There is often a reckoning during a man's 40s when he recognises that he can no longer wing it athletically, when occasional jogs, afternoons on the golf course or lazy laps in the pool will not suffice to keep his waistline from expanding nor his arteries from clogging. It's an age when a "social" game of footy can be more dangerous than a holiday in Colombia.
This man reaches a fitness flashpoint. It starts, as Paul Keating put it at Redfern, with an act of recognition.
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Get fit or fat: the beauty of swimming
Jake Niall doesn't swim to lose weight, he swims because you can "lose yourself" in the water.
He might be 43, 44 or 48 when the penny drops.
In my case, the mini-epiphany came after I received a gift, a voucher for a one-off consultation with a personal trainer. I viewed it as an act of provocation rather than a helpful hint and duly buried the voucher in a drawer for 12 months. But I also recognised that I could do with a kick in the pants or I'd soon be buying bigger ones.
"Do something, while you can, before you're 50," I told myself.
The aim was to drop kilos and improve my general health without seeing hamstrings detonate.
By the time Simon the personal trainer had shown me his instruments, in the cruel manner of a Spanish Inquisitor, I'd already taken some small steps, having consulted with an AFL club's fitness guru.
The fitness man's advice was much the same as the personal trainer's: try interval training, a series of sprints down the park, either jogging or walking between each "sprint". "Then, the next day, you should go for a long walk or a swim."
Swimming, to this point, had long been my laid back exercise staple but, as someone who once trained properly — and still did competitive ocean swims — it didn't extend my body enough. My idiosyncratic program would be split between running, swimming and walking – the latter often while talking to footy folk about Buddy Franklin or Essendon on a mobile phone.
The more testing part of my fitness pact was diet. As Damien Walsh, a 44-year-old executive who recently reached that fork in the road and took up serious running, told me, "you can't outrun a bad diet".
Approaches to diet, like exercise regimes and negotiations with Senate crossbenchers, operate more successfully in the realist/pragmatist camp than by seeking utopian purity. There's no point adopting a hard-core Paleo regime or other forms of self-denial so extreme that you'll give up and suffer a relapse to KFC.
I gradually developed my own peculiar rules. While the trainer was a low carbs fascist - to the point that he'd eat steaks for breakfast - my goals were more modest. I started cooking breakfasts, eating more eggs and fish and much less white bread. Rice was OK, beer to be avoided. As a moderate drinker — by sports writer standards — shifting almost exclusively to moderate amounts of wine wasn't too punitive.
Look, we're fat bastards and we've had enough of this.
The hard part was — and remains — cutting back on sweet stuff.
I concur with the trendy view that sugar is a kind of dope and that far too much of it is pumped into food. As a starting point in any campaign, the man of a certain age should just think about whether they need that Mars Bar.
My compromise was to cut back on the lollies while using dark chocolate - at least 70 per cent cocoa, with almonds - for my regular "treat". Dark chocolate acted as a kind of methadone program. The dark chocolate/almond diversion worked, to a point. The other measures took hold and weight fell off. I felt a tad lighter, friends and colleagues noticed. Pants were suddenly loose.
One day, in the press box at Etihad Stadium, an unrestrained and less than PC former AFL coach asked, "Have you got AIDS?"
In truth, I hadn't done THAT much work or changed that dramatically. In running, though, I did feel echoes of my athletic younger self. I wondered, too, whether it would be possible to run at something approaching 1980s speed.
It wasn't — and isn't — possible. That said, it was strange to consider that I was, at least on the measure of body shape and weight, marginally better at 48 than I'd been at 40.
BEFORE WE BEGIN, A WORD OF CAUTION
In his zeal to restore fitness - or postpone steep decline - the man of a certain age should know thy body and its frailties.
I carry a sore patella tendon, which saw me abruptly cease running on the Merri Creek concrete bike path, sticking instead to grass or gravel. Other dilapidated males have dodgy ankles, weak calves or, more worrisome, hidden cardiac problems.
