Feel The Burn


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The air was pounded out of my lungs as I was thrown to the concrete floor, which was covered by a thin blue mat. The man who had done the throwing proceeded to choke me out, and I could only feebly tap out. The jiu jitsu instructor had undoubtedly proven how effective his martial art technique was against tall, lanky men with bad balance. As I struggled to get off the floor, my friends talked with the instructor, who was positively beaming after another victory. “That’s how you attack someone coming at you with a knife.” I ambled over to Tannis. “I think my back just got screwed up again.” “Oh geez, Dave.” “My entire back is stiff.” “Here, let me tie your shoes for you.”

The Calgary Men’s Expo 2010 was supposed to be a blow-out of testosterone and heavy machinery, but given a total lack of advertisement by the event organizers, the large room booked in the BMO centre was empty, save for some big trucks and a variety of booths being occupied by local small business owners, livid that the event was a bust.

Tannis and I had made a point to enter every single contest that was being run by the business owners. We had won the tickets to the expo, so we felt that our luck was running strong. The jiu jitsu instructor was the last booth of the day, and the impact of my vertabrae against the floor had aggravated a back injury I had gotten several months prior, only just starting to heal.

Back pain, as anyone with it can attest, is absolute hell. It flared up whenever I lied down, which meant that for several months I had gotten minimal sleep. I’d wander around the apartment with no lights on, waiting for the pain to subside.

The day after the expo, my phone rang. “Hi, is this David?”

“Yes.”

“This is Jeanne from Healthy Life Fitness Centre.”

“Oh, uh, hi.”

“I’m just calling to inform you that you won the contest at the Men’s Expo for three free sessions with a personal fitness trainer.”

“Oh, that’s great.”

She gave me the location of the gym, and we settled on a time to meet. Her voice on the phone was perky, bordering on positively bubbly. I bragged online about my winning the contest. My friend Heidi wrote back “I can just see you debating with the trainer, Dave.” She had a point.

I’ve not taken advice about exercise well. I was active as a kid, but after high school phys-ed classes my activity had been in rare bursts. A 10 kilometer road race on a week’s notice, a double header softball game out of the blue. After each time, I’d be sore and miserable for 3 days, and then settle back into my inert state. My idea of ‘fitness’ is to be able to walk 10 blocks to pick up the pizza, and another 10 to bring it home.

The gym was a 45 minute train ride into the wilderness of southeast Calgary. Getting inside, the air was stale and smelled of cleaning liquid and Axe body spray. There were rows of treadmills, all facing a bank of televisions. Everyone on the treadmills looked nervous, twitchy, dangerous. A large bald man with veins bursting out of his neck and arms walked by, and for a second, I thought that Mr. Clean himself was training here.

I sat at the table waiting for my trainer, and read the menu at the health shake bar. Jars of protein powder in insane sizes were stacked behind the counter.

“Hi, I’m Jeanne. You’re David?”

“Yeah”

She showed me a paper booklet, and she started putting in my personal details. “What are your fitness goals?”

“I don’t really have any, per se. I’d like to get my back in good condition again so I can sleep at night.”

She studiously wrote down the information in a little paper booklet. “Well, let’s get some numbers on your body.”

We used a machine that figured out my bodyfat based on electrical impedence. After that, we did some crunches and other various exercises. “Your bodyfat is in a good spot for your height and weight, but you don’t have any muscle. We’ll try to fix that up. Your core strength is almost non-existent, so that’s likely why your back hurts at night.” Each exercise routine she put me through, she made a point of pulling my shoulders back. “Your posture is terrible. Has it always been like this?”

“Yeah, pretty much.”

She shook her head in disbelief as we continued our trek through the gym, seemingly using every machine in the building. Soon I was covered in sweat, out of breath with exhaustion.

“Are there any exercises I could do at home?”

“There are just a few you could start out with to build that core. And work on that posture!”

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At home that week, I dutifully did the exercises I had been instructed to do. My enthusiasm was low, but the sleepless nights were adding up, and I desperately needed rest. The sensation from sitting upright was odd, conflicting with my urge to slouch. Standing up straight, I’d forgotten that I’m taller than most people.

