HOW A BAD BACK AND BEING OVERWEIGHT SAVED MY LIFE…
Genetics is by far the most powerful force in determining our physical characteristics. We’ve always known that eye color, hair color, skin tone, height, weight, and other unavoidable physical traits are inherited. The word “TRAIT” is defined as a genetically determined characteristic.
What we’re also learning with breakthrough after breakthrough in arena of genetic science is that the genes we inherit also are largely responsible for the quality of our health and our susceptibility to certain diseases.
There are a few things about the men in my family that are quite apparent when you line us up side by side: the younger men and boys are thin and lanky. What is most apparent is that the older the men in my family are – the more weight they carry. The VAST majority of over 30 adults – both male AND female (my father’s bloodline produces very few females – there have been 3 out of some 40 births in the past 4 generations) are obese. We start skinny and then start packing on weight in our 20’s until in our 30’s we are obese.
Lifestyle choices aside, this trend is PROGRAMMED in us. I can attest to what it takes to NOT let genetics have the final say in this matter. But more on that in a moment. I started life rail thin and I stayed that way until my early 20’s.
What is most apparent is that the older the men in my family are – the more weight they carry. We start skinny and then start packing on weight in our 20’s until in our 30’s we are obese.
In college, late nights, working graveyard shift at 2 different area hospitals, and genetics caught up with me. From the age of about 22 on I started gaining 5-10lbs a year. Between the ages of 23 and 25 I was the “ideal weight” for my body type. I had been working out lightly with some friends. Nothing that I stuck with. Instead, I preferred my childhood and adolescent escape mechanism; riding a bicycle. I stopped riding when I was around 24. My beautiful top-of-the-line Bianchi started collecting dust in a corner of my garage.
In my late 20’s my genetics would betray me in a painful and insidious way – I started having severe lower back issues.
My older brother had been diagnosed with a genetic disease called “ankylosing spondylitis” in his early 20’s. Ankylosing Spondylitis is an inherited genetic disorder of the spine where the body attacks itself – much like with rheumatoid arthritis – destroying the soft tissue of the spinal discs. The really bad thing about ankylosing spondylitis is that once the tissue is destroyed your body replaces it with calcium deposits. Basically fusing your bones together in an excruciatingly slow and painful process. An anti-body gene marker attributed to this disorder called “HLA-B27” has been discovered in patients suffering from this disease.
I have the active HLA-B27 antigen in my bloodstream but have not developed ankylosing spondylitis, instead I have an aggressive immune response to soft tissue damage. My father (who had followed the same genetic body type path I found myself on) had developed debilitating back pain issues in his 30’s.
One day while doing yard work I felt a sharp pain and felt a “POP!” in my back and that was the start of what has been sincerely the most formative physical experience of my life. I couldn’t walk for days. Knowing what I know now – this was a rupture of my L4-L5 disc with a herniation of the disc into my spinal column. The pain was so intense. My body reacted by attacking the disc and destroying it. Luckily for me it didn’t replace the damaged disc with calcium as my brother was experiencing.
I would have flare ups of debilitating back pain 2 or 3 times a year. I started avoiding activities that might inflame my back. And I started packing on even more weight.
By the time I hit age 33 I was 258lbs wearing a size 38 waist. I looked in the mirror and saw my father, which honestly horrified me.
My back problems were getting much more frequent and I honestly hated the way I looked. I’d look in the mirror and I didn’t recognize the bloated, puffy face that stared back at me. Most importantly I hated the way I felt. I hated getting out of breath by walking up a single flight of stairs. And I realized that my back issues and weight were directly related.
Pain motivated me to change my life. I knew I had to lose weight. I knew I had to change my eating habits and add a regular exercise regimen to my daily activities.
Cycling as always been a refuge for me emotionally. It is my happy place. Some of my happiest childhood memories were centered around the beauty and tranquility I felt when far away from the turmoil of my family home; free on my magical leg-powered machine.
I went to my local bike shop in Savannah, Georgia (Star Bike Shop) and I realized that the road bikes I loved as a teen looked too frail to handle my near 260lbs weight so I purchased a cool looking mountain bike by some guy named “Gary Fisher” and decided that until I could lose some weight I’d just ride this bike on the road.
Soon after riding I realized that riding seemed to help my back and I felt much better after a short 30 minute ride around my neighborhood. Exercise was an important aspect of my new “healthy” lifestyle. But I feel it is what I did with my unhealthy relationship with food that made the biggest difference.
I have never been a drinker. Because of the addiction issues with BOTH sides of my family I have always been terrified of drinking and becoming a slave to alcohol. I’ve witnessed family member after family member succumb to addiction and it was a trap I knew to avoid. I have always felt the same way about smoking.
What I didn’t think about was how food can become an addiction as well. I looked at what I considered my worst dietary habits and I came up with a list of things I needed to change.
- No Soft Drinks/Sodas/Sugary Drinks – Water became my drink of choice – I did make an exception with my morning coffee. I started using Sugar in the Raw and no creamer.
- No Fried Foods – if it wasn’t baked or grilled I didn’t eat it.
- No Dairy – modified to limited as possible – typically if a dish had some small amount of cheese I’d eat it. But I stopped drinking milk completely and started using soy milk with cereal
- No solid food after 7pm – This was HUGE for me. I’d snack right up until the time I’d go to bed. I decided that if I’d not eaten by 7pm – I wouldn’t eat.
