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‘If you can walk, don’t run…’

November 23, 2012

AS I swim slowly on my back in our Sri Lanka retreat, solving the problems of the world and writing my next column in my head, I am conscious of my friends and family mocking me.

“You don’t get much exercise this way,” they say. “You need to get out of breath and increase your heart rate.”

I reply that I’m not in training for the next Olympics, and I would much rather look up at the sky, the trees and the birds than thrash up and down the pool, staring at the bottom.

Also, why would I want to make my heart beat faster? As it is, the poor thing has been beating at an average of 80 times a minute for the last 68 years. Considering that this muscle — no bigger than a clenched fist — has been keeping me going all this time, why should I burden it further, even if it gets a little help from my pacemaker?

This brings me to the philosophy of my Chinese guru who so wisely said: “If you can walk, don’t run; if you can stand, don’t walk; if you can sit, don’t stand; and if you can lie, don’t sit.” Clearly, it’s all about the conservation of energy: if you believe, as I do, that we are all born with a certain fixed number of breaths and heartbeats, does it make any sense to use up our allotted quota quicker than we need to?

Unfortunately, Puffin, our beloved Jack Russell terrier, doesn’t take this zen approach to life, and insists on being taken on long walks. So I get bullied by him into walking across the lovely countryside near our home in Devizes, but I take care not to overdo things, even though the lady wife urges me to walk faster, and even — horror of horrors! — jog a bit.

Talking of jogging, I am reminded of the death of a famous advocate of this form of exercise. This American became a household name, selling millions of copies of his book in the 1980s, until the day he keeled over with a massive heart attack while he was pounding the pavement.

I remember how pleased my cousin and friend, the late Kaleem Omar, was when he heard this news. KO, as he was affectionately called (also Kolumn Omar and the Space Invader by his journalist colleagues), immediately proclaimed he had been right all along: exercise is bad for the health.

In the last few years of his life, KO put on far too much weight for his own good, but whenever a well-wisher advised him to lose a few pounds, he would retort: “I don’t want to make a handsome corpse.” In the event, I last saw him in the hospital a few days before his death, tucking into a couple of warm samosas. KO, RIP.

Talking of samosas, let me advise the medical fraternity to decide once and for all what’s good and what’s bad for us. There have been so many conflicting theories taught to generations of medical students, and later foisted on to their patients, that it’s hard to know what to eat without suffering an instant cardiac arrest.

For years after my heart-related episode 13 years ago, I was told that eggs were the medical equivalent of hand grenades.

Although there are few things I enjoy as much as a fluffy omelette made with fresh eggs and butter, I had to cut back to one a week.

Imagine my chagrin when a major study proved that eggs did not contain the huge quantities of cholesterol we had been told they did. In fact, they have a high proportion of the good kind of cholesterol.

And so it goes: red meat’s supposed to be poison one day, and not so bad another, provided it’s lean. The list of forbidden foods changes constantly, with my inbox full of advice about diet and alternative medicines for my various medical conditions. The lady wife kindly sends me some of these, little knowing how quick I am with the ‘delete’ button.

At my stage, when old friends meet, the conversation is more likely to veer towards symptoms, doctors and medication than politics and books. And while our own medical problems are fascinating, other people’s are boring beyond belief.

There’s one particular Scandinavian study I love to cite when arguing about the merits of clean living with healthy friends.

Around 1,000 young men and women were divided into two groups, according to their lifestyle. It was assumed that those who led a well-regulated life, with a balanced diet and lots of exercise, would live longer than the slobs.

Imagine the surprise of those conducting the test when they discovered that in fact, there was no significant difference in the mortality rates between the two groups. The doctors concluded that the pressure involved in ensuring a well-regulated life was bad for the heart. Thus, it is stress that is one of the key factors in heart disease.

Here in Sri Lanka, I have already shed a few pounds, and my muscles are a bit firmer. A major reason, I suspect, is that the local meat’s pretty bad, and so we usually eat fish, together with lots of vegetables. After a week here, my son Shakir remarked: “I’d kill for a cheeseburger.” But he’s the ultimate carnivore, claiming that even chickens belong to the vegetable family.

When I’m in Karachi, especially in winter, I love my brain masala, nihari and payas. And no trip is complete without at least one visit to my favourite desi restaurant, Qaiser, opposite the old Lighthouse Cinema on Bunder Road. The leg of lamb there is legendary, and the fresh Afghani naan out of this world. I do hope my cardiologist is not reading this.

Luckily, modern medicine keeps me going, and the cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar are under control, despite my excesses. I think it was Oscar Wilde who said: “Nothing succeeds like excess.” Thus far, it seems to be working.

When I was first introduced to the reality of cardiac disease in 1999, and taken to the hospital with a heart block, I wrote a column from my bed in the Cardiac Care Unit called “View from the CCU.” Frankly, it was a pretty bleak experience, and one I would rather not have to go through again.

The writer is the author of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West.