The Surprising Secret to My Cardiovascular Success

How I Unknowingly Improved My Cholesterol and Lowered My Blood Pressure Using an Unconventional Approach

To men and women, either physically fit or unfit, I want your attention, please! What I’m going to share with you just might improve (maybe even save?) your life.

At about 69” tall (i.e., 5’ 9”) and 190 lbs., I’m overweight.

Actually, I’m not. But according to the esteemed Body Mass Index (or BMI), which is about 28, I am. (Note: a ‘healthy’ BMI for adults ranges, approximately, between 18 and 25).

But my waist-to-height ratio is healthy: my waist circumference is about 33” (I have pants ranging in waist sizes between 32” and 34”, with most on the lower end), which is less than half my height and satisfies an approximate measure of one’s healthy weight. Typically, adult males with waist sizes above 40” are considered at-risk for heart disease.

I have an athletic build (and, no, that’s not code for ‘I’m heavier than what I like or should be and could stand to lose a few pounds’); however, this scenario can frustrate BMI accuracy, which, in my case, muddies the health metrics applicable to me.

Now, at 40 years of age, this means I must change the narrative if I’m going to understand how my lifestyle choices impact my mortal metrics.

But wait: why should I care and what does this mean for you?

I care because it’s way more enjoyable to live a healthy life, and I’m inclined to take my health for granted. We’ve all heard it stated many times before: without good health, little else matters.

After all, I want to enjoy my next 40 years (or more, God-willing!), keep making memories with my wife, be present as my son becomes a man and has a family of his own one day, and continue to live a productive life.

And you need to care, too. I’m sharing this with you in the hope that the awareness I’ve gained will motivate at least one other person to assess their health.

Why should you care what I have to say?

As one who continually assesses, analyzes, and fixes (as I’m reminded by my wife), I have a natural disposition to seek and understand. And I believe that my results that I’m sharing with you are too important to keep to myself.

Because in more than one way, my results run counter to conventional wisdom about how to achieve optimum overall health.

But don’t worry: what I’m going to share isn’t about stark lifestyle changes, isn’t a ‘holistic’ approach, and I’m not selling you anything. I get it. You have to live and enjoy your life. I just want to introduce, support, or perhaps even just remind you of some strategies that have ‘real-life’ benefits.

And if that doesn’t move you then perhaps this does: Heart disease is the #1 killer of males and females in the United States, regardless of ethnicity. This includes coronary heart disease, hypertension, and stroke. [Note: if you’re curious about prevalence of disease throughout the world, checkout this link for country-specific ailments.]

Heart disease is the #1 killer of males and females in the United States, regardless of ethnicity.

So, here’s my story. It requires a bit of backstory so you can gain insight into my health and fitness level. I certainly care about my overall health and body image, and my story and the secrets I share are meant to inform and inspire you: after all, I want to enjoy my freedoms, opportunities, and family, and I’m sure this resonate with you, too! [Note: Time-crunched but want the goods now? Click here to skip to my secret].

But, let me be clear: this is my case study, with an N of 1 (me!). I do not expect this to be absolute or applicable to all people. I am not paid to endorse any strategies or products. I’m simply sharing some of my clinical results over the nearly decade-long timespan from when I began recording my data back in 2009 (when I was 32 years old). Over this period of time I regularly saw a general practitioner and had periodic blood panels performed as part of these preventive checkups; additionally, panels were also collected for life insurance purposes.

Fitness from high school to completion of PhD

As a physically active and fit male, I never considered myself at-risk for heart disease. I had begun weight lifting when I was 16 years old as a way to improve my physique and simply get stronger. While never interested to work my fitness to the level of ironman status, my presence at the gym was steadfast at least 3 days a week between 20 and 60 minutes.

Ever since college, my weight lifting routine involved short bouts of rest in between several sets of various strength-building exercises requiring moderate-to-high intensity. I wasn’t interested in attaining a ‘maximum’ bench press or squat, although back in high school I had bench-pressed up to ~ 225 pounds. This routine worked best for me and fit nicely into my time-crunched schedule, and I was usually able to complete my workouts in less than 45 minutes (and sometimes, in less 20 minutes). Usually this was done 3 or 4 days a week. Thus, the purposes of this routine were not for competitions or for ‘getting bigger’; rather, I just wanted to achieve and then maintain physique, strength, and fitness.

During graduate school, I kept this exercise routine but upped the number of days to at least 5 days a week: I needed to exhaust my body in order to help me relax (let alone sleep!) due to the intense demands studying, thinking, and working required in the research-based PhD program I was enrolled.

