This Old Body

This Old Body

I’ve always enjoyed birthdays. Mine falls around Memorial Day, near the birthdays of several family members and friends. With the long weekend, the warmer weather and numerous celebrations, getting older was always a lot of fun.

But now I’m 38. I can see 40 breaking over the horizon, and things don’t look so good.

Always rail thin but with serious definition around my teeny muscles, I now am squishier. A small bulbous gut has replaced my washboard abs. If I slouch in the least, my stomach protrudes.

Age, I worry, is getting the best of my body.

“This isn’t something that you should accept,” says Robert J. Havey, MD, associate professor of clinical medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and vice president of Northwestern Medical Group. “At this age, you ought to be able to have the same physique as an Olympic swimmer.”

Havey has been my primary care physician for about eight years — all of my 30s. He’s seen me through shingles and skin cancer. He’s recorded my body’s changes, for better and for worse. I spoke to him because he not only knows his stuff, he knows me. And he has no problem providing medical tough love.

“After 50, that’s when you need to worry about [the changing abilities of your body]. For a 38-year-old, it’s just bad habits,” he says.

While I admittedly am young — though not as young as I like to think I am — we all face issues associated with aging. It’s never too late to do right by your aging body, Havey says. But as we age, particularly after 50, we must step up our game.

Age, I worry, is getting the best of my body.

“We screen for more serious conditions with aging,” he says. “From cancers to heart disease, more disease occurs in older people, so more screening and vigilance is needed. The screening should be tailored to one’s personal and family history. So a person with a history of skin cancer should have more frequent total body skin exams than one without this history.”

What, then, can people do to fight bad habits and age with honor?

“If you’re going to do anything, get more active and eat a healthier diet, especially one focused on more vegetables and fish, and less sugar and carbohydrates,” Havey says to me as I complain of my faded ability to do laundry on my stomach. “Exercise is still critically important, but the ability to build muscle will decline with age even if you’re working out all the time.”

Even if the Olympic swimmer’s bod has eluded us, it’s important to exercise. “Multiple studies have shown that mortality declines as activity increases, so staying active physically definitely helps people live longer,” Havey says.

We also need to cut out the ice cream and Cocoa Puffs. Especially the ice cream with the Cocoa Puffs mixed into it. And, apparently, do some math.

“The average person who is sedentary requires around 20 calories for every kilogram of body weight,” Havey says. “More physically active people will need more calories. But as we age, our calorie requirements drop, which is why many people gain weight with age without a change in caloric intake or activity.”

If you’re like me, you’re panicking already because you’re not good at math. But this means that a sedentary 180-pound man, for example, weighs 81.6 kilograms and should be consuming just 1,632 calories per day.

If a little math is what we need to keep our bodies from slipping into disarray, then we should all study the metric system. And we need to realize that change is inevitable. It’s up to us to take a stand against body erosion at the hands of time.

With age comes wisdom. One day I’ll look back on this column about my 38th birthday concerns and say to myself, “David, you were such a young, lazy whippersnapper.” And then I’ll hop on my hover bike and get moving.


David Himmel is the former editor in chief of Chicago Health. He is an associate board member of Gilda’s Club Chicago and lives in Wicker Park with a dog and a wife.

Originally Published in the Fall 2017/Winter 2018 issue