After you turn 40, you’re supposed to graciously give in to gravity. Let the pounds accrue and let your ass gently carve curves in that one special corner of the sofa. After you turn 40, you’re supposed to let the young folks take over and forge ahead and sit back and reflect and plan the rest of the slide. After you turn 40, you’re not supposed to care anymore. After you turn 40, you’re not supposed to give a damn.
Not everyone receives these messages. I won’t claim they are universal, not these days. I can only claim I received them, and by the time I was 42 I’d taken them on as an unconscious philosophy of living. I was doing some things I liked with my life–writing for a living–and my depression could wait. My high blood pressure would succumb to medication, as soon as I found time to get to the doctor.
Then we took our summer vacation trip to Salem, Massachusetts (from Georgia, where we lived at the time) and my wife and I took a lot of photos and videos. We got home and I looked at those videos and I saw the shambling, red-faced, nearly 300-lb fat man in them and thought about how I woke some nights sick from reflux and how a mile walk in 80-degree heat almost made me pass out and I thought, maybe I’ll completely give in. I’ll make it look like I’m trying to fix things and hope the effort kills me.
So the first time I took a walk in the summer heat aimed at ‘starting a program’ I actually hoped I might die. I’ve written this before elsewhere and told people, but I’m convinced their reaction is to think I’m being dramatic. I’m not. I shuffled along those pretty wooded trails in that hilly park by our home in Georgia and by the time I reached a ridge where there was a slight breeze and the peaceful rush of the Big Creek below, I thought, very clearly, hopefully I’ll die here. A man the size I was at the time, with my uncontrolled hypertension, well, I was supposed to die in that situation.
I didn’t, so I tried again. And again. I skipped days and then tried again.
I never even vomited from exertion. I kept dropping weight, and I started feeling, well, better. The exertion, by degrees, began to feel good. I slept better. I made conscious efforts at watching what I ate, then found myself occasionally just naturally gravitating toward the better choices. Somewhere along the way, I stopped hoping I’d die on that ridge with the wind and the creek on either side of me and began enjoying them for what they were.
I encountered condescending, much fitter young people on the trails who gave me smarmy “encouragement” as they dashed past, but sometimes I saw other guys, my age, grinding along like I was. We’d nod grimly and keep moving.
Somehow, I just never stopped. Running and careful eating carved a good deal of the weight away, but at some point after I’d lost maybe 90 lbs. I realized I wasn’t just a runner. My curiosity took hold and I began to study exercise, in a way I’d never really even tried before. I grew fascinated with whatever steps one could take to never have to join a gym. I’m not anti-gym (there’s an old-style gym in the city where I live now I’d still like to check out–“old-style” meaning it caters more to large, solemn men bent solely on lifting very big weights than suburban moms looking to knock off the holiday pounds) but embracing exercise again taught me that I am at heart, like my dad, a born do-it-yourselfer.
With dad, this manifested in various construction projects around the home, some so successful and novel they bordered on genius, others perhaps less successful but still interesting. With me, it began to manifest in figuring out just how much I could do alone.
With kettlebells, body weight exercises and (a bit less) running, I dug in, hard. I’m digging still. Here is where I am today. I have never used a trainer, and haven’t joined a gym. I don’t have workout partners. I did this by myself, using excellent online resources like FitnessBlender, articles by kettlebell gurus like Mike Mahler and Pat Flynn and a motley crew of Youtube fitness lunkheads and weirdos, and I’m doing it still.
I haven’t fully conquered everything. Not sure I will. I still fight my weight. It turned out that accumulating 100 extra pounds of fat between the ages of 28 and 43 or so resulted in some pretty damned tenacious fat. There are legitimate (as in I know it’s not just my perception) things about my body I’d still like to change, in general. I still get depressed because depression is an integral part of my makeup and slack–though I’ve found that exercise has become such a hardwired habit for me now that even when depressed, I usually end up doing something.
But whatever I do, I’m going to do it without killing myself. I went from hoping a 2 mile walk on a hot day might put me out of my misery to feeling most alive when I’m buried in a long run or slinging a pretty huge volume of sweat with a 70-lb kettlebell in hand.
I might look angry in the “Today” photo, but I’m not. I’ve learned a different way of looking at things, and mostly taught it to myself. I’m determined. That’s why I wrote this, even though I’ve blogged many of these things either on my Tumblr or in this blog before.
I don’t know what this time of life is really like for other men and women. For some, I suspect the gradual beginning of a certain slowing down is exactly what they need. My own father had worked damned hard, mostly with his hands, by the time he turned 46. It was perfectly okay for a man who’d worked like that to want to walk in and sit the hell down and not move at the end of the day. But my time is different, the world has made a different set of demands on men in my generation. I don’t want to rest yet. I haven’t earned it. I’m pushing ahead. I think that’s how this is supposed to be.
Note, 6/16/2014: I’m grateful WordPress featured this post on Freshly Pressed. I’m also grateful for the comments I’ve received. I don’t often write this kind of thing–my professional writing has mostly been about current events, particularly dark subjects like crime and cyber crime, with some satire on the side–so the idea that this post would be of positive benefit to others is pretty gratifying. Thanks for reading.