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Living the retirement of my cardiologist’s dreams

By Howard Freedlander

When I retired last May as a deputy treasurer for the State of Maryland, I decided to replace work with a new obsession: physical training. I wonder now if I should have taken up croquet, or joined other senior citizens strolling shopping malls.

As a retiree-to-be, I knew I would need to add structure to my newly flexible life. I also knew that an emphasis on exercise and health had to top my to-do list; it was a top priority for my slim wife, whose harping on my weight has diminished appreciably since I became a gym rat. Effort does count, I guess.

Two mornings a week, a 26-year-old woman who is a private trainer at a local gym drives me harder than my high school and college lacrosse coaches ever did—as strenuously as the drill sergeants in basic military training in 1968. During these hour-long sessions, a glaring fact confronts me: I am (nearly) 66 years old and have spent the last 40 of them forswearing physical workouts of any kind. I’m paying for my neglect.

At the end of most of my workouts, my face is flat down on a mat. I am breathing heavily and sweating profusely as my trainer breezily says, as she heads for her next victim, “Good, Howard. Good job.” 

She likes to high-five after a workout. I’m just happy I can raise my arm.

As I lie on the sweat-slicked mat, oblivious to the exertions of other senior and not-so-senior citizens in the gym, I wonder if this is what retirement is all about. I daydream about returning to work, where I could continue making excuses for not taking care of my physical being. I wonder if the old cliché, “no pain, no gain,” really makes any sense. 

I wonder if I should have had a different plan for retirement.

Though exhausted from my regimen, I cannot go home immediately. According to my peppy, earnest, and serious trainer, I must “recover”—by pumping my legs away on the cardio machine for three to five minutes. I try to think of something pleasant, like going home to read about deficit-reduction talks in the White House.

Yet my new obsession is surprising me. I often go to the gym on off days, pumping away studiously on the cardio machine—and even chatting with some of the other masochists. It is dawning on me that retirement, potentially the most creative time of your life, takes you places you never imagined—like this private gym behind a paint store in the quaint town of Easton. It also compels an honest physical and mental appraisal.

It is not completely my fault that I am now actively seeking pain as an early retiree. Not long ago my cardiologist died of a heart attack while riding his bicycle. Having survived one of my own 18 years ago, I chose a new heart doctor. Little did I know I was meeting with an exercise fiend, who made it very clear that I should consider an exercise program at the same private gym he visits three times a week. As an obedient patient hoping to extend my life for 20 to 25 healthy years, I agreed. I would begin to take care of myself, as so many friends are wont to say.

He did not explain what I would go through to develop a new lifestyle and better-functioning body. Nor did I ask many questions. I was too busy agreeing with him, trying to gain his trust in my willingness to be healthier and slimmer. Reality came a few months later, with my face on the mat.

I’ve watched my cardiologist at the gym. He is a gym rat of the highest order. A gym vet referred admiringly to him as a “beast.” Is that what retirement has destined for me? Hard to imagine.

As my physical fitness regimen reaches four months, I do wonder and even worry a bit that I need to exercise my mind beyond reading three newspapers a day, enjoying a book, volunteering, caring for grandchildren, and traveling. I’m seeking a part-time job, hoping my work ethic is still strong despite the recent inclusion of leisure in my life.

To relieve the loneliness at home, I often talk to former associates, seeking their help in returning to public service on a part-time basis by being named to a statewide commission. I’ve talked to lobbying firms in Annapolis, where I worked for nearly eight years in the state treasurer’s office. I received a job offer during my first week of retirement, and two offers to join non-profit boards. Oft-given advice to new retirees is to move slowly and deliberately in responding to such opportunities. That’s what I’m doing, despite my inclination to move quickly and impatiently. I’m trying to achieve balance, an oblique concept to me during my career, as my family and associates would attest.

I am getting accustomed to long periods of silence. I find reasons to talk on the phone without being overly verbose. Just recently I talked to town officials about removing a large, hollow tree in front of our house. They agreed to remove it. A significant accomplishment for this new retiree.

Just the same, my attitude in retirement differs little from my approach to work. I do not like to fail or even displease my conscientious young trainer. At the beginning, I tried to charm her with stories of my lacrosse exploits at Penn, hoping she would let up a bit. She had played college lacrosse too. I thought we could bond as athletes, despite our huge age difference. It didn’t work.

Now I am mostly submissive. If she asks me whether an exercise causes my muscles to “burn,” I quickly respond, “Yes, Katie, I can feel it.” If she asks if I understand the beneficial effect of our sessions on my “core” and cardiovascular functions, I reply, “Yes, Katie, I understand.” Again, I hope she will let up. She doesn’t. Neither charm nor whining has any impact on her. 

My wife asks me if I enjoy the workouts. I respond as honestly as possible: I enjoy the results, whatever they might be—and actually both of us have seen some slight flattening of my mid-sectionA recent visit to my cardiologist and fellow gym rat revealed a loss of six pounds and lower blood pressure. He was very pleased. Progress comes slowly and uncomfortably.

Retirement, we are told, is supposed to be more enjoyable than a demanding, time-consuming career. Perhaps. But it can also be painful and humbling, as I learn for an hour twice a week. 

Or a few additional, somewhat more relaxing times between sessions. After all, I’m retired and can afford some self-indulgence.

Howard Freedlander C’67 majored in journalism—and never imagined writing about retirement.

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