Time to call it a day?

Not the blog; at least, not yet. I’m talking about lifting heavy. Those big presses and pulls that draw blood and sweat from every pore. Isolation work that burns with infernal intensity. And even if you don’t train that hard, there is still a point in life when you just have to accept the harsh reality—one day you have to go light.

Now, to be clear, growing old does not mean giving up. It doesn’t mean you can’t be strong. But there are changes in our body as we age that require some reflection. As I approach my fifties, to me, that change is how long it takes to recover from injury. Not serious damage but those little niggles that prey on your tendons and joints. That insignificant twang when you were eighteen years old becomes a cacophony of pulled tendons, a resounding chorus repeating for months on end. It’s as though every injury from the past thirty years developed a photographic memory; each bundle of abused fibres suddenly recalling what it was you did wrong with a bicep curl in 1995. Oh, the folly of youth to think we were indestructible. We might forget that we never warmed up properly, or that we trained too frequently, but one day your accumulated exercise foibles will come back to haunt you. And once Scrooge, the ghost of exercise past, drags his chains around your creaking joints, there can be no happy ending to your tale of glory.

Damn, is it really that grim? No, of course it isn’t but this is my blog and I like drama. Though, it is still a pertinent point that as we age, we need to consider the structural integrity of our bodies. No matter how careful we are with our physical endeavours, there are consequences to every lift, pull, skip and jump we do. Our articulated joints have a covering of cartilage which reacts well to moderate exercise. This self-healing surface can absorb and protect us from physical stresses. Consider when we jump from a height to the ground, such as when we were children and those things were just plain fun. Or, as adults, when we drink a little too much and think we’re kids again. Jumping from shed roofs while being filmed by a giggling accomplice, the result being a hit on social media as you writhe in pain afterwards. You get the point. Heavy, infrequent impacts are diminished by our cartilage. But what about heavy, frequent impacts?

We are not jackhammers. I’d say ‘pneumatic drill’ but jackhammer is a far cooler word to use. Say it; jackhammer. Ooh! I’m pretty sure there’s a crappy pulp-fiction detective with that name out there. But anyway, we’re not one of those. Machines are designed and purposed for repetitive action and even then, those machines will also wear out. Unlike machines, our parts are not so easily replaced, and when they are, they’re never as good as the real thing. The cyberpunk future is not yet here—the metal joints they drill into your bones in surgery are not cool. You are not Johnny Silverhand. Or Cable. And if you don’t know who they are, go and Google. Yeah, you’ll never be as awesome as them.

All those repetitive impacts, delivered without proper attention to technique or recovery, pile up a multitude of problems for later life. Ageing itself begins to break down those protective articular surfaces, and what we do in youth, is compounded on top. To sum it up: the harder you train, the greater your pensioner pain.

So, you’re approaching fifty and want to know how to stop the damage. Not just to cartilage but also your tendons and muscle. Can you turn back the clock? No. Go back and read the last paragraph, it should make it clear. If you’re like me, it’s too late. That’s exactly why at a point in time you have to reconsider how you train. You’ve put in all those hours; you made the grade and lifted the weight of a small brown bear. But now the bear’s nibbling your shoulder joints. It’s clawing at your tendons. It’s time to put the bear down. Besides, who the hell lifts bears? Actually, isn’t there a religious cult that does that? I think they’re Scottish – the Press-bear-tarians. I may have lost you on that one. I apologise.

Dropping the weight and lifting something lighter is, for many men and women, the equivalent of that moment in a Hollywood starlet’s life when the phone stops ringing. One wrinkle too many and the jobs dry up, just like your skin. Relegated to playing support roles or alcoholic mothers-in-law—be in no doubt—the glamour days are over. It’s hard to take. Most gym nuts will refuse to accept the truth and keep going heavy. I’ve seen the damage that does. A woman who trained far too hard in her forties, who one day ripped a tendon trying to pick up an ankle strap that had ‘Velcroed’ itself to the gym carpet. All because time had caught up with her arduous days of lifting super-heavy weights. It’s a terrible dawning of realisation: when Velcro is stronger than your connective tissue.  

