Port Royal, S.C.—Three years ago, life caught up with the novelist Pat Conroy. After decades of eating and drinking pretty much whatever he wanted, the best-selling novelist found himself lying in a hospital bed, bloated with fluids as his organs floundered. He had Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and a failing liver.
“I was in the process of dying,” Conroy says. His doctor told him he needed to adopt a more healthful lifestyle and enroll in a hospital-based alcohol treatment program. Conroy would have none of it.
“I told him, ‘Doctor, you don’t know me very well,’ ” Conroy recalls. “ ‘You will never see me again — and that is a promise.’ ”
He kept his word. Following his release from the hospital, Conroy, now 69, quit drinking. He has since lost about 25 pounds. His blood pressure is now at a normal level, without medication. He has worked with a nutritionist, who happens to be his next-door neighbor. “She actually comes to my house and opens the refrigerator door and starts throwing away things she doesn’t want me to eat,” he says.
The ever-self-deprecating Conroy may not see himself as a fitness inspiration, but he has nonetheless shown that no matter your age or how far you’ve fallen, there are still ways to regain your health.
Last spring, Conroy sealed his commitment to self-improvement with an investment: He opened a fitness studio in Port Royal, S.C., where he works with Mina Truong, a personal trainer.
One recent hot afternoon, Conroy, dressed casually in gym shorts, a T-shirt and a Citadel hat, showed off his new hangout, Mina & Conroy Fitness Studio, a 600-square-foot workout space located in a yellow rowhouse on a sleepy road. The small gym, equipped with little more than a bike, mats and some pulley and boxing equipment, is a far cry from a kitschy boutique gym such as SoulCycle. But for Conroy, it’s just enough.
Demonstrating an exercise called rope battling — using the arms to make waves in a 30-pound, anchored hemp rope — he ably maintained his strength. “He just keeps pushing,” Truong says. “I have to stop him sometimes.”
Conroy hasn’t exactly transformed himself into Jack LaLanne, nor is he the svelte cadet who weighed 150 pounds during his college years at the Citadel. (“My left leg weighs about that now,” he jokes.) But Conroy, who is 6 feet tall, says he’s slowly approaching his goal of 230 pounds.
“Everything the diabetes doctors told me was absolutely true,” says Conroy, who was diagnosed in 1996 and told to lose weight and exercise more. “I just didn’t do it.”
Like many of the estimated 29 million Americans with the disease, Conroy was overweight and suffered from neuropathy. But he struggled to face reality. “No one likes to see themselves fat,” he says. “I never liked it, never got used to it. But there it was when I looked in the mirror.”
The problem was finding the motivation to change. It “took a near-death experience,” he says. It also took the help of friends and family — and a sense of humor.
“I require someone in my face encouraging me,” says Conroy, whose early novels provide a vivid illustration of growing up in a military family and what can happen when discipline is taken to an extreme.
In addition to Truong and his nutritionist, Conroy’s wife, the novelist Cassandra King, helps him maintain a healthful diet. A typical daily menu will begin with coffee, granola and Greek yogurt.
“And then, of course, since I am built like a Sri Lankan elephant, I starve until lunch,” he says. Lunch is usually light — on this day, he has a plate of sashimi — and his wife typically prepares dinner: salad, chicken, “something disgustingly healthy,” Conroy jokes.
He skips dessert and, on the advice of Truong and his nutritionist, skips diet sodas, too. “I drink very expensive water,” he says, pointing to his concoction of ice water spiked with lemon, herbs and vegetables.
Giving up alcohol was difficult, he says, but worth it. Reading the biographies of writers such as Hemingway, Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe, Conroy was awakened to a sad truth: “All these male novelists killed themselves the same way,” he says. “Unless I’m in complete and utter denial, I knew I had to get away from this or I’d be doing the same thing everyone else did.”
Conroy, who in 2004 published a cookbook that included recipes for decadent treats including candied bacon and cheddar-cheese-and-sausage biscuits, confesses he misses some things from his old diet. He is a lover of “animal fat in all its grotesque proportions,” he says, adding, “If there was a loving, just god, foie gras would have one calorie and a bean sprout would have 1,400.” He also admits that he occasionally indulges at a favorite Italian restaurant in Beaufort, where he lives. But workouts help mitigate the effects of his sins.
His one-hour regimen, devised by Truong, combines stretching with strength and balance exercises, light cardiovascular work and a strong focus on the core.
Over the course of five days, Truong mixes up the exercises; she also varies them week to week. On some days she’ll focus on the upper body; on other days she’ll have him do high-intensity interval training, a regimen that alternates between short exercises of high and low intensity.
Truong is mindful of Conroy’s medical issues — he has also struggled with damage to his rotator cuff and lingering back problems from his days on the Citadel basketball team. Truong monitors his movements carefully, asking about pain, checking his heart rate.
Conroy says his new lifestyle “has helped me in every conceivable away.” He recently finished a young-adult novel with his daughter Melissa and is working on a new novel about Charleston.
Still, Conroy is ever the realist.
“There is nothing on my résumé that indicates I’ll be successful in this unusual endeavor,” he wrote on his blog in March. “But I’m doing it because there are four or five books I’d like to write before I meet with Jesus of Nazareth — as my mother promised me — on the day of my untimely death, or reconcile myself to a long stretch of nothingness as my non-believing friends insist.”
In person he puts it more plainly: “I know I could die tomorrow.” But, he adds, “I also have these feelings — as I get these results from doctors — that I may be extending my life. And when I sit down to write, I feel like I am extending the clarity in my writing life.
“The thing that surprises me,” he says of his workouts, “is that I keep coming back. I thought I would get sick of it. Now I have made it a part of my daily life, like writing. It’s been habit-forming.”
Krug is an editor at The Post’s Book World.