I tend to think of fitness in terms of exercise first, diet second and then mental health somewhere around 80th. But the three things are intertwined, all parcel to the holistic goal of feeling good. And yes, I know that diet should probably be above exercise and that both of those depend on mental well-being. But I like to pretend that I can exercise my way out of eating a whole pizza and then not think about why I did that. Perhaps I could use a tuneup: mentally, physically and nutritionally.
That’s a broad purview, but I decided to try one local offering in each category, all available without actually going anywhere. When it comes to wellness, as the success of Peloton proves, not leaving your house is the new going to a class. And so I queued up Boston fitness instructor Eliza Shirazi’s Kick It By Eliza online classes—you can usually take part in her workouts in person in the Seaport, but now her classes are anywhere you care to do them. To juice my diet, I ordered some of Tom Brady’s TB12 Instant Whey Protein Isolate Supplement, which arrived in the mail. Then I downloaded 10 Percent Happier, a meditation app developed by Dan Harris, who grew up in Newton and is now an ABC News anchor. The app is derived from a book he wrote after suffering an on-air panic attack in 2004 and then subsequently seeking out meditation experts to help him tame his own mind. And my mind could use a little taming, too. But first, let’s kick it.
I’m a veteran of online workouts, in the form of Daily Burn and Beachbody, so I’m a little cocky when I fire up Kick It By Eliza. For starters, she looks like a regular person who’s in excellent shape, versus one of those 0.5-percent body fat Avatar-looking mutants who lead some of these things. And during the warmup I’m like, “This isn’t hard. This is a Level 4 workout? Come on. There aren’t even any weights.” But that’s just the warmup.
There’s not a ton of actual kicking in Kick It By Eliza. There is a lot of squatting and jumping around and moves that I’d say fall under that particular brand of pain known as plyo. It’s nothing that’s jacking my heart rate out of control, but she’s relentless. The times when she’s demonstrating a move? You’re supposed to start doing it with her, right then. There’s no rest. Only something Eliza calls “active recovery.” She’s not screaming at you to, “Keep going, you worthless dirtbag, because sweat is your fat crying!” No, she just sweetly tells you it’s time for some active recovery while you whimper and quietly curse under your breath.
There are a few moves in the workout I’ve never seen before that are surprisingly diabolical. Like one where you’re pulsing your arms in front of your body and then overhead—again, no weights. Just your arms. And about a minute into it, my shoulders are screaming. What the hell? I believe this is what the CIA calls a “stress position.”
The typical online workout format tends to position a class behind the instructor. So we see those people keeping up, or not, while the instructor banters with them. Over on BeachBody, it’s like, “Nice job, Ted! Look at Ted’s guns, everybody! You can have Ted’s guns, too, if you take as many steroids as Ted does! Just kidding, Ted! Check out the way this guy is looking at me. Murderously! OK, the only thing we’re gonna murder today is our limitations, right, Ted? And three more…” With Kick It, the camera is set up as if you’re in the class, facing her. Everybody but Eliza is in shadow, which means you can’t see what they’re doing and she doesn’t talk to them. It’s just you and Eliza in this.
Soon she builds into complicated moves, which are not my strong suit. Some of the Kick It sets include four moves in rapid succession, and there’s no way I’m doing it right. She’s like, “Kick, kick, slide, slide, x-hop, x-hop, front lunge, reverse squat, that’s one and TWO, kick, kick…” Meanwhile, if anyone was watching me trying to follow along, I look like a man being attacked by invisible bats, alternately punching the air and arrhythmically kicking and leaping across the room.
By the end I’m dripping sweat. It feels like a good workout but I generally prefer less jumping and more pumping—err, less hopping and more vein-popping? More weights. I like weights. But then, I’m a meathead. Or should I say, a whey-
I’ve never tried a protein powder of any kind. I always just figured that I eat eggs and beans and Buffalo wings and other actual foods that have protein, so why bother paying for a supplement? I also associate those huge plastic protein canisters with the type of dudes who carry gallon jugs of water at the gym and chalk their fingerless workout gloves with the powdered bones of vanquished enemies. I guess Tom Brady doesn’t like those canisters either, because the TB12 whey protein comes in a sleek metal container. It gives off a medical-industry vibe, which is probably intentional. Take only when prescribed by a doctor who wants you to exude excellence and defy expectations for decade after decade.
Now, since I’ve never used protein powder, I don’t know how to make it. The directions on the can read, “Mix one scoop with 8 ounces of cold water, skim milk or add to your favorite recipe. Consume one or more servings daily.” Each scoop contains
80 calories and gives you 40 percent of your recommended daily allowance of protein, so I figured that oughta get me going in the morning. Also, my wife advises that no matter how excited I am to try this powder, I should refrain from yelling, “I can’t wait to chug Tom Brady’s protein!”
First I try mixing the whey in water and it doesn’t work out so well. While the label proclaims that the powder is “unflavored,” it definitely has a flavor. And not a great one. It’s kind of an earthy dairy aftertaste, a distant barnyard memory of a flavor. Also, stir as I might, I can’t get a whole scoop of powder to totally dissolve in the water, with a galaxy of stubborn clumps refusing to go quietly into the mixture. The result looks like gray hot chocolate laced with tiny marshmallows but doesn’t taste as good as that. I decide that if TB12 powder isn’t flavored, it at least needs an accomplice that is.