So, if I lift lighter will I shrink? Yes. To an extent you will. But you’ll not look feeble. I think that’s a fear all lifters have. You have to rationalise what it is you’re trying to achieve, namely, longevity. Sure, you looked beefy as hell in your twenties, all rippling like a skin-coloured tide. Your thirties were spent being well-above average, lording it over your age-peers even as your hair was thinning. Up and into your forties you were still something special. But what do you want to be in your fifties or sixties? How about on crutches, or in a wheelchair? You only have one body with a sub-standard selection of replacement parts. If you want to enjoy the next thirty years, it’s time to have a heart-to-heart with your ego. And to be utterly blunt; steroid abusing pensioners look ridiculous.

You don’t have to give up too much size. Or strength, for that matter. You can lift lighter weights with a slower cadence. Instead of grunting a 1:1 up/down ratio, you can try the oppressively difficult 2:1:4. Pioneered by the guys that brought you Nautilus in the eighties, training that accentuates the eccentric phase of a lift is beneficial to strength but restricts the load you can move. And for those that don’t know about resistance training, basically, it means go slow on each lift. What was once a 100Kg bench press will become a 60Kg load. And it’ll feel harder to boot.

You could also diversify your exercise portfolio. Go mad and try Yoga. By all accounts it’s an excellent system. In truth, I know it to be true but it’s not for me. And I know, if you’re used to lifting anything remotely heavy, something as ‘airy’ as Yoga might be a stretch too far, no pun intended. So just lift light and slow, okay? You can try Yoga in your next reincarnation.

And if you’re young and haven’t yet reached the decrepitude of a 47-year-old former exercise enthusiast, what should you do? Ignore me, of course. You’re young, you’re indestructible—you don’t even make a noise when you bend over to tie your shoe-laces. Just make sure you come back here in twenty-five years so I can say, ‘I told you so.’ Because I will—it’s one of the pleasures of growing old; chastising others for repeating the same mistakes we made. By then perhaps I can be Johnny Silverhand. Who? What do you mean, who? Good grief, I give up.

When is ‘Fat’ a bad word?

A lot has changed in 25 years. That’s how long I’ve been involved (professionally) in health and fitness. Let’s take it back a little. In Secondary School (High School), I could name the two ‘fat’ kids. I mean, back then it was an acceptable slur. One of those guys was called ‘Chunk’. No joke. Looking back, that was pretty harsh. Yet, he seemed to not mind and he was never bullied. He was actually a very likeable guy. Mostly. How times change. These days, you’d not dare openly label someone by that nickname.

So, that raises the question: when did ‘Fat’ become a bad word? This is a philosophical question and it doesn’t have shiny wrapping to uncover the story within. It’s much more complex. It’s about societal fragmentation, consumerism, rampant capitalism, and a worryingly changing physiological demographic.

I want to step forth on my one good leg and be blunt. Being heavily overweight is not a good thing. Don’t fool yourself. Don’t be misled by hand-wringing apologists that it’s ‘okay’ to have a BMI of 40. Of note, I’m 1.8m tall. I’d need to weigh 132Kg, or 20 stone 10 lbs to have a BMI of 40. Clinical obesity (normally a consequence of a high calorie diet based on sugars and fat) is a killer. In the UK it’s become one of the leading co-morbidities in terms of lifestyle, overtaking smoking as a primary health concern. Dismissing obesity as a problem is akin to ignoring the terminal health issues of smoking. I could link articles but you can Google it yourself. Find your own truth.

It’s not a secret that obesity is a detrimental state. It has an impact on heart disease, cancer, blood pressure, diabetes, (recently Covid-19) and other issues such as mechanical damage to the body. A 25 stone man will incur far greater stresses on their joints (back, hips, knees and ankles) than a 12 stone man. The exact same is true for women. Females produce less testosterone than men and generally have a lower muscle mass therefore exaggerating the wear on those joints. Grim. But true.

But (a poor word to start a paragraph in any context except rambling blogs) this isn’t the point. It’s true, being obese is unhealthy. It’s a life-changing condition of being. Yet, you’ll possibly notice—I’ve not commented that it’s ‘fat’. There’s a simple truth for that explanation. Fat is a substance, not a state. To have an excess of fat is to be overweight; itself a term that requires context. Someone is not fat. They may be fatter than another. Or less fat (in which case we say ‘slimmer’). But to label an individual as fat is no more coherent than calling someone ‘bone’. You’ll already be thinking about calling someone ‘muscley’ to counter my point. Let me slap you. You call someone ‘fat’. You don’t call someone ‘muscle’. That’s just poor grammar. Nonsensical, even. So, the label already has connotations beyond the obvious physical state. When you call someone ‘fat’, what you really mean is they’re lazy. And that’s why ‘fat’ is a bad word.

