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35 beats per minute

About a year-and-a-half ago I went into a doctor's office thinking I had a bad chest cold.

The thing is, I'm not the "go to the doctor" type. In fact, I pretty much never see a doctor unless something is hanging off of me that would better serve me by being attached, or copious amounts of "inside fluids" are suddenly becoming "outside fluids." So for me to even consider going in for a chest cold should tell you that I had more than the sniffles and a bit of congestion. Think in terms of absolute lethargy, an inability to exert myself for more than a few minutes at a time, and an impending sense of doom.

The big surprise for me was when they checked my pulse and found that it was around 35 beats per minute.

"Yeah, my heart rate has always been low," I said, nonchalantly-in-complete-and-utter-denial.

"Are you an Olympic-class athlete?" my doctor asked.

"Not unless fried chicken is an competitive event."

"Then we have a problem, Mr. Tumlinson."

"Please," I said, "call me Ishmael."

OK, no, I didn't say that. I may have thought it, though. But at that moment, I think I was more focused on the "problem." An excruciating bit of worry started to chew at my insides. But on the plus side, my heart rate and blood pressure "shot up" to near normal levels. Now all I'd have to do is live under complete and continuous stress and I'd have a perfectly healthy amount of energy and vigor. Clearly no harm there.

The short version of this story is this: After some stress tests, EKGs, ultrasounds and blood work it was determined that I was absolutely, positively fine. Except for the heretofore undiagnosed congenital heart defect which was causing an ever-worsening bradycardia (gradual slowing of the heart) as I aged, and would eventually lead to my death, probably within the next few months.

The solution was for me, at 37 years old, to go under the knife and have a pacemaker installed. I was apparently "batteries not included."

For the next year or so I recovered from the surgery and started to get my strength and stamina up. It was a slow process, and in many ways it is still ongoing. But I did manage, in that time, to drop about 30 pounds, to stop wheezing when I took a flight of stairs, and to actually become a bit more active and energetic. Times were gettin' good.

More energy is great. A bit of weight loss is great. But I still have moments where I feel a bit exhausted and lethargic, and I still have a good 20 or 30 pounds of extra "me" hanging over my belt. I'm not as "out of the woods" as I'd really like to be. So that's why I've started being more active.

I do not do gyms. They're a blatant rip-off, frankly. Most want you to sign some ridiculous contract that auto-renews with or without your permission, obligating you to an auto-draft of an exorbitant monthly rate for the occasional use of their facilities, which are nice and clean and sometimes very modern, but still a place you have to force yourself to attend. Most  gyms, as well, require you to have a credit card on file, with or without a contract. I still don't get the "give me your credit card, we have no contract" gyms. I have the sneaky suspicion that they are paying for porn while I'm sweating and grunting in another room. And that just ain't fair. I can't compete with that.

I prefer to get my workout from things I actually find fun and engaging. Or at the very least the activities have to make some kind of sense to me.

If I'm going to run, I want to get some place and maybe see a bit of nature and God's creation sprawling out around me, as opposed to running on a treadmill for an hour watching a sub-titled soap opera on a hanging television screen. If I'm going to ride a bike, I want to have the reward of zipping past joggers and people working in their lawns and dodging the spray of lawn sprinklers, as opposed to dodging the rain of sweat flinging from the grunting guy on the treadmill next to me. And if I'm going to lift weights, I'd rather hoist my own hefty butt up the side of a rock wall or over a boulder, as opposed to laying in a pool of some other guy's funk while I push a metal bar up and down, over and over, mostly praying it doesn't slip and crush my windpipe.

Call me a radical hippie.

The thing is, even though I've always liked the whole "the world is my gym" attitude, I've been stupidly lax about actually getting out there and using it. Until now.

Recently I've started taking on some new challenges. I've started rock climbing. I bought a bike and I ride most mornings. I've started walking and sprinting. I'm slowly adding more and more actual activity to my lifestyle.

It is kicking my butt. I may need some kind of intervention.

The truth is, I'm enjoying the things I'm getting into, and I'm seeing some positive results. I'm not getting the svelte, slender body I was hoping for, but then I'm not as consistent as I should be, I tend to fall off the wagon on keeping my calorie intake low, and I've only been doing this for a couple of months. Lifestyle changes ... they're so friggin' slow.

One thing that annoys me is when people say, "It took you 38 years to get into the condition you're in now. Just think about it that way."

This is an invitation for a savage beating.

OK, maybe not. I do understand that these folks mean well, and they're trying to be encouraging. And I do my best to take it that way. But the truth is, this being fat and lazy thing didn't happen to me over a span of decades. I was actually in very good shape right up until my late 20s. Which, perhaps coincidentally, is about the time my doctors think my heart started slowing to the point of causing me some issues. So the reality of my life is that in a relatively short period of time I went from slim and fit to fat and lazy. I'd say the responsibility for that was 60% heart, 30% fried chicken, and 10% natural-born laziness.

No excuses.

I'm working on lifestyle changes these days. I learn things, I try things, I succeed, I fail, I try again. I'm looking for activities and relationships that get me out there in the world, staying fit by having a blast. I'm looking at getting to the point where I play so hard I don't even recognize it as exercise anymore.

So, in a lot of ways, getting a pacemaker is the best thing that ever happened to me. I have a second chance. And the only requirement, the only responsibility I have to live up to, is "do something."

I can do that.

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Kevin Tumlinson is the author of numerous novels, novellas, and non-fiction books, and the host of the Wordslinger Podcast. Try three of his best books for free when you download his starter library at


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