I still remember the last time I wasn’t fat. I had decided to stay an extra year in Arizona after finishing college (for some reason), and I was a free, single man working a minimum-wage preschool teaching job. Ah yes, those were the days.
It also happened to be the year I started to embrace Judaism.
But this isn’t a story about Judaism, it’s a story about being fat.
That year was awesome. Every day, after work, I would go to play basketball at the gym.
See, this was following the years of Steve Nash’s awesomeness, when Stoudemire was still a functioning human being and the Suns always felt like they were so close to making it (if you don’t know what any of those words mean, don’t worry about it, you’re probably better off). I had also become obsessed with basketball video games. I wanted to be Steve Nash.
And so, it dawned on me one day: maybe I should, like, play the real thing if I’m going to watch and virtually experience it?
At the gym that I went to about once every few months, there was a basketball court. It was open like all the time, and there were always huge pickup games going on. This was it, my opportunity.
I think I was hoping that my excellent skills from video games would translate to the court. This… was not the case.
I joined those games having no idea what I was getting into. The guys there were like… what’s the word?… ballers? They had, like, muscles, and abs and when they would shoot the ball it would go in the hoop a lot of the time.
Now, because it was a gym, they couldn’t stop me from joining in on the games. So I always got to play. But the thing is, if your team loses, the players have to sit down to let the next group of players join. And that sucks, because then you have to wait a whole game to play again.
And, I’m sure this was a coincidence, every single game that I played, my team lost. Every. Single. Game.
They got to know me soon enough. They’d see my dreadlocked, tiny, Jewish body walk in and I could feel the groans, even though they tried to hide it, the nice guys they were.
There would be attempts to kind of avoid having me on a team. But eventually they had to have me. Street (gym?) rules.
It was weird, though, because I kept going.
You’d think that I was a masochist or something, embarrassing myself constantly. I would miss every shot (and so my team stopped passing to me). When I had the ball, they would scream, “PASS!” because, you know. And they’d always have me defend the fattest guy on the court. Then the game would end, our team would lose, and we’d all go sit in the corner, and I could feel them all staring at me.
But I loved it. I loved every second of it. I would stay there for three hours sometimes. I guess the video games and Steve Nash did indicate something within me: I freaking love basketball. I would go as many days as I could, just soaking up my losing, feeling myself getting slightly better every time. One time (6 months in), I made a shot! Oh, it was glorious. The other team looked at me in shock. My team looked at me in admiration. Then we lost. No more admiration.
But still, I loved it. I bought a book about basketball. Since the internet was created, I kind of stopped with the whole book thing. But man, I wanted to learn. I learned how to shoot, and to pass, and what made for a good player.
I still sucked.
But I sucked less. And eventually, one day, I played a game where my team didn’t lose. It was incredible. Then it happened more and more. I mean, it was still all those other guys doing the stuff that made us win, but I officially was not poison anymore. Guys would start talking to me. One time I made the winning shot in a game. Not gonna lie, I’m pretty sure that was my biggest accomplishment in my entire life.
But here’s the thing: none of that really mattered at all. I really just loved playing basketball, no matter how good I was at it. I just wanted to play. Winning’s advantage was that I got to play more. I got to stay on the court and play and play until my team ran out of gas or I did something that screwed us over (yes, seriously, it was always me).
Man, I loved it.
And that was the last time I wasn’t fat. I actually remember my friends pointing out to me, “Elad, you look ripped!”
That was weird. I was playing with these hardcore dudes that would go and lift weights after they played two hours of basketball (FREAKS!), so I wasn’t quite ready for the compliment. But then I realized, hey, I kind of was ripped. Kind of in great shape at least.
And I realized, wow, I guess I’ve been working out three hours a day. That makes a bit of sense.
And within all of this, I think, is the secret to losing weight. But before we get to that, I need to fast forward you to today: the fat days.
How to become a fatty
When my year in Arizona ended, I didn’t really know what to do with myself. So I went to Israel to study in yeshiva (Jewish studies school).
Yeshiva, among its other qualities, is a fat-maker. You sit on your butt all day and you learn. You eat crappy food. If you’re a bad yeshiva student like me, you go out drinking with your friends at night.
There are one or two yeshiva students that didn’t gain the yeshiva 15, but they were freaks of controlled nature, able to discipline themselves to somehow wake up super early and go running. Ugh, running, gross. But they told me they loved it. Weirdos.
Slowly, my rippedness started to disappear, and become replace by a bit of padding.
Next thing I knew, I was back in America, and before I had a chance to breathe, I reconnected with this lady-friend of mine, we got engaged, and then married. We spent the first six months of our marriage trying to figure out who the hell the other person was. Then we decided to move to Israel. We sold all our stuff, moved, and became broke as hell as I, once again, learned in yeshiva.
As you can guess, none of this did me any favors in the fat department.
But I’m not done!
Soon, we had a kid. And I had a job, one that required I commute three hours each way every day.
Then we moved back to America, in New York, without a car, or much of anything else. We had another child.
Then it was a few months ago, and I finally decided to go for my checkup. It been half a decade, why not?