Shortly after completing my PhD in my mid-20s, I became a certified personal trainer (certified through the American Council on Exercise) and worked at the university gym. Armed with additional knowledge and motivation, my attention to diet and fitness was probably at an all-time high. Soon, I began to add short bouts of cardio (usually either treadmill or rowing), though I usually found this quite dull and did this mostly for warm-up purposes. As tracked with my heart-rate monitor (which I wore religiously), my cardio mostly derived from the pace at which I performed weight-lifting exercises: less than 1-minute rest intervals between exercise sets (up to 4 sets) comprising up to 20 repetitions.

‘The talk’

It was also around this time that I became enlightened regarding my family’s susceptibility to heart disease. Besides the obvious concerns a mother has about her son’s health, my mom is also a registered nurse, and this means, there was no escape: the ‘because I’m your mother’ argument (which is amazingly effective) was bolstered by her familiarity with the human body and its attendant functions.

As such, during a trip home to see my parents and in the midst of casual conversation, my mom broke out the blood pressure cuff. About a minute later, my mom exclaimed that I as soon as I returned to Indiana, I should go see a doctor about getting blood pressure medicine.

Wait, stop. We were just having a fun, totally unrelated conversation that had nothing to do with my health and blood pressure. Besides, I looked and felt completely healthy. I thought blood pressure meds were only for those middle-aged folks who sat around, drank beer and ate sausage, and talked and watched football (c’mon, you remember SNL’s Da Bears, right?)

But, yep, I guess a 160 over 84 (or, 160/84) isn’t healthy. (Note: for the record, ‘normal’ blood pressure for an adult lies at or below 120/80. Clearly, my blood pressure was certainly elevated, and in fact, is well within the range of ‘hypertension’).

Sure, the white-coat syndrome has been attributed to anxiety-related increases in blood pressure, but I think I’d find ardent opposition to this being the reason for my readings. Truth be told, I didn’t even know what was ‘normal’, and I hadn’t known about my family’s history with cardiovascular risk factors. But I just couldn’t believe I was at-risk for heart disease. I mean, I knew that measuring a patient’s blood pressure is fraught with incorrect technique and other factors (including talking, breathing incorrectly, or even having a full bladder!). But, after all, this was my mom. And, multiple checks of my blood pressure at different times and on different days, convinced her I was at-risk. Now.

My mom suggested the doctor would probably put me on a combo med that included a diuretic and ACE-inhibitor (e.g., lisinopril-hydrochlorothiazide), which achieves lower blood pressures by encouraging excess water removal while also relaxing blood vessels. Such drugs are excellent in relieving heart disease symptoms. She also said that there was a high probability that the prescribed dose would likely have to be increased as I age, unless a more powerful drug was needed to achieve my ‘healthy’ metrics.

Yep. She was right. After grudgingly making time to find a general practitioner and scheduling an appointment, I received the first ‘need-to-have’ prescription that I would have to take until I die.

Let me repeat the last part: until. I. die.

From the perspective of a fit, virile man in his 20s, the implications were clear:

  • I’m not invincible,
  • I’m not going to live forever,
  • I’m not completely unique relative to my genetic history, and,
  • I’m going to become dependent upon supplemental assistance to enjoy my next (hopefully) 50+ years, the effects of which might, by the way, affect other aspects of my daily life (er, let’s just say as an example, the ability to ‘stand at attention’).

Talk about a reality check, this was a masculinity check. Hell, this was a mortality check!

At least I was prescribed the lowest dose…

Health and fitness continued

My routine changed a bit after I moved to downtown Indianapolis for employment purposes at the University in my late 20s. After initially maintaining my strength-training regimen, weather- and season-permitting, I would regularly run along the canal (about 1.5 miles) in downtown Indianapolis after a day’s work, again in order to relax my body to balance the focus-intense activities required of a faculty member (at the IU School of Dentistry) and then after about 1.5 years, an entrepreneur. Incidentally, this was the fastest I had ever been, regularly running sub-7-minute miles (the speed of which I particularly enjoyed when participating in games of ultimate frisbee).

This continued into my early 30s, but when acquiescing to weather-based, seasonal, or motivational challenges, I intermixed rowing (~ 20 minutes 3 to 5 times per week) in order to achieve a full-body, cardio + strength workout. Of course, I would still maintain weight lifting (say, 20-30 minutes, up to 3x per week), but again not for power purposes.

