It was a Saturday afternoon, and I was on my way home from a trip into town when I found myself waiting to turn at a set of traffic lights. The straight-ahead light went green, but the turning light remained red for a while, as a pedestrian was making their own crossing towards me from the far side of the road, and so they had the right of way.
The road was wide, with two lanes in each direction, widened further at the intersection itself for turning traffic. And the pedestrian was slow, though not deliberately; this was an older woman, perhaps a little overweight, but visibly hampered most of all by what appeared to be a problem with her hip. Her entire upper body would lurch from side to side as she walked, making only limited forward progress with each step.
Between the width of the road and her struggle with crossing it, the whole endeavour took so long that by the time she had finally completed her crossing, the traffic light had turned orange again. I would now have to wait through another entire cycle of lights. And I have to admit that, at the time, I was pretty annoyed by it all.
What I had forgotten, in that moment of frustration, was that once upon a time, not so long ago, I was in almost the exact same position myself.
It was during April 2015, when I was at my heaviest, most depressed and most pained, that I had dared to take up the challenge of walking to work again. It sounds like such a simple idea to be writing about today; but back then, for someone in a state of such poor health, nothing was ever really easy anymore, even walking. But I felt I had to try, anyway.
And so, try I did. It was a distance of just over 2.5km (1.5 miles) in each direction. Downhill a bit on the way in, uphill a bit on the way home. It would take me around 45 minutes each way, longer if the weather conditions weren’t great. The effort required was such that I would wear casual clothing on the walk in, then take the time to recover in the bathroom on arrival while changing into work wear. The added climb on the way home made the walk back even worse; I would often need another 45 minutes afterwards to recover there as well.
Every single step along the way was its own challenge. It required all of the focus and concentration that I could muster just to establish and maintain a regular rhythm of even the most basic of body movements. My fitness was so lacking that I could manage all of two shuffled steps per breath in, then two more for each breath out. Rinse and repeat. Left, right, breathe. Left, right, breathe. Left, right…
Another driver was impatiently waiting to turn, in front of me to my left. And there I was, just like the lady that I found myself having to wait for, years later.
Contrast my physical struggles in April 2015 with what I was able to achieve just two short years later. It was Easter weekend of 2017 – now minus 40% of my previous body weight – when I took up the challenge of spending time on the Kepler Track in Fiordland National Park, as described in Chapter 7 of The Fat Ginger Nerd: The Rewards.
When the idea was first proposed a few months beforehand, I was immediately intrigued. Not because I felt I could do it, or because I felt that I couldn’t do it, but because I honestly wasn’t sure either way. By then I was well used to my regular walk to work and back, my time in each direction having since been reduced to as little as 30 minutes on a good day. So it felt like a possibility. But there was only one way to know for sure.
Come the Easter weekend itself, and some things were to be expected. The footsteps themselves were the same, of course. Left, right, left, right. But the breathing was far easier, even while carrying a large backpack full of food and clothing; though I suppose it still weighed just a fraction of what I’d long been used to carrying in years past.
There were some differences, too. I had company to share the occasion with as well, which certainly helped. I had to pace myself, for this was a much longer walk than simply half an hour at a time. But pacing myself was an easy thing to do in a location such as this, with so much natural beauty to take in from my surroundings all the way through. Challenging it may have been at the time, but still memorable all the same.
While the Kepler represents probably my greatest physical achievement to date, there have been other attempts at discovering what I’m capable of doing, even if at a somewhat less spectacular level.
I was first introduced to planking back in 2016, one of the very few physical habits that has almost, just about stuck. It’s something I can try almost anytime, anywhere, doesn’t take long, and invariably leaves my abs telling me afterwards: “Yes, we’re definitely still here.” Lately I’ve been trying a few from my feet as a step up from my knees, as well as experimenting with planks at other angles, such as from the edge of a mid-level surface like a chair or bench.
Sometime around 2019 was the first time I ever successfully pulled off a forearm stand, using my head for additional balance. I still feel the need to be leaning up against a wall for the time being for safety’s sake, but again, at least I can honestly say I’ve done it.
It was only during the winter of 2020 when I managed push-ups – a few from my knees and even a couple from my feet – for the first time in my entire life. The number that I can manage at a time remains pathetically low, relative to the capabilities of others. But it’s still greater than zero, it’s still something; and so that’s still an improvement over my old self at least, for which I can still be thankful.
And just last year, I bought myself a pair of cheap 3kg dumbbells. The weakness with my planks hasn’t been so much the core, but more the arms and shoulders responsible for holding me up. So my theory is if I can work on that part with the bells, then maybe the planks in turn might also improve.
Many things in my life have become easier in recent years following the weight loss, though this hasn’t always been the case where physical activities are concerned. Maybe this is just the way it is with such activities, though. Somebody recently suggested to me that “it doesn’t get easier, you just get stronger.” And maybe to some degree, they’re right.
I do hesitate to use the word “exercise” here, though. There are as many negative feelings about that word in my mind as I understand there are in the minds of others with regard to the word “diet”.
So I won’t apply that word so much here. Rather than learning to exercise, I would describe my experiences instead as simply: learning to move.