david-amsden-FT

David Amsden
This is the “after” photo: The author with two staples of The Amsden Diet

Six months ago, when my girlfriend blindsided me by ending our relationship, the last thing I expected was that it would lead me to write an essay on personal fitness. Getting in shape? Eating well? Are you kidding me? Nothing could have been further from my scrambled mind in the wake of the breakup. No, what I spent my days obsessing over were such delightful and productive topics including, but not limited to, the malicious con universally referred to as love, the utter meaninglessness of everything, the cruelty of existence, and the fact that I would never, ever again wake up to find her radiant, angelic, sleep-eyed face resting on the pillow next to mine.

And yet, during that funk, something peculiar happened. Friends who had gotten in the habit of asking if I was okay, if I needed to talk, if I was still drinking before noon, began bombarding me with a different set of questions. “Dude, did you lose some weight?” “Man, how’d you get so ripped?” “Yo, Hercules, what’s the secret?”

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One man’s misery can be another’s gain, so I’ve decided to share my five-point plan for accidentally getting into the best shape of your life.

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Indeed: compare a pre-breakup photo of me (185lbs, undefined just about everywhere, with that expanding squishiness around the middle so common in thirtysomething men) to one taken today (165lbs, everything taut as a drum, with weird little protrusions of muscles and tendons straight out of an anatomy chart) and you’d think you were staring at one of those before-and-after shots in a late night infomercial for some fitness gadget you consider buying for half a second before cracking open another beer.

If this sounds like boasting, I’m sorry. Fact is, it was such an accident that it still freaks me out. Like, just the other day a woman compared my body to Ryan Gosling’s, and you’ll just have to take my word that this woman (a) was not my mother trying to make me feel better and (b) was herself in possession of the sort of body I bet Ryan Gosling encounters on a regular basis.

Now, I’m not about to front, as I sit here smoking my tenth cigarette of the day, my brain cobwebbed from the bourbon I had no business finishing last night, that I’m someone a hardcore fitness nut should turn to for advice. You’ve got a workout routine you live by? A diet that does you well? You look in the mirror and your ego applauds you? Bravo! Stop reading now. Seriously. But if, like me, you’ve made some half-assed stabs at toning up over the years, only to get frustrated by the fact that nothing ever really works, and/or you have no interest in giving up smoking, drinking, or whatever your cherished indulgence might be, then I encourage you to read on. One man’s misery can be another’s gain, as we all know, and it’s with that in mind that I’ve decided to share my unorthodox, five-point plan for accidentally getting into the best shape of your life.

1. Accidentally starve yourself. Yes, you read that correctly. This, in retrospect, was the single most important step. After my girlfriend left me, you see, I stopped eating for about three weeks. It wasn’t conscious. I was depressed, rattled, unhinged, and food, for the first time in my life, held no interest. Did I enjoy not eating? Of course not. But it’s easy to not enjoy something when you can’t enjoy anything, which is to say that if you’re in a swell, contented place life this first step will be a challenge. Do it anyway! Three measly weeks!

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They never tell you this in magazines because, well, it sounds like advocating an eating disorder. And maybe that’s what I’m doing.

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Because you know what happens when you stop eating? You lose a lot of weight very quickly. They never tell you this in magazines because, well, it sounds like advocating an eating disorder. And maybe that’s what I’m doing. Fine, chastise me in the comments section. The fact is that, like a lot of once-svelte men around my age—I’m 33—I had in recent years acquired a small but disquieting gut, thanks largely to the fact that I spent my early thirties pretending I was still in my early twenties, when I could eat whatever I wanted, never exercise, and not gain a pound. For years I’d tried to shed this doughy excess—I joined a gym, I flirted with salad bars, I biked everywhere–but the damn thing proved surprisingly stubborn.

That is, until I stopped eating.

After two weeks I needed a belt to hold up pants that had previously hugged my waist like a vice. This was pretty awesome. A little silver lining lessening the angst that came with constantly imagining my ex laying in bed with some asshole, laughing about how foolish she’d been for ever dating me in the first place.

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Trying to contort myself into comically impossible postures provided the bonus of making me forget the magical scent my girlfriend gave off after a shower.

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2. Accidentally get really, really into yoga. Reeling from the breakup, I moved from New York to New Orleans, probably because I’d gotten in the habit of drinking at ungodly hours and New Orleans is the only city on the planet where this kind of self-destructive behavior can be justified as “culture.” Anyway, not long after arriving, my friend Brian visited me. Brian is one of these mysterious straight men who is seriously, but not annoyingly, into yoga. He’s also ten years older than me and looks enviably fantastic. During his stay, Brian dragged me along to a couple of classes, none of which I remotely enjoyed. Still, when he left I found myself with a lot of time on my hands–having no friends in a new city will do this–and figured there were worse ways to kill some of it than by being surrounded by jaunty young women in skimpy clothing.