By the turn of my 32nd birthday, I felt and looked good, and my weight was about 170 lbs. For baseline and documentation purposes I scheduled my first blood panel at the end of 2009. And while I’ve had my blood analyzed sporadically in the past, this time was different as it marked the first time I formally requested a copy of my results. In making this request, it surprised the doctor’s office, as this apparently isn’t a usual request. But, I reasoned, it’s my body and my incurred expenses, so of course I should have a copy of my results.

Were my blood results good? Well, the doctor stated on the paperwork they were ‘OK’, so perhaps they were. Each metric was either ‘in range’ or ‘out of range’ relative to ‘established’ guidelines based on people I didn’t know, and whose body type, activity, and, in short, uniqueness, may not be applicable to me.

What’s my ‘normal’?

High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol is known as the ‘good cholesterol’. ‘Normal’ HDL values for adults typically 60 mg/dL and higher. My 2009 blood panel revealed my HDL value was 48 mg/dL, and doesn’t remove me from heart disease risks: values ranging between 40 and 60 are considered ‘borderline’ for adults. But, I’m on a mission to learn about my ‘normal’ and understanding how my body responds to dietary changes and exercise (including the lack thereof).

As an example of how my ‘normal’ might not correspond to another person’s normal, it’s revealing to share my wife’s ‘normal’ HDL cholesterol:

My wife’s HDL values are rock-star status: prior to her colon removal in 2016, her HDL value was 92 mg/dL back in February 2013, and, more recently (February 2018) her reading was still high at 89 mg/dL! Her trigs are less than 100 mg/dL. And here’s the interesting part: at 44 years of age, she doesn’t take any blood pressure or cholesterol medications, cannot eat fibrous foods or drinks of any kind (due to colon-free status), her diet is high easily digestible, fermentable carbohydrates, and she doesn’t exercise (she hasn’t participated in organized exercise in at least a decade)!!

So while it’s reasonable to expect my wife’s HDL values to be in the upper 80s; meanwhile, I struggle to even get above 50 mg/dL. As evidenced by our contrasting blood panels. Thus, without intervention, it appears genetically unreasonable for me to attain and hold higher HDL levels (e.g., exceeding 80 mg/dL).

So, getting blood work performed also opened my eyes to a glaring deficiency in my life: what is my ‘normal’. This is also a great reason why I strongly advocate not only getting routine testing but also requesting a copy of your records so you can track your progress. After all, it’s your life and you need to understand your ‘normal’!

As a separate example, my wife was able to rationalize to the doctor her case for needing thyroid medication: her blood work showed she was in the ‘normal’ range, but just barely. But having displayed most of the other symptoms of a failing thyroid, her doctor agreed to give it a shot. With medical supplementation, her condition greatly improved, with her ‘normal’ becoming established.

With my baseline now identified, I resolved to start collecting my results at least once per year (for comparison purposes, it is suggested that anyone 20 years-old and older get their panel checked at least every 5 years; and cholesterol has also been evaluated for children between 3 and 17 years of age as well). Similar to monitoring one’s financial status (e.g., filing taxes and reporting W-2 earnings), from now on I would track my health progress.

From 2010 through 2014

As detailed in my HDL and triglycerides (or, ‘trigs’) summaries below, soon, things started to get interesting.

History of my HDL cholesterol (i.e., ‘good cholesterol’) between December 2009 and January 2018. HDL values between 40 and 60 mg/dL are considered ‘borderline’. ‘Normal’ HDL values are higher than 60 mg/dL. Elevated risk factors for coronary heart disease exists for HDL below 40 mg/dL.

History of my triglyceride content between December 2009 and January 2018. ‘Normal’ triglycerides are less than 150 mg/dL.

En route to my 33rd birthday, I began noticing that my body wasn’t responding to the decade-plus routines I previously had in place: my ability to maintain strength and fitness levels started to lag. Perhaps my body was fatigued from the exercise regimens? Perhaps it was my diet? Was it due to my blood pressure meds? All I knew is that I didn’t feel quite right and this was frustrating. Notably, this wasn’t about my blood pressure (BP), the BP meds I was dutifully taking seemed to be working.

As a test, near the end of September 2010, I decided to cease all exercising for the remaining 3 months, and begin fresh in 2011. In November I had my blood panel checked again (this time for life insurance purposes), and was pleasantly surprised as my HDL cholesterol had increased relative to my baseline 2009 results. The fact that my ‘good cholesterol’ increased was certainly eye-opening, as I had been without regular exercise for at least 6 weeks prior to this analysis. Little did I know my HDL readings were about as high as they would get until earlier this year. If there was a ‘negative’ about my blood work it was that my trigs were slightly higher than in 2009 – though they were still much lower than the recommended level (i.e., less than 150 mg/dL).

