Lewis Bowling: Nobel winner benefits from healthy lifestyle
Rising early each day, Robert Lefkowitz reads his New York Times first thing in the morning while sipping coffee. Then he is on his treadmill in the basement of his house by 7 a.m., where he will walk for an average of 60 minutes, increasing the speed and incline as he goes along. After his morning exercise routine, he will eat his usual two slices of whole grain bread topped with some fresh peanut butter and on occasion a little jam. After breakfast, Dr. Lefkowitz heads for work at Duke University, as he is the James. B. Duke Professor of Medicine and Professor of Biochemistry, Duke University Medical Center. That work recently landed Dr. Lefkowitz a nice award.
That “nice” award was the 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, which made Dr. Lefkowitz the very first Nobel Prize winner in Duke University’s history, quite an accomplishment for a school with such a national reputation for academic excellence among its faculty and students. Dr. Lefkowitz’s work over the years has aided greatly the knowledge of how prescription drugs work and the human body’s reaction to them. On a recent visit to his office, I made sure Dr. Lefkowitz focused on his lifelong adherence to a healthy lifestyle, as I knew if he steered the interview to chemistry and the work that earned him the title of Nobel Prize winner, I would be lost. I knew if he got into his research of G-protein-coupled receptors, which was part of his work that earned him the Nobel Prize, I would have had to resort to an old practice of Abraham Lincoln’s: “’Tis better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.”
When asked how living a healthy life has helped him accomplish so much in his work life, Dr. Lefkowitz replied, “I’ve always worked like a dog, and my daily exercise and good nutrition habits give me energy to work long hours productively. To be honest, I never really feel tired, and I am 69 years of age. Exercise and eating well improves my mood and reduces stress. I have been within a pound or two of 165 pounds for years, and that is because of my devotion to exercise and the fact that I eat a vegetarian diet, which is due more to health reasons than ethical reasons. My wife, Lynn, by the way, is also a vegetarian, but her reason is more ethical.”
A family history of heart disease played a huge role in Dr. Lefkowitz’s adoption of daily exercise. His father tended to be sedentary and had four heart attacks, the last killing him at the age of 63. His mother had a heart attack at 67. By the age of 25, Dr. Lefkowitz had gained weight while in medical school, and he was unfit and had a total cholesterol of 250, which is high. (Just a week before I met with Dr. Lefkowitz, his cholesterol was at 133 and his HDL cholesterol, the good type, was at a very healthy 67.) Around this time when Dr. Lefkowitz was unfit, in the mid to late 1960s, Kenneth Cooper became known around the United States for his advocacy of aerobic training, and Dr. Lefkowitz was soon out jogging almost every day. It wasn’t too long before he was logging 30 to 40 miles a week and running in half marathons. In his 30s he ran seven-minute mile paces for miles at a time. After coming to Duke, he and his good friend, Dr. Ralph Snyderman, who was CEO of Duke Medical Center, became running partners, and Dr. Snyderman once estimated the two of them must have run around the world about three times if their total miles were added up through all of their many years running together.
At age 50 in 1993, Dr. Lefkowitz developed angina, which is chest pain, and underwent quadruple bypass surgery in 1994. This is when he also became a vegetarian, and he now eats no saturated fat. He has been well since. Dr. Lefkowitz continued his jogging regimen until about eight years ago when plantar fasciitis, which is a painful inflammation on the bottom of the foot, made running difficult. This condition persuaded Dr. Lefkowitz to start using his treadmill more often. In the basement of his home he also has an upright bike and a recumbent bike along with an elliptical trainer, and he has a Universal Gym to use for his weight training. In fact, he now has two rooms of the three-room, unfinished basement full of exercise equipment, and he says that his wife is “just waiting to see what he puts in the other room.”
During his 60-minute treadmill workouts, Dr. Lefkowitz likes to look at DVDs of British murder mysteries. On occasion he will go for 70 to 80 minutes, and by the end he may be walking at a fast pace of 4 miles per hour at an incline 10 degrees, which is very intense. He usually does five such aerobic workouts a week and on the other two days will practice yoga and lift weights. He likes yoga for developing flexibility and balance. In a very recent workout, Dr. Lefkowitz walked 61 minutes, burned 524 calories, started the workout with a heart rate of 52 beats per minute and by the end he was at 120. He always exercises with a heart rate monitor, and keeps meticulous records of his workouts in a training log. In fact, while seated at his desk, he reached over and looked at one of his training notebooks and found that he once burned 909 calories in a single workout, which lasted for 95 minutes. He is sure to drink plenty of water while working out.
Not looking anywhere close to his actual age of 69, Dr. Lefkowitz takes medications to help keep his blood pressure and cholesterol at healthy levels. “People with the right genes may not need medicines,” he said, “but medicines can complement genetic deficiencies.”
Durham, Duke University, and the entire Triangle area can be proud to call Robert Lefkowitz one of our own.
Lewis Bowling teaches at N.C. Central University and Duke University. He is the author of several books on fitness and sports. His website is www.lewisbowling.com. He can be reached at 919-530-6224 and at Lewis_Bowling@yahoo.com.