If you’re asking, ‘why can’t I call someone ‘fatty?’’, it’s obvious you’re a dumbass. And that’s only fair. If you want to be a body fascist and decree that people need to meet your physiological expectations, well, it’s only right that I can call you names too. Being called ‘fat’ lies in the same ballpark as so many other slurs, many of which would get you a punch in the face. If you follow this blog, you’ll know I consider myself a cripple. Sorry mum, I am. My left leg has atrophied due to spinal nerve damage. I wear a leg brace, ergo, I’m a crip. I’m also very short-sighted (optically and in terms of life decisions). So, I wear glasses and could be called, ‘specky’. You call me that, I’ll knock you on your arse. Let’s face it, unless you’re more awesome than me, I’m definitely stronger. I’m also from Glasgow, so I’m more than likely way more aggressive. And I drink most days, so I’ve become a very typical, grumpy Scotsman. My temper is easily inflamed; a plastic pack of sliced ham that’s hard to open can unleash my fury. Even the unpredictable paper wrapping that entombs a tower of Weetabix makes me fume. Short fuse? I say, why bother with a fuse—just explode, apologise later. Anyway, I digress.

Calling someone ‘fat’ is an insult. It always was. In my profession, we say ‘overweight’. Or, incredible to consider—we don’t judge that way. In the gym, talking to colleagues, we might use terms such as the ‘larger lady’. Or the ‘big guy’. We describe a physical attribute based on size, not composition. Now, don’t get me wrong. I know if someone is obese. And in discussion with my colleagues, we’ll acknowledge that. But here’s the kicker; we’re discussing overweight people who have come to the gym. That should be a light-bulb moment. If it’s not, I’ll let you find the switch and pop on that eco-friendly LED. Yes. You understand. In my context, in the gym, you can never assign the ‘fat’ tag to someone who has made the effort to try and get fitter. Huge philosophical moment coming up: there are no ‘fat’ people in gyms, there are only people trying to better themselves. And posers. They’re the real muppets.

So, when is ‘fat’ a bad word? A simple answer. It’s when you use it to describe an individual. To say they are fat is to infer a state of apathy. To imply their choices made them that way. Wait, you say. Aren’t fat people fat because they eat too much? Well, yes. Of course. Technically that is very true. A calorie surplus will lead to weight gain. Though, I ask you to consider the current state of the world. I ask you to look around, go for a drive. How many unnecessary fast-food outlets are there within five miles of you? How may drive-thru coffee shops? For the record, if you’re in the Netherlands, I do mean coffee, the drink. And on that point; a drive thru coffee shop? Seriously, when did that become a thing? I could rant and rave but what’s the point? The fact is, rampant, indulgent consumerism is a global, multi-billion-dollar market. By the end of this decade, it may be worth one-trillion dollars. Holy cheesecake, Batman! Corporations do everything to make you consume. Look at the evidence: a McDonald’s will appear in an old bulldozed lot, then, in a year or so, a KFC will appear. Give it another year and a third fast food outlet or coffee shop will appear. All in the same one-hundred metre radius. It’s nuts. People will drive one mile in their SUV to get a not-so-quick brew. Some sugar-laden monstrosity that pushes the definition of ‘a cup of coffee’. Yeah, I’ll have a super caramel latte with cream, chocolate, and sprinkles—hold the caffeine. What the actual f…

There are many reasons why someone puts on weight. A lack of understanding of calories is often the key. But that lack of understanding is a by-product of an industry that revels in your lack of comprehension. The salt, sugar, and fat content of fast food is well-known but to the masses it gets hidden under slick marketing and PR. And yes, it is often quite delicious. But so is a tub of condensed milk but hey, I know how bad that stuff is. You know it too but the powers-that-be will sell it to you anyway. It’s all about advertising the end-product and obscuring the truth of how it gets into that box/packet, or plasti-cardboard cup.