Beginning in 2011, I dramatically changed my dietary and exercise practices, and, in turn, recorded the ensuing changes in my blood. Up through 2014, the variation in my dietary and/or exercise changes, which was based on my desire to improve my blood pressure, blood panel, and/or body image, can be summarized as follows:

  • 2011
    • I ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch (during the normal 5-day workweek).
    • Abstained from weight lifting of any kind, I only did 20-minute low-intensity cardio sessions (inclined slow jog on treadmill) 3x a week.
    • In October I had my blood tested: though my HDL cholesterol dropped, my trigs also dropped as well to the lowest they had been on record yet: 85 mg/dL.
  • 2012
    • January:
      • Ceased cardio and resumed weight-lifting exercises: 3 to 4 sets up to 12 repetitions per set (performed 3 to 5 days per week).
      • Began supplementation with multivitamin (1x per day, taken in the morning).
    • February:
      • Keeping the weight lifting routine, introduced high-intensity interval training (HIIT) 2x per week via elliptical machine. On days with HIIT, also performed leg-focused exercises (e.g., quads and hamstrings). The HIIT routine involved 30-second bursts, followed by 4-minute rests: this was repeated 4x to 6x.
    • In April I had my blood tested: both HDL and trigs stayed about the same as October 11.
    • August:
      • Stopped HIIT and introduced endurance running routines performed outside for 20 to 25 minutes, with a full sprint lasting the last minute of the run. This was performed at least 2x per week
    • October:
      • In October had blood tested: HDL dropped a few points, while trigs elevated by 30+ points (but still less than 150 mg/dL). Additionally, my body weight increased.
      • In response to the blood work and desired goals, made the following changes:
        • Discontinued the 20- to 25-minute cardio sessions.
        • Reduced weight-lifting sets (from 4 to 3) and upped the repetitions (up to 20).
        • Reinstituted HIIT 1x per week, and also performed leg exercises on same HIIT day.
        • Consciously ate more almonds and rice.
      • December:
        • Began gluten-free diet near the end of the month.
  • 2013
    • Through April:
      • Maintained gluten-free diet.
      • Maintained HIIT 1x per week.
      • Instituted walking (at least 1 mile) per day over the course of the 5-day workweek.
      • Did not perform any formal cardio exercise
      • Introduced vitamin D supplement mid-March
    • Had blood tested in April: very little change in HDL or trigs. Body weight essentially the same (~ 190 lbs.).
      • In response to blood work and desired goals; maintained gluten-free diet, but reduced weight-lifting exercises to 2x per week, with squats only on one of those days. Weight-lifting performed on Mondays (chest, triceps, legs) and Wednesdays (shoulders, back, biceps).
      • In August and October, instituted 20-minute rowing 2x per week after weight-lifting exercises, and largely maintained a gluten-free diet.
    • Had blood tested in October: HDL was same, while trigs increased considerably (still lower than 150 mg/dL). Body weight still the same. Remarkably, vitamin D levels increased to 58 (which was way higher than what I had ever achieved, so yes, it works!), rendering me a believer in the powers of vitamin D supplementation.
      • In response to blood panel, kept weight-lifting activities but made some changes: increased nut and oat consumption, and replaced HIIT regimen with a 7-minute protocol that included 30-second exercises separated by 10-second rest periods) – this was done 2x or 3x per week.
  • 2014
    • Beginning in January, modifications to exercise and dietary protocols were implemented:
      • Diet:
        • Primarily consumed meals prepared at home.
        • Limited gluten-intake.
        • Little-to-no added salt.
        • Very little saturated fats.
        • Limited sugary food intake.
        • Increase lean (> 96% fat-free) protein consumption (beef, steak, chicken, etc.).
        • Increased vegetable intake (especially lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and peppers).
      • Exercise
        • Weight-lifting 2x per week (all major muscle groups) up to 3 sets and up to 20 repetitions.
      • In April had blood tested: trigs were again high (same as six months prior) and HDL was trending lower. Body weight still the same, but an increased feeling of fatigue.
        • In an alarming twist, my doctor recommended Lipitor to help counter my cholesterol: HDL was now approaching risk-factor status (i.e., below 40 mg/dL indicates increased risk for heart disease). Below is a copy of my blood panel that contains the doctor’s recommendation for Lipitor.
        • But at the age of 36, I refused to accept that I needed both blood pressure and cholesterol medication. I needed to do something. I was already very active even without regular exercising: I have a son and dog, and every day we walked and played outside.
        • So in addition to switching medical doctors (as a means of a 2nd opinion), I also stubbornly maintained I could improve my blood panel with more exercise. At this point, my diet was fairly clean and I thought adding some cardio might help: I chose to adopt a HIIT protocol emphasizing sprinting 2x or 3x per week.
      • So, 7 months later with a new doctor and, again, a new blood panel, my frustration came to a head. My measurements were the worst I’ve ever had:
        • With an HDL score of 35 mg/dL, I was now solidly in at-risk for heart disease.
        • At 171 mg/dL, my trigs were now above the ‘normal’ threshold of 150 mg/dL.

