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Exercise is hard. That’s a conclusion most people come to without much effort. With the luxury of modern day living comes freedom from physical labor as a need for survival. Most people in today’s western societies get the option of a fairly sedentary lifestyle. It should come as no surprise, then, that most people find it hard to get in shape – in reality, the majority of us have no need to.

So getting in shape is hard, and it always will be. Personally, it’s always been hard for me to convince myself to go out and run, or go lift some weights. It’s a struggle that’s gotten a lot easier since I got into college. When you’re around people who are active (or if you have the bad judgment to enroll in a 7am weight training course) It’s a lot easier to motivate yourself to get in shape. I was really surprised, though, to find that beyond the simple struggle of just getting to the gym, there are a lot of things they don’t tell the newbies about the path from unfit to fit.

The first thing I noticed when I started working out was how tired I felt all the time. You think to yourself “Hey, exercising is going to give me so much more energy to do things!”. No. No, It doesn’t. Not in the beginning at least. Workouts would leave me feeling exhausted rather than energized. All that new stress on your body really starts to wear you down. It takes a long time for your body to readjust, especially if you go right from a sedentary lifestyle (working a graveyard shift) to an active one. It doesn’t last forever, but it can be discouraging in the beginning.

Your hands are also going to suffer. Especially if you’re lifting. After several weeks of lifting weights I started to develop huge callouses on each finger. All that tension against the skin really does a number on your hands. I started to feel like some sort of thick fingered dwarf from middle earth. If you’re especially crazy like I am, you pick up an adventure sport like climbing. All those new callouses? Yeah… those got torn off each time I lost my grip on the wall. After a while my hands started to look like this:

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Pictured above: not my hands (image credit: http://therxreview.com/review-climb-on/)

Gauze is your best friend in this case.

If you started running get prepared for this or worse on your feet as well. Blisters from hell my friends. After a 5 mile run; your shoes rubbing against your feet, you are not going to be a happy camper. It takes time to build up those callouses to the point where you don’t have to worry about them anymore. Get ready for several months of sore extremities.

While we’re on the subject of soreness, expect a whole bundle of sore muscles. Sometimes I’d be sitting in class and raise my hand to answer a question: WHAM! next thing I know my shoulder is in intense pain. Why? Oh yeah, I just did shoulders and traps in the gym yesterday. Soreness will rear its ugly head in weird everyday situations, and not just in your run-of-the-mill muscles either. Look forward to your first leg day. I was limping for a solid 36 hours afterwards!

One of the weirdest things though is the crazy side affects. Beyond soreness, sometimes an intense workout will do all sorts of strange and unnerving things to the body. Once (after a combo pecks and running day) I found that my vision was so screwed up that I couldn’t even see straight for about an hour. Something about all the stress I was putting on my body must have put a lot of pressure on my eyes – the whole world was out of focus all the way through my post-workout breakfast. Another time, after some vigorous cardio, I kept getting sharp little chest pains that took several hours to completely fade away. These type of things can be scary. Unfortunately, I’ve also been told they’re not all that uncommon.

You should also expect yourself to puke a few times. This is a given, and there’s really just no way around it. When I was in high school (and in shape) my coach used to tell us “pain is just weakness leaving the body!”. After I threw up at practice once, he told me I had done a good job, presumably because I was getting rid of a lot of “weakness”. Putting your body through that much stress can have some unfortunate consequences.

It’s not all bad. I don’t want to act like there aren’t any benefits, because there are good things that happen too – even if they were a little unexpected.

Beyond the obvious (big muscles, slimmer waistline), there are some pretty cool perks too. When you start working out, you are making you’re muscles more efficient. But, you’re not just making it easier to lift things, you’re also making your organs work better and your internal cycles feel the difference. I was completely not expecting that things like my diet and my erm… ‘daily bowel activity’ would be changing as a result of the exercise I was doing. In a lot of ways, this was a good thing. My body started to regulate itself better. I started getting better sleep. I was able to eat more. I had more regular bowel movements. It’s gross, but it really does make your body more efficient in more ways than one.

On that subject though, you’re going to be draining a lot of toxins from your body in a fairly short amount of time. It’s a good thing, but getting rid of them is… uncomfortable to say the least.

Getting in shape wasn’t all roses and buttercups, but it was definitely worth it. Now that the big changes to my body have happened, I feel a lot better. I’m more focused and I have more stamina. Getting in shape has allowed me to pursue adventure activities like climbing, and have more energy after a long day to get things done.  It’s still a struggle to improve. I think the zero-to-hero stories are less common than the fitness trainers would have you believe, but getting in shape is certainly a wild ride. At least, it was for me.