There are also a multitude of medical, situational and psychological reasons why people gain weight. It’s far too easy to judge, far too convenient to blame. It’s important to accept that people aren’t fat. People are susceptible to their environment, their upbringing, their culture. So don’t blame, don’t stereotype. See people as people. Judge what you know, not what you presuppose.

Is fat ever bad? Hell, yes. As a bodily component it is a fuel. An essential transport system for vitamins A, D, E, and K. You need a minimal level of fat, females more so than men. But too much of it is a health hazard. In that respect, it’s important to understand the conflict; we mustn’t judge but we mustn’t accept obesity as normal. Obesity is a health risk. It is a consequence of lifestyle, culture, psychology, and nationality. The burden on health systems is severe. In the UK, obesity related issues cost the NHS over £5 billion annually. To me, that’s an unacceptable thing. But regardless, to be fat in the Western world, is to be subject to a relentless campaign of targeted advertising and low-cost snacks. It’s not so difficult to see the problem. It’s being metaphorically rammed down your throat.

Fat. Slim. Skinny. Tubby. Buff. All words. No meaning. Just lazy descriptors that bulldoze over a person’s true worth. Next time you see a ‘fat’ person munching down on a burger, stop and pause and consider; don’t you eat burgers too? Or pizza, or the odd takeaway. Of course you do, because you’re human just the same as them. And if you honestly don’t eat those things, well, you’re definitely missing out. Weirdo. 

A Pandemic: Who’d have thought it could make you fat?

A new post. About time. There was a thing going around, you see. It put a halt on normality. Affecting us all with its devious ways and social awkwardness. But thankfully, the US 2020 election is over. It is, it just is. But, as of writing, the pesky pandemic is still here although vaccines are on their way. Next year, there will be more normal. Almost how it ought to be. So how has the pandemic affected you?

I thought I’d explain how I devolved during the experience. The illustration below, drawn on MS Paint with gusto and verve, sequences the four stages of being interred in Camp Lockdown.

Phase One – The Eager Beaver

If you were lucky enough to find yourself furloughed or on some form of ‘phantom vacation’ trapped by four walls, you might have begun a book, or another gloriously unoriginal project. In phase one, I set myself the task of editing and submitting my 180k word masterpiece. My fourth submission to the unfathomable daemons’ known as ‘Agents’.

Phase Two – What do you mean, no thanks?

The fruits of Phase One, be it an awesome epic fantasy novel, a homemade jam project, or a business venture involving your dwindling sanity and crocheted dolls of Victorian gallows, come to a bitter end. Phase Two is the joyless hangover of a party thrown by Hope. Except, you were in lockdown, so there was no party. Just four walls. Again.

Phase Three – I’ll survive this, even if it kills me

The dreams of Phase One are realised to be a mirage. Sure, some folk made it. But, if you’re anything like me, you didn’t. But don’t despair. I’ve throttled hope and thrown it into the bin. Expectation is now a four-letter profanity. Phase Three is here. It’s darker. The nurturing pasture of pragmatic insanity. What I failed to do in Phase One, I will succeed at now. Me? I started (and finished) another book.

Phase Four – The Pandemic’s Panacea

Not medicine. Not vaccines. Alcohol. How much did you drink? Apart from Amazon shares going stratospheric, enabling Jeff Bezos to buy a wardrobe’s worth of Infinity Gauntlets, alcohol sales also spiralled. Not surprising. Phase Four is the time-travellers hipflask. You were probably in phase four during phase one. Some were in phase four prior to the pandemic. (They have a technical name, and self-help groups).

You were doomed from the start

Back to reality. I think, similar to many people, the initial stages of the pandemic were viewed as novel. Hell, they even called it a novel coronavirus. Named so, exactly because the whole experience was, well, new. My wife and I began lockdown with a daily, early morning walk. Up to an hour, often out at 7am, experiencing the delights of a river walk in Spring. She was, and still is, working from home, I was furloughed by my employer. A full-pay holiday. Though, of course, holidays shouldn’t quite feel like house arrest.

