A 20-plus-year HIV survivor shares his six-point plan for feeling and living well after 50

Little did I know when I turned 50 in June 2019, after living with HIV for 20 years, that the final months of my 50th year on the planet would be spent mostly in COVID-19 lockdown.

I’d greeted 50 with mixed feelings. On one hand, the fact that my 50th birthday year coincided with the 50th anniversaries of the Stonewall uprising, Woodstock, and the first moonwalk made me feel like a walking museum—absolutely ancient. On the other hand, I mused, if Obama could be running the free world when he turned 50, then certainly I had no reason for not rising to the occasion.

So I decided that I would be—to drop a dreadfully overused word these days—intentional about entering my sixth decade, a plan that COVID both complicated and enhanced. This is the blueprint I’ve lived by ever since—more or less.

I try to get my heart rate up every day.

I’ve been a workout freak most of my life, but in recent years, I’ve become addicted to burpees—those exercises in which you jump in the air, down to the ground, do a push-up, jump up, and repeat. (YouTube it for a demo.) There’s no quicker, more efficient way to make my heart pound for 15 to 20 minutes each day, which is perfect for days when I don’t have time to go for a run or hit the gym. There are also plenty of examples online of “alternative burpees” for those who may be less mobile, have problems with their joints, be low on core strength—or just plain hate burpees, which many do. I know I hate them while I’m doing them, but afterward I always feel great.

I try to be present for those in my life. Especially during COVID, when so many are isolated, I have revived the lost art of actually picking up the phone and having a proper conversation with someone. Something else I’ve started doing recently with friends who are stuck inside is watching a movie “with” them: We pick a movie, cue up to the start point, hit “Go!” on our text thread, then “chat” as we watch. It’s not exactly togetherness, but it’s better than nothing.

I try to be as vegan as possible.

Let me be clear: I am not vegan. Im not even vegetarian. But in recent years, Ive tried to cut beef and pork out of my life almost completely, save the occasional burger or bacon (bacon!), and stick mostly to chicken, fish, beans, whole grains, fruit, and vegetables. It’s as much for health purposes as my ever-increasing discomfort with eating the flesh of other living creatures. As with so many things in life, I’ve learned to take my journey toward veganism one day at a time rather than making a lifetime commitment—always a sure set-up for failure.

I try to live beyond myself.

I was a fairly callow party boy in my youth, but with every passing year, I’ve found more urgency in striving to be a part of systemic change, whether it’s marching for racial justice, working on elections and legislative campaigns, or raising money for groups providing necessary services such as access to food for hungry families during COVID. I’ve met so many great people outside my own immediate orbit this way that I see it not as a chore but as a source of gratification and pleasure.

I try to cook my own food.

One of the good things to come out of COVID was the necessity of cooking nearly all my own meals, which reintroduced me not only to the pleasure and creativity of it, but also the wonderful feeling of self-reliance. As I told my mother recently, the sheet pan has become my best friend. I just slather it with olive oil, throw on it fish, vegetables, and herbs, shove it in the oven while boiling some rice or farro, and my meal is ready before I’m out of the shower.

Which brings me to ...

I try to find joy.

I am acutely aware of how lucky I am to live into middle age, as opposed to so many people diagnosed with HIV in the decades before me who did not get that gift. So I try to devote at least a part of each day to pure joy, whether that’s taking a very long walk, plunging into the surf in the summer, cooking for and hosting friends (back when we could do that!) ... or even something as simple as staying up into the wee hours bingeing a good book or TV series.

Positively Aware: Tim Murphy

Brooklyn-based journalist and novelist Tim Murphy has been writing about HIV/AIDS for 25 years.