02/07/2014 06:14 pm ET Updated Apr 08, 2014

Surviving a Spouse's Health Kick

With the new year often come resolutions to get in shape. But what happens when one partner gets on a health kick and leaves the rest of the family in a wake of kale and cardio?

In my husband's case, his newfound fitness obsession is less about his waistline and more about personal loss. About a year ago, his two closest friends died of heart attacks within months of one another. Rather than feel the pain, he chose to feel the burn and began logging up to three hours in the gym every day, sometimes even adding rowing and running to the mix. One year later, at 46, he looks like a Men's Health cover boy.

The downside is, now by default, I am his favorite workout buddy. Although I am sympathetic and appreciate the overture, I am a terrible choice. Why he continues to invite me is anyone's guess. Quite simply, I am the worst workout partner ever. Although moderately fit, I am half his size and have the attention span of the dog in the movie Up, leaving him, in some cases, literally hanging while I check my iPhone or wander off in search of a smoothie. When it comes to coaching, I'm no Burgess Meredith either. I imagine a male workout partner would urge him to push harder -- perhaps borrowing slogans emblazoned on energy drinks. I assail him with cautionary advice mid-lift like, "You're going to kill yourself!" and "That's too much weight! Put it down already!" When I am not failing to bolster his confidence, I'm peppering his workouts with random bored musings while he struggles to press hundreds of pounds over his head: I wonder if your penis retracts like a turtle when you lift that much -- out of sheer protection. Do you look at other guys naked in the dressing room? Have you seen that guy over there naked? Comically, he often asks me to spot him. I offer I could call 911 or panic on cue. But once you're lifting something larger than a pony, or a purse for that matter, I'm not your best emergency assist.

For a man who used to have southern-based Blue Bell ice cream Fed Ex-ed to our apartment in New York, this new lifestyle is a radical departure. Food is now fuel; the blender his best friend, carbs his al Qaeda. He is a Paleo diet devotee, a regime based on meat, vegetables and other hunter-gatherer fare. The aisle of Whole Foods is where he stalks his prey. He's been known to take down entire cows in the meat department. Our refrigerator shelves, when viewed as a whole, resemble Picasso's "Guernica," the chaos of carcasses strewn about every shelf. My dogs watch in astonishment as he downs whole baked chickens. I recently witnessed him tear at a plank of salmon with his hands like a Kodiak bear. When he's not roasting a pig over a spit, he's taking in nutrients on-the-go via bar form. But the final straw for me was while I waited for my morning toast for what seemed like forever, until I saw his blender -- still laced with residual muscle mix -- had overtaken my toaster's regular electrical outlet, the gap-toothed smile of Lee Haney mocking me from a nearby container of protein powder.

Even more important than the foods he consumes are the foods he avoids. If bread is brought to our table at a restaurant, he acts as if a basket of live grenades has been delivered. When my 9-year-old daughter and I indulge, I can almost feel him leaning away, afraid to be hit by the carbohydrate shrapnel. He seems unwilling to even touch any offending fare not on his approved list. "Did Dad make you dinner tonight?" I'll ask coming in later than usual.

"Does a Power Bar count?" she asks.

It does not.

Once I started resisting his fitness overtures, he began to focus his athletic extremism on our daughter. While she has inherited her father's exceptional height and athletic build, she has also inherited my sensibilities. Specifically, don't run unless being pursued. Extra cardio is guised as a father-daughter "stroll by the lake" only to morph into a 3-mile death march in 100 degree Texas heat. Red-faced and wilted, my child drew the line but not before acting out several death scenes on the running trail. Older and wiser, I knew better than to accept the invitation and managed to avoid the whole sweaty, dramatic affair. Stooped and gasping for breath, she asked how I got out of it. "I lied and told him I started my period."

"Lucky," she replied, still panting.

As a peace offering for this Outward Bound experience, my husband rented a two-seater bike hoping to lure our unsuspecting child back into his cardio web. It worked for a while. But soon, a few miles became 10. "Sometimes I don't even peddle," she confided. "I just ride along and think about my life."


Our resistance fading, my 9-year-old and I decided if you can't beat 'em, get in a boat with 'em. A month before his birthday, we began secretly taking rowing lessons hoping to surprise him with sculling at dawn on his birthday. The class met twice a week at 7 o'clock at night -- not an easy feat during the school year. I knew this would be a farcical event if there ever were one. Neither of us is the outdoorsy type, nevertheless the put-me-in-a-boat type. It was basically the equivalent of placing two house cats in a boat, throwing in some oars and seeing how it all turned out. Surprisingly, my daughter excelled. With long limbs like her father, she was a natural in form, often the class example in a group of novice adults. I, on the other hand, rowed in circles, occasionally yelling for help, my headlamp light bobbing in the night sky like a coal miner having nervous breakdown.

My husband takes his rowing quite seriously. On cold days, he is suited up in what can only be described as a unitard. At 6-feet 4-inches tall with his new bulging physique, in the skintight get up, he looks hilariously like Mr. Incredible in a scull, only missing his cape affixed backward to account for rowing tail wind. On the day of the big reveal, Mr. Incredible exhibited super-human patience as he spent his birthday morning refereeing his battling charges in their separate crafts as we took turns screaming at one another across the lake, terrifying swans and almost capsizing every 30 seconds.

As a spontaneous second gift, we allowed him a whole two hours to row alone in peace and actually get a workout in.

To our confusion, and despite our ineptitude, we remain his preferred company on these fitness adventures. And after everything, he still asks me to workout with him. I've pointed out some of the young buff trainers at the gym who are far better pairings than I. "Nah, " he shrugs. "Here, spot me on this one."

It's been a year since his friends have passed and his fitness craze first began. Although members of our gym still sing folklore songs about him, I notice the workouts are less frequent, or at least the urgency seems to be subsiding. The other night at our favorite restaurant, he had a few French fries with his steak and split a dessert with our daughter. His speed on the trail has tapered, too, occasionally allowing for me to catch his arm and loop it in mine. As our pace begins to sync, his choice in workout partner begins to make more sense. I was there to spot him when the weight was too heavy. To run alongside and tell him he can push through as others fall behind.

And tell him to pass the bread on occasion.