A few weeks ago I wrote about how, years after getting sober, I finally started trying to get fit. That newsletter prompted a big pile of emails, including several from readers who shared my desire not to die of heart disease but not (they said) my enthusiasm for the gym.
Anyone who knew me in my drinking days is already laughing.
This past Monday, Sarah and I shuffled down a narrow hallway, behind a dozen other shoeless souls, to have ourselves weighed and measured. We have signed up for a “Transformation Challenge” an eight week long ordeal, organized by our local “Orange Theory Fitness” gym, during which we are expected to participate in a minimum of 24 hour-long classes (three per week) involving weights, rowing machines, treadmills and the like.
At the end of the challenge we’ll be re-weighed and re-measured to reveal how much weight we’ve lost and how much muscle we’ve gained. Apparently the most impressive loser/gainer gets a cash prize.
Of course, I’m not doing it for the money, and not only because I have less than zero chance of winning (last year’s national winner dropped 28 pounds). Rather I’m doing it because… well, because I can’t help myself.
Until maybe three years ago, I had never set foot in a gym or on any kind of playing field. At school, I found any excuse to avoid PE. As an adult, even running for a bus was a push too far for my booze-sodden cardiovascular system. At the height of my drinking I topped the scales at something like 200lbs, none of which was muscle. Climbing a flight of stairs without dying was a meaningful achievement, worthy of a drink.
After quitting drinking, I started walking to work, and cut down on pizza, and I lost a lot of weight. I looked skinny and healthy. In reality, I still barely had any muscle, nor stamina.
It wasn’t until 2016, when Sarah gently goaded me into attending a SoulCycle class, that I got my first taste of an actual workout. And my first understanding of how out of shape I still was.
By God that first class nearly killed me. I literally couldn’t walk for four days afterwards.
But still I went back for a second class, and a third.
Three years have passed since that first SoulCycle ordeal and I still frequently take three or more classes a week. When I travel, I seek out nearby studios or alternatives like CycleBar. If you were to have walked into the Las Vegas SoulCycle studio last weekend and seen me keeping perfect time with the other riders, with my resistance wheel cranked all the way to the right, you might very well have mistaken me for a naturally healthy person (and maybe even an American.)
The speed with which I got hooked on SoulCycle helped me understand something else: That perhaps my so-called ‘addictive personality’ – a polite way of saying my (genetic?) propensity for addiction – might be channeled to better use. That the same impulse which once made it impossible for me to refuse a second drink, or a third, could be the key to getting myself hooked on better habits.
When Sarah discovered Orange Theory, and uttered the fateful words ‘I think you’d like it’, I knew I was in trouble.
Orange Theory, she explained, was an hour long work-out, involving some combination of circuit training and high intensity interval training (is there a difference? I truly have no idea.) Better still, participants wear a heart rate monitor during the class, to track how often they spend in the so-called “orange zone” – the optimum heart rate for fat burning/muscle building. For every minute or so spent in this special zone, they award you a “splat point,” the aim being to get 12 or more. Then they send you a fun email afterwards…
(That was from Monday.)
Barely two months after my first class, I have my special Orange Theory wristband (which measures your calorie burn and maximum heart rate and projects them on a screen for all to see) packed along with my special gym shoes and special gym shorts, in my special gym bag, ready to be grabbed at a moment’s notice if I find myself with an hour to kill. Eight weeks ago, I’d never set foot on a treadmill or a sat on a rowing machine. Literally had no idea how either worked. Now I have personal bests: times, outputs, elevations, speeds. This after a lifetime (starting at elementary school) avoiding physical exercise. This from a standing start ten years ago, aged 29.
I’m hooked on Orange Theory, just as I’m still hooked on SoulCycle*. Or, you might say, addicted. Except, unlike drinking, this addiction is unlikely to kill me, and might even extend my life by a few years.
If this post has any “inspiring” message, it’s this: If I can do it – whether ‘it’ be getting in the best shape of my life, starting a successful company, getting my Green Card, finding a wonderful partner and helping to raise two incredible children… – then I absolutely promise that you can too. And – remarkably – being an addict, or at least an obsessive, might even help you.
I’d hate for any of this, written ten years in to a very long journey, to make it sound easy. If I could travel back in time ten years and tell my flabby, broke, drunk, single 29 year old self that one day he’d be positively excited about the prospect of 24 hours of high intensity gym time in addition to my three weekly spin classes… well, he’d likely fall off his chair laughing. And then be unable to get up.
I’d also hate to suggest that the only way to get fit is to spend a small fortune on trendy spin classes. SoulCycle and Orange Theory work for me, but quite honestly I’d likely get the exact same benefits from simply riding a bike or going for a run. I know plenty of former/recovering alcoholics who have got addicted to running, or rock climbing, or tap dancing. The key is to find something you enjoy – something healthy that gives you a rush of endorphins – and then keep doing it until you’re hooked.
* No, neither OTF or SoulCycle are paying me. But they bloody should.