“You’re healthy but you’re not fit,” my doctor told me.
We hadn’t even begun my annual physical. No blood had been drawn, no drawers had been dropped. I was just sitting in his Minneapolis office, fully clothed, the 43-year-old father of an 8-month-old daughter. That was all he needed to know.
And he was right. My triglycerides have tripled, like boiling oil ready to incinerate my insides. My LDL (bad cholesterol) is now too high, my HDL (good cholesterol) is now too low. Even my weight, virtually unchanged since college, has spiked since my daughter’s birth. I’ve never put such a burden on gravity, or my Levi’s, in my life.
Dads are doomed. A study out this past July shows that new fathers put on “baby fat” just like their kids, an average increase of 2.6 percent in body mass index (BMI), or about 4.4 pounds for a six-foot man. I’ve gained more than twice that, and I’m nowhere near six feet tall. Indeed, I’ve matched my daughter pound for pound.
“We now realize the transition to fatherhood is an important developmental life stage for men’s health,” the author of the study diplomatically notes. Fathers are fodder. The rocket booster, destined to burn up and fall away into nothingness. The cicada husk, stuck to a tree.
I’m now an outlier in Minneapolis, a city regularly ranked the fittest in America. Where there are more farmers’ markets than Cub stores. Where bicycle pelotons — guys with shaved legs and Spandex onesies — swarm the Mississippi River like migrating geese. Where the tap water may be spiked with Omega-3s.
This isn’t just perception: The Minnesota fitness culture is elite, such that we have one of the highest numbers of ranked triathletes in the country and send the fourth-highest percentage of runners outside the East Coast to the Boston Marathon. If you didn’t run the recent Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon, you must have been running an Ironman. We’re BMI VIPs.
Except I never really fit in. I’m from Milwaukee, lampooned by Homer Simpson when his hometown of Springfield is named the world’s fattest city (“In your face, Milwaukee!”). I didn’t own a pair of running shoes until I was 40. Growing up, I didn’t know anyone who spent their free time running around in circles. Joggers were considered insane.
Three years ago, I joined a gym for the first time. My father had recently died, at 66. He was chopping wood in the driveway when a heart attack threw him to the ground; he managed only to crawl to the back door. This happens to the men in my family. They grow large, lose their hair and die early, like defoliated oaks. My grandfather died of a stroke at 50. I figured I had 10 years to do better.
The gym was a place my friends went, a big suburban box with mahogany lockers, a hair salon, nonstop music videos. Vikings cheerleaders occasionally work out there, and on Saturday mornings, during Dance Jam, the place can seem like a nightclub. When asked to choose from a list of interests on the membership form, I was at a loss. So I said the café.
Still, I hit the machines and ran around in circles, and after a couple years I cut my cholesterol in half. Subdued my triglycerides. Even raised my HDL a couple points. But everything changed when my daughter was born.
There’s no time for the gym anymore. And when I go I feel conspicuous, the way I do on Facebook now, amid all the marathon selfies I can scarcely bring myself to “like.” Sometimes the only thing I do at the gym, ironically, is pick up food from the café.
A few weeks ago, after my doctor’s visit, I was pushing my daughter in a stroller when I noticed the other fathers in my neighborhood. We live near Theodore Wirth Park, and around 5 p.m., just before dinner, the men take their babies in strollers, carriers or just in their arms and disappear into the woods. Hiking down narrow paths that seem to close behind them — deer trails, really — each on his own solitary mission.
I’ve since thrown out my running shoes. So I started putting on boots and pushing my daughter’s stroller up sledding hills and along creek paths so stony I sometimes have to carry the thing, like a medicine ball.
Every Friday, when I’m off work, we visit a different Twin Cities nature center. There are a lot of them, and very few runners on the trails. We both return home exhausted.
“Forget the gym,” my doctor had told me. “Waste of money unless you want the social life.”
But this was no longer just about me. “I don’t care what the hell you do — take a walk, go to the playground — but you’ve got to show your daughter better habits.” Not to compete in a marathon, but simply to live. To make it from one stage to the next.
Tim Gihring is a former editor of Minnesota Monthly magazine. His reporting and essays have appeared in Best Food Writing, Fodor’s, Salon and newspapers around the world. He authored the Star Tribune's Debut Dad blog last spring.
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