Sunday, May 28, 2023

Starting CrossFit at 56: “It Had Become A Badge Of Honour To Say That I Had Done No Form of Exercise In The Previous 40 Years…”

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As we wrap up June, which is Men’s Health Month, we thought we’d bring you the honest and hilarious account of guest writer Mark Wilson’s journey to the dark side – as he discovers the highs and lows of committing to an exercise routine at the age of 56.

After 20 years, my trusted GP had retired. Here I was meeting a new one for the first time. I reeled off 55 years of aches and pains, sprains and dislocations, heartache and joy, until boompha, the dreaded question – a double header no less “how much exercise do you do Mark?” Followed quickly by the sucker punch “how much alcohol do you consume a day?”

I sat in silence for what felt like hours desperately trying to find an appropriate answer. The previous 10 minutes were pure story-telling, now I was being hit with the real health stuff and I was horribly exposed.

‘Umm, none, zero, nada,” I answered to the exercise, followed with my idea of exercise “every day I walk to get a coffee (omitting I also get a slice or a muffin at the same time), I e-bike to work, I do “incidental exercise” (insert eye roll emoji here). Answering the alcohol question was the classic, Oh a daily wine while meal prep, so possibly one or two a night…. Ahem….

And so begins the lecture about men in their 50s needing to undertake regular exercise. “how you treat your body in your 50s will go a long way to determining your health in your 60s and 70s” Dr Dion sternly stated. I’m not sure what hurt most – that he was talking about me turning 70 soon, or a lecture on treating my body well during my 50s when I was half-way through the decade. It had slowly dawned on me that I had squandered half a decade propping up bar leaners and buying junk from vending machines. It was time for me to engage in some form of exercise, and pronto.


The reason I was seeing Dr Dion was a persistent and crippling bout of “reflux” – more on that later. I was beginning to lie awake at night wondering what the hell was causing these reoccurring bouts of pain that seemed unrelated to diet, stress or alcohol (phew) but of course had me thinking I was riddled with some hideous terminal illness and staring down the barrel of a shortened life

I’ve never ever gone to a gym. It had become something of a badge of honour to say that I had done no form of exercise in the previous 40 years, pretty much since I left school.

Finally, I had to reconcile myself to the fact that that I needed to do something for the sake of my health and also that I have two young daughters aged 10 and 7.

I fully believed that going to a class where dozens of people are sweating it out to loud music and evangelical instructors whooping and hollering with lapel mics – was anything but appealing. I’d heard of the concept of a PT and I wanted a grungy quiet space where I could do my thing without hoopla. Finding someone who fit the bill was turning into a nightmare. You go and type in Personal Trainer, Central Auckland into Google – the results are hell. PTs are all about brand. Smiling excessively with whitened teeth, it’s not exercise, it’s a lifestyle they scream into the void, incorporating fitness goals into diet goals, work goals, life goals. Spare me the bullshit. Frankly, the cheesy smiles and profiles of anyone online frankly gave me the shits and made me want to rethink this new me strategy.

So I consulted “fit friends” for recommendations. One name was constantly mentioned – Jack. “He’s fun”, “You’ll love him”, “exceptional teacher and top bloke”.

He teaches CrossFit. FFS.

Like a lamb to the slaughter I contact Jack. He had been waiting for my call. The last thing I said to him on the call was, “if you make me spew, I’m quitting”. “I’m serious about that!”.

So, six weeks ago, I began my new life. I was sweaty palmed before I arrived for my first training session, nervous at what lay ahead.


After my first session I limped back to work for a shower, my t-shirt stuck to my body. I have never felt pain like it. I could barely walk, lift my arms, let alone my middle finger to give Jack the international salute of disgust. With all my might I tried to remove the t-shirt before entering the shower. I couldn’t. I whimpered in pain as I tried to wrestle the t-shirt off my back. I was so close to txting a workmate to come undress me and shove me under the shower. Thankfully for them and me, I found some inner strength and slowly contorted myself to remove the tee.

