I’m Glad I’m Not Eighteen

In 1992, an excellent year for heavy-metal, techno and alternative rock, I can’t recall being happy. Not really, not like I am now. Back then, I had two working legs, an awesome head of hair, and dressed like a plaid warrior straight out of Seattle (even though I came from a nowhere, wannabe town that served as a sleeping bag for a proper city with a real identity). I’m happy now. I lost that beautiful head of hair—a mane so lustrous I could defeat dragons and dandruff with it. I’m mostly bald, a head reminiscent of an awkward potato. Still, no more hair wax, no more follicle anxiety. I was fit as a fiddle. I could run forever, jump over houses, and climb mountains. I was immortal. Now, I’m quite sure I’m not. I have a leg-brace. I’ve had a hernia. Pretty sure I have another. I’m still happier inhabiting this shell of youth. You’re probably sad reading this (I know my mum is). Well buck up, bucko—I’m not sad. I grew old. I grew up, mostly.

Happy perspective time. I’m 46, going on 3000. I can still bench more than most eighteen-year-olds. I’m more agile on three limbs than most are on four. I could do a plank until gravity gave up—for the record, planks are useless. I imagine the plank was devised by a failed personal trainer with an undiagnosed psychosis and a hatred for people with back pain. If you love planking: stop it now. It’s pointless. It’s the exercise equivalent of belly button fluff. A comedy distraction at bedtime. It’s always grey-blue, why? So, I’m not bummed I lost my hair, my leg, my abdominal resilience. No, not at all. I’m over all that. It’s 2020, and I’m not eighteen. I couldn’t be happier.

Why? Because when I found fitness, social media wasn’t even born.

I have this blog as a means to an end. And mark my words, one day I will meet that end. That sounds terminal. Suppose I didn’t mean it to sound like that. Let me rephrase. One day, my awesomeness will work out for me. Yeah, that’s better. But social media—that’s a bum rush. If I was eighteen now, surrounded by Instagram, Facebook, Tik-Tok, and god knows what else there is to inflict trauma on a young mind, I’d never make it past twenty. And yeah, I know, a lot of people will come in screaming to defend the great value of social media. How it connects you. How it makes you feel relevant in a huge world. Yet at every new turn, it appears to be all-consuming in the lives of younger (and older) people. A digital zombification of reality. Social media isn’t your friend—it’s a brain-melting industry.

In my industry, one from which I feel more and more alienated, the perversion of social media culture has destroyed what it is to understand health and fitness. When I was fourteen years-old, something other than social media changed my life. One single man influenced me. He gave no speech. Promoted no product, at least, of which I was aware. Better yet—he was an adopted Canadian (I have a soft spot for that country). He was Ben Johnson. Before Lance Armstrong, he was the most famous drug cheat of all time. But before I knew that, he was my hero. I wanted to be just like him. Problem was, I was a skinny white kid. I figured I could work on the muscles—in truth the skin colour meant nothing. He was simply my hero. To some extent, he still has to be. I was mesmerised by his build, his performance. How he destroyed Carl Lewis and the rest. Ben wasn’t clean, but then, that race is considered the dirtiest 100m in Olympic history. You can Google it; I’m wary of lawyers.

This is a difficult point to make. My hero is a cheat. But I know that. I know his performance wasn’t all natural. I mean, I sort of knew. There were rumours. His build, his crazed, bloodshot/yellow eyes. He was practically leaking dope all over the tracks. The reality is, Ben Johnson is responsible for me getting a weight bench. He’s why, thirty-two years later, I’m still doing it. I’ve progressed from a folding bench, to a smith, a power rack, and finally, a lever gym. The current set-up helps with a bad back and crumbling wrists. I’ve been benching since I was 16 years-old. I am permitted to fall apart.

I lifted weights because of a dream. And I educated myself with books. There was no internet in 1988. Not unless you were a spy, or a covert nuclear specialist. And I wasn’t. What was learned was scientific. What was practiced was proper technique. It was as it was meant to be. What we have now is different. I’ve seen it; heard it from gym members. I see them doing something ‘unusual’ and ask what’s up. It’s my job to guide people down the righteous path of technique. Oftentimes, I need to suggest something other than the weird thing they’re doing. I inject some humour, if that fails, I appeal to reason. But sometimes, at some point, they’ll flash up their phone and say they’re following Handsome Anger-Chuck. He’s an Insta dude, huge and rippled like a mars bar balloon. He’s also clearly, to my educated eye, on drugs. But the gym member doesn’t think so. They flash up another influencer, or some half-wit personal trainer, called Sheila Sugarcheeks. She’s just as bad as Handsome. Both, demented caricatures of what you could achieve using natural methods. I’m not impressed by Sheila. I say so. Another scroll and another nightmare from shadowy fitness hell is staring out from the screen. Not one of these people is real. They never got that shape from their anaemic routine (the secrets of which you can buy, obviously). They’re social media billboards, glossy myths of what you can never be. And the awful part is, no matter what I do, I cannot influence the gym member. They’re sucked into that social media vortex of scroll and believe. Look, here’s Handsome Anger-Chuck squatting a whale. Wonder at Sheila Sugarcheeks deadlifting in a bikini. No, god no. Please, save me.

But that’s the reality of fitness and social media today. Most people are too lazy to research anything. They fall into the rut of believing what that false prophet of fitness says. Never once do they question why their workouts don’t appear to work. Tragically, I’ve seen what happens when the easily influenced follow the influencer. I’ve had those drug discussions. And even when it never gets that far, that intense, I see the heartbreak of failure. The petite woman who questions why she can’t look just like Sheila (who happens to be a six-foot-tall Amazonian). The guy at fifty-five who also questions why he can’t look like Sheila. I suggest other routes for him. But you see the deal? They want to be what they can’t because these personalities promise a lie.

When I was young, Ben Johnson shattered some of my dreams. But I knew what I could do, how far I could go. My idol was broken but that was okay. It meant I knew what was realistic, how I’d never be like him. You don’t get that brutal honesty on social media. Not from those that promote themselves as impossible figurines of heavenly perfection. Nifty AI filters distort things even more, lighting tricks and devious angles push the limits of preening PR. Fitness is a maze of misinformation, marketing and media celebrity. The truth, the reality, is hard to find.

For the younger generation, social media is everywhere. Fear of missing out (FOMO) is a real thing. You need to follow Sheila, or Handsome, otherwise you’re a loo-hoo-ser. Peer pressure and the constant need to be seen to be perfect is poison. That’s if you follow social media personalities and hang on their words.  I don’t. I’m too old for fashion, too past it for social media gurus. I’m happy now. Looking back, I see I got the best years of fitness. Before social media turned healthy bodies into unhealthy profits. I was influenced long before that circus came to town; learned my truths from my hero cheat. This is for you. Thanks Ben.