The (un)Healthy Developer (Part 1)

Assertion #1: You may not like me. (Not immediately.)

My Fellow Software Developers, Architects, Designers, Engineers, Leaders, Quality Assurance Analysts… Whatever your job title (and whatever your real role, as a job title says little). I have a prediction: You will either read this article and agree wholeheartedly or read this article and take offense. Please don’t take offense. Perhaps ‘take offense’ is a strong way of putting it. Maybe a more likely response is Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard that or I know, but who has the time?

This article is written for us by one of us. It’s FUBU, so to speak.

What makes me an expert? Because, I am proud to say, I have overcome the cubicle lifestyle and found that there is a much better way of life beyond these short walls. Dare I say it? I’m a better employee because of it! Dare I say something else? May I? Here goes: Those of you who read this introduction and are tempted to stop now are likely the ones who most need to read on. Stick with me. I’ll make this fun. I’ll try, anyway. I’m on your side–we’re kindred, after all.

Oh, and one more thing before we proceed: I don’t wish to give anyone false hopes. I have no secrets to share. I know you’re wondering because I’ve been asked many, many times over the years. The question I get often, and one I dread: What’s your secret?

There’s no secret. There’s no miracle pill. There’s no app for this. I have not discovered or unlocked a great mystery here. That said, I have some sound advice. Good advice. It’s changed my life. If you are to proceed, changing your entire lifestyle (one that you’ve become quite accustomed to over the years) It’s going to suck at first. You may hate it–at first. There’s no getting around that. You are going to want to do it. Not for a while. The love of exercise does come, I promise, but it may take a while. (How’s that for motivation?)

Assertion #2: An unhealthy lifestyle seems normal, justified, and typical, in a world that is decidedly unhealthy.

Remember the first Superman movie with Christopher Reeve? There’s this scene toward the beginning of the movie where Superman, as a teenager, is running around enjoying his super powers as he races a train. The train is barreling along at a very high speed as Superman runs alongside it and then right past it.

I thought of Superman the other day as I was out running. There is a section along a trail I run where trains come to a stop, slowing to a vastly diminished rate prior to unloading cargo. On this day, as this particular train slowed to about 6 miles per hour, perhaps for an upcoming stop, I ran past it… Just like Superman, I was outrunning a train! (Faster than a locomotive!) For a good long while I felt like a real stud. I felt powerful. It was very fun to pretend that the train was moving along at a very high speed, and that, indeed, I was able to out pace the mass of steel.

For a moment I was Superman!

Its easy to seem good, great even, when you measure yourself by standards that are low enough. I do this all that time. Heck, I can be downright Christ-like when I find the right people to compare myself against. This might be why I like watching TV shows about prison so much. They make me feel like I’m a really good person. I haven’t robbed any banks, after all! This is why society loves Honey Boo-Boo so much. It has to be! How else can we explain the success of such a show?

What if I was training for a race and I decided that the best way to get faster was by outrunning trains? It sounds impressive at first, but I wouldn’t get much faster if I only raced against trains moving at 6 miles per hour. Before the race I might be a bit arrogant, bragging to others about how I trained for the race by racing trains. And perhaps these people would be as impressed as I can be with myself.

We can all outrun a train if it moves slow enough. I guess its easy to be fooled into thinking of yourself as Superman-like.

What’s the point of all the Superman and locomotive talk? Stick with me–I’m not sure where I’m going with this yet. I’ve only an idea, and possibly a few readers willing to stay through to the end. This is an article about health. That’s right! It’s a topic that you either love or hate. Am I right so far? For good measure, should I throw in some statistics and evidence? Dare me to? Or, can I lighten up a little and trust that you already know more than you’d like about heart health, job stress, adult diabetes, and all the rest of the fun? You’re reading my article, so right away I like you. I am going to trust you to do your own research in this area.

Here’s some more research, and I bet many folks don’t know this part of the story as much as the Chicken Little warnings about bad health. Obviously sitting at a computer all day long in a dark office drinking Mountain Dew and eating M&Ms is not healthy. We learned this back in 3rd grade, didn’t we? Conversely, however, the healthy lifestyle, while good on all accounts, is one that is avoided far too often. If we all know what is healthy and how to do it, why do we avoid it?

Let me re-introduce myself. I am Matthew Rupert, a guy who was skinny in high school, skinny for two years of college, chubby for the other 3 years of college (yes, 3 more years). It was sorta cute that the former skinny guy put on some pounds in college. All my friends got a good chuckle out of it. I did as well. My story is probably very similar to yours (assuming you are my age or older). For those of you young whipper-snappers just coming into your career, listen closely to the rest of this article.

Now a career man, the slightly-chubby frat-boy-turned-professional-software-engineer, life changed. I lived in an apartment with two friends, and for the first time in our lives we had money! Real money! Our own money! We stayed up late most nights, playing video games, going to a bar or two, or just sitting around talking. We drank beer. Not the cheap stuff. Oh no! We were professional young men. We bought the good stuff: Sam Adams and Guinness and other stuff with strange names. We had become far too class for that cheap stuff that our father’s drank.