From 2010 through 2014, the intensity and variation in my dietary selections and exercise regimens increased. I have to admit: by November 2014, I was beyond shocked: I was gob-smacked. Despite my theoretic and practical understanding, along with having the fortitude necessary to execute dietary and/or fitness plans, my blood work contrasted with my focused efforts, rendering me an at-risk patient for heart disease.

Redacted copy of my blood work from April 2014 (12-hour fast). Note the doctor’s note at the bottom in the red rectangle indicating a Lipitor recommendation.

In an era where some believe sitting-is-the-new-smoking, I admit it: I have a desk job. Still, something’s amiss. I didn’t (and don’t) drink soda. But while I do enjoy sweets, and this likely impaired my blood panel results to a point, I didn’t (and don’t) eat these in excess. Plus, my daily activities with my young son and dog, helped get me out of my seat and my heart rate up.

Eerily enough, I soon became aware of several men, some of whom I personally knew, who suddenly expired: that they passed away in their 30s was alarming enough, but absolutely devastating was the fact they usually left behind young children.

So, I had to do something, and, in my opinion, medicine wasn’t an option. My decision was so drastic, even my doctor couldn’t believe it.

From end of 2014 through mid-2017

Switching to a new, optimistic, and progressive doctor, he said let’s see what happens over the next six months. What I didn’t tell him at the time was that I was done with organized exercise.

That’s right, no more. I stopped, cold turkey. No more lifting weights. No cardio fitness. Akin to what I did four years previously in November 2010, I ceased all exercise in November 2014.

I just maintained activity playing with my dog and young son.

And, I had my blood tested again in April 2015. The results showed an improvement in HDL – at least I was above the at-risk threshold. Radically, my trigs dropped from 171 to 82 mg/dL and once again was within the ‘normal’ range (i.e., < 150 mg/dL).

My blood pressure was also very good – in fact, my doctor was thankfully open to trying something new at my request: getting off the ACE-inhibitor (i.e., lisinopril, the more ‘aggressive’ component of the combo BP med) but maintaining the diuretic (i.e., HCTZ). We agreed, however, that if my BP elevated in the next visit, lisinopril would be reinstituted.

It was then I told my doc I that stopped organized exercise. He didn’t believe me. I said, “seriously, I stopped organized exercise. I’m still active with my son and dog, but I don’t go to the gym, lift weights, or participate in focused cardio activities.” Perhaps he thought I was joking, but I let it go, figuring future blood results would confirm whether or not exercise would play a major role.

Encouraged by my blood panel and BP results, I got more comfortable – I soon started eating various foods again, without strictly trying to eliminate gluten, or ensuring I had plenty of nuts or fiber.

I even introduced green tea, drinking several cups throughout the day. My blood panel was again checked in September 2015, with essentially no change in HDL or trigs. My blood pressure was also stable.

During this time we had a new home built (which lasted more than 15 months), so life was certainly exciting and a bit more stressful. Between my next blood panel analysis in August 2016, we had prepped and sold our previous home, my wife had underwent a gauntlet of medical procedures (including full colon removal), completed and moved into our new home (with my wife having served as a de facto general contractor the last 6 months of the build), and our son was transitioned from primary schools – all of which are known life stressors that can elevate blood pressure.

But, despite little regularity to my diet coupled with a dearth in organized exercise, my blood results kept improving: my HDL continued to increase while I set a personal best for my lowest trigs ever at 46 mg/dL. One month later (and collected for purposes of life insurance), my blood results reached an HDL level that was almost as high as November 2010 (although my trigs were back to a ‘normal’ level for me ~ 100 mg/dL). My blood panel at 39 years of age looked as good as it did when I was 32 – and all without organized exercising or adherence to a specific dietary regimen! And, my BP was still kept ‘in check’.

Less than a year later though in July 2017, my annual blood work blasted me once again with a nasty surprise: a lower HDL (of 47 mg/dL) and above-normal trigs (168 mg/dL)!

In response, my doctor suggested we take another measurement in January 2018, just to double-check the trig result.

But I wanted to better understand the reason for this sudden departure – why did this happen?

