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Two Hours at the Gym

Three men were gathered around the chest press station, chatting energetically. One man was familiar: tall, thin, grey-haired. He’s 92.

The others were new to me. Apparently whatever they were discussing trumped exercise, for they never did any presses until I was already through three exercises, twelve reps each, 60 men’s pushups and 120 situps.

The group moved slowly from one station to another. They kept glancing my way.

I had earbuds in and was moving fast through an upper body workout that takes me about 45 minutes. No rests, no loitering, no talking. I’m in the gym to bust iron. Been doing this for close to 45 years. I change up the program when my body gets bored. I also shift the program for a particular sport, or if I’m rehabbing an injury like the broken back I got past summer.

The small clique padded slowly out of the free weight area to the machines. I was doing bicep curls with a 40-lb. barbell when one of the men came over and interrupted me.

I pulled the bud out of my ear.

“Man, you’re strong,” he said, pointing at my guns. He was big. Very big. Wide.

“Been at it a long time,” I told him. The others moseyed on over. The 92-year old man introduced himself.

“We’ve met before,” I said.

“We have?” I nodded. Hey look, at that age, we all forget.

The heavyset man who interrupted me was insistent. “How old are you?”

I told him. Sixty-five in January.

This excited him. He nearly shouted that he would also be sixty-five in April. We’d be the same age!!!!! This was his big in, our fundamental connective tissue. To his mind, this made us instant best friends. The others wanted to know how long I’d been lifting, all kinds of personal questions.

I failed to capture the excitement. Glanced down at my barbell. At the men, who were about to set up camp on my bench, where I was also doing chest flys and shoulder presses. My body was cooling off fast with at least thirty minutes to go.

I shoved my ear bud back in.

“Gentlemen, if you don’t mind.” I picked up my barbell and resumed my curls.

Disappointed, the three men wandered back to the machines. I’m not here to flirt.

Thirty minutes later, as I was leaving, the men were still gathered around the same machine, talking.

You can waste a lot of time in a gym doing nothing whatsoever for your health while working your jaws for hours.

But, “I spent two hours at the gym!” Doing what, precisely?

My father, who was slim most of his life but smoked heavily, gained some thirty pounds on his belly when he quit. He ate candies all day to help him stop the habit. Into his later years he ate as though he were still farming. Like football players who don’t cut back after they’re not backs, he got sloppy. He looked as though he was about to have triplets. A vain man, this embarrassed him greatly.

“I sit in the hot tub every night and push my legs in and out in the water for half an hour,” he complained bitterly. “Why can’t I lose this belly?”

I pointed to the thick fresh bread that he held close to his mouth. The half-inch of butter, an inch of peanut butter on top of that. His third in a row. His snack before dinner. I told him what it would take. He smiled and shook his head. “Not me.”

Too much work. So like a great many other men in their sixties and seventies, he never did. His big belly hurt his back. More concerned with immediate pleasure, he paid for it in pain. Not surprisingly, it made him an angry man.

A friend in his late fifties some years ago committed to the Body for Life program that had been popularized in the media. Lots of folks had successfully overhauled their bodies. He was a very overweight man with a huge waist. But he was determined. He dropped a lot of weight, too. The mistake this man made was to secure a photo of a young bodybuilder, keep it in his briefcase and tell everyone that this was what he was going to look like. Very soon, he said. Wait and see, he said. From a 70" waist to a 30" waist. I’ll show you, he said.

Sadly, when his aging, much-abused body refused to assume the six-pack and contours of an athletic man a third his age, he threw in the towel. Not long after that he was at least as big as before and then some. Rather that hit the gym, he hit the smorgasbords. Perhaps out of bitterness. It’s understandable. But inexcusable when you consider his family, who love him.

In The Secret Life of Fat by Dr. Sylvia Tara, her heartfelt point about having a healthy body is to never get fat in the first place. Like millions, I did. Still, I dumped nearly a hundred pounds during a year of cycling, eating right and changing many of my reference points and habits. That was thirty years ago. I’ve never looked back. But as Tara explains, those of us who have been obese are forever stuck with a body that wants that weight back in place. We can never eat the same number of calories, nor can we stop exercising. Not a bad thing. I do miss being able to eat more. Entering middle and late years, that habit has to stop anyway as we simply need fewer calories. For us ex-fatties, we eat even less to maintain our bodyweight. So, a lifetime of discipline. No more big handfuls of chocolate almonds. Maybe one, if any at all. Better off with celery and hummus.

One of the few people I talk to at the gym is a man in his late fifties who has clearly spent a lifetime punching weights like I have. As this guy works his way towards sixty, he looks and feel terrific. Even here in Colorado, I see very few men near my age who look as good as this guy does. Once we’ve lost that youthful figure to decades of beer, bratwurst and bellyaching about how hard it is to stay in shape, it’s an incredible slog to return to relative health. Not impossible. Just hard.

As we recover from the Season of Excess, when we justified rich foods, lackluster commitments to healthy eating and far too much wine and spirits, we also skidded headlong into the concrete bunker of New Year’s Resolutions. That annual reiteration of This year I’ll go on a diet. Lose weight. Exercise.

Right. Until we realize that nothing magic will happen. It’s a daily habit of taking care of ourselves. The right foods for our unique bodies. The right exercise that we will commit to every single day. It never gets easier. You just get better at being diligent. As the years pile up, it’s even more important to stay active, eat well, and keep moving. Our bodies respond incredibly well to work at any age. They want to be well, to thrive and give us healthy lives. But not if we abuse them with alcohol, toxic pharmaceuticals, hours and hours of sitting all day, and appallingly lousy food.

Next year that 92-year-old man will still be at my gym. So will the late-fifties man whose presence always brightens my gym time. We’ve weathered multiple owners and god knows how many managers. We’re institutions.

Where will you be next year? Fitter? Stronger? Healthier? All are well within reach with a commitment. It’s not for the faint of heart. But it sure beats dying younger, and in the meantime living sick and miserable. To my mind, the latter are far harder to bear than the work to be vitally healthy.

It’s never to late to start. Never. That’s the good news. See you at the gym.

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