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How Years of Failure Made Me Work Out Again

How Years of Failure Made Me Work Out Again

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The exact moment one man realised he was direly out of shape

Once, a long time ago, I was fit.

It had never happened before and, until last week, I wondered if it was ever going to happen again. I vividly remember the feelings: Legs that didn’t ache after a few flights of stairs. Back muscles I could trust; packages or furniture that weren’t mildly terrifying. I slept better. A good mattress didn’t seem to matter as much. It now seems extremely far off, in the way that elementary school seems far off: Yeah, sure, there was a point when I couldn’t drive a car and ate hot dogs every day, but really, that was another life.

This isn’t another transformation story. The last time I was fit, I was five-foot ten and 175 pounds. I’m now five-foot-ten and 180 pounds. The difference isn’t so much appearance—though I do look different, and less healthy—but muscle mass; cardio health; activity. Possibly the arches in my feet, which feel lower than they were, flatter, but maybe that’s just in my head. I get more Charley horses. I don’t eat cookies with as much joy. Fast food makes me feel like garbage, but I occasionally order it anyway. You know the drill: I’ve become an ordinary American.

Part of this was because I was 20 years old. I’m now 36, which is neither old nor young but some kind of middle ground in between, where my body seems to vaguely resent exercise but also doesn’t demand it in order to function. Which is how it happens, right? One week, you’re working out every day, or at least every weekday. The next, something gets in the way, maybe an appointment or a family commitment, and you skip a day. Then you skip another day. Then a week. Then it’s been six weeks since you went to the gym, then six months, then . . . um . . . six years.

I’m told it gets more difficult as you get older. All I know is that, when I hit 25, my digestive system got surprisingly fussy. (It remains that way.) At 28, I threw my back out for the first time. (I am now afraid of my back.) At 30, beer began to make me fatter. (And continues to.) At 33, I could no longer make my gut shrink a little by eating well for a week. At 35, I pulled my back out in terrifying fashion, worse than I ever had, to the point where I was essentially incapacitated for the better part of a week.

Of course, it was easier to get in shape then, because my body was more rubbery, younger. It rebuilt itself more quickly and required less attention in the first place, the same way a new car won’t blow up or get slower if you skip an oil change or two. A used one, though, maybe a little worse for wear and with a tired oil pump . . . things get gunky, and oil changes matter.

My “fit” period was an odd time in my life. I was in college and looking for new hobbies, because that’s what you do in college, when you’re not drinking or in a classroom or naked. (Always wanted to combine those three things. Never managed.)

I had never played a sport, but I loved boats and being on the water, so I tried rowing crew. My university ran a team as a club sport—no points, no championships, just fun. A friend talked me into it, or maybe I talked him in. I can’t remember. All I know is that we got up at 5:00 AM, several days of the week, and went to the lake.

We rowed for an hour, in an eight-man shell, then we went home. I took a shower and went to class. I was usually tired for the rest of the day, but not too tired. After a few weeks, it began to feel good. A week after that, it felt great. I was more awake, more alive, more thankful to not be exercising whenever I wasn’t, but still enjoying it when I was. On top of that, after a month or two, I looked better. My arms had definition and were no longer twigs, my chest and stomach weren’t a lumpy mattress. I loved it in ways I couldn’t describe, and the side effects—looking and feeling better.

It got better. The club only had access to the boats and the lake every few days, which meant I couldn’t be on the boat as much as I wanted. So I started going to the gym, using the rowing machines. That was fine, and a decent substitute, but I couldn’t stand being indoors. I tried running. I hated it, but I did it anyway, because it got me out of the house and moving. This mishmash of exercise, just chasing what I enjoyed, lasted several seasons.

And then it stopped. I can’t explain why, it just did. Real life gets in the way, and then you have one excuse, and then another, and suddenly you’ve got nothing but excuses and you haven’t broken a sweat since before you can remember.

That was 15 years ago. Since then, I’ve set foot in a gym maybe fifteen times. Each of those moments were false starts, prompted by memories. I’d get up early one morning before work and go for a walk, and the sunrise would remind me of what it felt like to be on the boat. I’d try to chase it, and make my way to the gym once or twice, but it never lasted. Or I’d get on a kick where I did push-ups and sit-ups every morning before work, then eventually quit, because it didn’t feel as good as I remembered.

Again, excuses. The reality is that I had forgotten how hard it was to start, initially. And how everything is easier when you’re 20. I wanted it to be that easy again, and it wasn’t ever going to be. I just got used to being easily winded, to having arms the size of a toddler’s legs, to not being able to lift anything. Ever.

Until last week, when everything came to a weird head. My wife and I ordered a new mattress for our bedroom, and the delivery company simply left it in the foyer of our house. Our bedroom is on the third floor, up two narrow sets of nested stairs. When the mattress arrived, my wife was busy making dinner for our kids, so I decided to get a head start on things. I shoved and pushed and generally managed to get it up half a flight of stairs before collapsing in a pile of sweat.

The kitchen is on the second floor of our house. She heard me slump to the floor and yelled down.

“You okay?”


“Do you need help?”


“So why aren’t you moving?”

I thought for a second. Then I thought for a second more, possibly because I was trapped under the mattress itself, wedged between wall and stair rail, and had few other options.

“Um . . . I’m . . . admiring the bannister?”

“Are you stuck?”

“No. Definitely not.”

“You’re stuck.”

“Shut up.”

“Why didn’t you ask for help?”

“I can do this!”

“I doubt that.”

“I thought I said shut up.”

I then tried to lift the mattress off myself and failed. I managed to squeeze out from underneath it and inch back down the stairs, to the landing below. Gravity meant that the mattress followed me down, sliding along on its own. It wedged against the wall in a sad, pouty kind of slump.

I walked around it, found my wife, and looked her in the eye.

“My back hurts.”

She was stirring something on the stove. She kept stirring and didn’t look up. “I don’t feel sorry for you.”

I should note here that my wife is generally in much better shape than I am. She exercises regularly. She also mocks me, regularly.

“You should,” I replied.

She laughed. “Whiner!”

I then collapsed on the floor and, for comedic effect, began to do something that was not unentirely unlike whining.

I also lay there for a bit. Partly because it was comfortable, or at least, more comfortable than being wedged into a stairwell with a mattress on top of you. The dog came over and licked my face, then paced for a while before deciding to sit on my chest. (We have a weird dog.) This was the kicker: Our dog weighs something like 35 pounds, but the weight hurt. My back hurt. My lungs hurt. My legs hurt. The only part of my body that didn’t hurt was my brain, and even that felt a little sore, because I was in the middle of a revelation:

“This,” I thought, “is sad. And it needs to stop.”

No one is a stranger to the idea of turning points; this was one of mine. I was defeated by a mattress. Granted, it was a California King, but it was also made of foam and not exactly a pile of lead. So this ends now. I don’t care how painful it is, I don’t care how bored I am, I don’t care. I’m going to the gym next week. I’m going to chronicle some of it here. I’m going to keep going back until I feel better, and I’m not going to stop there. Maybe, after a while, I’ll look into rowing clubs; if exercise is enjoyable, that’s great, good for you. But you shouldn’t let the enjoyment be a speed bump.

I’m not happy about it, but it’s going to happen. Because that’s the point with exercise: The times that it’s fun, you’re lucky. If you find some part of it you enjoy, it’s a gift. But it’s not supposed to be easy. It’s supposed to be necessary.

Wish me luck. And also that we don’t have to buy another mattress any time soon. (Determination and goals are one thing, but hey, no sense stacking the deck.)

Written by Sam Smith, image and articles sourced from Mens Health