08 February 2006

LL: Gym Bunny

Sad to say, I didn't grow up with a high opinion of physical fitness or, for that matter, of physical activity. I'd like to say that it was the fault of Western civilisation, or of that dichotomous school of thought which holds that the intellectual way of life is superior to the corporal. But it would probably be more accurate to say that I was just butt-ass lazy.

One of my proudest moments in high school came in 10th grade, when I managed to forge some office documents allowing me to be excused from gym class for the rest of my academic life. I was the first, and as far as I know, the only kid in my class to escape from the normal requirement of four years of rope climbing, dodgeball ducking, and getting yelled at by Mr Dulske.

And I continued in this vein long after high school. Exercise was for suckers, I confidently told everyone, and blessed with a high metabolism, I was able to eat like a pig, drink like a fish, and still maintain the body of a teenager (albeit a rather wasted teenager, but then aren't they all?) well into my 30s.

But at age 30, after being terrorised one too many times by street gangs and seeing one too many Bruce Lee movies, I started studying t'ai chi, which is the foundation of all the martial arts. It's not a particularly ferocious form, though the kind I practise has some semi-scary-looking kicks and punches which on occasion have been known to impress the impressionable.

But while t'ai chi keeps you flexible, agile, and able to fend off marauding ninjas, it doesn't do much for your muscle tone, unless perhaps you do it 10 or 12 hours a day. And so over the years, I've gradually sagged into the shape you might expect of a man my age. Well, let's say a man 10 or 15 years less than my age, but that's still pretty old. And living in England, where everyone's always wearing six layers of clothing, half of which are baggy sweaters and scarves, that's not such a problem. But here in Australia, where formal wear consists of a tank top and shorts, and life more or less centres around the beach, it's rather difficult to conceal a sagging belly, hollow chest, or hunched-over shoulders.

So what do you know: I've done yet another thing I swore I would never do, joined a gym. I used to break out in hives when I went past such places, and was always bewildered at what exactly went on inside of them, but I finally bit the bullet and asked a local with enormous muscles to show me around, and he was kind enough to do so.

This particular guy is a transplanted Englishman, a public school boy who was reared in the mens sana in corpore sano ethos of the old British Empire, which means that although he's nearly the same age as me, he thinks nothing of hopping on the bicycle for a 50 or 100 km ride over the nearest mountains or of "warming up" by swiming a couple k's at full speed. "I had to make quite an adjustment when I moved out here," he said. "The Australians are just so much more fit than the British, it took me several years to even begin to catch up with them." "What about the Americans?" I asked. He just rolled his eyes.

It's early days yet, and I've only been to the gym a few times, so I'm hardly promising to come back to London as a bronze-skinned body builder. In fact, all I seem to have accomplished so far is to make myself aware of how many more sore muscles it's possible to have. And I'm even a bit dubious as to whether it's possible to make that big a difference at this point in life. But hey, my stomach no longer protrudes out over my belt, at least not very far, anyway, nobody has laughed (at least not out loud) at me when I go down the street in a tank top, and I've been to the beach at least 25 times without once having sand kicked in my face. I reckon that's some sort of progress.

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