In my view, there were two reasons:

First, I had reinstituted organized exercise in swimming (perhaps 20 minutes at least 3x weekly) over the previous 6 weeks leading up to blood sample collection.

Second, I recalled my family enjoyed a slice of cake with frosting for about 4 consecutive days leading up to the sample collection. Though I again ensured I had a fasting blood draw (12+ hours), it didn’t matter as my trigs had jumped 60% relative to the last reading 9 months ago.

January 2018: a watershed moment!

In reviewing my HDL and trig charts shown above, suddenly the trending was reversed as the January 2018 measurement reveals (below is a copy of these recent blood panel results).

Redacted copy of my January 2018 blood work (12-hour fast). This also includes the results from July 2017, August 2016, and September and April 2015. Over this period both my body weight and waist size were similar (i.e., 190 lbs. and 33”, respectively). The HDL value of 66 mg/dL is a personal best, and the trig level is very good as well! My blood pressure was about 118/72.

I didn’t fully grasp the magnitude of these results until I left the doctor’s office and compared these results to my history. In the context of the ranges established by the medical community, another meaning quickly became apparent: not only was the HDL value of 66 mg/dL a personal best, it placed me squarely within the not-at-risk for coronary disease (i.e., I’m now in an accepted ‘normal’ range)!

And, my trigs were 66 mg/dL, the second-lowest over this 9+ year observational period.

To top it off, my BP registered a cool 118/72! The beats of my heart (i.e., the top number, or systolic measurement) were not exerting excess force of my blood on my arteries. And, the diastolic reading of 72 (i.e., the bottom number), meant that my blood was flowing quite easily between heart beats (i.e., the short rest moments). In short, I had ‘normal’ blood pressure, aided in part by the same low-dose diuretic I’ve been taking since 2014. What a result!

So, what does this mean for my heart disease risk?

Using a Framingham scoring system (see below) that incorporates gender, age, and these recent blood panel and BP results, my risk for having a heart attack over the next 10 years is 1%. (For comparison purposes, due to my wife’s high HDL content and low BP, my wife’s 10-year risk level is < 1%).I’ll take that, especially since everyone’s risk increases as they age (just the nature of the beast, as they say).

Framingham scoring system for assessing risk of having a heart attack over a 10-year period.

Ah, but despite my excellent health numbers, I hadn’t lost waist-size (still 33”) or a pound of weight (still ~ 190 lbs.) – but I’m still overweight according to the BMI scale. *sigh*.

So, what’s my secret?

Instead of 10+ ways to improve blood pressure or cholesterol, this powerful combination of 3 straightforward actions led to my outstanding results:

  1. Stop organized exercising.
  2. Eliminated high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) from my diet.
  3. Introduced 15 minutes of heat treatment.

I discuss each of these briefly below, but you should know that Secret #3 is my favorite.

Secret #1. No exercise? No problem

I stopped exercising in mid-October 2017. This continued for the remainder of the Fall season in into Winter. If I exercised, it was a short set of push-ups (say, 20 or 30 a couple times a week), or maybe up to 8 to 10 pull-ups (perhaps up to 1 or 2 times a week), to help me get ‘woke up’ from thinking, writing, and researching.

Why isn’t organized exercise helping me? Due to genetics, gaining muscle-mass has never been problematic, and I never incorporated weight-building foods, drinks, or supplements into my diet or exercise programs (if I were training for purposes of competing I could imagine this might be helpful, but I just didn’t and don’t have that need). I believe that my body’s innate ability to retain water inherently provides a strong basis for the development of muscle: after all, the water content of muscle is around 79%. It’s little surprise then that weight control strategies involving water loss also result in muscle loss. For those taking BP medications, building (and keeping) muscle can certainly be challenging, given that these BP meds function, at least partially, as water-shedding agents.

So here’s my explanation as to why exercise is not necessarily improving my BP or cholesterol and trig levels. Genetically, my body simply desires to retain water, and therefore, muscle mass. Even modest exercise regimens (e.g., push-ups, pull-ups, shadow-boxing, HIIT, or low-intensity treadmill workouts) will invariably lead me to gain muscle, and, in turn, create more stress on my body. While this behavior was fine leading up to my early 30s, by the time I turned 35 and even now, it has become counterproductive and, evidently, ‘stressful’ – at least from the perspective of my cholesterol and trig levels. And because a body needs replenishment to account for energy expended, increased intake of calories (including healthy calories) may contribute additional ‘stress’ on the body.

Thus, in a bid to improve my health profile via exercise, it seems that for me, at my current age, history, and genetic makeup, it actually impairs it.

