I didn’t know that a quadruple heart bypass was even possible. I thought the maximum number of grafts was three. But when a friend of ours was told his angina had become life-threatening and that he must undergo one of the most serious operations possible, I realised there’s only one person more important than a brilliant surgeon — and that’s a responsible heart owner.
Shipi and I dropped in to the London hospital where our friend, a lawyer we’ve known for over 20 years, is recovering. It’s a good thing Shipi never became a doctor — his bedside manner is appalling.
“I bet when they cut you open,” he announced, “the surgeons discovered you didn’t have a heart at all. I always said that’s what makes you such a great lawyer.”
In fact, the surgery cannot be carried out while the heart is still pumping. It has to be stopped while the new arteries are grafted into place: in order to save the patient, the doctor must first kill him.
Many of my legal friends tell me the biggest problem they face is stress. In a high-powered career, where the stakes are high in every case and clients can face ruin if their lawyer isn’t 101 per cent committed to his work, physical tension can destroy the body.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a non-smoking vegan who jogs to the office every day and never touches more than a half-glass of chianti: stress is a killer.
That’s why I’m delighted that my son, Daniel, has quit his work as a barrister in London chambers to retrain as a Californian lawyer. All that sun and surf will help him to relax.
My own health regime is focused on keeping fit. I’ve been a vegetarian for most of my adult life, I have no resistance to alcohol and couldn’t be a boozer even if I wanted, and I’m lucky enough to be able to afford full check-ups when it suits me — the National Health Service is a marvellous institution, one Britain is rightly proud of, but it’s no good if my appointment for a scan comes through when I happen to be on the other side of the world shooting a TV series.
Since a healthy diet is built into my lifestyle, the chief role I can play as a responsible heart owner is to take plenty of aerobic exercise. That doesn’t mean I have to don a pink leotard and dance round the gym to the sound of Wham! I only do that on Mondays.
Aerobic exercise is the kind that makes the body increase its oxygen intake. For best results, it should not be too intensive, and it should last at least 20 minutes. I always warm up before starting, to avoid straining my muscles, and I always cool off with stretches for the same reason.
My favourite work-out is on my static bike — I try to cover about 27km in 20 minutes, bringing my heart rate up to around 120 beats per minute and keeping it there while I work up a sweat. I also use a cross-trainer which works my arms, and I like to use weights for ten minutes or so: I could never get a Schwarzeneggar body if I trained 12 hours every day for life, but all muscle helps burn fat and the weights help keep my own weight down.
If I’m in a hotel, I might use the pool — swimming is great exercise, though I don’t like sharing the water with a crowd. And I usually find a flight of stairs to help keep me supple, even if it’s on a jumbo jet.
It’s important to know when to stop — and when I first discovered work-outs, moderation was a word that wasn’t in my vocabulary.
By my late twenties, soft living had made me overweight. My favourite foods were hamburgers, salami and especially brie, which is about 80 per cent saturated fat.
I wasn’t obese, not the way my American friends understood the word. Some of them couldn’t see their own feet, even if they lay on the floor with their feet propped on a sofa.
But I stood on a speak-your-weight machine in Manhattan one afternoon and realised I had motored smoothly past 85 kilos and was heading for 90kg... which means I was approaching 14 stone. As a former paratrooper and basketball player, I suddenly felt I’d turned into Orson Welles.
I got hooked on dieting, and that became bulimia. I also got hooked on exercise. Without taking medical advice, I started jogging for at least two hours a day, covering ten miles at a stretch. Then I’d drag myself to a bike and pedal for another 90 minutes. The flab evaporated, but I felt dizzy and depleted all the time.
My glycogen levels never climbed above a trough, and I was constantly tired. At the same time, my blistered feet and burning legs gave me constant pain.
In combination with my eating disorder, I could easily have given myself a heart attack.
My message to anyone who is reading this and who isn’t taking regular aerobic exercise at least three times a week: whether you’re 18 or 80, make an appointment to see your GP right now. Get your health checked over, and find out what levels of exercise you can safely target.
And if disability makes aerobics impossible, make sure you raise your fitness and reduce your stress in other ways, such as regular meditation. The mind is the most powerful exercise machine in the universe, and there’s no charge for using it to the max. Above all, liaise with your doctor, and make a pledge to keep fit... because whatever you’re doing today, I’m willing to bet that you wouldn’t want to swap places with my friend and his quadruple heart bypass.
when I look at this publicity shot of myself aged 62, and think back to the chubby youth I was at 28 in New York, I know which of us looks more in control.