That Damn Gym

That damn gym.   Gulag 17 more like it.  My wife, Karen, and I joined this facility about four or five years ago, knowing it wasn’t as much a “typical gym” as a health and fitness center for people who are old, obese, recovering from heart attacks and major surgery, and, of course, most importantly, have been wheeled-in with all of the above.  

For sure, it has all the accouterments of an actual gym, treadmills and stairmasters and all sorts other aerobic equipment, isometric weight machines, spin bikes, free weights, a hard wood aerobics floor, a padded floor for badminton or basketball, and an indoor track.  A swimming pool for laps and aerobic classes and a hot tub, along with nice-sized men and women’s locker rooms equipped with saunas and showers, gives the facility everything one would need to workout and then some.  However, in addition, there are plenty of oxygen tanks and blood pressure monitors on little dollies for the enfeebled and push bikes for the infirmed and plenty of young staff members and interns running around checking blood pressure and heart rates.  It’s like one of those gyms where if someone falls, you don’t know if they will ever get up.  Like you chalk down another one on the instep of your old sneakers and hope the next one isn’t you.  

Essentially, Karen and I fit the profile of the participants (and patients) to a “t”.  In all probably, of all the people to whom the Health and Fitness Center was appealing in their advertisements and brochures, other than those close-to-death clients dumped near their door by the local hospitals, we were it; when we joined we were already older-than-sin and bulbously-obese too — not “extremely-obese” as the term implies, but well on our way to a level of dire consequences that no one wants to reach, meaning significantly past the line of demarcation within the nationally-recognized Body Mass Index which separates the “overweight” from the “obese.”  We were so much so that the BMI didn’t even come up in our entry conversations on our goals with the staff physical therapists.  

Though we hadn’t had our prerequisite heart attacks to attain full-blown status at the Center, I figured, it was only a matter of time before we too achieved that honor due to us.  Being connected to the Center, I guess, was our way of getting ahead in the game.  In truth, unfortunately, it gave us the extra excuse back home to eat yummy, high-carbohydrate, fat-filled dinners and sweet, sugary snacks with plenty of crunchy chocolate morsels before bedtime.  Our strategy, I guess, articulating it now, in looking back, was to agree with each other that we would atone for our transgressions by going to the gym the next day (or, maybe, the day after) following such guilty gluttony.  At least, that was the plan, even if we were poor, shameful sinners in the actual execution!  

Of course, one doesn’t join a center like this out of the blue.  Our story goes back a few years earlier if I recall….

Six years earlier, as a matter of fact, now that I think about it, on a Saturday afternoon in the beginning of summer.  Karen saw an advertisement in the local paper for a large research study starting up at the Health and Fitness Center.  The advertisement indicated that the study focused on exercise and was looking for middle-aged men to be test subjects.  Of course, in a moment of inspiration (she said she was looking out the window and seeing me struggle to mow the lawn), Karen signed me up.   

Turns out, the study was seeking to determine if a minimal amount of exercise could lower blood pressure and cholesterol readings in men who were essentially slugs.  Karen didn’t have a clue as to my health (and nor did I actually, as I hadn’t been to a doctor in years), but she knew I was carrying enough weight to look like a turtle and when it came to a minimum amount exercise, we both agreed, I was an absolute professional.  That summer afternoon, in fact, while Karen was reading the paper and I reluctantly was mowing our postage-stamp of a lawn (finally), I felt I had gotten more than my share of exercise and was planning to spend the rest of the afternoon recovering from the exertion asleep on the couch.  

When Karen informed me of how she had saved my life (while I was slaving outside), I thought the whole thing ridiculous.  But, after my usual, pre-requisite period of complaining, I agreed to go, if only to see what the doctors had to say about my health and, in fact, prove to Karen, once and for all, that I was in good shape.  (Damn that woman’s constant nagging about my health!)  Though literally it had been fifteen to twenty years since I had seen a doctor, I knew I still “had it” from, hey, way back, back, back in my running days.  

Karen said, as if to emphasize she had done a good thing:  “Besides, you old kook, it says here that if you qualify, they’ll pay you $200.”

Oh my god!  It was like the perfect part-time job.  “They will pay me to exercise?  Jeez, dear, maybe I should start wolfing down ice cream bars now!’