I knew as an exercise professional that being stuck at home for months would play havoc with weight control. So, that walk was supposed to be a saviour. I’m going to repeat this right now—I’m an exercise professional—three decades of experience. You would think I should have coped better. But I didn’t. And now I have a lockdown belly. What’s worse is that I have a gym in the house, a Powertec lever gym, an awesome piece of kit. No cardio; that was the walk. I’ll say it again: three decades of fitness, a daily walk and a home gym. What went wrong?

Routine. It’s a human thing. It’s an animal thing. We need routines. Any change to an established pattern of behaviour can have unforeseen consequences. For most people, a routine is the baseline of existence. In addition, most routines place restrictions on your activity. In work, you don’t have access to a fridge, or at least if you do, it’s not full of your own food. And if it is, hell, what’s wrong with you?

Likewise, in work, even an office job, you probably have a predictable pattern of movement. Perhaps a walk to the deli (or for the UK audience, Greggs). There will be a mind-numbing repertoire of tasks and tea-breaks; things you just always do. Even in your commute, however brief the walk, you use your legs (if you’re a fortunate biped) to go from A to B in order for B to get you to C. It’s your routine. But guess what? The pandemic doesn’t care.

A ruptured routine is much like a brain injury—you develop new behaviours. Or, at least, you exaggerate existing ones. Strangely, for me, I worked out less. Being home, with more time than I ever had to train, I found it tedious to consider. As most lab-rats, I discovered a new behaviour. Fridge-raiding. Random nibbling on any convenient foodstuff replaced those jaunts to the gym-floor. Six o’clock beer became three o’clock refreshments. In fairness, I continued to support my not-so-local craft beer shop; The Grunting Growler. The owner won’t read this but I blame him. He’s my alcohol enabler. But I can’t be angry. I’m going there again tomorrow.

When we came out of lockdown and I eventually returned to work, my bodyfat level visibly reduced. In a matter of two weeks, my stomach fat was diminishing. That all-important routine was back. A strange thing to consider—you don’t choose that routine, it chooses you. It’s a symbiotic condition; worker and parasite. Although I’m unsure which role I play.

There is no magic pill for this. Not for the fat bits. I like to give advice and suggest something positive. For this situation, we just have to get back into the ruts we all thought we hated. Imagine, all that guff we were moaning about back in February. Those five carbon-copy days of the week. Time to embrace it. But if that rut is no longer for you, the best way to get going is to amble off into the woods of chance and find out which routine will wrap its arms around you. There are a few people that suggest routine is awful. Let them have their randomness. But for most of us, routine is necessary; it is tied to purpose.

One warning. For those who celebrate it: Christmas is coming. Don’t even try to get fit before then. My advice? Eat, drink, and be merry. Possibly with a small social bubble and with appropriate safeguards. But, by the fitness gods, don’t worry yourself about a few pounds here or there. January is coming. The time when people come out of their apathy cocoons and drag themselves back to the gym. For now, go spin your Christmas chrysalis of confectionary and cake. There’s still time. Next year you can work on that routine. Unfold your wings and pandemic willing, you’ll become that beautiful butterfly.

The Best Exercise in the World is…

What? You really think I’ll start the article with the answer? That’s not a very good strategy for writing. It would be the physiological equivalent of a traditional ‘Whodunnit’ when the butler pounces from the pantry and says, ‘It was me!’. You’d not be inclined to watch the rest, would you? A Scooby-Doo cartoon with old man Rivers throwing himself in front of the Mystery Machine with a sandwich board declaring his guilt. That’d be a grim cartoon; I’d probably watch it. Damn hippy teenagers and a metaphor for exuberant LSD use. You can’t disagree, Scooby-Doo is so 60’s you can practically get high just watching it. ‘Zowie’, ‘yoinks’ and whatnot.

And don’t jump to the end of the post either. You’ll not find it there. I’m going to bury it in some inexplicable paragraph. Make it so fleeting you’ll be genuinely disappointed at the mediocrity of the answer. But hopefully the journey to the truth will at least offer some entertainment.

Exercise sucks. I’ve said this before. You probably question why I work in the industry I appear to loathe. I do too. But I’m here, so let’s get on with it. Exercise is a thing best described as the means to an end. Unfortunately, for most, that end never arrives. You perish on the path of exercise fulfilment; dashed upon the rocks of rowing tedium or terminated by cycling catatonia. Exercise is boring. Consider the things in life that make you laugh and smile. A child who’s dropped their ice-cream, a cat with a lamp-shade collar stuck in a fence, a politician stuck on a zip-wire waving a union jack. That last one actually happened. Funny stuff.