The takeaway is this: shifting into an active lifestyle is weird, uncomfortable, gross, and physically and mentally exhausting. Does this mean it’s not worth it? absolutely not. Just don’t be surprised if you get the shits after a long run. Pro-tip – invest in talcum powder and spandex. the chaffing is not fun!

I love Blue Mt. Dew. That combination of raspberry, ginger and massive amounts of sugar sets my mouth watering and my mind racing pleasurably towards smooth decision-making. I find that sugared-up, whether it be a placebo or otherwise a dopamine reward, I am able to focus much longer on generally unpleasant tasks, like math homework. I know this as empirically tested fact, because I spent the last month testing it.

You see, there’s a life-hack out there which directs us to smell incense while studying to associate that smell with the subject. When we take the test, we simply expose ourselves to that smell, and voila! an instant A. I took this to the next level. For a month and a half, three times a week, I drank a bottle of Blue Mt. Dew during math class. I perched my chin on the bottle and listened to the lecture, to focus on that sweet, nectary smell. I rewarded myself with an ice-cold sip every time I got an answer right. And you know what? It worked brilliantly. It worked so well that I should revise my previous statement completely: I used to love Mt. Dew. Now I associate it with math. I’ve had so much of the stuff that I hate it on that basis alone, and it’s association with math makes me hate math too. I look at an equation now and smell ginger, like i’m having a mild epileptic attack.

But I wasn’t going to let this stop me, so I arrived early for the midterm on Friday and stopped by the student store to complete my experiment. But you know, I go to a small, poor community college, and I had bought every single Blue Mt. Dew they had. They were out, and I took the test while nursing a Coca-Cola because I had addicted myself to massive amounts of sugar.

I told this later to several people and they all said the same thing, “Connor! That’s like something out of Seinfeld! The Big Bang Theory! Friends!” I’m like, “Yeah, that’s because I’m an idiot, and these things happen to idiots.” Because you know, when smart people experiment with their bodies, it’s usually not with unhealthy chemicals and the goal of getting out of studying for a math test. What was I thinking?

Which brings me to my next point: I wasn’t. In fact, I deliberately wasn’t thinking about the possible results of my experiment. I was thinking, “Wouldn’t this be cool if it worked?” If it had worked, I would never think on it again and move on to the next thing. Previously, I’ve done things like draw portraits of my professors while they lecture, which did not help me remember their lectures. I’ve said to myself: “If someone asks you to do something, say okay, I’ll do it later, to see if you remember later to do it.” I never got any chores done. Last month, I tied my shoes by looping the lace counter-clockwise around my finger, and then this month I tied them clock-wise. Why? To see if I could change my habits. What I did not try to do was actually change habits that matter.

While I carry one experiments with my life, I deliberately do not think of other experiments I could be doing. What if I did my homework right after school? What if I didn’t play videogames? What if I go to bed early, get up early, and get to work and school with minutes to spare, instead of a few breathless seconds? These experiments are certainly more important, and furthermore, it’s easy to see potential outcomes. I could have less stress, better sleep, more time for productive enterprises like blogging, and hey, let’s throw a girlfriend in there for good measure.

Those changes seem hard to carry out, but they’re also pretty easy to see. But I’m ready to take this thought experiment to the next level. What experiments, changes in my life, am I really not thinking about? What paradigms do I operate on, and which are negative for me? How about I appreciate my parents more, spend less money, or not even that. How about I achieve a more holistic perspective of human nature, or a deeper peace with my choices in life?

In Seinfeld’s final episode, the show was still about nothing. Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer; they just carry on shooting the shit, while bars close around them and the camera dolleys out for good. There was an odd romanticism in it, like it was where they truly belonged, and it seems that they are still there now, like statues of ogres in Tolkien’s woods. Me, I continue to experiment, scheme, plot for a better life and listen intently to Demetri Martin but I still don’t make changes. Like sitcom characters, I relegate the real issues to the background, in favor of mental gymnastics that distract me when I am the only audience to my own life. I almost wish there was a laugh track to keep me company, to show me when to just laugh at myself, to add meaning to empty gestures.

Today I quit my job. It’s the fourth and best job I’ve had since I took my first job at 17, and I’d be lying if I said I left it easily. I worked as a valet, parking cars for the local Indian Casino in my home town. It wasn’t glamorous work, but it was fun and it paid the bills. Getting my job there also helped me through some of the roughest transitions of my life.

Leaving the casino is a strange mixture of freedom and melancholy. In a lot of ways, the year and a half I worked there has shaped who I am and changed my perspective on the world. Of course, I’m glad to be moving on with my life – going to university has been something I’ve looked forward to since I was seven – but at the same time, I’ll be leaving everything, everything, behind to start a new life someplace else. All the friends I’ve made, all the haunts I favorite, all the memories (good and bad) that have shaped me, they’ll soon be hundreds of miles away.

