Some men buy red convertibles. Some cheat on their wives. When I turned 50, I hired a personal trainer.
The first thing you need to know is that I've never been an athletic person. True to stereotype, I was always the kid picked last for every team. I seem to have successfully blocked out most sports memories, but the one time I remember playing basketball in high school, I was excited, and rather confused, to find that no one was chasing me as I ran down the court dribbling the ball (a miracle in itself). When finally within throwing distance, I made a gallant effort to reach the basket. Predictably -- and fortunately -- I missed, because it turned out that I was aiming at the wrong one.
Throughout my life, I've avoided sports as if every ball ever made was rife with cooties. I was well into my thirties before I even joined a gym. By that point, I was able to convince myself there was a difference between sports and fitness: at the gym, I could run on the treadmill or hoist the occasional dumbbell without anyone needing to know about my butterfingers. Besides, I was a gay man living in San Francisco. A gym membership is part of the housewarming package.
What at first feels revolutionary, however, can swiftly devolve into routine. I spent years dutifully going to the gym three times a week -- for "maintenance," I claimed. Each time, I would spend 30 minutes on the elliptical and then go through a dozen reps on each of three or four upper-body machines. It was a routine I could have done in my sleep, particularly considering how much energy I put into it.
Until the day Jeff, one of the gym's staff trainers, found me on said elliptical, strolling as carelessly as I did every Monday evening. He'd spotted my lackluster routine and was eager to show me the error of my ways. had to confess that I had recently found myself a little out of breath during my regular strolls up the hill from the grocery store to my house. (Truth be told, by San Francisco standards, it's hardly a hill at all. More like a speed bump. You see my point.)
So, Jeff didn't have to twist my arm to get me to admit that I needed some help. But the cure wasn't easy. Looking back, I'm shocked to recall how challenged I was by everything he put me through in those first few weeks. To this day, the word plank sends shivers down my spine, even though I'm now able to do them with relative ease.
Thanks to my childhood inability to catch a ball -- and my classmates' refusal to let me live that down -- my physical prowess (or lack thereof) has always been the source of insecurity. In grade school, I was saved by the rationalization that my lack of athletic ability was actually a badge of honor: sports, I told myself, were the refuge of the stupid, so my clumsiness was further evidence of my genius. (Or, as Woody Allen once said, "Those who can't teach, teach gym.")
So when, after a few weeks of regular workouts with Jeff, my body began to visibly change, I was a bit stunned. Out of the blue, bulges began appearing in places where I didn't know I had muscles -- the trapezius riding atop my shoulders, the quadriceps lining my thighs. And the pounds began to fall. I could see abs where I had once known only a jelly roll. And I was stronger. No more huffing and puffing as I climbed those semi-existent hills. The truth is that, at 50, I was shockingly more fit than I'd ever been before. Finally, the outside matched the inside. And my only regret was that I'd waited so long to find out that that was possible.
Many years ago, in my most dysfunctional relationship, I confronted my boyfriend about our lackluster sex life. He told me that, as much as he cared about me, when it came right down to it, I wasn't his physical type. I remember telling my therapist the story with a perverse sense of joy: "It's not me he's rejecting," I said: "it's my body."
The therapist stared at me as if I'd just landed from Mars. "You mean there's a difference?"
That was one of those aha moments you never forget. It didn't drive me to the gym (I was still slender and energetic at that point), but it did get me to feel more connected to my body. And I had to admit that the indifferent boyfriend wasn't my physical type, either. I was in love with his brain--but sometimes, intelligence is only skin deep, if you know what I mean.
Now, 20 pounds lighter and significantly stronger than I was on my 50th birthday, it's a totally different story. I've always considered Clark Kent the ideal man -- the sensitive features, the intellectual glasses, the business suit hiding his inner Superman. I suppose it's the fantasy of every little boy who gets picked on for his size or his lack of athletic ability, the idea that underneath the humble veneer lie muscles of steel.
I don't think I'll be saving the planet anytime soon, but at least speed bumps are no longer my Kryptonite.