Activities which are fun have one common theme—an instant reward. We eat ice-cream and chocolate cake because the taste tickles our pleasure centres. Foods with a 50/50 mix of fats and sugar send most humans into delirium (ice-cream being one such thing, accompanied by cheesecake, etc). Games that we play, competitive or otherwise, are intrinsically rewarding due to baked in evolutionary survival tactics. Physical games that require actual cardiovascular effort help to tune our bodies and increase our fitness. Technically, that in itself is a reward but more than that, the human interaction of game-play enhances social skills and, to a degree, social belonging. A game becomes fun not because of the effort involved but for the other rewards it delivers.

This is why exercise fails at being fun for most people. Granted, there are those who enjoy the repetitive nature of solitary exercise. Science would be diplomatic and say something nice. But I’m not a scientist. I am, however, a cynic, and that empowers me to be blunt. Finding pleasure in the individual pursuit of fitness is, in itself, bonkers. That’s right—bonkers. From a biological perspective, it is sheer nuttery to enjoy battering one’s body into submission. Take the marathon runner. Of note, I have nothing against those who choose to run 26 miles. Remember, this post is pure cynicism and tongue-in-cheek wickedness. You run marathons? I don’t care—either way. Running marathons is a first world excess. It used to mean something; namely, a message that the Persians were coming. Now it’s all about specialist footwear or people dressed as dinosaurs collapsing with heat exhaustion.

A marathon reduces most to rubble. You see the victims cross the line on legs not fit for purpose. Wobbly pins I’d not trust in a bowling alley. Imagine that endurance sapping feat. Take a bow, have a round of applause. Now, try running away from that bloody lion I just freed from the zoo. What’s that? Your legs are a little bit useless? Quick, here comes Tiddles, and she’s not fussed that you’re wrapped in shiny foil. To her, you’re a human Tunnock’s Tea Cake. Nom, nom, nom.

A Tunnocks Tea Cake -A very Scottish cake/biscuit thing

I’ve not lost my mind. My point is, a marathon renders the human specimen weak and vulnerable. And for what reward? One week of DOMS? A buggered back and extensive physiotherapy fees? You can see it now, can’t you? I’m right. A marathon is not fun. It’s downright dangerous. Consider also that they often occur in metropolitan cities and most of these do in fact have zoos… I’m savvy that way. Won’t catch me doing a marathon. But then, I also use a leg brace. That would likely confuse the poor lion; under my foil wrapper I’ve got proper metal parts. Nom, nom, broken incisor.

I’ve established why exercise isn’t fun. And it’s precisely why most fail to adhere to it. So, what does work? The penny should have dropped by now; you should see where I’m going with this. If you can’t, you ought to go read another blog. One about those hollow mannequins called celebrities or conspiracy theories suggesting Ireland is actually a prehistoric, fossilised Koala. It so is by the way.

Now you’ll never see it any other way – The celtic mega-Koala

If we remove the curveball of mentalists who enjoy solitary exercise, there is one stand out activity that is sure to work. Or, to better phrase it: one condition of said exercise. It has to be enjoyable. Fun is the absolute key to maintaining an ‘exercise’ habit. Performing a physical chore that gives no ‘instant’ reward is a very disappointing endeavour to undertake. Fun creates a reward for the activity and replaces the apparent lack of feedback that our biology requires. Group fitness is often the key to exercise longevity. Participating in a communal class with an energetic and motivating coach can make all the difference. Of course, there are downsides. Cliques, body-image issues and an onslaught of mirrors that allow you to see every angle of your unsavoury backend can be a spoiler for some. But, by and large, GFX (as we abbreviate ‘group fitness’ to appear cool and trendy) is a winner for many.

But what if I hate people? Don’t worry, friend, I’m with you. Let’s celebrate hostility to humanity by drinking—just not together. If you prefer solitary exercise, you’re SOL* for standard narratives for fun. That leaves a huge array of personal activity. Outdoor cycling (I suppose it’s called…cycling) will get you into nature. Or under a bus. Rock-climbing or the inferior pursuit of finding a rock-wall to climb upon (called ‘hillwalking’) are excellent for raising mood and self-regard. Walking amongst nature—a good old trek through forest and glade—can lift both spirit and heart-rate. Just be vigilant for mammals with sharp teeth and claws if you’re lucky enough to live on a continent with dangerous indigenous fauna.