The next appointment with the trainer came.

“I’ve worked on my posture, just like you said.” I beamed, proud of the accomplishment I had made in a week.

“Hmmm, well it’s a little bit better.” She guided me to a shoulderpress machine. “Let’s test it out now.”

As the bar lowered, my back sunk into it’s usual hunch.

“Nope, need a lot more work.” After a few more machines, she brought me over to the free weights, and sat me down next to a heavily-muscled gorilla, who appeared to be doing curls with 60 pound weights.

“Hmm, let’s see. We’ll put you on the 10 pound weights to start.” My arms trembled under the weight of the dumbbells, and I could feel the mocking glare of the gorilla burning into my skin. Sweat gathered in my palms, and I nearly lost the grip on the dumbbell in my left hand. When the humiliation was complete, I went back to the dressing room. After changing, I went to the bathroom, and saw a very serious-looking warning against disposing of hypodermic needles in the trash cans.

Leaving the locker room, Jeanne came up to me.

“I ordered you a protein shake.”

“Oh, awesome.”

“Yeah, these shakes are really healthy and packed with protein. It will translate your workout into muscle gain.”

“Great.”

“That’ll be five fifty plus tax.”

“Oh!”

I dug into my pocket, removing a crumpled ten dollar bill. The shake was tasty, and I sipped it all the way to the train station. My arms felt sore and bulky, and I was ready for sleep.

The next day, I asked Tannis to poke my bicep. It felt solid, almost like it had when I was on the swimming team in high school. Sleep hadn’t come much easier, but I was beginning to get impressed with the results from the gym.

“Tannis, I think I might do a few more sessions with the trainer after these freebies.”

“That’s not a bad idea.”

In my head, I imagined myself as a tall, muscular brute, chugging protein shakes and doing a 400 pound benchpress, screaming and grunting. I would snap out of it when I got back to work, trying not to hunch over my keyboard at my desk.

The final free session came. I was changed into my shorts and T-shirt, pumped up, and totally ready to exercise.

“Are you all warmed up?”

“Yep, just did ten minutes on the elliptical machine.”

“Good. Your posture hasn’t improved.”

For forty minutes she brought me to one machine after another. My eyes were blurred with steel and muscle all around me. She ended the session by having me do some high-energy squats. “Let’s go to the tables and discuss your long-term fitness goals.”

My shirt was soggy, I could barely breath, and I was feeling light-headed. “Yeah, sure.”

She had the paper booklet she wrote on when I first started, now filled out with all sorts of plans.

“So for my recommendation to get your back and your core fully recovered, we’ll start you at a year of training.”

“Gosh, that sounds like a lot. How much would that be?”

“That’s 3 sessions a week at $56 a session.”

I tried not to physically reel back when I heard the number. “That’s... that’s a lot for me. I don’t think I could afford that. Would it be possible to work out for a shorter time period? It would also be really hard for me to get out here for all of them; it takes me an hour just to get down here.”

Jeanne pulled out her calculator. Her brow furrowed as she punched in the numbers. “We could do 9 months at $59 a session.”

“That’s still far more than I could afford. I’m not exactly making big money.”

“We could do 6 months for $60 a session. But I’ll be honest, Dave: that’s not going to fix your back and keep it fixed.”

“Hmm...”

She continued to give the hard-sell. “You wouldn’t just be wasting my time, you’d be wasting your time. We want to work with people who want lifestyle changes.”

“Well, I’m pretty happy with my lifestyle. I just kind of wanted a better back.” Her eyes were a mix of anger and sadness. Customer lost.

I walked back to the train station, and the night sky was unusually clear. The air was brisk, with wind brought from the glaciers. I could see some stars in the darkness overhead, a rarity in Calgary.

I would never be the screaming, grunting muscle man in my head. But as I sipped a tasty protein shake, I realized it never really mattered anyway.

*Note - Some names were changed. They’ve put up with enough of my crap :-)