New test for heart arrives at the farm

February 6, 2011 

We have a new occupant at Horsefeathers Farm. His name is Butch, and he's a real sadist.

Actually, Butch is the name we gave to our new elliptical machine, which we purchased early in the new year and installed in the daylight basement family room.

The room has been under-used for several years, ever since my two kids grew up, quit using it as a room to entertain their friends and moved away into adulthood.

Now it’s our exercise room, complete with a mat on the floor for us to do stomach crunches and stretching exercises, four sets of dumbbells we use to tone up the muscles in our arms – and Butch.

Did I call it an exercise room? Sorry, I meant torture chamber.

Yes, the day of reckoning has arrived for a middle-aged man two-plus years removed from a clogged heart artery that required a stent. I’ve come to the realization that the gardening, chores around the farm and lunch-hour walks when at work aren’t enough to properly exercise that big, old muscle called a heart.

The early January purchase of Butch, he of the NordicTrack lineage, sounds like the by-product of a New Year’s resolution. In fact, I haven’t made a New Year’s resolution in ages. I call this a new-life resolution that happened to occur at the start of the new year.

The health benefits from stretching, toning muscles and getting a good cardiovascular workout are well-documented. For me, it translates into a desire to be healthy and physically active enough to enjoy the fourth quarter of this game called life. I don’t ever expect to fully retire – in other words, quit writing. But I do see a future where I’m no longer employed full time at a newspaper and have more time to travel, enjoy my hobbies and pursue other types of writing.

These are some of the mortality thoughts I’ve been having lately when I climb on Butch, push the workout button, then pedal and pump my arms, dreading the next resistance level and trying to obey his exhortations to go faster.

Even with a television turned on to distract me for 20 to 30 minutes, I can’t say that I enjoy my time with Butch every other day. I do, however, like the way I feel, soaked in sweat and heart rate elevated, when I climb off the machine.

I’m fully aware of all the abandoned treadmill and elliptical machines gathering dust or turning into expensive clotheslines in homes throughout South Sound and beyond.

The best of intentions sometimes go awry.

But Barbara and I are motivated to stay with our exercise regimes, egging each other on and joining in a chorus of profanities aimed at Butch.

Just this week, we read an article in our AARP magazine by Gretchen Reynolds, a health and fitness columnist for The New York Times Magazine, that provided more motivation to maintain a relationship with Butch.

She cited a Canadian study published last year that the muscles of active older people contained almost as many mitochondria as those of 20-somethings.

It was the sedentary old folks who had far fewer mitochondria.

You might ask, what the heck are mitochondria? Well, they are the power engines embodied in our cells, converting food into fuel to keep our muscles healthy and strong.

Sounds like it means that older people are not automatically doomed to a body with fewer and weaker muscles than younger people.

Other studies referenced by Reynolds suggest that older people who exercise vigorously and regularly experience a far less drastic drop-off in aerobic capacity as they age, compared with their sedentary counterparts.

We can all think of a senior citizen friend or family member whose health has declined in lockstep with his or her declining level of activity.

I consider myself a fairly active person, but one lacking in routine aerobic activity ever since I quit playing basketball 20 years ago. What it all boils down to for me is this:

I may not like Butch, but I need him.


Taking advantage of a break in the weather, I poked around in the garden plots and flower beds the other day. I saw:

 • Robust garlic shoots jutting out of the soil. I planted the garlic bulbs in a well-drained area of the garden in November, and they seem to be doing much better than they did in the wetter area they were planted in before.

The new garlic patch used to be home to the tomato plants. They’ll take up residence this year in large portable pots closer to the house.

 • Fruit tree’s just starting to bud, which reminds me it’s time to prune the last – and largest – of the Asian pear trees.

 • Flowers beginning to form on the patch of primroses next to the quince, pink currant and lilac bushes, which also are waking up from winter.

 • The lawn turning slightly shaggy with winter growth, which raises an interesting question:

I wonder if the lawn mowers will start after more than three months in storage?

John Dodge: 360-754-5444

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