Survival of the fittest

Going mano à mano in the fight to get fit

click to enlarge WARNER BEFORE: The old guy, looking good for a 95-year-old, with his bemused trainer. - Patrick Downs
Patrick Downs
WARNER BEFORE: The old guy, looking good for a 95-year-old, with his bemused trainer.

The contest was called The New You Challenge.

The goal: Change your physical appearance through 12 weeks of diet and exercise from June through August. If the evidence shows that your New You is newer and more improved than any of the other Yous in the competition, you win.

I'd heard about the contest from Mary Ellen Moore, my trainer at Xtreme Health & Fitness, a gym in South Tampa whose aggressive name belies its relatively relaxed ambience. She'd read Planet staff writer Max Linsky's unflattering descriptions of himself in his story on living free in St. Pete, and decided that he was a prime New You candidate; no 20-something guy should be ashamed to be seen naked in the locker room, she declared, as his story suggested he was. (Actually, the main reason he was ashamed was that he was scamming a free shower at USF.)

But just having Max take the Challenge wasn't all that interesting. Instead, we came up with the idea of Max and I both doing it.

There were dichtomies for days:

Editor vs. reporter. Age (53) vs. youth (24). Non-jock (me) vs. lapsed jock (him). Gay vs. straight. One with a trainer, one without.

We took the challenge.

One of us did very well.

The Old Guy

I grew up a skinny, non-athletic teenage boy in the late '60s and early '70s. Jocks were temporarily déclassé in that Vietnam-into-Watergate era; Abercrombie & Fitch was still a brand name associated with safari gear, not nubile male pinups. Yet even in that somewhat less pressured milieu, I was ashamed of my undefined, mushy, pale-male form. And though I ran high school track, finishing second a few times in junior varsity races, I mostly did it to make my extracurriculars look well-rounded enough to get me into the Ivy League. Bottom line, gyms terrified me. The idea of "working out" was fraught, foreign — a world where I didn't belong and wouldn't be admitted.

Which has always made that world all the more alluring. And in my 20s, when I came out into a gay culture that was beginning to place more and more emphasis on physical perfection, I knew that I was going to have to at least make a nod in the direction of getting in shape.

I don't remember much about the first gym I joined, a fitness club outside Philadelphia, except that it introduced me to a feeling I'd experience in every club to come: bewilderment. Standing in front of an exercise contraption and having no idea what to do with it, and worse yet, trying to pretend I did. And not asking for help, because the whole place was so damn intimidating that I feared revealing I was a know-nothing newbie.

Like I had to tell anyone. I'm sure my fumbling bravado was no disguise. And I know now that lots of people get puzzled by certain machines, and there's no shame — in fact, there's value — in asking for help. Why else would you need trainers?

Well, for lots of reasons, of course. Discipline, for one. Not so much "Drop and do 50!" as much as knowing that a) you paid this person so you'd better get your money's worth, and b) you made an appointment so you'd better be there.

And so, over the years, I've made plenty of appointments. (The names have been changed to protect the self-involved.) Susie the pretty blonde bodybuilder, who seemed bored most of the time but perked up when the conversation turned to her bodybuilder diet (boiled chicken breasts and white rice, all day, every day). Joe the middle-aged gay hunk, whose clientele consisted mostly of other middle-aged gay hunks and whose main training goal was for me to write about him in the newspaper. (When I didn't, it got harder and harder to get an appointment.) Aaron, the genial taskmaster, who ran a very effective weight-training course at the Y but disappeared halfway through the series of classes.

Mary Ellen was a refreshing change. A freelance writer as well as a trainer, she's warm, articulate, supportive — a mensch, not a slavedriver, and, at 50-something, a certifiable babe. Yet, despite her help, I was still making little progress in the body transformation department. With my waistline creeping from 34 to 35, my weight closing in on 170, I was having visions of drifting into a permanent state of schlump.

So a competition seemed like just the thing. No place to hide. No excuses. This would be the ultimate incentive.

Beginning with the fat caliper. And the fat photos.

It's hard to say which was worse. The fat caliper is a cross between gardening shears and a robot claw, which the trainer clamps onto your flesh in order to pull fat away from muscle and measure it. That feels just as pleasant as it sounds — and in my case yielded the happy news that I was carrying around 38.1 pounds of "fat mass." As for the photos — front, back and (ouch) side — they confirmed that yes, when seen in fluorescent light at the right angle wearing nothing but gym shorts, I can pass for 95.

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