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[whitespace] Muscle Man Abs Fabs: While a lifetime of fitness has its rewards, even those late to the fitness game can definitely feel better about themselves with a regular exercise program.

Photograph by George Sakkestad


Gut Reaction

Until there's a cure for aging, it pays to stay fit--confessions of a midlife muscle seeker

By John Yewell

IF THE AUTHORS of The Adonis Complex are to be believed, cultural pressure is pushing more and more young men to subordinate everything to the pursuit of the perfect physique: slim waist, washboard abs, V-shaped lats and boulderlike pecs. They'll stop at nothing, risking steroid abuse, impotence and eating disorders, all because of media-induced self-image problems that rival those of female anorexics.

Well, maybe. I do know this: over the last decade or so a parallel phenomenon has been at work. When it comes to older men, society sends the opposite message: Age gracefully. Unless you're rich and famous and look like Michael Douglas or Harrison Ford, character is what counts, not appearance. No fool like an old fool. Surrender.

And most do. For all the fortunes spent on exercise equipment and gym memberships, for all the marathons and triathlons and iron-man competitions and extreme sports, obesity is still a problem for 55 percent of Americans. As Kevin Spacey showed in American Beauty, the generation that grew up on Jack La Lanne has taken a fresh look at itself in the mirror and hasn't liked what it has seen.

We late fitness bloomers know what being out of shape really means. We know that self-image problems are literal (My toes! I can't see my toes!), not a psychological imposition. And when we get back into shape, as far as age permits, we appreciate it.

So, like the young, we too are packing the gyms, hitting the free weights and Polaris machines and treadmills. Perfect pecs and bulging biceps are not likely in the cards, but with hard work we can still buff up a bit and at the very least cheat death a while longer. And in the end, feel a helluva lot better.

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Huffing and Buffing: The authors of 'The Adonis Complex' see men as the new victims of body-image tyranny.

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Time Warped

NOT EVEN IN THE DAYS before my golden locks deserted me have I ever been a candidate for an Adonis lineup. Neither have I felt that fate dealt me a crappy hand--or torso, or face or otherwise. I cruised through my 30s feeling like I was still in my 20s. But then something happens, as boomers lately have learned: As we careened past 40, things didn't work quite like they used to.

It hit me at 44. My father, who passed away the year before, let himself go at about the same age and as a result had the first of his four heart attacks when he was 50. Through a scrupulous diet and moderate exercise, he lived to 74, but he never tired of the old joke: that if he'd known he was going to live that long he'd have taken better care of himself.

I didn't realize how bad things had gotten until I got sick and nearly collapsed on the trail to Half Dome in Yosemite, which I used to bound along with ease. My gym membership was a gift that I accepted grudgingly, obliged to realize that there was no easy way to do this--although if I'd truly appreciated how much work it was going to be, I might never have started. Like most, I was lazy and afraid, resentful of time and gravity, blubberous and pathetic. I had become a balding fat guy and was headed down the same path as my father. Muscle tone? I was tone deaf. Stamina? Hold that elevator! I was going through what Santa Cruz novelist Page Stegner called "sports-car menopause," without the sports car.

Gym Dandy

MY FIRST DAY in the gym I was surly, diffident. What were my goals? the trainer asked. Harrumph, I replied. Not to be fat anymore. I looked around. It was early in the morning, and thankfully most of the folks were about my age, getting their licks in before facing the cubicles. This was a relief. I had expected a bunch of muscle-brained bucks showing off. Maybe this won't be so bad after all, I thought.

I started out going in two or three days a week before work. At first, unused to the fatigue, my body ached so much after each workout I'd wake up in the middle of the night immobilized with pain. Lifting weights, when done properly, breaks down muscle fiber. When your body repairs itself it adds on, like when you rebuild after an earthquake and build a bigger garage. Strain is necessary to muscle gain. I began to appreciate all that no-pain, no-gain propaganda my high school gym teachers had promoted.

Once I'd gotten past the first few weeks, I gradually became hooked on something like runner's high. Whatever it was that was coursing through my veins repairing the damage each workout inflicted made me feel more alive than I'd felt in a long time.