That night I went home and took the obligatory before shot of myself in the mirror. Standing side profile in my undies I have a photo on my phone that shows a 56 year old bloke with the dictionary definition of a Dad Bod. I wonder what my wife sees in me? This was the first time that I had looked at myself like that. God forbid that anyone else has to view this.

On the plus side, I have experienced the buzz of a post-work-out high – oooh la la. That’s good!

For hours afterward I feel the heat of my core, like the heat of a nuclear reactor pulsating out into the universe. I’m a hot mess, but not in a good influencer way.

I’ve never squatted so much, I’ve never lifted so much. A 7kg dumb bell feels like a 70kg one after 4 “sets”. I’d never seen a kettle bell, although my hero, Dame Val Adams tosses them round like they’re balloons – check out her Instagram for the evidence. I’m grunting and groaning just picking the 16kg blob off the floor, in fear of knocking myself out every time I start the motion of having to swing them high then low.

For the first time ever I have used a rowing machine, ski machine and lifted weights. When Jack yells at me to “drop and do an elbow push up,” I genuinely have no idea of what it is I’m meant to do. Also conveniently it gives me another 20 seconds of respite while he shows me (don’t tell him that I’m acting dumb, please God no).

That first weekend I went to Rebel Sport. It was like shopping in a foreign galaxy.

I had never ever thought about active wear as a thing. I stood and stared, perplexed by combinations of fabrics that “breathe”. Do I go for Adidas, Nike, UnderArmour? For the first time ever I bought shorts that had built-in undies. I did not know this was a thing. This really was a new me.

Here I am six weeks in. The post workout high is not as intense, the pain levels are increasing, it’s a bit more of a slog getting to the sessions than those first couple of weeks, I still gasp for as much air as possible, wondering if Jack is pushing me harder, or is it that I am as unfit as I actually am? I’m probably getting fitter, but seriously, I have no idea. I refused to set goals at the beginning, “I just want to get fit” – whatever that meant. I hope I am. I have young kids, I wanna be as active as possible, charging round playgrounds kicking a ball without lumbering, for as long as possible. I’m hoping the money spent now and the gains that will allegedly come from doing this sort of regular workout will mean that the next couple of decades will have me living my best life.

When I‘m busy calling Jack all sorts of names in my head because I can no longer utter a single word due to lack of breath, I ponder what I’ll be doing in six months. Will I actually join a group session and everything that entails? I sense the competitiveness of other males when I state I’ve started with a PT. They often go, ‘that’s a ton of money to spend”. It sure is, but you know what, if it buys me good health and time on this mortal coil, then I’m all for it.

The reason that I was at my Dr’s over six months ago with my self-diagnosis of “reflux” has actually been diagnosed as gallstones. So, soon I’m going under the knife to have my gallbladder whipped out. I’m very aware now of my age and the importance of strength and agility. It’s true that exercise improves your mental wellbeing too (like duh, hello!). I’m such a slow learner.

So here’s my observations of the new sporty me. If I can do CrossFit, then so can you. I’m having a laugh while I do it.

I’ve set no goals – probably the only person to have done CrossFit to not do so. And that’s just fine. Maybe one day I can end up going to a gym and find a group of people that are doing the same thing as me without the need for being the fastest, strongest, leanest athlete ever. It’s ok to work at your own speed and pace. It’s ok to push the body and get the most out of it. Whatever is your jam.

I just want to hang out and enjoy life feeling healthy and go to the pub, catch up with a mate and feel zero guilt for having a pint or two and a laugh, in the knowledge that my workout sessions are giving me the health kick I need.

In theory, in six months I am going to be that new guy, chiseled, 5kg lighter, some sort of muscle definition and an actual waist line – something last seen in the 1990s.

Hey, who knows, maybe one day my wife will say to me “dude, you’re looking pretty hot”. Just the incentive I’m probably looking for, and then I’ll know the blood, sweat and tears will have all been worth it.

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