Sure, in the Spring and Summer I’ll probably swim, as this is a refreshing, low-impact activity for joints. But this is not something I need to do in order to improve my health. And, I’ll still play with my son. In other words, I’ll remain active, but I decline to wear the yokes of organized exercise.

This is obviously far from recommendations that are constantly being thrown at us. I mean, articles, television and internet commercials and ads, and even medical opinion implores us to regularly exercise – especially as we get older!

But I didn’t do that and I improved my BP and blood panel. Following the fact pattern, the argument supporting exercise is unsubstantiated – at least, for me, right now.

In doing so, I’m listening to my body and I’m understanding – and refining – my ‘normal’.

To be clear, I’m not calling for a no-exercise society. Naturally, it depends on our unique set of circumstances.

But I do wonder whether robust exercise is absolutely necessary throughout all of life? I mean, must the human body engage in grueling workouts – to the point of joint replacement or physical therapy – or does such consistent, intense activity wear out the body more quickly? Like a car’s engine that only has so many miles (even the best ones are ultimately limited), perhaps our heart, joints, and muscles have limited lifetimes, too.

Secret #2. Just say ‘no!’ to high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)

It may take an extra moment, but I rejected foods and drinks sweetened with HFCS as evidenced on the ingredient panel.

I, too, have read the stories about sugar vs. HFCS: some argue there is no difference, while others disagree. Some just maintain the stance of limiting intake of sweets.

In fact, some explain that the manufacturing processes of sugar and HFCS are quite comparable. But an enzymatic step that’s uniquely necessary to produce higher levels of fructose is, in my opinion, the principle difference.

This artful device is predicated on the ability of Streptomyces microbes to produce a heat-stable enzyme called xylose isomerase. When Japanese researchers figured out a way to fix xylose isomerase to a solid substrate in 1965, a significant barrier to high-yield production was removed, and commercial-scale quantities of high-fructose corn syrup soon became viable.

But why was HFCS created? Well, one reason is that Cuba was the dominant exporter of Caribbean sugar by the 1950s, which was Cuba’s #1 commodity shipped to the United States: with the Cuban Revolution in 1959 contributing to instability in sugar availability and, therefore, prices (especially in 1963), there was significant interest in developing sweet alternatives to sugarcane. Thus, HFCS was created in no small part to compete with sugarcane.

And by 1980, this liquid sweetener was introduced into soft drinks, reaching 100% sweetener replacement approval in 1984.

But, more recent data (here and here) have shown there appears to be definite drawbacks to HFCS.

It’s important to remember these facts about the human body:

  • Glucose is the principal energy source and is used by virtually all the tissues in the human body, including the brain.
  • Fructose is largely limited to absorption in the liver (and to a lesser degree in the colon and kidneys; importantly, it requires conversion to glucose (which is performed in the liver).
  • The conversion to glucose from fructose is inefficient: in other words, it is very slow and requires significant energy, thus imparting burdens on the liver. This slow conversion is one reason fructose has previously been proposed as a sugar-alternative for diabetics; however, the amount of fructose ingested matters significantly (see the next point), especially in the presence of glucose, so fructose is not a fail-safe ingredient for managing diabetes.
  • Our bodies can certainly handle fructose – but not spikes of concentrated fructose that HFCS delivers. Let’s compare four food items (apples, bananas, peaches, and a 12 oz. can of Coke®):
    • Apples have about 5 grams of fructose per 100 gram serving size
    • Bananas and peaches have about 3 grams of fructose per 100 gram serving size
    • Out of the total sugar content in soft drinks comprising HFCS, about 60% is fructose. This means for a 12 oz. can of Coke® (which corresponds to about 39 grams of sugar), the fructose content is about 23 grams! Even further, this corresponds to 59 grams of fructose per 100 grams serving size!
    • This comparison also explains why the relatively modest levels of fructose in fruit have been recommended for those with diabetes.

I believe that my blood panel results from July 2017 were negatively impacted by the frosted cake, which, I learned afterward, is made with HFCS.

There were two major changes I effected upon learning my trig levels from the July 2017 blood draw, and one of those changes was eliminating and/or avoiding foods and drinks with high-fructose corn syrup.

While it was easy for me to avoid the sugary drinks (I just don’t drink sports drinks, soda, vitamin waters, etc.), it was harder, I learned to avoid HFCS. Because food labeling in the US is organized on a most-to-least basis, I discovered that this ingredient was prominent in many foods, including:

  • Prepared sauces, including ketchup, steak sauce, and BBQ sauce
  • Cakes (including cake frosting), breads, and other baked goods

And, I maintained my near-daily consumption of bananas (about 1 day). As relayed above, bananas have natural fructose, not bioengineered versions (i.e., HFCS), at concentrations about 20x less than the fructose found in soft drinks.