If you must insist on doing gym-work, you know, stuck in an iron cavern of clanking machinery where nuisance-mongers wear colourful battle Lycra and unnecessarily insist on clapping chalk into the air, there are some key elements to note. First, and most important, understand why you’re there. The gym will one day reward you. But first it must humiliate you and poke fun at your body. If you can scramble past the initial indignity of it all, the prize will come. Set your goal: weight loss, muscle gain, do a single chin-up, run a mile, yadda, yadda, yadda. Goals are important. Grab one and note it down. Stick it on your fridge. Glare at it with prejudice on a Sunday morning. But know it. Feel thy goal.

Second, rip out the nonsense. Talk to a gym coach and ask how you can most quickly and effectively achieve your goal. If the coach is overly muscled or shredded like pulled-pork, walk away. Fitness enthusiasts don’t understand that exercise sucks. They imagine you’ll love puking up after your 50th burpee. Find the coach with the grumpiest scowl; they know the truth, it’s why they’re so unhappy. Yes, I’m talking about me. I am the truth.

Grumpy coach will tell you how to make your work-out ‘most bearable’. Not fun. Most bearable. If you can find that coach, you’re set—they will nurture your attitude and make you the gym equivalent of a cockroach. That’s a good thing. You’ll persist through thick and thin (literally) and people won’t bother you. When Cindy Squat has long since vanished after her Instagram friends abandoned her over that ‘fat-shaming’ post, you’ll still be doing your 30-minute efficiency work-out. People will nod in your general direction. You’ll hear whispers of legend. Grumpy coach’s no-nonsense routine is still working. Why? Because you told them what you didn’t like and they listened. They allowed you a modicum of ‘fun’. And that’s the key to success. Whatever you do—you have to find the fun, sometimes in the smallest things. Print a tee-shirt with ‘I’m Grumpy Because I’m Here’ on the front and laugh quietly at the enthusiasts. They won’t understand but they’re abnormal. You can hold your head high and almost enjoy yourself. You conquered the gym your way. Now who’s laughing?

SOL* – Google it. If you find a sweary word, that’s it.

I didn’t get fatter; the world got easier

I was born in 1974. I remember having to walk to the television to change channels. Thankfully, someone invented the remote control. It served to protect the carpet from unnecessary wear. People shouldn’t scuff flooring with trivial jaunts to the TV screen. Come to think of it, I remember three channels, before Channel 4 was launched. Those were dark days. Grim days, some might say. Long before Channel 5 brought us the awfulness of low IQ TV planning. This is the UK, by the way. If you’re not from here, you’re lucky, you may have missed our entertainment drought. It was brutal. Now we have channels for everything. We went from not enough to ‘please, no more.’

And that’s just TV automation—the remote control. I knew cars before power-steering was a commonplace thing. Nowadays, you can waste rubber by turning the wheel in a stationary car. Glides like a pony on ice; namely, without friction but at great cost to the tyre. Picture the pony, poor sod. A bad thing. But in the old days, before servo-assisted wizardry was implemented, good luck trying to turn the wheel in a stationary car. That was a work out. Even in motion, a manually yanked steering wheel was a wrestle. No gentle fingers on the rim, one hand on a thermos, the other steering with an effete pinkie. No, it was as though taming a malevolent python on speed. A thick, PVC-encased wheel (leather, if you were rich) that was determined to end your life. A car without power-steering was hell, at least, that ‘s how I recall it to be.

Before the internet, there was a period known as the dark ages. This was when truth was found in books. A time in life when to learn something new, you had to walk to a place they called a library, and speak with a strange creature known as the librarian. Usually half-woman, half-ghost, these ethereal beasts would stamp the sign of the book-demon into the jacket and send you on your way. Often, they would say, ‘Bring it back in two weeks, or your soul is mine.’ At least, I think they said that. Point being, if I needed to know how to plumb a cistern, my phone couldn’t help. Because back then… there were no phones. Well, they had phones, just not proper ones as we have today. Old phones were designed by the ancestors of exercise manufacturers. Digit Gyms, they were. Bleak memories: trying not to break a finger as you toiled and spun a wheel around a dial. It took about a thousand turns to contact anyone. Plus, the phone weighed as much as an encyclopaedia. Tough, manual work just to phone a friend. Just to say, you could fix their loo.