We bought our own groceries. Wait. No we didn’t Groceries? Buying groceries would require cooking, and cooking would require cleaning, and what young professional ha the time for such nonsense. We ordered pizza and Chinese food. We went out to eat for lunch… And again for dinner. Life was good! And we were blessed in other necessary ways: We could afford to buy cool clothes. And new cool clothes were often necessary, at least for me, as my waist size continued to push to sizes that should have made me blush.

Ah, the life of a young, single professional? Ain’t it sweet? Beer, pizza, video games, and a 38 inch waist.

“38 inch waist?” you say, “That’s not that bad.” That depends on many factors. As for me, I’m a relatively small-framed guy. You’re not going to see me entering the UFC Octagon any time soon. 38 inches turned out to be a mere pause along the journey. A couple of years later I was married. The life of a young married couple with no children isn’t all that different from the bachelor pad life. Lots of nice dinners. Lots of going out to eat for lunch. These lunches were easy to justify. “It’s work, I have to stay on top of the office politics. And I also have to eat two giant burritos to show that I am an alpha male.” The 38 inch pants still fit, albeit with bit less freedom than days past.

My wife got pregnant… And I got a wacky autoimmune problem with my skin. Double whammy! Here’s way:

1. The sympathy weight you’ve heard of during pregnancy, it’s real. It’s SOOOO real.

2. Predisone, sometimes prescribed for autoimmune problems, is an amazing drug. It fixed my skin right up! It also helped me to gain 30 pounds seemingly overnight.

POW! BOOM! BAM! In a span of less than 10 years I had gone from Peewee Herman size to Francis Bucston size! And it all happened without any effort on my part. Effort would require some sort of deliberate focus, of course. This was not effort–this was just plain indulgence empowered by a sedentary job sitting in front of a computer. I emailed a friend a picture. This friend, who hadn’t seen me in 7 years, emailed back, “Did you swallow a coworker?” I laughed. It was funny, after all, the once skinny guy now being a–dare I say it? A fat guy.

There, I said it.

Oh sure, there was much more to me and to my character than being a fat guy. I was a blossoming software engineer, eager to grow into a lead role. I was a daddy. A damn good one, I might add! I was a husband. I was… An avid TV watcher. I was… Really good at sitting after a long day of work. I was leveling up on Everquest. I was snoring more. I was tired. My blood pressure, for the first time ever, was high.

And I was tired. So tired. There didn’t seem to be enough time in the day to do all the stuff I wanted to do. I was exhausted at work, even on the nights when I got a full 8 hours of sleep. By the time I got home I was too tired to do much of anything (although babies require much attention, whatever a father’s state of physical health and alertness).

A little concerned about my blood pressure (and fairly certain that the machine at Walgreens had it wrong, despite checking it out at several different locations), I made an appointment to go see a doctor for a physical.

Assertion #3: Getting started is the hardest part.

There I was, barely into my thirties, overweight, out of shape, tired, and with high blood pressure. My doctor, a fit man at least 20 years my senior, told me as gently as he could. “Matt, it might not hurt you to do some exercise.” He continued, and this was the part that really bothered me, “I don’t want to put you on blood pressure medication at such a young age.”

Me? My 40-inch waistline spoke little of the skinny guy on this inside.  How could this be? I’m not that bad off! I mean, just look at Kevin, Chuck, and Roland. Those guys are the ones who are overweight and out of shape. Not me!

Just as a normal man can feel like Superman running alongside a sufficiently slow train, an unhealthy man can feel perfectly content when comparing himself to others of even worse fitness.

I left that appointment with my head hung low. It had happened so gradually that I didn’t notice: I was heading down the path of my grandfathers before me. Overweight (severely) and well on my way to heart problems down the road. Maybe not for “a long time,” but I knew the doctor was right. And by my early thirties I realized something else: The years seem to move by a little more quickly. (See the Wikipedia post on Time Perception. Specifically the section on Changes in temporal perception with aging.)

I now had a daughter, a lovely little girl who I adored more than I thought it possible to adore anything with the capacity to create such a stench. That evening, as I held my baby, I realized that my health wasn’t simply something to be maintained for my own sake. I now had someone in my life who was entirely dependent on my well-being. Am I being dramatic here? I don’t think so. While my poor health wasn’t going to kill me any time soon, it wouldn’t be long before that baby was a toddler and a little girl, running, playing at the park and the gym, asking her daddy to run alongside as she learns to ride a bike.

I had the obligatory gym membership that was never used. Don’t we all? I’d gone through the visits to the gym over the years, working on my bench press and trying to get buff, sure. But aerobic fitness, for a computer geek such as I, had never been something I was interested in. That feeling of breathlessness–the side stitch–the overheated feeling–not for me!

I put on my cross trainers–the cheap shoes I had purchased from Kohl’s–which I found comfortable for my daily hours of sitting before the glow of a computer monitor. “Honey,” I said to my wife, “I’m going to go out for a jog.”

“A what?” She was perplexed, I’m sure.

“I don’t think I’ll be gone long, maybe 30 minutes or so.”

30 minutes! Keep dreaming, buddy.

I stepped outside, wearing a cotton t-shirt, cotton underwear, and “workout pants,” which I used mostly for sleeping or mowing the lawn. While on this subject, let me say this: Mowing the lawn is not enough exercise. I thought it was at the time. Convinced myself, perhaps. It made me sweat, after all. It wore me out. It must be exercise! Nope.