Turns out I had nothing to worry about.  My participation in the “Man Study” began shortly after that initial screening.  Indeed, I made the cut due to a sufficiently high LDL cholesterol level, whatever that means.  In truth, I didn’t have a clue.  I certainly didn’t know bad cholesterol was hanging out in my system, but, I was told, this LDL-stuff, somehow, had climbed into my bloodstream and was lurking around, smoking cigarettes, drinking beer in the alleys, hallways, and men’s bathrooms near my heart.  The doctors said my LDL cholesterol level was bad enough to qualify me for the study, but not so bad that they were desperate to dump a prescription of this or that down my throat, or forget the drugs altogether and call in an undertaker instead, or, worse, bring in my wife.  So, I agreed to participate, mystified by the whole thing  – afterall, I was in the prime of health — what? wasn’t it just a decade or two ago?  How fast things change!

‘Maybe this will not be so bad,’ I decided.  (‘… and, hey, when do I get my first paycheck?’)  This study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, was to last one year.  We were told it would begin simply enough by requiring us to run through a series of tests.  Subsequently, we would take four months off during which time we were to do nothing but what we do normally (‘Hey, I can do that!’), then, we would be given the same tests over again.

The physical phase of the study would begin with eight months of exercise at the Health and Fitness Center.  Specifically, I was to workout four times a week for forty minutes a day under the daily supervision of a team of therapists.  (‘Jeez, isn’t that getting a little personal?’)  Finally, two sets of tests would be conducted at the end of the study — the first being after the exercise period and the second following two weeks of inactivity (‘Hey, I can do that too!’).  In addition to the money, I would receive four  months of membership to the Center.  (‘Oh sure, like I’m going to keep exercising without getting paid.  Right!’)

‘Okay, so what’s the catch?  This all seems easy enough.’  In fact, in discussions with the doctors, I learned, it was even easier — they didn’t care what time of day I went to the gym or what days I chose in any given week, as long as I checked in with the therapists, did the exercise, wore a heart monitor across my chest, and wrote down in their stupid logbook some simple data that even a blind idiot speaking Chinese could manage.  They didn’t care what I ate or when I ate it or even if I lost a single pound in the course of the year.  

‘We are not a diet study,’ they said.

‘Oh, okay.  That’s really good to know.  Do you give out Doritos?’

This was an incredible study, for sure!

The random cluster of guinea pigs to which I was assigned, focused on a high-level of aerobic exercise, which sounds worse than it was.  It meant, essentially, I was asked to walk briskly on a treadmill four times a week.  Once a week they would take my monitor and download the data.  My task was to keep my heart-rate elevated at the prescribed (and easily attainable) level.  Nothing more. Nothing less.  

‘Jeez, this is easier than mowing my lawn. What gives?’

Turns out, it was the tests.  Signing the five-page contract meant agreeing to the tests…

‘Hey, who thought up this stuff?’ I wondered, when I heard what they wanted to do,  ‘and who at the National Institutes of Health thought it made sense?’

‘Jeez, doctors!  Only in America!’

Believe me, from what I could tell, not one test had anything to do with bad cholesterol or high blood pressure.  It was almost like the guys-in-charge said, ‘What the hell, if we are going to ask NIH to fund our study, let’s test everything we can think of to make it look legitimate.’   

First of all, I had to agree to a stress test which required that I walk, then run, on a treadmill as it continually increased in speed until I was physically unable to continue.  In this test, though, in order to be sure it fit the weirdness criteria required by the study, I had to have all sorts of live wires strapped to my chest, my nose pinched off, and a large oxygen tube taped to my mouth so the doctors could analyze the air I was breathing.  (‘Damn, why didn’t he brush his teeth?’)  

A second test required that I lie on a recliner for forty minutes with my head and neck enclosed in large, sealed, plastic bag (and air tube) analyzing my breathing at rest.  This put me to sleep, of course, though it is hard to get comfortable with a broiler bag over your head.  

At the local hospital  I was required to have a CT scan, which was like lying on a gurney while a huge piece of equipment took one continuous picture of me starting at my toes and working up to my neck.  I checked to see if my hairs were burned off or my testicles were glowing red, but all seemed fine.  I couldn’t help but wonder if they sold the picture for pornographic purposes.  

