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Of percentiles, fat percentages and functional fitness

Swanand Kelkar says two months of fitness pursuit have taught him one thing: It’s very hard to fail completely if you aim high enough

Over time, my body and mind surprised me with what they could endure and achieve. iStockphoto
Over time, my body and mind surprised me with what they could endure and achieve. iStockphoto

When I embarked on an year-long sabbatical from my corporate job last February, hoping to explore 12 different pursuits, I had made several assumptions. Some knowingly, some unwittingly. That I would be able to switch from one activity to another within a couple of days was a knowing one. That there would be no restrictions on travel was an unwitting one. Neither stood. As the year progressed, I have been reminded of boxer Mike Tyson’s line way too often; “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”. After moping for a while in March and April, I decided to suck it up and soldier on.

In September, I learnt how to cook and as a culmination of that effort, I hosted a dinner for a few friends in early October. I cooked a lot during that month and ended up consuming all of what I cooked. The biryanis and streusel cakes started showing on the waistline and a jowl reappeared. One of the activities I intended to pursue during my sabbatical was “Getting fit—training yourself to peak condition”. I thought the time was right for it but parameterising the goal was proving to be hard.

Many years ago, I had participated in a corporate challenge that combined the mind and body aspects of fitness. It entailed doing a hundred jumping jacks, solving a Sudoku puzzle, running a mile and so on; one after the other. Despite several “fit” contestants, a mother of two who got no time to work out, won handily. Yup! She kicked our gym-toned butts at Sudoku. My definition of “fit” started changing that day. It was more than just a physical attribute.

The “packs” didn’t happen but Swanand Kelkar has managed to come within half a point of his lowest recorded fat percentage and almost equalled his best muscle mass number
The “packs” didn’t happen but Swanand Kelkar has managed to come within half a point of his lowest recorded fat percentage and almost equalled his best muscle mass number

Around the same time, I saw a series of stunning photographs clicked by Howard Schatz for his book Athlete. They showed bare bodies of various athletes playing different sports at the highest level and the differences were remarkable. That made me think of fitness less as an end and more as means; something that lets you pursue your day job efficiently. A professional swimmer’s expectation from being fit is different from that of a nine-to-five office-goer like me. She wants to shave off seconds from her timings. I want to ensure that I don’t have energy slumps, that my back doesn’t hurt from sitting at a desk and that I can counter-balance my sedentary work setting. She can spend long hours at the pool; I can’t spare more than an hour for fitness. Both of us need to be fit in our contexts and within our limitations.

After deliberating over the structure of this activity, I decided to make this a two-month effort involving mind and body. For the mind part, I decided I would take the Common Admission Test (CAT) again. CAT is the most popular and extremely competitive MBA entrance exam. A top-notch percentile paves your way for admission to Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs). The exam comprises three sections that test your verbal ability, logical reasoning and quantitative skills. It requires dexterity with words, logic and numbers and I thought it was a good proxy for a “fit” mind.

I had taken the CAT 18 years ago in 2002 and had scored enough to get into IIM, Ahmedabad. My initial hope was to beat my earlier score. That would have qualified as peak mental fitness. CAT results are not yet out but I am confident that I won’t better my last attempt. I won’t even come close. More on that later.

For the physical aspect, I thought of measuring changes in fat percentage and muscle mass as an indicator of fitness. An unsaid hope was to see some muscle definition on the abdomen; the pinnacle of male vanity. The results for this one are out and I am happy to report that if one observes my abs on a clear day with a high-powered telescope, one may see a dent somewhere. The “packs” didn’t happen but I have managed to come within half a point of my lowest recorded fat percentage and almost equalled my best muscle mass number. Thus a middling result overall but I am quite chuffed about it nonetheless.

