A 45-Year-Old Man Walks Into a Gym...
Credit: Photograph by Michael Edwards

It's not that I hate the gym, exactly. I just hate what it represents, the way its very existence amounts to a challenge unmet – a reminder that there are fit people in the world, and this is where they go to do the things that fit people do. Those aren't my people: athletic types with a surplus of self-regard, and the vanity to spend precious hours sculpting their deltoids or hoofing mindlessly on a treadmill. I sort of pity them. Even the ones who aren't ripped – those lean, dutiful health obsessives – are suspiciously preoccupied with self-preservation. So narrow is their pursuit of longevity that they overlook the soul and poetry of life while they're checking their heart rates and calculating their BMI.

So what if life's poetry accumulates to form a ham-size band of flesh around your middle? So what if it leaves you flabby and weak where you really want to be steely and solid? So be it. At least you've not mistaken fitness for something important in life.

I hadn't exactly let myself go. I'd flirted with decent shape before – decades of semi-regular running, a span of consistent yoga practice – but it was never done in concert with good nutrition and rarely involved real sacrifice. (I was one of the few yogis who would be tucking into a lamb chop a half-hour after rolling up my mat.) As I saw it, working out gave me license to consume what I wanted, like an insurance policy against slob-dom, but one whose protective qualities had diminished. The few times when I did make a concerted effort, I'd stick with it only long enough to be surprised at how easily the initial weight came off. Then I'd pat myself on the back and resume the old habits. Such was the level of my commitment.

At 6-foot-1, weight hovering between 198 and 203 – those are estimates; I only weighed myself at the doctor's office – I was, according to the accepted calculations of some unrealistic, faraway authority (in this case, the World Health Organization), considered "overweight." I guess I was a little soft, covered in a smooth, lifestyle-induced layer I'd accepted as the status quo. There was muscle under there, still bubbling beneath the surface, waiting to be called up to a boil, but lately it had cooled to a gentle simmer. And what I knew about male physiology was that, due to falling testosterone, decline was inevitable. At some point I'd lose the ability to build muscle. How long did I have before the flame went out completely?

I didn't want to find out.

There would never be a better time to get in shape. I was turning 45 in an America that was awash in training opportunities, nutritional advice, and whey protein shakes. Fitness had finally trended away from bulk-building and toward a new respect for the kind of lean strength found in rock climbers, not bodyguards. And if I were to make some progress, there'd be more ways to measure it than ever before. The kinds of tests and scans and performance-based diagnostic equipment that were once confined to Olympic training camps and East German preschools were now available to a regular schmo like me.

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I wanted to take advantage of it. I would learn and sweat and get tested, and finally get in the kind of shape that would let me pursue any sport, fitness class, and physical challenge without fear of injury or abject humiliation.

OK, I'd settle for no more injuries. I'd had a few of those lately – more than in all my previous forty-some years. Minor knee surgery (torn meniscus) had left me with few exercise options – I couldn't run or jump rope, and riding my ill-fitting bike inflamed the tendinitis in my elbow. So I wound up at a local gym, pursuing a haphazard workout based solely on vanity, familiarity, and avoidance of the exercises I hated the most. I did crunches, flys, curls, bench presses. I even did those fussy little push-downs that work no part of your body other than the triceps. I ended up trashing my shoulder doing a set of irrationally exuberant push-ups on one of those giant green balls that people sometimes use as office chairs. At the same time, the tendinitis in my elbow returned like a wasp you had tried and failed to swat. More discouraging, my once flexible left hamstring had gone brittle on me, hardening into a cranky, tender band that made me walk like Walter Matthau.

All my efforts toward fitness had somehow pushed actual fitness further away. I'd gotten used to lying in bed, a triangle of discomfort – left knee, right elbow, left shoulder – mummy-like until the pain in my hamstring woke me up and reminded me that I had to take a leak.

But the injuries didn't hurt as much as the implication: I'd arrived at midlife flabby, feeble, and shying away from most physical challenges, even recreational ones. I was bowing out of invitations I wouldn't have thought twice about accepting a few years ago: Tough Mudders, CrossFit, bowling. (Yes, bowling.) When did I get so pathetic? I needed a professional to set myself straight. So I walked into a gym and asked for help. I tried to keep my goals humble and my vanity in check. I wanted to build muscle and lose fat, of course, but more fundamentally, I wanted to get balanced and aligned and strong, from the inside out. To reinforce the function-over-form prerogative I started the personal renovation in mid-September, the official end of the shirtless season.