Marolt: Exercise hard, look great, get R.I.P.’d
October 24, 2014
I've always feared that if I wrote a fitness book I would suddenly and unexpectedly die — just keel over in a Nike sweatsuit while sipping a kale and kelp smoothie after a 12.3-mile run at my anaerobic threshold. Then it occurred to me: Hey, maybe if I wrote just a short piece about health, the worst thing that would happen is I might come down with a cold. There's a risk worth taking!
When it comes to fitness, what I bring to the table is a lack of science. I know anecdotes, observation, trial and error, and both kinds of pain — acute and chronic. My knowledge of physiology is limited to which parts of the body can comfortably tolerate gobs of BenGay.
I began training as a scrawny teenager who wanted to be good at sports, playground fighting and girls. What my 40-plus-year journey of a lifestyle filled with physical activity, sport and exercise has resulted in is a middle-aged man who can't put on socks without the possibility of disc herniation. I won't let myself consider what might have been.
The first thing a person needs in order to embark on a successful workout regimen is a reason. There has to be some purpose, or it just seems dumb. Eventually you'll realize that you are spending lots of membership fees and time to lift iron objects until your arms get numb or bend yourself into uncomfortable positions with the intention of holding them until you shake involuntarily, and for what?
There are lots of good reasons to get in shape — to improve at a sport, to be able to play with the kids, because it makes you feel good, etc. — but doing it to look good is not one of them.
It's not that working out purely for vanity won't keep you on your program. The truth is that there isn't a better motivator. But that's the problem. If you work out just to improve your appearance, you will eventually overdo it and end up looking weird.
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Nobody fairly gauges their own appearance. Left with the sole aim of lifting, grunting, sweating and stretching their way to Hollywood good looks, most will end up hauntingly thin, muscularly deformed and/or completely physically dysfunctional. We've all seen gym rats with gargantuan chests and bird legs and tanning-bed trainers with the creepy orange glow on skin that doesn't look real enough to be in the Believe It or Not wax museum. Yes, some still believe a healthy tan is actually healthy.
If you want to look like a runner, run and do runners' exercises. If you want to look like a cyclist, ride and do cyclists' training. If you want to look like a golfer, watch golf and sip scotch.
Another thing you need to know is that "healthy" and "fit" are not synonyms. The truth is they are antonyms. Healthy people live long, happy, productive lives filled with vim and vigor. Fit people go faster, higher, stronger and longer all the way through their 40s and then wish they could get out of bed without shocks of pain that make their eyes water the first 10 minutes of the day, which coincides with the time it takes to get to the toilet.
This is the lesson that takes years to learn and many more to sink in. Joint-replacement rehab has a way of speeding the process. A student of exercise for decades, I am only now catching on as I pass the half-century mark — in life, that is, which turns out not to be an ultramarathon after all.
To put it succinctly, to get really super-fit, you have to subject your body to more wear and tear than the truth gets at an old ski racers' reunion. You have to work through pain. You have to go when your body tells you "no." You have to pretend that for every single workout, a gold medal and seven-figure endorsement deal is on the line. You basically have to shut off your brain and only ever relax long enough to monitor your resting pulse rate and, to a lesser degree, for precisely measured spans between high-intensity intervals.
The rule of thumb I've worked out is this: If an hour after finishing a workout I couldn't do it all over again, that activity was not healthy. If I can't walk the next day and/or any body parts are numb and/or blistered and I feel the exercise hangover, well, that's when I get inspired to write a fitness book and get that scared, freaky feeling all over.
Roger Marolt is figuring out what exercises eventually get you R.I.P.'d. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.