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To Nirvana and Back 

Health advice from the old guy with a paunch

There are people who eat what they want, exercise when they feel like it, never gain weight, and live in a place of perpetual spring, where the sun always shines, and where you're surrounded by beautiful, carefree, laughing friends. I know; I've seen them on beer commercials.

For the rest of us -- or at least for me -- one of life's major subtexts is gaining weight, losing weight, getting fit, getting lazy, lookin' good, then porking out. And so here are vignettes from 25 years of struggle to arrive at beer commercial nirvana -- struggles that, alas, have had to be repeated again and again.

OK, here's one that's guaranteed to work: Stop eating meat, chicken, fish, animal fat and refined sugar. Don't drink. Spend all day at hard physical labor in the Caribbean sun (don't forget the hat and sunscreen!) rebuilding a broken-down wooden sailboat. Be broke, so you can't afford to eat fancy food. Eat nothing but salad, fresh fruit, beans and rice, and homemade yogurt. Keep at it for a couple of years. Try this at age 34, as I did, and you'll look great and be unemployable, but you'll be ready to go back to real life.

A few years later, living in Colorado Springs, with two kids, an actual job, and all the delights of American consumerdom (ice cream! cheeseburgers! chocolate martinis! Cheetos!), I was just another middle-aged guy with a paunch. Solution: running.

It worked. Do 40 miles a week, and a race every weekend and the pounds just melt away. Instead of deeply tanned, ne'er-do-well ex-hippy boat bums from a previous life, I started hanging out with runners. (You've met 'em: obsessively fit, forever recovering from knee/hip/foot injuries, slender, serious, high-achieving men and women who, if forced to choose between a great run and great sex, would usually take the former.) I began to believe that I'd know the meaning of life if I could run the Pikes Peak Marathon -- and managed to run the ascent and the round trip eight or nine times. And what meaning did I find? Only that I needed a knee operation and that my serious running days were over. So I became another late middle-aged guy with a paunch -- health club, here I come!

This time, it was every morning at the weight room of the downtown "Y." It was (and is) a cheerful, friendly place, full of strivers of all ages and shapes. I soon discovered the dubious joys of stationary bikes, elliptical trainers, free weights and multiple sets of ab crunches. Decided to get fit, get buff, and be part of the "in" group.

The Y's a family place, not exactly a meat market, but there seemed to be a clearly defined hierarchy among the morning regulars.

For guys, it was a simple, brutish kind of thing. How much weight do you push? How big and how well defined are your muscles? What's your body fat (above 12 percent? You've got work to do!). But that was just for the old-timers. Newbies could earn points with perfect attendance, hard work and visible progress. Keep at it long enough, and you'd become a regular, entitled to talk shop with other regulars.

Among women, the hierarchy was even simpler: It's based on abs. Newcomers would wear big T-shirts, baggy shorts or shapeless sweats. As they became firmer and slimmer, they'd appear in slightly skimpier outfits. And after a lot of work, they might show up one day in tight workout shorts and an abbreviated top. The guys referred to these women, whose rippling abdominals advertised their extraordinary fitness, as "ab girls." It was a proud moment when Pamela, the queen of the ab girls, complimented me on my diligent workouts one morning; prouder still when I realized that my spouse, who has worked out every morning for the last 10 years, was herself an ab girl! Alas, I got injured trying to move too much weight, then I got lazy and fell in with the hard-partying folks who work for this newspaper, and ...

Now I'm just another old guy with a paunch. But I'm going back to the Y, gonna start running again, do some serious biking come spring, take the dog on long walks -- and I have to do it this time! Big college reunion coming up in May; gotta show my classmates that I've stayed in shape. After all, they probably remember me as that beer-swilling senior with a paunch.

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