From fat to fit: Sedentary with sciatica, it’s time for a fitness fix

Our lifestyle writer is out of shape and has back pain. So at the tender age of 46, he’s doing the unthinkable and heading to the gym

Kevin Hackett will chart the trials and tribulations of getting in shape later in life. Ravindranath K / The National
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Middle age: it can be a real pain in the back. I’m 46 years old and more than likely beyond the halfway point in my existence on this planet, so I think “middle-aged” is an accurate description of where I’m at. And over the past couple of years, I have at times become practically crippled by aches and pains that I’ve never experienced before.

This is fairly typical of men my age who lead sedentary lives. I spend nine hours a day in an office sat at my desk, with a further two hours (minimum) sat in my car, five days a week. Spread out over the course of a year, that equates to roughly 108 24-hour days spent exercising little more than my brain and my fingers. No wonder, then, that my body has finally decided to protest.

I’ve never really “struggled” with my weight, because that would imply some kind of effort, and my personal preference is to take the path of least resistance. Exercise? I have a bicycle that needs to be exhumed from its position on my balcony, where it resides under more dust than encountered by archaeologists on a mummy hunt. I walk, usually from the car to the lifts that take me to either my workplace or home, and when the weather is good enough I’ll take a stroll around Dubai Marina on the weekends. And it’s only a mild exaggeration to say that I’d rather self-immolate than go to the gym.

But that’s precisely what I need to do if I am to relieve myself of the back problems that have caused me so much misery. I’ve had sciatica so painful it’s made me weep, and a recent bulging disc caused not only searing pain but also complete numbness of my left foot. Treating the symptoms with anti-inflammatory and muscle relaxant medicines did work, to some extent, and eventually those issues have righted themselves. But prevention is always better than cure.

Quite apart from the physical effects of ageing and my sedentary existence thus far, a number of things in my life have started to make me wish I was in better shape. I have two sons, one of whom has just turned two years old and is a bundle of boundless energy. I feel I should be able to share in his penchant for running and climbing everywhere without feeling like I’ve just done a few rounds with Floyd Mayweather. I’d also like to still be around to see him graduate, perhaps get married and start a family of his own.


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My reluctance to disrobe at the beach for fear of upsetting onlookers was obviously not enough to stimulate me into action, but perhaps an increasing awareness of my own mortality will be. My father has repeatedly told me that I’ve entered the “heart attack years” and he’s absolutely right, of course. Far too often I read about people my age keeling over and dying, unaware they had heart disease or some other chronic illness that might have been prevented, had they just looked after themselves a little bit better. 

Never let it be said that I don’t suffer for my art. I know that in order to be able to speak and write with any authority on how to improve my own health and that of anyone who will listen, I need to grit my teeth and arrange some training with a coach who specialises in getting people like me from fat to fit. I also know that I’m weak-willed and that the only way I’ll have the discipline to haul myself to the gym three times a week is if I am expected to journal the process. Over the next eight weeks I’ll be charting my progress, looking at the things that people my age should and shouldn’t be doing as they try to get fit. 

Iconic Fitness in Dubai Marina has started a programme called the Lower Back Fix (LBF), which looks exactly like the kind of action I need to take, so I meet Iconic’s co-founder and head coach Andy Harper, to go through what is involved. I explain my issues to him and he says that what I am experiencing is actually very common.

“It’s exactly why we set up this programme,” he says. “I’ve suffered debilitating back pain myself in the past, but I know that through training you can get long-term relief. Think about the lives most of us here lead – even driving our cars can cause lower back problems because they’re all automatics, meaning our left legs are never used, so our bodies become unbalanced, with some muscle groups never doing any work. Little things like that can mount up and the result is that we end up enduring pain that most people just assume they’re going to have to deal with for the rest of their lives.”

What he’s saying makes a lot of sense and, while I’ve not injured my back like many of Iconic’s LBF clients, the rehabilitation sounds like something even I could do. “What do you really want to achieve?” he asks. I think about my response for a few seconds, and say: “I’d love to enjoy exercise. I want to feel motivated to get to the gym and to work out without automatically searching for excuses as to why I can’t.”

He laughs and promises me that the coach he’s going to assign me will change my thinking. I don’t think he knows just how much I loathe physical exertion, but I do hope he’s right.