Right now, I’m using a mechanical keyboard, crumbs and dust littered under the caps. I remember using an actual mechanical typewriter. Only briefly mind, before I bought a word-processor for Uni work. Those old devices required TLC and patience. The keys themselves were more akin to lever-gyms. One mighty push was required to launch a letter embossed on a small iron block into a wall of paper. It was a satisfying sound, a pleasant sensation. But again, just as everything else back then, it took more effort than what is required from us today.

And that is the point of this random carnival of 80’s memorabilia. Let’s take the television remote as an example. To change channels required you to stand up from your chair, or sofa, or perhaps even roll out of bed. To stand from sitting is basically a squat. That right there is what annoying gym folks call exercise. Yup, exercise, a bad word to some. One half-rep of one bodyweight squat. Whoop! Now you pace one step or two, maybe five if you’re wealthy and have a large house. But then, if you’re rich, you might ask the butler to change channels. Imagine, a biomechanical human remote control. A sort of cybernetic stone age. I digress. So, you’ve dragged your ass to the TV, pressed the buttons. Now what? You reverse that motion. That means a controlled descent onto the cushion where your bum-print is still visible. That’s what we gym commandants call the ‘eccentric’ phase of the squat. Pre-remote (or sans butler), channel surfing required one squat. Change channels 10 times a day, 365 days a year—count it—that’s 3650 squats. Think about it. That’s over 70 sets of 50 squats. Make that a 3-set portion per day and that’s 23 squat sessions per year. You see where this is going?

But that’s nothing. Walking is the big game-changer. In the nineties, I walked to work. 30 mins there, 30 back. One hour. Five days per week. In calorie terms, that’s 250 kcal/day. Add a 48-week year, and we’ve got 60,000 kcals/year. Or 16 pounds of fat. Now, imagine driving to work. No more walkies for Mr Fit. Time is precious, so we decide to sit on our bums for twenty more minutes and drive instead. In one year, you’ll pile on one stone of weight, all things considered. And that’s just the walk to and from work. Cars are ubiquitous these days, it’s normal to own one. And when you do, you drive it—everywhere. Why else own one tonne of shiny steel? Personally, I view the car as a mini-karaoke bar on wheels, without the booze, of course… officer.

What am I saying? Clearly, the correlation is between driving and getting fat. It’s called a spare tyre for a reason. The diminished reliance on walking is fundamentally linked to our downfall in the battle against weight gain. Those gym fiends (yes fiends, as in monsters, not friends) will tell you to train your way to a better shape. But it’s not true. Why? Because what you’ll do is drive to the gym, return home, and sit on your backside, making the erroneous assumption 45 mins of gym twice a week will work. Nope. It doesn’t. I’ve seen it so many times.

We used to be slaves to a domain of manual effort. But technology came along and saved us. Emancipated from the hellish shackles of ‘a smidgeon of effort’, we embraced the late 20th century ideal of ‘everything at your fingertips’. If I think back, I recall accompanying my mother to do the grocery/food shop. She had one of those weird, ’granny’ bags—a tartan-esque suitcase on wheels. But that was replaced, eventually, by the mini-karaoke bar on wheels, and now, in the days of automated Armageddon, you can arrange for unseen hands in a warehouse to pack your weekly shop and even get someone to deliver it to your doorstep in a diesel belching van. Wait—you have the gall to complain your plums are bruised? Really?

The reduction of manual labour, the reliance on automation, the lure of convenience: all of these things have conspired to make life too easy. We’re told by slick marketing to over-consume (I know I do). But in reality, food doesn’t make you fat; energy imbalance does. And in a world of zero effort, where I don’t even have to touch my phone to get it to answer me, our odds aren’t great in the war against apathy. There is, of course, an easy answer. Get up, go for a walk. Lots of walks. Forrest Gump your life away. Give it a shot, just as soon as you’ve ordered your pizza through Alexa.