By J. Ron Eaker, M.D.

You don’t conquer the marathon, you survive it!  I am writing this on the way back from running marathon number 42!!!

Let me just say for the record that sitting in a car for two and a half hours after running 26.2 miles, and being an old codger at that, is about as pleasurable as having your finger nails pulled out by a crazed, masked manicurist. However, the “runner’s high” carried me through until my body reminded me just how dumb this repeated punishment is. The race does give you plenty, and the way I run, I do mean plenty, of time to wax philosophically about various topics so I found myself cogitating on family health and wellness during a particular hilly stretch in the Virginia Highlands neighborhood. (As an aside: it is a good thing to remember that an area with the word “highlands” in its name is not a good first choice for a running route!)   

The marathon has been used a metaphor for many things and rightly so.  It has elements that pervade various endeavors: discipline, persistence, training, and obsession. But I found myself thinking of how it illustrated the way we approach the health and welfare of our families.  First, like the marathon, wellness is a long-term endeavor.  We live in a society that cherishes the quick and easy. People are rewarded for figuring out short cuts, minimizing effort, and simplifying complex tasks. Certainly, some of those approaches do a great deal towards improving our lives.  I will forever be indebted to the genius who invented digital cameras, as I can now immediately eliminate the hundreds of pictures of the wall, floor, and cut-off heads that I once paid Eckerd’s thousands to develop for me. Anyway, when it comes to your family’s health, there are no short cuts. Face it. Accept it. Practice it! If you and your family are to be fit and healthy, you must realize that you are in it for the long haul.  For example, diets are horrible because their initiation implies that there will be a time when you will no longer diet, and for most of us, we then go back to the heart clogging, belly bloating style of eating that got us into trouble to start with.  What you need is a permanent change in lifestyle, not some temporary fix me up. Think long term when considering any family health related issue.  Whether it is eating or exercise or regular checkups, know that, God willing, you are going to be on this planet around 80 years, and what you do now affects the quality of those years towards the end.

The marathon is a daunting task if you look at it in its entirety.  But if I view it as just four six mile courses, it becomes much less intimidating psychologically.  Likewise, to make sustainable health changes in the family, don’t alter habits drastically, break them down into smaller, more manageable segments. For example, don’t take on a new exercise regimen and also quit smoking. Get rid of the cancer sticks first; reward yourself, and then move on to a walking program.  Teach your children that small steps will eventually get you to the finish line. A young child may revolt if you radically change their after-school snacks, but a slow subtle change from Twinkies to fruit slices will be more tolerable. Before I ran my first marathon ten years ago, the longest distance I had ran at any one time was four miles. A slow steady buildup over time allowed me to run the San Francisco marathon six months later. You can make changes that are relatively minor at first, but if applied daily, will logarithmically increase over time.  Just getting into the habit of preventative doctor checkups can be a very positive accomplishment.    

No one runs and survives a marathon without two key characteristics: persistence and discipline. There comes a point in every race where the head takes over for the legs and you have to decide that you are going to finish in spite of the pain. So, I believe, no one can achieve family fitness and health without a degree of “stick-to-it-tiveness” and commitment.  There will be times that the necessary choices will be painful, but you have to stick to your principles and persist.  If you won’t do it for yourself, do it for your children.  You are the greatest teacher your kids will ever have.  Lead by example. This changes your motivation. Seeing health and wellness from a family perspective changes “me” thinking to “we” thinking, and that can have powerful effects on your motivation. Nothing will substitute for committing to a goal and deciding that achieving that goal is non-negotiable. Leaving your children a legacy of good health is one of the greatest gifts you can give. 

Indeed, the marathon is a metaphor for many things, and I find its most compelling comparison to a family’s health. Now if I can just spend the next three weeks in my whirlpool bathtub, I will feel human again!           

This article appears in the July 2017 issue of Augusta Family Magazine.
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