I started off this work week in the least enjoyable of ways: arriving at the office an hour later than usual and coming straight from the doctor’s office.
Although to be honest, I can hardly complain: Wednesday marks six years since I first took the leap and moved out here in the summer of 2013, and today’s visit was maybe the fifth time I’ve seen a medical professional in all that time.
I’ve written a little bit about my experiences in the American healthcare system in these pages — albeit not recently — and “not understanding how the hell any of this works” has been a pretty good incentive to staying mostly healthy and out of harm’s way. This is also my go-to excuse when people ask me why I don’t ski or snowboard despite living an hour and a half from the mountains.
But, as with anything, it helps to have an incentive to do something you don’t really want to do. In this instance it was getting a physical, with the promise of a handy little cash bonus in my next paycheck. That’s how much my new employer cares about its people: it incentivizes being healthy.
Thankfully I wasn’t going in for a check-up straight from a completely stagnant lifestyle, which would’ve been the case a couple months ago. As of today, I’ve been back in the gym lifting for seven full weeks and, knock on wood, I’m feeling physically better than I have in a long time.
Back in 2014/15, when this blog was far more frequently updated, my work hours were particularly conducive to fitting fitness into my daily routine. Not punching in until 2 p.m. gave me ample opportunity to get a good night’s sleep and have breakfast before getting a workout in and then heading to the office (or the bar, for that fateful summer.) I mean hell, a lot of the posts I wrote back then were pieced together while I rode the recumbent bike at the Anytime Fitness in Augusta.
But the move to Florida in November 2015 really threw off my momentum, which can be attributed mostly to the fact that my schedule was flipped on its head and suddenly I was waking up at 4:30 a.m. to be at work by 5. By the time my work day was done, I didn’t have much juice left to hit the gym or do anything other than sink into the couch and mess around on my PS4. Couple that with a predilection for Publix fried chicken sandwiches and the transition from “running around a bar five nights a week” to “sitting at a desk five days a week” and you’ve got a recipe for gaining weight and apathy.
I’d like to say that I made up for all that lost motivation when I moved to Denver and was immediately surrounded by seemingly the fittest people in the world, but I’d be lying. I continued my schedule of early-morning work, and although I managed to string together a handful of workouts every week and cut 20 or so pounds off my Colorado starting weight, it was still an uphill battle to maintain. And then, as usual, life got in the way. Lots of unexpected social occasions meant lots of beers and less sleep, which in turn meant more naps and a lower likelihood of getting to the gym after work.
Selling my car and walking everywhere was probably my saving grace in my first year in Denver but January’s move to an office 40 blocks away from downtown and March’s announcement of layoffs really threw a wrench in the gears in terms of “getting enough sleep” and “not being devastatingly hungover” respectively. From April to November there was rarely a weekday during which I didn’t get home from the office at 3 and immediately crash out for multiple hours, much less work out.
The intent was certainly there, and there were stretches of a week or two where I’d set myself a three-workout goal and accomplish it, but inevitably I’d tweak something and spend two days limping and wincing and then fall back into my routine (of napping.)
Starting at Finish Line felt like an opportunity for a fresh start, fitness-wise. The benefits package HR sent me was full of incentives for physical wellbeing, from a monetary payout for the aforementioned annual doctor check-up to cash and gift cards on offer for reaching exercise goals. During my first week or two in December I was even getting up early to work out before going in to the office, which felt like a revelation. And then in January I hurt my back again and that was that.
I managed to assuage my guilt about not lifting by walking the mile and a half to the bus station and back every day, but as the weather warmed up that became more and more uncomfortable, because who wants to walk three miles in jeans and be pouring sweat at 7:30 a.m.? Uh not me. Shorts weather helped things considerably through the spring and into the summer, but walking didn’t even scratch the surface of my increasingly sedentary downtime.
Compounding everything else was that I’m still bartending on Saturdays, so Sundays are my only true day off, and the only thing that could get me off the couch is when I had to answer the door to pay the guy delivering a bag of takeout barbecue food. But being couch-bound for a dozen hours in a day left me stiff and sore on a Monday morning, and the cycle begins again.
Finally, something snapped. I got sick of grimacing when I looked in the mirror of a morning, sick of wearing undershirts under T-shirts in an attempt to hold myself together and disguise the spare tire around my middle, sick of the idea that this was it for me physically and that I should just get used to it.
The Fourth of July was a turning point. It was a hot Friday and we grilled out by the pool at our apartment complex with a bunch of friends, and yet here I was wearing a compression shirt under a basketball jersey to suck it all in. No chance in hell I was taking it off to get in the pool. So that Sunday, determined to break the cycle, I emailed my boss, my manager and my close-proximity coworkers to let them know that, starting the following day, I’d be arriving at the office a little later than usual so that I could squeeze a workout in before I made the hour-long trek to Boulder. I was a little nervous that someone would object, but I was met with both encouragement and a total lack of concern about my impending tardiness-for-a-good-cause.
And so off I went at 5:30 that Monday morning. I tried out a stretching routine called Limber 11 that one of my Twitter pals had recommended, and started lifting with a program called Stronglifts 5×5, a squats-and-deadlifts-heavy workout that has an app I can use to track my lifts and progress. Since my back has been brittle as…well, something that’s very brittle, for the past four or five years, I started very very low on the squats and deadlifts because I had an inkling about what was going to happen.
The wildest part is: it hasn’t happened. Apart from a couple of stiff days, and some sore feet because I’m not accustomed to running, I (knock on wood) haven’t had a single injury that’s put me out of commission. This is particularly incredible to me because now, creeping up on 34 and having not done any form of lower-body lifting since I lived in Maine, I’m squatting almost 80 percent of my body weight and deadlifting 87 percent.
Back in 2014 and 2015, I deliberately avoided lower-body workouts in the weeks leading up to the Rhode Island Seafood Festival so that I wouldn’t be at risk of hurting my back going into what is a labor-intensive weekend. The 2016, ’17 and ’18 events weren’t a concern because I wasn’t lifting at all. But this year I’m quietly confident that my regimen actually has me better prepared for functional lifting for two weekends in September.
I started this latest journey at 241 pounds, or 110kg, my heaviest state since I finished college. I’m now down to 233.5lb, which is still higher than it could be, but I’ve gotta account muscle mass in there. More than anything, I feel better. I’m no longer wearing two shirts a day and I can almost see some of the weight coming off my face. I still won’t ever have a six-pack, and my body will still creak when I roll out of bed every day, but I’ve hit a rhythm and proven to myself that I can still lift and exercise and improve my self-image.
This guy ain’t ready to settle for the “dad bod” just yet.