I knew something was wrong the moment I stepped into my gym's workout studio to discover that I was the only guy in the place.
That seemed a little strange for a class called BodyCombat. I hadn't tried it before, but with a name like that I figured I would be pounding a heavy bag, hoisting a broadsword or twirling weighted nunchucks — the kind of stuff Rambo might do for a warm-up before demolishing a column of North Korean tanks.
Then the disco music started.
I spent the next hour throwing uncomfortably rhythmic air punches and doing kicks better suited to a chorus line than the Shaolin Temple. I couldn't escape my awkwardness, thanks to the room-length mirror. And it was hard to pretend I was battling Anderson Silva in the octagon when the petite, pink-clad woman in front of me shouted "Woo!" with every jab.
I made it to the end (the only thing more embarrassing than blundering into a thinly disguised aerobics class is slinking out halfway through), but I didn't go back. My search for a satisfying exercise routine would have to continue elsewhere.
I've been on this quest for a few years. Though I've always been an active person — a competitive swimmer through college, a participant in road races and triathlons, a monopolizer of many a LifeCycle, treadmill and Nautilus machine — I am now struggling for motivation.
I can't bear the thought of plunging into another cold pool. Running hurts my feet. And weightlifting, something I've done on and off since junior high, has come to seem boring and pointless. I'm a married, middle-aged father of two. No one wants to see me flex my pecs at North Avenue Beach.
So I pinball from one thing to the next, hoping something will click. Tennis, StairMaster, circuit training. They're usually engaging for a little while, but then I lose interest, preferring the low pleasures of cable TV to the lofty elevation of my heart rate.
This has left me in an existential crisis. I like to think of myself as a guy who embraces physical challenges. I'm still in good health, still capable of doing such things, but I feel as though I'm sliding into a post-athletic version of myself. If I'm not careful, I could wake up one day to find Jillian Michaels screaming in my cake-smeared face.
Harry Brown understands this quandary. He was a top sprinter in his youth, coming within a second of the 100-yard world record, but then age, children and job responsibilities took their usual toll until he was far out of shape, plagued by a never-ending stream of trifling illnesses.
At the suggestion of his son, who was worried about Brown's health, he started training with a masters track team. His long-dormant racing spirit awoke, and soon he was winning national and world titles.
He's still at it three decades later, at the age of 81. Brown, who is from Wauconda, gets a charge from the competition and camaraderie, and though his times obviously aren't what they once were, he's fine with that.
"After a while, you realize that's the way it is," he said. "That's aging."
Drew Surinsky, a triathlon coach who works in the northern suburbs, said that kind of acceptance isn't easy for a lot of people. When the old inspirations for sports or exercise — status, victory, looking rad in a tight T-shirt — fade in importance, it can be hard to find new ones.
One answer, he said, is to stop thinking about results and focus on the process. Maybe a leisurely bike commute doesn't burn as many calories as 100 savage miles in the peloton, but if it's enjoyable, that could be all the incentive I need to keep going.
And when even the promise of fun can't get me off the couch, L.A.-based fitness guru Tracey Mallett said I should think about the message my sluggishness is sending.
"You're a father," she scolded. "You need to be the one to set an example for your kids. (Working out) creates the right environment for a child to be brought up in. We're all busy, and we think the kids don't pay attention, but they do. They pay big attention."
Guilt is a fine motivator, but in the end the best solution might come from an old 12-step saying: Fake it 'til you make it. If I stick with something long enough, the excitement might eventually follow.
Could be anything, really. Just as long as it doesn't involve disco music or a mirror.