Importantly, note that I did this during one of the more indulgent times of the year: this included Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s.

Did I avoid sugary foods? Nope. Not one bit. But I read packaged ingredients and simply avoided those foods and drinks that had HFCS. My wife, who enjoys baking, made dozens of cookies and foods that utilized sugar (or, non-sugar alternatives), and I enjoyed these immensely (without gaining weight, I may add).

Secret #3. It’s getting hot in here!

I can think of no other way to properly introduce this topic than to invoke one of the more memorable scenes from Seinfeld:

Ah, the powers of a sauna: this is my steamy secret.

But this treatment isn’t new, is it? The use of steam and heat for health-based purposes is not new, having existed for millennia.

I mean, Nordic populations (especially Finns) viewed a sauna as a staple in their home, camp, village, basically, everywhere they would go. Ancient Romans and Greeks also utilized saunas for cleansing. Sauna-like ‘sweat lodges’ were (and still are) an important part of First Nations healing culture and traditions.

The purported benefits of a sauna, of course, are many, and by virtue of its sweat-inducing effect, it’s a prominent depuration mechanism. Though exercise and massage are also utilized for detox-purposes, the sauna requires little effort to sweat and can be performed alone.

Sauna treatment has been recommended for treatment of chronic health problems, including cardiovascular and autoimmune diseases. Additionally, the thermally induced vasodilation (i.e., stimulates production of nitric oxide) in arteries, veins, and endothelial tissue is especially good for those with chronic heart failure.

Such information is certainly helpful, but I honestly didn’t know this beforehand. Rather, I enjoyed the sweat-inducing effect brought about by elevated temperatures as it made me ‘feel’ refreshed after exposure.

At the beginning of October 2017, we installed a steam-sauna in our home (see photo below). This was a special gift to me, from me, that I had now-and-then thought about but never followed up on. I had previously used saunas and steam rooms at the local gym or overseas (including Germany), and this always left an indelible memory. There are infrared (IR) saunas, but like I said, I enjoy the feel of the heat and wanted to ensure my expectations were met. It seems, IR saunas are very effective, but I wanted a more ‘original’ (or, perhaps ‘raw’) experience.

I began regularly using said sauna several times a week shortly thereafter. Mindful of potential overheating risks, I started at 130°F (54°C), but soon worked up to 190°F (88°C). To be sure, one doesn’t have to go so high to get benefits: even 140°F (60°C) produces clinically relevant results. But like I said, I like it a little hotter so that’s why I amped it to 190°F (88°C). It’s not painful or unpleasant for me: it just feels right. That’s where I like it.

By the beginning of December, I was ‘saunasizing’ daily for 15 minutes at 190°C. To make it even better, I dribble some eucalyptus oil into a water dish, and then periodically apply this emulsion to the ‘hot rocks’. I love the evolution of steam that naturally ensues, followed by the sweat-inducing effect when the steam hits the skin.

My sauna.

15 minutes later, I’m done. It’s that easy. And relaxing.

Fast-forward to a day in January 2018 when I met with my doctor, and I couldn’t have been more surprised. In fact, when I told my doctor I had started using the sauna on a regular basis, he wasn’t surprised and casually mentioned he had been using one for over 10 years!

Ah, if I had only known then what I know now…

Will it work for you?

So, I’m committed to using the sauna from here on out.

Yes, I’ll limit my saturated fats and I’ll eliminate HFCS whenever possible.

I’ll even add swim periodically when the warmer weather arrives.

But I’m not going to eliminate sugar from my diet and I’m not engaging in regular exercise.

But I will keep saunasizing as part of my lifestyle.

And, come July I will have BP measured and my blood panel assessed. And, I’ll update you with the outcome.

In the meantime, if you, or someone you know, has risk factors for heart disease (the leading cause of death in the US, with over 600,000 annually), you might want to consider the benefits of a sauna.

In addition to cosmetic benefits, it just might lower your blood pressure and boost your ‘good cholesterol’.

After all, getting healthier doesn’t have to always be so challenging!


Robert L. Karlinsey, PhD

Dr. Robert L. Karlinsey earned a BS in Physics and PhD in Chemical Physics, holds several patents, and has published in multiple fields including dentistry, chemistry, and materials science. His lifelong struggles with his own dental decay ultimately inspired him to investigate the remineralization of teeth.