Doubly motivating was that the agony of trying to contort myself into comically impossible postures provided the bonus of making me forget, if only for an hour and half, the magical scent my girlfriend gave off after a shower. Realizing that may not be a inspiring force for you, I’ll add that yoga worked wonders on my lean new frame; parts of my body that once resembled Silly Putty began, in just a few days, to take on the properties of a topographical map, and carving out new peaks, valleys, and ridgelines became an addictive kind of game. Before I really knew what was happening, I was going every day.

3. Accidentally become a quasi-vegetarian. In New Orleans, I met a woman named Amber who lives in my apartment building. She’s an urban farmer. All she eats is vegetables. This is not a moral choice. Farming doesn’t pay very much, but it does give you access to fresh produce, so Amber eats, if you will, the bulk of her paycheck. Either because Amber is a heroically generous human being, or because she could sense that I was not in the best of states, she got in the habit of leaving what she didn’t eat outside my door: boxes filled with fresh kale, eggplant, squash blossoms, fennel bulbs, heirloom tomatoes.

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I bet there’s a nice market nearby you. Go in there and grab a bunch of shit that freaks you out.

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As someone who had lived his entire adult life subsisting solely on hamburgers, Chinese delivery, and gluttonous meals at overpriced New York restaurants, I initially had no idea what I was supposed to do with this bounty. But not wanting to take Amber’s gifts for granted, I consulted Google for some cooking advice, and was soon whipping up things like (feel free to laugh) a peach and quinoa salad with picked onions. Took a while for this to feel natural, I admit, but only about three days for me to notice that I had more energy than I did as an athletic, hyperactive adolescent.

Of course, I recognize that you may not have an Amber in your life, but I bet there’s a nice market nearby. Go in there, grab a bunch of shit that freaks you out, get home and see if you can turn it into something tasty. Whenever this feels like a chore–and, believe me, it will–go into the bathroom, stare at yourself in the mirror, and remind yourself what you looked like just a month ago.

4. Accidentally read an article in the Times about how working out for seven minutes is more effective than working out for an hour. Say what? Seven minutes? Seven minutes seemed doable, and so, because yoga took up only so much time in the day, I started doing it. Jumping jacks, pushups, crunches, side planks, lunges—click the link for the whole jam. The point is you do these things in thirty-second intervals at an intensity level just this side of all-out masochism. Seven shitty minutes, in other words. But, again, only seven of them! With that in mind, I incorporated this little routine into my procrastination habits. Like, want to spend five hours binging on Homeland in the middle of the day? Cool, put in those seven minutes first! After a few weeks I could swap out the veggies for the occasional pulled pork sandwich, which my rebooted metabolism processed like a black hole. Eventually, I amped it up so everything is done in one minute intervals. Yeah, you’re math is correct: that means a hellish fourteen minutes a day. But did I mention the whole Gosling comparison thing? Did I mention I saw her again just last night?

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Women sense a lack of commitment in men the way arthritics sense an incoming storm in their joints.

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5. Accidentally discover that nothing, nothing is more awesome than commitment. Wait a minute, you’re thinking, wasn’t he just writing about fitness? Why’s he getting all existential? Relax and just follow for a second. As I contemplated my girlfriend’s reasons for leaving me, once the anger and confusion and self-pity began to fade, I realized that she’d probably made a wise and noble choice. I’m not going to bore you with the specifics, and lord knows she had reasons all her own that I’ll never quite be able to understand, but suffice to say that, like a lot of men, I had an ambivalent relationship with commitment, which isn’t the best quality when you’re in a committed relationship. Women sense this in men the way arthritics sense an incoming storm in their joints, and, understandably, it doesn’t sit well with them. They begin to drift away, mainly because they’re tired of feeling (justifiably) like you may never stop drifting yourself. And then one day they are gone, and you can’t really keep blaming them.

As I write this, I’d do just about anything to show my ex that commitment isn’t something I’m afraid of anymore, that’s it’s something I crave, that maybe I’ve changed, just slightly, the way we men sometimes do. But I know the window for that has probably closed—that I was complicit in closing it, back when we were still together, and that it’ll have to be the next woman I fall in love with who benefits from this lesson.

Thing about commitment, however, is it doesn’t have to be confined to women and relationships; it’s a mindset, I’ve realized, a kind of philosophy. It’s going to yoga and doing that seven minute workout every day, even when you don’t feel like it, even when you’d rather be torturing yourself by scrolling through her Instagram feed and cursing yourself for not making more of an effort to get to know her friends, and then coming home and figuring out what it means to blanch an eggplant. Because you see the big picture, and the big picture looks a whole lot better if you can stop fretting about what hypothetical forms that picture can take.

Or, at the very least, you look a lot better, which isn’t the worst consolation.