This Dad Got Healthier—and Ended Up With a Surprising Bonus

Neil W.’s son, Oliver, is 15 years old. That’s the same age Neil was when his own father suffered a fatal heart attack. After finding out that he inherited his dad’s high cholesterol, Neil began his own personal fitness crusade, determined to do everything he could to be there for his wife, Marie, their 9-year-old daughter, Emily, and of course, Oliver.

“I have always been relatively sporty, but about two years ago I got interested in fitness trackers and got a Fitbit Surge,” says Neil, 51, a semi-retired entertainment manager. “I wanted to monitor my heart rate, because it seemed high to me and I was worried about my heart risk.” At about 73 beats per minute, Neil’s resting heart rate (RHR) was about average for a middle-aged guy, but far from ideal: A 2007 study of men in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that those with a RHR between 70 and 75 beats per minutes had 2.5 times the risk of suffering a sudden heart attack than those with an RHR of 60. A lower heart rate means a stronger heart—if your heart can push more blood with each beat it doesn’t need to do it as often.

After Marie and Oliver saw how much Neil was enjoying his Fitbit tracker, they each got one too (the Charge), and the family started counting their steps and changing routines to see how many they could get in a week. The first thing they did was adjust their morning commute. Instead of driving the kids to school the family of four decided to walk, and bring their new puppy along. “At first we were all just excited to watch the puppy running, jumping and seeing all kinds of things for the first time,” says Neil.

As their steps racked up, Neil realized the family was getting something else even more important out of these walks, togetherness. “It takes 20 to 25 minutes each way, so we get all of that time together. That may not sound that amazing, but how often do you spend time with your entire family without there being a constant interruption? On our walk there are no phones, no video games, no sports on TV—just four family members walking and talking.”

“My kids all of a sudden got my undivided attention and, to some extent, my wife and I got theirs,” says Neil. “What we discovered was a whole new level of caring and understanding of each other. A lot of people think fitness trackers are just about people measuring activity and hitting goals. But my family and I found something far more valuable: time together and a happiness no amount of money can buy.”

Neil’s heart isn’t just fuller than before, it’s measurably healthier. His resting heart rate is now down to 60 beats per minute. His wife, Marie, has lost 14 pounds, and feels amazing. “There’s no better feeling in the world than being loved and showing your love for others. We’ve got that in abundance now.”

Neil’s Advice for Others

Build fitness into your regular day. Neil and his wife have to get to the kids school, so they walk there. When they want to go out to eat in town, they walk there, too. Neil says they never would have fit this much physical activity into their lives if they had to go to a gym to do it. “I’ve used gyms a lot in my life, but they create a lonely sporting environment. I learned an invaluable lesson when I lost my dad when I was only 15 and he was 43, that life with family and friends is more precious than anything.”

Move after dinner. Neil set up a little badminton net in the backyard where he and his family exchange volleys a couple evenings a week. “It’s like dessert after dinner for us,” he says. “Let’s say in one particular rally my son plays a great shot, my daughter returns it and then I blow it—we’ve witnessed two acts of sporting brilliance followed by an old man falling over! What we love about it is that is that once again we’re bring connectivity to the family, and a huge chunk of laughter.” Not to mention a sizable health boost.

Finally, enjoy the ride (or walk). “When we walk along the coast road to school every day, we see parents racing past us in cars with their kids in the back while we stare across the beautiful water and talk,” says Neil. “So many people are in a rush and miss out on the important stuff: The people we love and the time we spend we them.”

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