If I told you that I spent more than 45 years pumping iron because of its health benefits, I’d be lying. While it’s true for many of us that getting into shape and bettering our health were primary motivators for starting a weight-training program, once the fat comes off and the muscle starts to appear, when your mirror reveals possibilities you once only dreamed of, then other driving forces begin to take over. Your pants become loose, shirts become tight, and it’s, “Game on!”
Dare I say it? Ego becomes the primary motivator. To look and feel better than anyone else in the room is a powerful drug many of us have enjoyed. You don’t even need a competition-caliber physique. No, it’s not a bad thing—the need to distinguish oneself from others has long been recognized as a basic human personality trait.
Though never huge by bodybuilding standards, I loved being the guy everyone knew was “in shape.” I never dressed to play up my physique, but it was great to know that should I choose to wear a sleeveless shirt, someone would compliment my arms. Most years I had abs. I never looked my age. Through my 40s, 50s and even into my 60s that kept me in the gym. I never really thought about the health benefits.
I decided to enter my first contest when I was 60. Contest prep brings conditioning into prominence. High-intensity cardio became a part of my life. I won that contest. Life was sweet. Again, I never thought about the health benefits.
The day you almost die tends to alter your perspective. The evening that I could no longer catch my breath during cardio led me home to shower and put on underwear with no holes—Mom taught me well—before heading to the ER.
Doctors poked, prodded and took so much blood they collapsed my favorite arm vein (darn, I miss that vein). They found that my heart was not getting its proper blood supply, scheduled an angioplasty and went in through my femoral artery to look at my heart. Shockingly, my main heart artery—nicknamed by doctors “the Widowmaker”—was 100 percent blocked—from bad genetics, not bad diet. Usually that means a major, often fatal heart attack. Not in me, as it happened. They opened up the artery, installed a stent to keep it open and sent me back to my room.
So why no heart attack—why wasn’t I dead? Turns out my heart had built an alternate blood supply called “collaterals.” While not uncommon, collaterals are usually not big enough to prevent heart damage or death from 100 percent Widowmaker blockages. The doctors agreed that years of hard bodybuilding training had built those vessels to be unusually effective in supplying my heart’s needs.
My rather astonished cardiologist said, “You had the best possible outcome.” Three days later I was back in the gym. But now I was keenly aware of bodybuilding’s health benefits.
Editor’s note: Tony DiCosta is a successful over-60 masters competitor, a veteran of 45 years of gym warfare and a freelance writer. Currently at work on a training manual for older bodybuilders, Look Amazing at Any Age, he can be reached at [email protected] or on Bodybuilding.com’s Bodyspace as “AmazingAt60plus.”