My friend and fitness trainer Nupur “Popeye” Shikhare worked with me for the physical training. I believe that if one has to learn a new skill, one has to seek out its best practitioner. Obvious, right? And yet strategy consultants, stock market experts and gym trainers with paunches abound. Popeye’s credentials, though, are pasted to his midriff and he is happy to show them to you; sometimes unbidden. With gyms shut, he created a combination of functional and weight training circuits which I did at home or in the open area of my apartment complex.

On Day 1, he sent me a workout that required me to do a total of 300 push-ups and 300 squats. I sent him a laughing with tears in eyes emoji, convinced that there was a typo or he had mixed up clients. Next morning, brushing became a chore. I started hating the stairs and at that time of the day when doing a half-squat is unavoidable, I almost screamed.

Over time, my body and mind surprised me with what they could endure and achieve. Over an hour of training in the morning, almost an hour of cardio in the evening and obtuse reading comprehension passages in the middle. If you directly see Day 39 workout of any programme, it will seem impossible but if you see it after working out for 38 days, you won’t bat even an eyelid. That’s how the physical training frog gets cooked. Unlike creative pursuits, where a break can be beneficial, in a training programme it is counter-productive. A week’s break can set you back by a fortnight, and that became my incentive to work out every day.

I did not weigh myself for these two months but set myself a “target shirt” instead; a nice shirt that I wanted to fit into but could not. The idea stemmed from my quest for “functional” fitness. I am not a boxer competing in the 66kg category. I am an office-goer who will wear a shirt five days a week and I want to feel comfortable and look presentable in this attire. If that’s my goal, why stress over the weighing scale?

As my workout programme progressed, I could draw comparisons with my yoga experience earlier during the year. Yoga made me Zen; weight training was making me alpha. I was grunting and swearing during workouts but no cuss word came out of my mouth during the entire yoga month. Not even when I toppled over attempting the headstand or scorpion. Popeye used to emphasise on feeling the burn and working the muscles to the point of losing form and failure while my hatha yoga teacher used to remind us of “Sthira Sukham Asanam” (asana is a steady and comfortable pose). While the debate on which approach is better is unending, I think I now know the respective pros and cons. Suffice to say, I intend to continue with both once I get back to my routine life.

As for the CAT, I began my preparations enthusiastically. I noticed that my reading comprehension has improved since the last attempt and I think that’s simply because I have now read much more than my 22-year-old self. Also, as an investor, reading comprehension and data interpretation are a significant part of my job and in that sense, I have been at it for years now. My motivation started ebbing with quantitative ability a.k.a math and it hit a nadir with geometry. Specifically, Apollonius’ theorem was my Waterloo. I just couldn’t bring myself to memorise it because I knew it had been quite useless for me for the past 20 years and would remain so for the next 40.

The speed of mental calculation had slowed as well and at times it felt like my brain was displaying the hourglass sign that was infamous with computers of yore. I would be sending it stinkers to spit out 27x17 but it would refuse to comply, forcing me to use pen and paper. That was frustrating. I decided that I would only attempt the math that I enjoyed and at speeds that didn’t overheat my brain. Sectional cut-offs be damned. What did I have to lose?

The real joy was in the moments of mental elation when I got something right. It’s a shame that it’s only a fleeting moment because you have to move on to the next question but I am sure it’s a dopamine release. Those micro-secretions and the fact that I could consistently do some hard workouts were my biggest highs. Despite the apparent failure at peak condition, I am quite proud of what I achieved in these two months.

Recently, a friend asked me about the sustainability of all that I was doing and it’s an important question. The overarching objective of this sabbatical has been to rekindle a few passions I can continue with for the rest of my life. I dream of a weekend where I cook a couple of dishes, do yoga and meditate, hit the gym, do a Times crossword, play a sport and write something. I know it’s too much to shoot for but the one thing these two months of fitness pursuit taught me is: “It’s very hard to fail completely if you aim high enough.”

Sabbatical Chronicles tracks an asset manager's year-long experiment. This is the fifth in a 12-part series.

Swanand Kelkar works in the asset management industry and is currently on a one-year sabbatical.

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