How a Spin Class Turned this Cardiologist into a Triathlete

cardiovascular exerciseI was an overweight and inactive kid and never an athlete during my school years. About 15 years ago, my weight was increasing and my cholesterol was high, so I began going to the gym. I found I liked spin classes, but I wanted to get out of the hot spin studio. My cardiology practice partner at the time, Dr. Jack McWatters, was an avid cyclist and lent me a bike so I could try cycling outdoors. That was the start of my addiction to cycling, which eventually led me to participate in many long-distance bike rides both locally and in such far-flung destinations as California and the French Alps.

Around the same time, a neighbor of mine, who was a ‘couch potato’ and a cigar smoker, announced he was going to do a triathlon and I thought, “Why can’t I do that?”

So, in 2005, I found a triathlon training group. I started competing in local events, like the Columbia Triathlon held in Howard County every May. Triathletes are so exuberant, excited and inclusive—they suck you into their world and you want to be part of the next challenge.

In 2011, a cycling buddy encouraged me to compete in my first IRONMAN in Florida, and it went exceptionally well. In 2014, I completed IRONMAN Lake Placid, which was scenic and beautiful. Afterward, my coach encouraged me to race in another IRONMAN in Lake Tahoe to keep momentum and training. As it happened, an arsonist set a forest fire in the area around Lake Tahoe that week and, just as we were warming up for the swim, the organizers cancelled the event. In every IRONMAN competition, spots are given to winners for the world championship. Because no winners came from that event, those spots were chosen from a lottery, and I was selected for one of those coveted spots as IRONMAN World Championship.

An international race, the IRONMAN World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, features the best professional triathletes and best athletes from every age group. For this event, 2,300 athletes started the race and 2,144 finished on a 97-degree day with 100 percent humidity and 20 mph headwinds during much of the bicycle portion. During the race, I burned 10,500 calories!

I train between eight and 17 hours a week, depending on the season. I swim, bike and run, but adding strength training has kept me injury-free for the past three years. I limit processed carbohydrates. I don’t eat out of a box, I eat foods in their least processed form. I eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, lean protein, grains, nuts, dark chocolate and I drink almond milk.

Why do I do this? I like a challenge, I like how it feels and I want to set an example for my patients. I know the profound effect that exercise and diet have on your heart. My lipids were terrible before I started exercising regularly, and now they are off the charts good! My HDL/good cholesterol was under 30, now it’s 86; my LDL/bad cholesterol was 150-160, now it’s 79; my triglycerides were 250, now they are 38.

High, intense and regular levels of exercise cause a release of endorphins—cycling is my legal addiction.  If I can’t exercise because it’s snowing or I am too busy, you can tell by my lousy mood.

I tell my patients who don’t exercise that anything is possible—if I can do this, you can do this. You’ve got to start somewhere and build exercise into your routine. You don’t have to be like me, because I’m nuts! But you must build muscle mass and participate in aerobic exercise.

After running, biking and swimming the IRONMAN, I feel an overwhelming elation that I can’t even describe. Coming across the finish line makes me feel like there’s nothing I can’t do.

You don’t have to be like me and do extreme exercise, but you should exercise regularly. The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise (or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise) every week for adults. This translates into 30 minutes a day, five times a week—but ANY amount of exercise is better than none!

In September 2014, Michael Silverman, M.D., started a year of intense training in preparation for the IRONMAN World Championship. The training included biking 3,915 miles, swimming 414,240 yards, running 898 miles and completing 98 hours of strength training. A cardiologist with Cardiovascular Associates of Central Maryland, Dr. Silverman could be seen on the roads of Howard County starting his day running or biking at 5:30 a.m.

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