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Heart Health. Try it.

It’s February! When ambitious New Year’s resolutions to get six-pack abs and the heart rate of a marathon runner too often find us on the couch with a six-pack watching marathon runners on TV. February is heart health month, so get up and maybe try a trip around the block instead.

When I began this latest cycle of my life, I had just gotten through a series of major life changes: new house, new job, new baby on the way, new brand of deodorant. One day, I found myself out of breath after hiking up a flight of stairs so I knew I had to do something or I was going to end up a scrawny, bald guy who has a heart attack on the couch.

That something was to get up a little early on a Monday and walk around the block one time. Breathing some fresh air and getting my blood moving even just a little made me feel better. We all know that your heart is the most important muscle to work on. A healthy heart won’t get you swole. Cardio exercise is one of the slowest to see visible progress, but it makes you feel the best and has the biggest impact on your life. I had exercised semi-regularly most of my life, so I knew how to do it. I just needed to get going and keep it going.

Knowing that I’m not a morning person, I decided to do all my thinking the evening before rather than running out of brain power and ending up shambling around like a zombie, searching for socks. I laid out sweats and put my shoes by the door with a key in the right shoe. I wouldn’t have to look for the key; in fact, I couldn’t avoid it. That was my only house key and I was going to wear those shoes for work anyway. That key in the shoe was (pun warning!) the key to my current method. I put exercise in the way.

That morning walk was a time commitment I could easily afford and I barely had to think about it. Every morning for a week, before anyone else woke up, I did the same thing. The next week, I added another few minutes and a little more distance to the routine. The rest of my family are also not morning people, so even now I am able to spend those unwanted early hours doing what I need to do without much chance of running into anyone.

I’m not motivated enough to push myself in the mornings, so it took a month or so to start running a few yards throughout the walk until gradually I got tired of how long the walking took and now I just go ahead and run. This actually turned out to be another fortunate accident. I like to tell people my philosophy is, “No pain. No pain.” Pain avoidance is one of the most primal impulses. Even the primitive reptile-brain we all have tucked underneath the frontal lobes will decide against doing something that hurts. However, it’s that reptile-brain that will stand you up and make you lope around the neighborhood on a cold morning when a reasonable person would just stay in a warm bed.

I had unwittingly stumbled into a very repeatable routine. I didn’t have to think much, I had picked a time that no one else in my family wanted, and it didn’t hurt a bit. As I was able to gently carve out more time in the morning, I added a little more distance or a little more speed. I also added strength training back in, which is also cardio, if you don’t rest too much. By not making radical changes, I was able to progress and only being dimly aware of it. I’m just that brain-dead in the morning, so why not use that to my advantage?

I’ve run hundreds of miles and lifted tons of weight. I’m not fast, nor am I huge. My fitness goals are modest: be a scrawny, bald guy who doesn’t collapse on a weekend backpacking trip or get hurt carrying a couch up a set of stairs. I still put my workouts on the critical path. I set out the next day’s work clothes the night before like a 9-year-old, down in the basement bathroom, where I have to shuffle past all my exercise gear. There’s real power in the mantra, “Eh. I’m already here.”

Fifteen years later, my mornings consist of a very long set of steps that I’ve built up at an almost geologic pace. Truly, exercise is really only part of my morning routine, now. It’s just something I do along with feeding the herd of pets, feeding myself, rinsing off my carcass and dressing it up for public. It throws me off when I can’t do the whole ritual before the higher brain functions kick in.

So, what I’m saying here is; if I can do this, you can do this. I happened to sneak up on myself early one morning by accident, but you can do it intentionally. If you find a little time that nobody wants to take from you, plan ahead a little and put your workout in your own way, you can be looking back 15 years hence and telling your doctor that you made exercise a part of your life. Of course, it’s not a bad idea to ask your doc now what you should be starting with.

I may have to settle for a two-pack and the heart rate of a 10K runner, but I’ll keep on running. I’ve got the rest of my life to work on it. Since I quietly sneaked exercise into my mornings while I was half asleep, it became just another a part of my life. Honestly, there are mornings I arrive and I don’t really remember how I got here, but I know that I fed the herd and I took care of my heart.