Crushing it in China

In 2010 I was living in Henan Province, China, teaching English, studying Chinese, and learning martial arts (with a side of partying). I also spent a fair amount of time in the gym training with my German sparring partner. One day, while trying to show him the “correct” way to kick someone in the head, I lost my footing and fell backwards, extending my left arm out to break my fall. It worked: the arm took the entire impact of the fall and my elbow shattered into pieces. As I lied there, looking at my arm contorted into an unnatural position beside me, I realized that what just happened would likely change my life forever. What I would come to discover is just how much my health habits leading up to that moment, as well as those following it, would determine my quality of life.

I’m not the only guy I know whose arrogance and competitiveness has landed him in similarly less-than-ideal circumstances, so for Men’s Health Month I would like to share the health habits that have made the difference in my life, as well as the science behind them. Working out can not only determine the direction your life takes when tragedy strikes, but also the overall awesomeness that is your day-to-day experience of the world.

A Rough Start

My genetics suck (sorry mom if you’re reading this). I come from skinny people who did skinny things, ate skinny foods, and thought skinny thoughts. As a result (*drumroll*) I was skinny.

I know most people think it’s ridiculous when skinny people complain about not being able to gain weight, but for me—a guy who wanted nothing more than to look like The Rock—having a fast metabolism was akin to an actor with aspirations for TV having a face for radio.

That meant some compensation was in order… a lot of it. Growing up I was extremely active, I did all the things: snowboarding, rock climbing, BMX riding, aggressive inline skating, soccer, swimming, skateboarding, judo, racketball, golf, and serious online gaming (okay that last one might not qualify as a sport, but I was a legend). Unfortunately, none of those were conducive to me getting bigger and my goal of looking like Dwayne Johnson didn’t feel any closer.

What I didn’t have an appreciation for at the time—and I definitely do now—is just how much all that activity benefitted my health. According to the CDC, not only does regular physical activity for kids help protect them from the greatest killers (heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, etc.), it also makes them smarter:

“Higher physical activity and physical fitness levels are associated with improved cognitive performance (e.g., concentration, memory) among students.”

So while my sexy factor might have still been lacking, my health metrics were on point, and at the early stages of life that’s what matters most. So for all the young bucks out there: it doesn’t matter what you do to be active, just that you do something! It could save your life, or help you win Jeopardy.

Getting On Track

What you do after adolescence really shapes your life, and fortunately for me, once I finished high school I began the activity that did so in the best way possible: weightlifting. While in college one of my “bro” friends got me hooked on the gym rat life, and there was no going back! Within a year I had increased my bodyweight by 20 lbs and was looking considerably bulkier:

Weightlifting is the greatest thing men or women can do for their health, but being that it’s Men’s Health Month I’ll share what it does for men. According to a series of studies reposted in Men’s Health Magazine, benefits of weightlifting include increases in intelligence (with 10% better memories), improved happiness (you can dramatically decrease depression with regular weight training), better sleep (65% better to be exact), increased overall health (more bone density, lower blood pressure, and reduced risk of cancer), more energy (20% more), and living longer. Oh, and I forgot to mention weightlifters tend to be more attractive (science done at UCLA proves it)!

By the time I had graduated from college and had been weight training regularly for several years, I was well on my way to Rock status:

Cyan Cooper and family

Looking Ahead

I’ll probably always lift weights. I want to be the sexy old man who hasn’t lost his charisma even when he’s 60+. However, I know there are other things that contribute to overall health, such as flexibility. I was raised by a yogi and can attest to the mobility and longevity yoga brings you. While my daily morning routine already includes some light stretching (as well as 20 burpees), I’ll likely incorporate a whole lot more as I age.

In terms of longevity, research put out by the National Institute of Health in Maryland states that yoga has been shown to alleviate the decline of overall brain grey matter volume with age. So what they’re saying is: alleviating aging brain health might not be the most difficult thing in the world, but it’s a stretch.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t emphasize the importance of regular walking throughout all this. A lot of people think regular and intense workout sessions are enough for good health, but while they certainly do help, the addition of brief walks throughout the day have tremendous health benefits. A study done by the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that:

“those who adhered to a walking program showed significant improvements in blood pressure, slowing of resting heart rate, reduction of body fat and body weight, reduced cholesterol, improved depression scores with better quality of life, and increased measures of endurance.”

Returning to China

So back to my shattered elbow in China. Several surgical steel inserts and weeks of recovery later, I was able to use my arm again, and there’s no doubt in my mind that a weaker arm wouldn’t have survived the trauma, and it definitely wouldn’t have had the recovery mine did. Once I was strong enough to resume weightlifting I was back in the gym.  While it took time and perseverance, I’m happy to report that I am once again on track in pursuit of Rock status. Not only am I able to lift again, but I am lifting more than ever before. I also have a deep appreciation for my two working limbs, one of which I almost lost! If it wasn’t for all the activity I did leading up to my fall, and all that I’ve done since, my quality of life would undoubtedly be worse off. So to all the guys out there with unused gym memberships and bellies eclipsing their toes, I hope you find that my story carries some weight and are inspired to improve the quality of your own life.  Get out there and move, fellas!

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