THE FIRST GREAT CHANCE I had to correct my patterns of poor diet and no exercise came when I was 16 years old. Taking advantage of my new driver's license, I could drive myself to a gym one town over. I was about 180 lbs. at the height of five-sevenish, a fair amount of it fat. My parents pointed out a sign-up deal for the gym in the paper, so I took advantage of it.
At the time, I was about 10 years into a sedentary life. Although I played soccer for 6 years in grammar school, my position — halfback — was assigned by coaches wise enough to realize I would be useless as an offensive player and fatally leaky as a fullback or goalie. Thus I got little real exercise. With the double-whammy of video games and Dungeons & Dragons hitting me as my age reached double digits, a long love affair between my ass and a couch began to the clatter of dice and digital explosions. I rode my bike to school on nice days, but once high school began, the bus replaced the bike, and another avenue of regular exercise was closed.
So I decided to give a regular exercise regimen a try. I signed up in my workout clothes and was straightaway taken on a supervised introductory lesson. Having expressed an interest in weight training, the instructor led me to the Nautilus machines upstairs. A legend on the wall declared, "SEVEN DAYS WITHOUT NAUTILUS MAKES ONE WEAK." I eyed some of the bulky specimens lugging iron about and grunting their way through intense sets and wondered if any of them even skipped a single day, much less seven.
I began my journey by cycling in place; a 12-minute warmup on a bright yellow Lifecycle. I dutifully pumped along, listening to the loud in-club radio and craning my neck to inspect the women in the adjoining aerobics studio. (I was 16.) When I finished, my guide handed me a clipboard bearing a grid that listed the various Nautilus machines, along with blank rows for exercises I might add on my own to customize my experience. From there, we made a circuit through the steel maze of torture implements, recording initial weights and reps and proper seat settings, as I went from doughy newbie to . . . sweaty, exhausted doughy newbie.
I began a thrice-weekly routine, coming to the gym after school, sometimes after dinner. I slowly filled in my log sheet, raising my repetitions and resistance slowly. And it worked. I was building arm and back muscles I had never felt before. I found my waistbands looser. My shirts sagged slightly at the gut.
Sadly, I sabotaged myself with a poor diet. A great deal of the quest for fitness is achieved in the kitchen. I was still living at home, so I was eating the Standard American Diet — which, to her credit, my mother prepared with verve and love. She didn't know I needed to cut back to the essentials and avoid starch, gravy, and dessert. Neither did my trainer mention anything at all about such a need. By the summer between high school and college, I had developed an unprecedented sweet tooth for jellybeans, Gummi raspberries, and other such bagged, per-pound candy. I was doomed. I dropped out of the gym and gained all of the weight back.
I made another push to drop pounds in freshman year of college. It might surprise you to learn that at one point, I had lost 28 lbs., a far cry from the stereotypical "freshman 15." I somehow found it easier to control my diet when it was portioned out by a commissary, and we had a free-for-students gym with a track, exercise bikes, and Universal machines. This drive stalled in April, when I allowed the stress of final projects and exams to become an excuse for eating junk food and straying from my regular gym visits. When I returned home that summer, I was back to my pre-college weight.
I spent the rest of the available time at college in which I might have resumed my efforts instead to becoming a gloomy geek, letting my hormones and the comfort of being a miserable victim rule my existence. You all know the type. I could have thrown off this depressive attitude with proper diet and exercise, but I didn't have the will or wisdom to break free of these self-pitying behaviors, and my attempts to cut weight via these methods were sporadic at best.
This mood carried past college and into my early twenties. Though I signed up at a new Gold's Gym near my house, and I visited with some dedication, I never got the message that I needed to adopt a revolutionary diet compared to the slop I was eating. A breakup in the mid-Nineties became my excuse to gain another 30 pounds. I did obtain a NordicTrack machine, and I used it to keep myself from gaining more weight, but still, if I insisted in eating Doritos and fried food on weekends, I was going to undo any good work I did when I attacked the machine every night.
Once I moved into my current town, I rejoined my first gym, which had become a mecca for racquetball players. It was a pain in the ass to navigate around them each morning, as they had a habit of surrounding the entrances to the courts in the building with a half-acre of their racquets, bags, shoes, and other impedimentia. Although the gym had upgraded its weight-training equipment since the late Eighties, the physical plant was poor, with moldy ceiling tiles in the locker room, malfunctioning televisions, and crowded conditions during peak hours. They only began cleaning up their act when ground was broken for a New York Sports Club a few blocks away. I set my membership payment plan to month-to-month at the old place and preregistered for the NYSC weeks before it opened.
I have been exercising for nearly 2 years at the new place, and although I have kept myself from becoming even more grossly distended, that's not the goal. Recovering the strength and proportions best suited to long-term health is the goal. It was only in the past 12 months or so that I truly learned the proper way to eat for an active lifestyle. I gave it a run earlier this year, and now, I am returning to this wisdom. I can report that, since the beginning of this year, I have lost 9 pounds of body fat, and with diligence, I will complete the new introductory workout routine I have adopted and move up, with habits and diet set firm, to a more rigorous and comprehensive program.
It is to that 16-year-old self that I dedicate my current efforts. I endangered your health, magnified your isolation, dampened your self-esteem, and destroyed your attractiveness. I may have cost you a life with a loving woman. I cannot let mood, employment, or poor eating habits further destroy what is left of your future. I deeply apologize for letting you down.