So I try milk, which tastes better but still has the chunkiness issue. Then I whisk it into scrambled eggs, which overcome the taste but end up with a chewy texture. Finally, as on so many other occasions in life, I think, “What would Tom Brady do?” The answer, of course, is that he would make a smoothie. And that is the right call.
A little almond milk, some frozen peaches and blueberries and a scoop of TB12 go into the blender. I hand my wife a glass and she takes a sip and says, “This is disgusting.” And that’s true, but not because of the protein powder. More because of the freezer-burned fruit and lack of bananas, since we don’t have any. But I can see how this stuff could go unnoticed in your diet, provided you like using a blender.
Now, to the main question: Does it work? Many a study has tackled that subject without definitive answers, so I can’t really offer a firm conclusion after a week. However, this stuff is supposed to aid muscle-building, which sounds helpful. And, after several days of TB12 supplementation, I set off on a run that I intend to last for three miles. But then I just keep going, until ultimately I run six miles—on the beach, in sand. I just feel good. I expect to pay a price for stretching the mileage, but the next day I’m only mildly sore. Whether that’s because of the whey or placebo effect or the tilt of the earth that day, I don’t know. But I think I’m gonna start making some more smoothies, just in case.
Dan Harris bills his app as “meditation for fidgety skeptics,” and I guess that would describe me. I’ve never tried meditation, actually. Not because I’m skeptical of the concept but because I don’t feel like I need it. I mean, I’m pretty calm. I’m not having panic attacks. Why do I need meditation? Well, I’d soon find out.
To access 10 Percent Happier, the first thing you do is download the app. Upon downloading 10 Percent, the app asks not for an email address and the name of your childhood pet but whether you meditate. I answer no. The next screen asks what I’m trying to get out of this. The choices are: Sleep better, increase focus or a few other things like … memory, maybe? Anyway, I pick focus. I need some focus. My focus is—hey, what’s that over there? As I’ve been writing this paragraph, I walked away to put on slippers, started reading a New Yorker story and went outside to cover a patio chair because it started raining. While I did that, I thought about whether I wanted a pretzel.
Next, it asks when I want to meditate: morning, midday or evening? I feel like midday is good. Midday is when I put the ass in namaste. See? Maybe I need to meditate. But after you choose a time, the app wants to send you notifications to remind you. Push notifications seem like the antithesis of whatever meditation’s about. So, no. Skip for now. (And forever.)
Now I create an account. A short video plays to tell me what this is all about.
Harris explains that he had a panic attack on TV and that sucked. He ended up seeking out meditation professionals and learning that happiness is a skill that requires training. So let’s get into that. The app offers seven sessions—“the basics”—for free. No pressure.
Session 1: You get into position, legs crossed, and the screen shows only a countdown timer while Joseph Goldstein, who co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in the 1970s, talks you through the first steps in his soothing bass voice. Breathing. Concentration. You’re calm. Retreating into your brain. And then my phone dings with a text from my wife. “I think I locked the keys in the car. Help!” I’ve been meditating for 15 seconds. A moment later, another text: “Nevermind.”
Session 2: Each session begins with an introduction from Harris and often Goldstein. In this one, they compare your thoughts to a waterfall. “When people first look into their minds, it’s like a rushing waterfall, a torrent of thoughts and feelings and images,” Goldstein says. Harris replies, “The insight is, ‘Our minds are out of control.’ ” The following meditation session prompts you to take note of that waterfall and notice that it’s happening. This time my dogs, playing tug of war, crash into me as I sit on the couch trying to be mindful. “When you’re ready, you can slowly open your eyes and reconnect with the world around you,” Goldstein intones as my legs are engulfed in a whirling dervish of fur. Yeah, it connected with me already.
Sessions 3-6: OK, I learned my lesson. I go in the bedroom and close the door. I put my phone on Do Not Disturb. These sessions are only 10 minutes long, at most. I can have that, right? I sit and feel that I am sitting. I breathe and feel that I am breathing. My Apple Watch vibrates and, no joke, asks me if I want to use its Breathe app. OK, off with that. Back to breathing, Goldstein calmly intones instructions with lengthy pauses. It feels almost like I’m falling asleep but I’m awake. Kind of awesome. Then a guy outside fires up some kind of power equipment. Is that a leaf blower, really? Pause. Back to the mindfulness. Or rather, the realization that I’m not very mindful. You know how when Ray in Ghostbusters tries not to think of anything, he summons the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man? I’m like that except I get the White Walkers from Game of Thrones. Where did those guys come from? That’s OK. It’s OK. Note the White Walkers and move on. They’re just a thought, and thoughts have no power on their own. Turn to the source of discomfort, whether ideas or physical discomfort, until you feel better. Pay close attention to whatever’s happening and you’ll never be bored.
Session 7: Harris quotes a sign that used to be at Newbury Comics above the list of upcoming releases. It read, “All dates can change. So can you.” I like that. And I like meditation, actually. The whole idea that you can take a step back and notice your thoughts is nice, but so is the premise that you should take 10 goddamn minutes to yourself every now and then to just retreat into your own mind. I love it. Of course, that can lead you to some uncomfortable revelations. Like when I’m getting situated and Goldstein is talking through posture and breathing, he says, “Relax the belly. … And simply feel yourself sitting.”
That’s when I notice how belly my belly is, and how there is more of that than I’d like, so I note that thought, along with one other: As soon as this session is over, I’m firing up Kick It By Eliza. ■