At last October's Melbourne Marathon, one participant wisely jogged straight into the Alfred Hospital when he recognised he was having a heart attack (he survived). A 51-year-old open water swimmer/triathlete, who swam every morning, died near the finish line of a Williamstown open swim last year.
Paul Sheahan, the former Test cricketer, MCC president and ex-headmaster of Melbourne Grammar, was training for the Berlin marathon last year when, at his partner Kathy's urging, he went for a cardiac check-up – and soon found himself bypassing Berlin for quadruple bypass heart surgery.
Sheahan, 69, is lean but has a history of heart problems on his father's side. He said he ran 32 kilometres without an issue before the surgery and felt fortunate his problem was detected. "I could have gone to Berlin and run the marathon and fallen over dead."
A late 40s friend of mine, who's unreasonably fit, broke his leg during the Melbourne Marathon after losing feeling in that leg late in the race.
These tales of dangerous exertion are reassuring for the indolent but, in our middle-aged bones, we know that the risks of sedentary life - worsened by lives spent at desks and in cars - are far greater.
THE COMPANY OF MEN
A fitness campaign can be a lonely undertaking. The upside of solo exercise is the opportunity to drift off and lose yourself. But many men prefer to turn the campaign into a male-bonding exercise, a team sport. I prefer to run with someone, but, as an impulse jogger or swimmer, this seldom happens.
Damien Walsh, 44, a packaging executive, joined a fitness crew (run by Matt Hornsby, now the St Kilda FC fitness boss) and soon found himself running twice a week to avoid embarrassing himself during his group's weekly run around Princes Park.
Group exercise, exhibit B: Richard Herbst and a couple of fortysomething friends reached a collective decision to lose weight by forming a cycling peleton AND imposing harsh team rules on food.
"We said, 'Look, we're fat bastards and we've had enough of this," recalled Herbst, whose father died of heart disease. "What can we do?' And one of our mates is a surgeon, a gastroenterologist, so he said, "Well, let's go on the plan I put my patients on."
The trio adopted a 600-calories per day regime for three weeks. "I dropped 10 kilos straight away, my blood pressure came down. It was pretty hard. But it's only three weeks. How much that's added on now to my life, who knows?"
There are worse ways to downsize. I've seen friends slim down dramatically after traumatic divorces or break-ups - surely the most expensive weight loss program.
MAN AT SEA
Turning 40 a decade ago, I took up competitive ocean swimming in summers, in what was a kind of reprise of Nippers and a surf lifesaving club past; ocean swims would be a light on the hill for my haphazard and hitherto relaxed lap swimming.
Having been a proficient swimmer in my childhood and early teens — I'd competed regularly and been in squads — my expectation was to fare well in ocean swims simply because I'd be at the youthful end of an older field.
But, perusing the times, I was appalled to discover that the median times for my 40-50 demographic (not the winners) were usually faster than in the 35-39 age group.
How could this happen? Post-40, men realised they couldn't just rock up, with minimal training, and get by. In Darwinian terms, natural selection had culled the slackers.
So rather than confronting a cohort of flabby 40s, I found myself pitted against an imposing sea of wetsuited Tony Abbotts. Unexpectedly, I'd stumbled upon a variation to the cliche of ageing men acquiring sport cars and younger women.
For these men — and myself — it was a case of swim or sink. Over time, my position in the ocean field improved. Typically, I'll do two or three ocean races per summer, subject to holiday arrangements. The summer of 2015-16, to date, has been race-free, a source of simultaneous regret and relief.
For men of my vintage, fitness campaigns, like the war on terror, are without an end date. There will be small lapses, then corrections. The struggle never ceases.
In almost every ocean race, I'll negotiate the first 250-300 metres, then — having sought to avoid a kick or stray arm to the head — the same thought bubble forms beneath the water: What on earth am I doing out here? Why am I putting myself through this ordeal?
On reflection, having just reached a half century of life, there's an explanation that does hold water: because I still can.