenhawk any ill will. I don’t go there, politically. I’m genuinely glad that he’s doing OK after having a stent inserted in the artery and that he can resume whatever keeps him out of trouble in his post-White House years. I was smiling because it was just the latest in a line of famously fit middle-aged guys dialing up a heart attack. And I’m not going there, either.

Before his knees went south, GWB was known to run 3 miles a day four times a week (clocking a mile in under eight minutes, according to some reports) and mixed that up with mountain biking, swimming, and free weights. White House physicians placed him in the top 2 percent of men his age in cardiovascular fitness, and at least one fitness geek called him the most fit American president in history.

But, Can Your Workout Be Too Hardcore?

In this respect, GWB was no different from the legendary Jim Fixx, the überfit Vermont runner and author who keeled over from a heart attack in 1984 at the age of 52, except for the fact that the former president probably has doctors checking his pulse every couple of weeks as part of his retirement package. Hardcore middle-aged sports guys — especially those whose fitness regimens involve long-distant cardio workouts — are particularly susceptible to cardiac arrest, according to a recent study published in The New England Journal of Medicine. That’s because when a guy hits his late 40s and early 50s, those arteries feeding blood to his heart are already beginning to harden, and high-intensity cardio activity can do some damage to this infrastructure. In fact, according to this latest research, a guy is “seven times more likely to have heart problems while exercising than at rest.”

I point this out not to discourage anyone from embarking on a regular workout routine, though I have to say that the news of GWB’s hospitalization came during a week when my exercise regimen was about as disciplined as his foreign policy. So my first reaction to the news was to congratulate myself for slacking off.

That’s obviously not much of a long-term fitness strategy, but there are times when I just need to take a day or two off. Sometimes, the signal comes from some sore muscles. Other days, I just don’t feel like the energy is there. It’s like my heart isn’t really in it. So I take it easy.

Hardcore gym rats may find that hard to accept. They’ve got a workout plan designed to hit certain goals in a certain amount of time, and any lull in the regimen could knock them out of whatever real or imaginary competition they happen to be waging. But I’ve got a feeling there’s one former president out there today who’s going to think twice before pushing himself past his limits. And who wants to admit that they’re not quite as bright as George W. Bush.

, an Experience Life deputy editor, explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

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