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Trying for a clean bill of health: The surprising results of seeking and following good advice

(This column was first published June 13, 1987.)

Despite a long list of bad, reckless and downright dumb habits — including a general reluctance to go see a doctor — I’ve just had the happy experience of returning from the Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minnesota, with a clean bill of health. Of course, there were a few exotic parasites making a home in my stomach — the result of eating at the kind of puestos I invariably tell gringo friends to pass by, on the street and in many market places. But the sawbones that inspected most of the functioning parts declared “I feel that your general health is excellent.”

This clinical conclusion was something of a surprise to some long-time friends, for like so many people in this world, I’ve happily abused my health for most of my life. The idea, as I and my friends entered adolescence and young adulthood was to GO! — to have as much fun and do as many things as intensely and often, for as long a period as stamina, circumstances, money and orderly society would allow.

In high school this meant little sleep, lots of fighting, contact sports, drinking, girls, exploring the wild edges of the adult world and engaging in as many hair-raising stunts as a bunch of hooky-playing, smart-ass teenagers could think of, with summers of rodeoing and winters of hunting, all leading to bloodied noses and limbs, broken bones, skull fractures, brain-concussions, various illnesses and fevers, and every bit of it unrelentingly fueled by a diet that would make an alley cat sick.

College in Los Angeles meant a concentration of certain of these heedless habits, and service in the U.S. Army upped the physical recklessness as the quality of diet plummeted.

Mustering out led to a headlong career made up of dense hours in the “communications trade” — newspaper, radio, advertising and public relations. These hours were ornamented with hard evenings in handsome bars and clubs and at all-night parties, with free-lance writing crammed into whatever weekend and late night time was left over, interrupted by pauses for car racing, some amateur bullfighting, then living at the beach with surfing and horses. All of this allowing for smoke-filled lungs, martini-soaked days, more broken bones and fractures and battered muscles — and, finally, a slightly improved diet.

Sound familiar? Most all of my friends at this time led similar, if specifically different, health-trashing lives.

It wasn’t until shortly before this newspaper appeared in my life that small bits of common sense began leaking into my brain and I began to try to guess how long one’s body would stand up under constant fast-lane travel. Since my late teenage years, I’d had a friend who was a nutritionist, and even though I tended never to let any of his suggestions get in the way of a full-throttle manner of getting at life, some of them now and then dogged my attention and I’d temporarily switch to a bit of rehabilitative behavior.

That began to provide some hints. Then, too many of my older friends, both Mexican and North American, began veering into ditches filled with body problems banging up against everything from falling hair, ulcers and hypertension to cancer, heart attacks and strokes. What hit me earlier was that what nutritionists were saying was good for preventing circulatory and heart problems was just about the same thing other experts were saying was good to prevent cancer.

And then the thing that always impressed me, from my days on the high school track team — where I ran poorly most of the time — was that I never knew a fat runner. Most of my best running was for my own enjoyment along the North and South Platte Rivers in Western Nebraska, and that gave me a then-unconventional inclination to go sprinting off whenever tension built up. Pickup games of basketball, running and a lot of time in the ocean off Malibu and, latter, off the beach at Matanchen in Nayarit kept down the fat and other effects of long periods of booze and high-calorie foods.

When the catter-whumped occupation of running a newspaper in Mexico got its tongs fixed into me, I found out one of the jobs this meant was researching writing stories on nutrition for a reading audience that was older than I. That was a lot more instructive and beneficial than I’d imagined. I had a good, if simpleminded, start because I knew something about running — it kept the fat off you and could make your body feel like it was brand new. And then many of the ideas, facts and theories developed by nutrition and holistic medicine enthusiasts during the 960s had come my way. First thing I did was to send off to my doctor-nutritionist friend for as many of his well-tested ideas as he had time to spare. Then I did a lot of reading, and began trying to weed out the many health hustles — and hustlers — that suddenly seemed to be flourishing everywhere.

I also made friends with several Mexican doctors who understood that while {carnitas} are more delicious than any steak around and twice as additive as peanuts, they have enough fat in them to give your arteries fits if you made a habit of gorging on the sweet-tasting pork. We talked about cholesterol, diet, exercise, stress ECGs, and how to avoid medication.

Out of all this, I started putting together a diet and an exercise regimen for myself that seemed a pretty good way to keep the average, normally abused body ticking and cut back on some of the damage that had been done.

In this newspaper, we publish a variety of such ideas, of recommendations and tested theories of doctors, researchers, nutritionists, medical specialists, even practitioners of folk medicines — just about anything that seems likely to help folks stay healthy and/or cure body-walloping afflictions.

But as retailer of this information, it’s often hard for us to assess how much good it’s doing, if people are paying any attention. Therefore, when my Mayo Clinic examiner told me that my blood pressure was a fine 125/80, and that my cholesterol was so low that he hadn’t seen anything like it in a long time and likened the count to some Masai tribesman living primarily on grains and vegetable, I felt that SOME of the advice that we’d been publishing was doing SOME good — because I’d been taking it. Other examinations and tests were all on the plus side too. So … the discipline of kicking cigarettes, coffee and caffeine-laden tea, passing by pastries, candy — even ice cream — of slowing booze to a moderate rate, of the running and exercise, the vitamins and bi-annual checkups — but most of all simply listening to my body — had paid off.

This bit of condensed and possibly wearying physical autobiography is offered not because it’s generally exceptional, but because I hope it helps show that the effects of a rather normally careless way of living need not necessarily mean veering into the ditch, that the excessive wear and tear of three-packs-a day, no breakfasts, a shower of beautiful soup before and after dinner, head-clanging stress and general body-bashing can be repaired — not totally, not for everyone, but to a much greater extent than many of us surmise.

Places like Mayo Clinic are fortresses where disease is fought and health guarded. But the message I got from the many doctors and nurses I talked with there was: Take responsibility of your well-being. Listen to the wisdom of your body — it’s a terribly intricate and hardy contraption and is almost always telling you something. And be of good health.

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