How I joined the gym cult

    22 November 2014

    Something strange is happening to me. Instead of starting this piece, I have spent ten minutes exercising on my kitchen floor. I then check the MyFitnessPal app on my phone — ‘Freddy Gray has logged in for 15 days in a row!’ — and scrutinise today’s calorie intake. Then, and only then, I look at my text messages from Taylor, my fitness adviser, whom I’ve begun to regard as something of a man-god. ‘I’m so proud!!’ says Taylor. ‘You’re killing it!’ I smile like a girl who’s just been told she’s pretty.

    What have I become? My wife says I think about Taylor more than her, and she’s probably right. The man she married couldn’t have cared less about his physique. Treadmills are for gerbils, I used to say, and I’ve always been positively allergic to fitness obsessives. I don’t like the way they are always touching themselves. I remember the first time I went into a gym changing room — aged about 29 — and saw two men standing topless in front of a large mirror, lost in mutual self-adoration. They were deep in conversation, but their gazes never met — they only had eyes for themselves. For about 15 minutes they discussed the weather, football, and exchanged workout tips as they lovingly rubbed their pectorals and their abdominals. I left vowing never to return.

    It must be insecurity, though, this strong dislike I feel towards the buff, the ripped and the proudly naked. I’m 34 now and have let myself go. I tend to eat lots and exercise little, so I resent those who eat little and exercise lots. I’m jealous of their self-control. Hell, they probably make me feel sexually inadequate.

    You’ll understand my reluctance, then, when the editor of this supplement suggested that I do an article about getting fit. I hoped the idea would fizzle out, but this editor is a resolute sort, and before I could muster a good excuse I had been signed on to a ten-week course at Barry’s Bootcamp.

    I’d never heard of it, obviously, but I quickly discovered that Barry’s has cult status in healthy circles. It’s a sort of Opus Dei of body worship. The business started in 1998 in West Hollywood — where else? — and has gone global because it offers ‘the best workout in the world’. That’s PR, of course, but a quick web search shows it might also be true. Barry’s has disciples everywhere. Fitness obsessives on Twitter — when they are not uploading photographs of their undulating torsos — approvingly describe the Barry experience as ‘brutal’, ‘crushing’ and ‘punishing’. The Barry’s insignia says ‘Blood and Sweat’. Blood? Not for me, clearly. Or so I thought.

    The Barry’s formula is to combine ‘intense cardio with resistance training’ in every hour-long class. This means you, the instructor and about 20 others running hard on a treadmill and then lifting weights or pushing bands until your muscles give up.

    It hurts. In the first few sessions, I thought I might die. That’s not hyperbole. At one point, I heard someone making a grunting noise which sounded like a goat being tortured. Horrible, I thought, only to realise that that someone was me. It was an out-of-body experience, of sorts.

    After a particularly gruelling ‘Arms and Abs’ class, I was introduced to Taylor. He seemed to be four times my size. Taylor didn’t think much of me. As he asked about my lifestyle and objectives, his expression locked into a combination of pity and revulsion. He called my diet ‘a sham’ and ordered me to change it. What about alcohol, I asked, pitifully. He shook his head. Not only would I be doing at least three Barry’s sessions a week, he said, I should be exercising in my spare moments. ‘If you are watching TV and there’s an ad break, that’s two minutes, so do a plank during the ads,’ he said.

    Against all my usual instincts, I found myself warming to Taylor. It might have been some form of Stockholm syndrome. I decided to submit to his iron will. I resolved to change my diet, listen to everything Taylor said, and embrace the Barry’s mindset.

    ‘It never gets any easier, you just keep getting stronger,’ said Taylor, repeatedly, and I accepted this line as my mantra. Sure enough, I did get stronger — and faster, and lighter. After two weeks, I started to notice my body changing. After ten, I had lost a stone and a half. At the beginning of the course, Taylor put me through these tests — push-ups, high and side planks, running a mile and then sprinting, and others. At the end, he tested me again — and I had improved in every area, usually by more than 100 per cent. ‘That’s progress, my man, progress,’ said Taylor. That felt good.

    I wouldn’t say I ever enjoyed the classes, though I began to find them satisfying. However, I really liked the instructors – not just Taylor, but Shane, Ollie, and Anya. I admired their dedication, their relentless positivity, and, yes, their remarkable physiques. Anya’s was positively Amazonian. I didn’t mind her shouting at me. In fact, I wanted her to shout louder.

    The trouble now is that fitness takes up almost all of my thoughts — so much so that I can’t concentrate on work, or my wife. Every day and in every way, I am becoming more self-absorbed. I have even caught myself fondly rubbing my muscles.