Of course, this latest change in my life is precipitated by a whole host of other changes. My father got a new job. My family is relocating to a different side of the state. My friends are moving on with their lives and entering the work place. At the age of 22, it would be ridiculous and unhealthy for me to expect my life to remain static. But, it is still depressing to realize that the consistency that I once took for granted is now unobtainable to me. To be uprooted from the life I’ve lived for the last decade is… disorienting, to say the least.

In a lot of ways, I owe the casino a great deal. Receiving my job with them provided stability in the rocky and out of focus world around me. It’s difficult to look back from where I am now and realize just how far I’ve come in the last year.

In 2011 my mother was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. Illness always seems so distant and irrelevant until its bitter realities come crashing into your life. My mother and father did not hide my mother’s illness from my siblings and me. They explained the risks and changes very forthrightly. We were fortunate; my mother had excellent care. By spring of 2012 she was completely cured of her cancer, but it did not leave us unmarked.

My mother’s treatment was hard on everybody. For me, it meant more chores and responsibilities in a life that had been succinctly devoid of these before. It was also hard to see my mother struggle with the throes of cancer treatment. I wish I could say that I rose to these challenges admirably, but people have a nasty habit of not responding well to change. And so, rather than shoulder the burden like an adult, I took the opposite route.

I dropped out of every single one of my classes at the local community college I was attending. I began to withdraw from friends and social interaction. I spent increasingly large amounts of time in my room playing video games. I’m not proud of the person I became then.

By the end of 2012 my parents had had enough. I was out of work, out of school, and out of shape. They gave me an ultimatum – ‘pack your things, or get your shit together’ – and I was just stupid enough to take them up on it.

I was thrown out of my house. I had no job, and was living off the charity of one of my few remaining friends. My budget for food each week was $20, which I obtained by selling off what I had left of my possessions (an Ipad, some gift cards, my tools). For four months, I slept on a broken old couch and survived off of ramen and bulk chicken. I’m not proud of that time in my life either.

But I will say one thing about it. It did make me get my shit together. Entirely out of necessity, I was forced to look for work. I had to stop being so irresponsible because I had to find a job and I needed to present myself well to do so.

When I say that I owe the casino a lot, I mean just that. A job parking cars is not a glamorous job, but to me, it was godsend. When I got my job at the casino, I was desperate. I was living off of fumes. Having a real paycheck that I could care for myself with meant the world to me.

I have been as far down the path of self-destruction as I really ever care to go. As I sit here and type all of this out, warm and well fed, it is easy to lose touch with the humility that comes of sleeping in a freezing house on an empty stomach. It’s hard to connect myself now, confident and competent, to the pitiable character I was then. I never could have transitioned – would not be making this next great leap into the unknown – had it not been for the compassion shown to me then.

So to help bridge the mental gap between here and there, and to help give me closure, I would like to offer the reader the following truths taught to me by the last year and a half of my life:

1.)    You are never alone. Everywhere around you are people and resources willing to help you. The hardest part is swallowing your pride to accept them. Realize that people do not look down on those who ask for assistance. Heros arise not from those who can do by themselves, but from those who can collaborate with those around them.

2.)    Maturity comes in many shapes and sizes. One of the most important is called consistency. Be fair to people, show up on time, make good on your promises, and be honest. Not just sometimes, but all the time. People will respect you more and feel as though you do too.

3.)    Burning bridges is much, much easier than fixing them and fixing bridges is crucially important. Baggage ways down everything you do and strive to do. You owe it to yourself not to allow your problems to have free rent in your head. While it’s easy to advise someone to “get over it” it’s much harder to do in practice. Mend conflicts whenever possible.

4.)    Teamwork and leadership go hand and hand. You cannot be a good leader without being a good team player. Being the person in charge is not a dominance race. Good leaders understand and respect the people they lead. The other intricacies of management are smoke and mirrors.

5.)    You can make friends with anyone. People are just people. There are mean people, creepy people, rough people, and weird people. Getting along with someone doesn’t mean the same thing as agreeing with them. Deep down, most people just want to be appreciated for who they are.

6.)    If your boss every asks you to fill in for graveyard “just for a week”, politely decline unless you have a particularly strong desire to not see the sun for the next 6 months.

In a little less than three weeks, I’ll be headed off to university. It’s exciting and incredibly nerve wracking. But, I’m confident in my ability to pull through. If my time at the casino has given me one thing, it’s the drive I need to continue onward. I’ll never forget my roots or my experiences. The goods and bads of the small town I grew up in have shaped me into the person I am today. The lessons I learned here will carry me on well through the rest of my life. Though I might have wished for more glamour or more adventure. I wouldn’t trade it away. Any of it.