The scrawny, active, sporty young adult transformed into a computer-staring, chair-hugging almost-30-year-old without any warning whatsoever. My matchstick-like frame, without any notice, was now lugging around a basketball-sized belly. For someone who only saw a skinny, active young lad in the mirror every morning, the puny potbellied man staring at me, when I snapped out of the blurry newsroom-bar-skipped meal-newsroom cycle, was just sad. More so, because I had just bought a big Royal Enfield Bullet and the new me didn’t look anything like the images the bike’s marketing campaigns had conjured up in my head.
It wasn’t any aches or injuries from sitting too long on my backside, but the desire to look good on my new retro Bullet and to be able to pick it up when it eventually fell down that drove me to a gym for the first time at the age of 28. The first few months, in hindsight, were hilarious. I probably lifted more cumulative weight while sipping orange and blue sports drinks than what I could manage in the gym. Progress was really slow. The inches didn’t magically drop around the tummy nor did they improve around the biceps. There was little change except I’d be very sore for a week every time I returned to the gym after a short absence.
The big change came about when I signed up for my first half marathon two years later, in mid-2008. I had six months to train for the Mumbai Marathon. The irregular gym visits became semi-regular. I spent hours reading up training plans and when I showed up for the run, a friend said I looked ready for the run. By the time I ended, I was physically shattered. I couldn’t walk, sit or move without twitching in pain for the next three weeks. A month later, I was back running determined to never be in so much pain because of a simple run.
I also started taking gym a lot more seriously. The increased cardio element of my training meant that rest of my body was getting skinnier faster than my flabby belly. Overall, my interest in fitness grew and it stopped being a chore or a bitter pill I had to swallow in order to be healthy. No matter what city I moved to (and I moved a fair bit), I’d always find a gym and sign up. I started enjoying it and found meaningful connections with my gym buddies, who did not fuss over headlines and missed stories. On the contrary, they sent congratulatory messages with a picture whenever they spotted their friends in the papers. Every few months I started signing up for new workouts like group sessions, yoga, boxing, high altitude workouts, spinning or tabata sessions.
In 2012, one of the last things I did as a full-time journalist was to enroll in a two-week trial of CrossFit – very new at the time – for a story. Those two weeks of CrossFit were so invigorating and engaging that I signed up for it after I quit my job. Within three months of regular CrossFit, which is a dynamic mix of HIIT, Olympic lifting, gymnastics and cardio, I could feel the difference. I was able to do more pull-ups in a day than I had managed in my entire life till then. I got stronger, gained muscle and got leaner. This improved fitness reflected in my faster race timings too.
The one big difference between my friends and me is when we get down to do our research for travel. While they look up properties, monuments and restaurants, I look up CrossFit boxes, running groups, parks with urban gyms and bars (the drinking, not lifting, kinds). For someone who has been travelling six to nine months a year since 2013, this research has been key to staying in good shape while having fun.
After participating in the Brighton Marathon in 2018, my seventh full, I have taken a break from races but I still break into random runs of 5-10 km when I feel like it or need to clear my head. As for CrossFit, it is the one thing that has kept me sane through the pandemic. I have been doing modified home workouts using dumbbells and body weight exercises five to six days a week, with a game of football or a cycle ride thrown in once a week.
The most satisfying bit is that at 40, I am back to being a matchstick, albeit a chiseled one that doesn’t lug around a protruding basketball belly anymore.
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.