Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A History of Flab

While I await the arrival of my P90X package, I thought I'd take the time to outline my personal history with fitness. From a relative standpoint, it's actually pretty short, since until a few years ago, the only running I did was to hide from my P.E. teachers.

I was not, by any stretch of the imagination, an athletic child. My parents didn't push sports. My dad, in particular, preferred that I engage in sedentary pursuits, like reading, drawing and sitting as motionless as possible. And while my grandmother looked after us kids during the day, she did it from an armchair in front of the Lawrence Welk show, so we were pretty much house-bound. In elementary school, I'm fairly certain I failed the President's Physical Fitness Test because I couldn't perform a single chin up. To borrow a line from Howard Stern, I was raised like a veal.

Thankfully, I never had a sweet tooth, and my diet was okay, so I never got chubby. Still, I was a flabby, unathletic kid, with no strength, endurance, physical coordination, flexibility or balance. In eighth grade P.E., our class had to run laps around the school for a half hour. A friend and I ran until we were just out of sight of our gym teacher, and then hid in the bushes until class ended.

In high school, to avoid P.E., my best friend and I joined a gym. (At our school, we could get ourselves excused from P.E. if we engaged in some sort of extracurricular sport or exercise program, and my buddy's dad got us a cheap membership at his gym.) My friend and I went regularly -- twice a week! -- and over the course of a year or so, I ended up adding some muscle to my frame. But although I learned a lot about how to perform basic resistance exercises (bench presses, lat pull-downs, leg presses, etc.) and got acquainted with concepts like muscle hypertrophy and pyramiding sets, I never took the weight training very seriously. It didn't help that our assigned personal trainer spent most of his time staring at his own abs in the mirror and ignoring us, but we didn't exactly help ourselves, either: After every workout, we'd reward ourselves with a big-ass, sugary ICEE and a cheesesteak with fries.

But it was in college that I really let myself go.

I was the poster child for the "Freshman 15." I subsisted entirely on fatty, carb-loaded foods served buffet-style in my dorm cafeteria: fries, ice cream, spaghetti, fried chicken, pizza. Meanwhile, I exercised as little as humanly possible. A good friend of mine would drag me to the gym with her every morning before class, but while she worked out like a maniac, I slept on a bench in the hallway. Not surprisingly, I got tubby.

In my final semester of college, after my girlfriend moved back home, I took it up a notch and ate with abandon. Breakfast consisted of a chocolate almond croissant. Lunch meant grabbing a Chinese takeout box of golf ball-sized fried, batter-coated chicken chunks with sweet and sour sauce and white rice (and a single piece of broccoli -- my one concession to the vegetable food group). My afternoon snack was a giant slice of pepperoni pizza, and dinner was a heavy-duty fast food meal from Foster's Freeze: a greasy fried chicken sandwich, a heaping order of fries and an enormous strawberry milkshake.

It wasn't until I moved across the country to attend law school that I started shrinking back to a more normal size.

Of course, I didn't lose weight in a healthy way or for healthy reasons. I shed pounds because I was depressed -- I hated my school, I hated the city in which I lived, and I missed my girlfriend, who still lived on the opposite coast. And without a car, I didn't have easy access to fast food chains and pizza joints. This doesn't mean I started watching my nutrition: When I wasn't catching rides to local restaurants with friends, I ate nothing but frozen dinners and Triscuits. (Having only two items on my grocery list made shopping a breeze, and I was too depressed to care about nutrition or variety.) My apartment building had a fitness center in the basement, and since I had trouble sleeping, I spent my evenings running raggedly on the treadmill, glassy eyes glued to whatever was on TV. (It was usually Montel Williams or Jerry Springer. Classy!) I got skinny-fat; I lost weight but built no muscle. Still, I was slowly lurching my way out of the flabby hell I'd entered during college.

After law school, when I returned home to begin my career as a wage slave at a law firm, I put back on some pounds, which wasn't hard to do given the long hours chained to my desk and the restaurant meals charged to the firm. I had a membership to a fitness center (and actually represented a chain of gyms), but rarely stopped in to work out, despite the close proximity of the gym to my office. I didn't get as big and sloppy as I was in college, but after a few years of padding my midsection with lard, I felt sluggish, slow and gross.

To address this, I took up running. Every day, I ran 4 to 6 miles around a lake near my house or in the park. I ran up and down hills, on wooded trails and up steep inclines. I ate better. It was fucking hard, but I felt great. The pounds melted off. My legs were strong. I was averaging 25-30 miles a week, gaining endurance and speed, and soon began interval training.

Things were changing on the home and career fronts, too.  After years of the law firm grind, I managed to land a new, less stressful and more balanced job.  And M and I moved out of the city and fled to the 'burbs, where runners ruled the road, and where a gym was conveniently located less than half a mile from our house. So I decided to start weight training, too. I began working out religiously. With the help of a trainer, I developed a full body workout routine. I signed up for the FitLinxx exercise tracking system at the gym, and started competing against myself and other gym rats for the most weight lifted, the most gym visits, the most reps. This was the perfect motivation tool -- I wanted FitLinxx's validation that I was lifting more than anyone else at the gym. It was structured and data-driven; I could see the results when the Fitlinxx results were posted on the wall every month. I loved it. I hit the gym twice a day, for a morning workout and an evening workout. I made sure I devoted at least an hour a day on weight training, and a half hour a day on cardio. I kept running.  And over the holidays, M and I spent a few days (and a lot of cash) at Canyon Ranch in Tucson, where I learned even more about fitness and nutrition and incorporated my newfound knowledge into my workouts.

But as with most things, I eventully got bored with the repetitive nature of my weights-and-cardio routine. After our second kid was born and I got busier at work, I cut back on my workouts, and for the past year and half, I've been visiting the gym twice a week (at most) rather than twice a day. At night, after the kids are in bed, I make feeble attempts to work out in our home gym, but even when I manage to escape the gravitational pull of the couch and television remote, I end up exercising on cruise control, barely breaking a sweat on the elliptical machine or calling it a day after just a few sets of half-assed bench presses and back rows. I've been backsliding.

I need the motivation to push through this period of laziness and stagnation, and get fit. Hopefully, with P90X, I'll find the structure and motivation I need. 

I'm going to use this blog to keep myself accountable to the program.  And I'm going to do my damndest to post every single day.  I've seen other P90X blogs that trail off after a while; they're like ghost ships sailing around the Internet, waiting for their captains to reappear.  I'm determined not to abandon ship.  I doubt anyone will ever read this, but I know I'll be more likely to keep P90Xing if the alternative is potential public humiliation.

Besides, it's only 90 days, right?