Still, the payoff for older farts takes twice as long as the 20-year-olds targeted by the muscle magazines. Although the propaganda is directed at the young, occasionally some aging fool like me comes along. Great abs in seven days! blared the magazine cover. Oh yeah, sure, I thought--although I found myself turning to the page to find out how. Just like the Adonis wannabes, I wanted to believe. It gave me pause.

Within six months I'd gone from three days a week to seven. I started showing up at the 5:30am opening time as my workout lengthened from 45 minutes to an hour and a half. Sometimes I would sneak an extra workout in the afternoon and started staying three hours on weekend days. I changed my diet and started consuming protein like candy.

Something good was happening. I shed 25 pounds, dropped four belt holes and added muscle. I caught myself lingering a bit longer than normal in front of the mirror. When people began to comment on the change, my self confidence soared. I felt better, healthier.

Pathologically Speaking

BUT AFTER READING The Adonis Complex, I began to have doubts. Like any good descendent of Puritans, I wondered if there was something wrong with wanting to do this. Had I committed the deadly sin of vanity? It wasn't like I was overdoing it--that six-pack of abs was still a distant dream--but just to be sure I wasn't immersed in some unhealthy image addiction, I called Dr. Harrison G. Pope at Harvard, one of the three Adonis Complex authors.

At 52, Pope lifts weights an hour a day, six days a week. He should know whereof he speaks.

"I've watched the evolution of the fitness boom," he told me. "When I started in 1980 I didn't see a single Harvard faculty member in the gym. Now I see countless, of all ages, on a regular basis."

Was I starving myself, using drugs, giving up everything for the gym? he asked. Did I spend an hour in front of the mirror or give up activities, or have a temper tantrum from being denied going to the gym?

None of that, I said, which was only a small fib. There was a period when I obsessed about my body fat content, and for a while I was coming in twice a day and really pounding the weights.

"The magic words are 'marked impairment of social or occupational functioning,' " he explained. "I'm not saying that being dedicated to working out is a problem."

Personally, I told him, I try to balance my time between the gym and the bar.

That sounded sane enough, he replied (other evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, I suppose). "I'm not saying that there's anything pathological about someone like you wanting to look your best."

Not saying? Suddenly I was not so reassured. Maybe I was just a little crazy?

Not exactly, he said. Late converts to fitness are likely to find their neuroses rooted elsewhere. Like in our roots.

"At our age," he said, "men experience less muscle dysmorphia but are more vulnerable to certain forms of hair-image problems."

He got that right.

"No generation is immune," he continued. "But we're talking about those for whom it goes over the edge, worrying about it, instead of having a healthy interest in looking your best."

Role Playing

DO I LOOK MY BEST? Perhaps. But I know this: Recently, two years after my near collapse, I went back to Half Dome and made the 15-mile, 4,800-foot climb faster than I did it the first time when I was 17. On the descent, I practically bounced down the daunting cable system stretched along the granite flanks. I am healthy and strong and never want to go back to those awful days when my gut was my most prominent feature.

Part of what made it easier for me is the gym where I work out. The early-morning crowd is a comfortable mix of sexes, ages and physical types. We all like each other, and the atmosphere has helped me keep things in perspective. It has also given me a rather unexpected role model. His name is Jack.

Jack is a delightful, spry and lucid 85, and comes to the gym several days a week. Jack, who has been lifting weights and working out for 50 years, wears an old pair of gardening gloves and a droopy thin-strapped T-shirt. No fancy workout duds for Jack. He can lift like a horse and revels in his masculinity. And unlike my father, Jack learned long ago that if he took care of himself, he would live as long as he did. It is a lesson I am trying to learn as well.

Another thing I've learned: fitness is wasted on the young. For all the obsessing over it suggested by Pope and Co., it's obvious they just don't appreciate it. Young or old, if you can stick with it and not become a victim of unreasonable expectations, you can throw away all those expensive toys and self-help books. There's a feeling of peace that fitness brings, a kind of physical and emotional detoxification that will give you the confidence and courage to pass those scary age milestones. After all, as Bette Davis said, old age is not for sissies.

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From the July 6-12, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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