At the local college sport complex I had to perform a knee-bend/leg-lift with weights for three minutes.  Weird.  Not sure what the leg-lift was all about, but it was cool that the athletes in the room came over, like I was one of them, and asked what type of ball I played.  When I mumbled I tossed a wiffle ball to my little nephew at a family outing a few years back, they all walked away…  

One of the weirder tests required that I climb into a ‘bod pod’ wearing tight, little, spandex shorts and a spandex skull cap, so, I was told, the doctors could determine my fat content.  The ‘bod pod’ was like a plastic egg with a window, like a little space capsule, and I thought, maybe, perhaps, all the tests I had performed until then had been a charade, like my wife and doctors had gotten together to launch me unsuspectingly into the future.  (“Let somebody else deal with him!’)  Or worse, without my realizing it, they all agreed it was time I climb into their experimental human microwave oven and with a turn of the dial — splat, my fat corpuscles would be everywhere.  

Ah yes, back at the Center, I had to agree to allow the doctors to take about fifty vials of my blood, ending with a special surgical treatment on two occasions where a doctor snipped a ‘pea’ worth of muscle tissue from my leg.  (‘Ouch, hey, put that back!’)         

On top of it all, in terms of total weirdness, I never did find out if all of this effort, this year of devotion to the study — the tests, the hanging out on my couch, the endless visits to the Center, the months of walking to nowhere on the treadmill — if any of it lowered my cholesterol one bit.  

When I asked about it after the study, the doctors laughed, like it was a joke on me, and said they had no idea.  I was simply one number in a large, hundreds-of-participants’ study.  

‘Hey, read our scientific paper when it comes out in the New England Journal of Medicine,’ they said as I got up to leave.

‘Great,’ I said.  ‘I’ll wait for the movie.’

‘Look,’ they said, ‘If our theory is correct, you will have, at least, marginally lowered your cholesterol, and that has to be good.’

‘Is this what you’ve told all the other guinea pigs?’ I mumbled to myself, incredulously as I left the room and the doctors behind.

‘Oh, no.  No,’ I imagined them saying, ‘They all died.  You’re our only survivor!  You must know — out of all of our patients, you are, in fact, the Chosen One!’  

Of course, I would be knocked speechless by this news!  ‘Wait a minute, let me get my wife.  She needs to hear this!’

‘You are the One,’ I could hear them repeating, ‘In analyzing your four gallons of blood, you are the one amongst us to have a special humanoid factor in your veins that will allow you to be for many of us the world’s first, great, super hero.’

‘I knew it!’ I would be thinking.  ‘All my life, I knew it, I knew it, I knew it!’

‘Unfortunately,’ I could hear the doctors caution.  ‘For a few of us — say, your wife, your boss — you know, your family and friends — you must remain a schmuck.  Do you understand?  Can you handle this?’  

‘Yes, for the good of the country, I will remain a schmuck.  Trust me!’

So I did the crime, got the time, received a nominal paycheck, and was awarded with a four-month “free-bee” membership at the Center.  Of course, Karen joined the gym to take advantage of my temporary membership and my new-found commitment to physical excellence, which she loved. (Hey, stud!)  Only, unfortunately, my dedication, like all of my efforts in life, lasted only a month or two, and, in fact, waned to nothing by Christmas of that year.  

Overall, I had lost 26 pounds in the course of the study, but with it over and no new study to keep me enthused, no therapists to keep me honest, and no regular pattern of exercise, my excess weight, waiting at home (‘Hey, where have you been?’), came right back.  In fact, in the next three years that followed I zoomed right past my previous high (what I weighed at the time of the study) and rocketed to the all-time level I was two years ago, that fateful summer my daughter returned from college.  All the while, we belonged to the Health and Fitness Center — that gulag, that shining city on the hill for the old, the obese, and the infirmed, and, yes, that fabulous facility full of trained therapists who watched me work out like a dog but couldn’t tell me if it did a damn thing for my cholesterol.

Clearly, Super Pudge Man was having issues.



Categories: Pudgy Me

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