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‘If you can walk, don’t run…’

Published Nov 23, 2012 09:02pm


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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.


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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (15) Closed

Parvez Nov 24, 2012 12:31pm
Great stuff and truly no place like Sri Lanka to sit back and reflect.........beautiful country, beautiful people. On living and eating healthy : people are slowly realising that all that Americana sold to the world - the Big Mac with fries and a Coke and junk on the TV wasn't good. Well everything in life is cyclical in nature and things are slowly going from West to East. Hopefully we manage to get a balance. Let's wait and see,
Shah Nov 24, 2012 05:01pm
Superb piece of penning ... Especially '' how quick in delete'' and the ''ultimate carnivore, claiming that even chickens belong to vegetable family'' made me laugh at once.
aslam minhas Nov 24, 2012 04:38pm
Well, well Mr. Husain: I read you regularly and for a change read me: I jog 2 km every other day and do the gym. I am a dal-, vegetable- and chicken- man. Meat occasionally, noons only. Curd to start the day and at evening after the (early) meals. I do a bit of gardening growing the vegetables and I eat the fruit of my labor. My heart rate is 48 and BP 120/80. I am into my 71st and I still get the second looks! How about that? Affectionately yours.
BRR Nov 24, 2012 03:17pm
Everything in moderation goes a long way.
Sumit Nov 24, 2012 11:52am
The Chinese guru of Mr Hussain's is dead wrong. Any achievement in life requires exactly the opposite approach! I have read the discussion Mr Hussain is talking about - that physically fit people do not live longer than unfit people. True indeed, but physically fit people live better. South Asians do not believe in fitness. They ascribe their poor performance in international sports events other than cricket to poor genes etc etc. Rather, our poor performance in athletics comes from watching too much cricket while lying down on the bed. I have a daughter who has done the marathon in 3 hrs 30 min and has qualified for the Boston marathon. This time - I was surprised to find this myself - is much better than the Pakistani national record for women! At the age of 60 myself, I ran in a local 5 K yesterday. There were several hundred men in the race. There are probably a thousand Indians and Bangladeshis in our town - I did not see any in the race.
GN Rao Nov 25, 2012 10:35pm
All these Doctors conduct studies from time to time for publicity/phd thesis. Quite often contradicting earlier findings/advise. Live at your own pace and comfort level, as you are doing!
Ashok Nov 24, 2012 04:59pm
I love reading your articles. Pl take care of your health as I would want to keep reading your articles for a few more decades (you see I am in my late thirties)
Rajan Nov 24, 2012 06:34am
As per our civilization, One?s body needs food and exercise, Mind needs love, Intelligence needs knowledge and soul needs spirituality. If one can make a balance of these four, he will be making a better life. And it?s not really important how long you live but how well you live on this life.
Muhammad Nov 24, 2012 07:11am
Another super read from Mr.Irfan Hussain. And well said Rajan, it's how well you live and not how long you live, that's the name of the game.
Marvin (Edmonton, Canada) Nov 24, 2012 02:36pm
It is better to walk before dinner to clear up blood sugar from the system. After dinner, stomach needs blood to begin digestion of foods. If you walk after dinner, stomach will have less blood for digestion and ingested food and sugar will start utilizing leaving you hungry in early morning and if you don't replenish early in morning, reserve (glycogen) will start utilizing and also muscle protein will be converted into body's need. This is not good for metabolism. If you want to walk after dinner, walk slowly and for short distance for pleasure. No No to brisk walk for long time.
Tribal Manto Nov 24, 2012 05:06am
Well to me, i should say, a brisk walk of 25 to 30mins would be fine, especially after the dinner. And keep eating the fish and it will keep your healthy and your skin would be young and fresh, you won't get creases on your face even at such an old age. Wish you good health ahead in your life, Irfan sahib.
rich Nov 24, 2012 08:42am
i am reading ur column after a very long time, i think after almost 3/4 years i always enjoyed ur articles but now i am sad, i just started a bit of excercising (walk/jog) for last 10 days , now i am in 2 minds what shoulsd i do today late eve should i jog or just lie down and watch tv or surf the net which i love doing(the resting part) i always followed the advice why sit when u can sleep ect ect till i was diagonised with a bit of bad choloestrol hence the daily torture for the last 10 days now i think i will just take it easy and leave everything to god Richie
Falcon Nov 24, 2012 08:32am
Good article. As for your mention on conflicting studies, I have figured that it is safer to conclude that whatever is tasty will be termed as unhealthy sooner or later. Think about it, when was the last time someone said karelas (bitter melon) are bad for health?
shanawer hussain Nov 24, 2012 06:00am
Interesting article.
sh.jamil Nov 24, 2012 04:49pm
Mr.Irfan i am your agemate so to say.Your today's column was a bit of relief for me.I wish you all the best.