All checked out. Except: I was fat. I’m not exaggerating, by the way. I know, I know, you want to say, “Oh Elad, you’re not fat,” because we have this view of what a fat person looks like.
But the doctor very seriously looked at me and said, “You’re overweight.” I was medically fat, do you understand?
I asked, “How much?”
I swear to you, this was his answer: “A lot.”
No specifics necessary, I guess.
“You need to work out. A half hour a day, at least. Stop eating all those carbs [I was telling him about the delicious omelette, cheese, spicy potato sandwich I had eaten that day]. Have some fruit. You know, grapes [in a voice that said I didn’t know what a fruit was] and stuff.”
It was actually pretty shocking. My whole life, I had never really been fat. Sure, I was at the edge a lot. But, “overweight”? No way.
I had to figure out an answer quickly.
How to get unfat
I needed an answer, quick. Especially after they told me my cholesterol was also “dangerous”.
The problem with me getting in shape is that I kind of hate it. I know, to fitness buffs out there, that sounds ridiculous (“Get over it! Look at my abs! Let my post ‘inspirational’ pics on Instagram and say, ‘You can do it too’ even though they make you feel like you’ll never be able to do that.”). But running? I can’t keep that crap up. My brain is this active, neurotic thing. I’m an anxious mess. Do you have any idea how horrible running is when your brain feels trapped inside a body that won’t engage with it, that’s just telling it to shut up?
And I couldn’t go to the gym, because there’s none near me and I don’t have a car and I live in Brooklyn and I don’t want to get stabbed. Also, I hate gyms. Also, I have kids, which is how I got in this mess in the first place (love you, girls!). Which also precluded the whole basketball thing.
So… how does one work out without a gym, basketball, running, equipment?
I had a flash: I love dancing. Like love. Actually, one of the hardest things for me since I became religious is that it’s not “appropriate” for me to go to a blues club trance show or and just dance my butt off. Man, I miss those days. I’ve since realized that my best bet is to go to a gay club, but who has the money for that?
But… dancing. You don’t need anything for that. You need your body. You need an iPhone and headphones (so you don’t wake up the girls). You need a good mix.
And I just started dancing. Middle of the night, after everyone is asleep, and I’m exhausted but anxious as hell from my day. No one bothers me. I’m all alone. I dance how I want to (like an idiot). I’m pretty sure my dance moves are the equivalent of my basketball skills back in the day. But I get to do it however I want. I get to listen to awesome music. I get to be all alone (parent introverts’ dream!).
Oh yeah, also, my wife is awesome and makes me healthy food for dinner, and I’m doing all that good stuff. But mostly it’s about the dancing, you see.
It’s been two months, and I’ve lost 18 pounds.
What dancing and basketball have in common
Some articles have been hitting my newsfeed these days. Apparently it’s the new thing to bash exercise when it comes to weight loss. This guy says exercise makes you fatter because you get hungry from it. So don’t eat more, fool! He also happens to mention at the bottom of the article that exercise is awesome and a “miracle cure”, just that it doesn’t help us lose weight. But that doesn’t get clicks.
There’s articles all over the place about diets and how to trick your body into losing weight and what workouts are best for your body and all that.
And yet, everyone’s fat. I mean, a lot of us.
In other words, I think that there’s something missing from the whole conversation when it comes to weight loss.
And it has to do with basketball. And dancing.
What did I experience when I played basketball? When I dance?
Very simple. Immersion in the experience. Unlike running, they calm my jangly nerves because they let me be my anxious self. They focus my attention on what I’m doing.
To put it even more simply, they give me one key thing: complete and utter joy. Just… so much joy, I can’t even describe it.
So much joy, that I don’t calculate the carbs I lost from doing them. Joy that causes me to just want to do my “workout” rather than constantly forcing it onto my poor, fat, jiggly body.
I think that over time, we’ll find that this whole mind-body connection, the idea that psychology has much more to do with our physiology than we realize, and vice versa, applies to us not just in terms of “exercise makes you happy”, but in terms of something more… that it works the other way too. That emotions can cause you to lose weight, that they have a literal, physical power over our bodies.
There’s a Hasidic saying (guess this is an article about Judaism): “Joy breaks all boundaries.”
Unfortunately, we live in this hard Western world that tends to value “discipline” over self-awareness, “hard work” over emotional health, and doctors over psychologists.
Is it any wonder that we’re so overworked? Is it any wonder that we’re both the fattest and most depressed nations on earth? And is it any wonder that no one discusses the possibility that the two might be connected?
What if instead of clickbait, instead of “tricks”, instead of “exercise and eat well” shoved down our throats, we focused our nation on its emotions? On finding the joy in everything we do? In getting ourselves healthy by doing it in the way that enriches our lives, that isn’t just an hour torture fest every other day?
We’ve literally industrialized exercise. Do you understand how depressing that is? Do you think it’s any wonder that we all make New Year’s resolutions to lose weight, go to the gym for one day, and then walk out?
It’s because we think we have to choose between being fat and being happy. And we’d rather be happy.
But what if we realized that the two aren’t in opposition, but inherently connected? What if our definition of health expanded? What if we realized our emotions are part of our body?
Well then, maybe there would be more people playing basketball and dancing.