- Everything in Moderation – I started to NOT clean my plate.
- It is OK to feel hungry – I decided that I didn’t need to eat any time I felt a little hunger pain. Hunger pains became a mental alarm – letting me know that I was burning fat and losing weight. They were a good thing.
That was it. I stuck to these rules and started riding my bike more and more.
At first – for what I’d say was 5 or 6 weeks it didn’t seem to make much difference in my weight. My body took time to realize what was going
on and adjust.
Then the weight started melting off. As I added more exercise I lost more weight.
I hit 2 plateaus which were difficult to push through. The first at around 205lbs. I held here for almost 2 months. It was as if I hit a wall. But eventually by adjusting everything a little more I started seeing the scale lower again. The last plateau was at 190lbs. I’ve decided that this is probably the ideal weight for me. My body seems to want to find this number and stay there.
I pushed down to 175lbs where honestly I looked too thin. It wasn’t a healthy look. I adjusted thing again and went back up to 180-185lbs – where I’ve stayed – on average – for the past 13 years.
In 2012 I was lifting something (that was far too heavy for me to lift safely) and I had a second “POP!” and searing intense pain. This was different. Now the pain ran down my leg.
It was so bizarre. I had really come to know my body well with all the cycling I’d been doing. I had relocated to Southern California in 2006 and was attending college (again). I rode my trusty Gary Fisher to school and back – averaging 30 miles a day some 3 to 4 days a week. I knew when my legs had been overworked.
This new back situation was unbearable. It felt like Mike Tyson had gone to town beating the crap out of my right leg. It was so bad that if I didn’t know better I’d say that I’d done permanent muscle damage to my leg; which was not the case.
For the first time since my back issues had started some 17 years before I got an MRI. And man was that an eye opener.
I had no disc between L4-L5 – which was the older injury from my late 20’s. The joint between my L4 and L5 vertebrae was “mushroomed” – meaning those two bones had been hitting each other without any padding and they were deforming as a result.
And my new pain was caused by a sizable herniation of damaged disc between L5 and S1 – which was poking into my spinal column.
I had a discectomy and a series of epidural spinal cortisone injections (4 over 3 months). I also did 6 months of physical therapy. This is when the cycling really became a way of life for me. As I had discovered before – cycling seemed to make my back feel better.
What it did was keep all of the muscles in my lower back loose and strong. It helped prevent the joints from becoming inflamed and irritated.
In late 2012 I started cycling daily. I purchased a hybrid road/urban bike (a road bike with flat bars like a mountain bike) and I started riding between 5 and 10 miles every day.
Soon I was feeling better – getting leaner but maintaining my weight because I was building new muscle. My legs went from being large and heavy (in the cycling world I’m a TT/Sprinter – I have powerful, heavy legs and can produce large bursts of speed for short periods of time) – to being lighter and lean. I was becoming an endurance cyclist. I’d push myself harder and harder – go my typical fast pace – but doing longer. I was really giving my cardiovascular system a work-out.
My lungs got stronger, my heart got stronger, and I added more and more time to my daily rides.
MOST IMPORTANTLY – MY BACK WASN’T CAUSING ME PAIN ANYMORE…
By October of 2016 I’d been riding regularly for over 13 years. I’d been riding daily – pushing myself hard each day for 4 years.
On October 14th, 2016, my genetics again betrayed me and I experienced a life-threatening STEMI heart attack. I had the “Widowmaker” – a 100% blockage of my LAD – the artery that supplies the largest amount of blood to your heart.
What had started with back pain and a desire to not hate the way I looked when I saw myself in the mirror or in photos – turned into the saving grace that protected my heart and saved my life.
The years of intense daily cardiac exercise had forced my body to grow a collateral artery – a new blood pathway from my unobstructed Right Coronary Artery over to the left side of my heart to help with oxygen needs during my rides.
When my LAD closed off from a blood clot around a ruptured plaque deposit in my artery wall, this new collateral artery kept enough blood flowing to the tissue on the left side of my heart that I avoided any tissue damage.
You can look back at your life and play the “IF” game – which is pointless because you chose the path you chose. I am instead so grateful and thankful that for whatever reason I chose the path I did.
I fell in love with cycling at a young age and that love has been a constant in my life since. I’m thankful that when I gained the weight that I did and I injured my back, that cycling was part of the solution. I’m grateful that I remained motivated and determined to be healthier and live a healthier lifestyle. I’m grateful that I made the choice to move where I did when I did for the area of California I live is conducive to cycling 365 days of the year. This made it so easy for me to get out and ride any time of day or night.
I made the choices I made and I am here. I am here and perfectly healthy.
An acquaintance of mine in the cycling community has a brother who is not too far from me in age who suffered a Widowmaker and thankfully survived a little over a week ago. Sadly his brother has a damaged heart as a result and has a very long recovery ahead of him. His life has been forever changed. He may never ride a bicycle again.
I DO NOT WANT THIS TO HAPPEN TO YOU.
Talk with your doctor about your family risk for CAD – and make any necessary changes in your lifestyle to be the healthiest you possible. I know you can – for if I can – YOU can.
Thank you for taking the time to read this and for visiting my site. I hope it’s beautiful where ever you are – and hey! Go ride a bike!