GRAND BAHAMA ISLAND — George Plimpton called me today after reading my last letter, elated--and relieved--at the rapidly declining state of my stomach. "Why, you sound like a virtual wisp these days!" he proclaimed.
George was elated because he's a friend who cares about my health; relieved because, almost single-handedly, he was responsible for creating the last four inches of my former belly.
As I tried to sell my idea for a book on re-doing my body, George encouraged further deterioration for the sake of the book. "How's the belly today, Bub?" he'd say. "Are we gaining some more weight?" He was concerned about my drinking habits. "Drink cheap Scotch, doubles, lot of them," he advised in one call. He took an interest in my exercise program ("Don't have one") and my sleeping habits (late to bed was recommended).
Plimpton is a participatory journalist of some note, so I, of course, wanted to trust his judgment in these matters the way a true chocolate lover wants to trust a chocolate diet plan. Except for George's heart theory. "You know, I was thinking," he once said, "a little stroke would be nice. Nothing debilitating, you understand." We both laughed.
We both laughed even when it appeared my publisher was having second thoughts ("You mean we're belly up, great Bub?"). But the next week, when we met in Florida for a strategy session, George saw my 43 inches of freshly wrought flesh--and he did not laugh. "Good Lord!" he said. "Poor Bubba, what have I done?" Thus he earned an unusual title as the first member of my Body Worry committee: chairman of the debauch.
Normally, I don't think much of committees. They seem to be either about things we already agree on ("Keep America Beautiful") or things we'll never agree on anyway or things we need to meet on to see if we agree or disagree.
On the surface, my committee is no different. Let's face it, I've made progress in six weeks, but my body's still a mess. It doesn't take a committee to decide that--and none of my committee members will ever entirely agree on what it takes to make me whole. All, nevertheless, are convinced that two, maybe three, tax-deductible visits here to my tropical island will make everything right.
But similarities to other groups aside, my committee has a real purpose: I want my health back. I want the softness of my body replaced with firmness. I want muscles. I want to know whatever exercise I do is the right exercise.
And, more than anything, I want answers to questions from people who aren't trying to sell me something. At this the committee excels: sharing information. And the credentials of its members are good.
Dr. Kenneth Cooper, for instance, is the man who started the world jogging. He doesn't really care about any of my muscles except my heart. A quiet, slender man with a Texas-dry sense of humor and a great sense of mission when it comes to God, aerobics and preventive medicine, Cooper does two things that especially impress me. Though he has sold 16 million books and is an international celebrity in the sports and medicine fields, he still practices medicine regularly. Would you be giving proctoscopic exams to middle-aged men when you could be giving autographs and interviews?
Cooper also admits when he's wrong. Years ago, Cooper believed that exercise alone could overcome poor diet and bad habits such as smoking. He was wrong: Runners and sports addicts who ate fatty foods and smoked developed heart disease and died just like the rest of us who do those things. Cooper tells the story often, and I think of it when temptation sends me to the fried-food portion of menus.
Cooper is balding, a sign of great intelligence. Some say he is too evangelical when it comes to aerobic fitness. But that's OK. Since I began my remake six weeks ago, 100,000 people have died from some disease of the heart and blood vessels, much of it preventable. That's more than twice the population of Grand Bahama Island. I think of that during the hard part of my jogs, the first part.
Remember how far I could jog just a few weeks ago? Less than 30 seconds the first day, about five minutes on the 15th day. Four days ago, the 19th jogging day, I jogged down Royal Palm past the sea streets--Sea Fan, Sea Horse, Sea Shell, etc.--to the ocean at Silver Point Jetty and then back to my street, Sea Grape, without stopping. Twenty minutes.
I was very smug after that, even called Cooper to casually drop the news, for 20 minutes of good aerobic exercise three times a week is all the exercise most people need to remain healthy.
Body Worry chronicles the weekly progress of a bald, overweight man who, in the course of one year, tries to transform himself into a "hunk." Write to Remar Sutton in care of United Media, 200 Park Ave., New York, N.Y. 10166
Beginning Sixth Week Waist: 43 inches 35 1/2 inches Right biceps: 12 3/4 inches 12 3/4 inches Flexed: 13 inches 13 inches Weight: 201 pounds 178 pounds Height: 6' 1" Blood pressure: 128/68 124/68 Pulse: 64 60 Bench press: 55 90 Hunk factor: .00 .12