Riding a surf kayak at Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz, California

The strongest prod to fitness I ever got came just as I touched age thirteen.

It happened right after I entered a seminary to launch a course of study to transform myself into a Roman Catholic priest. Pursuit of sanctity was supposedly my primary reason for attendance. Yet not far behind was my lust for three squares per day. The institutional grub plopped onto plates at “the sem” was often not very good, yet it was always adequate, and thus something I much appreciated.

Up to that point, you see, I’d been a poor and malnourished child. Being able to munch regularly on anything edible seemed miraculous by compare. Nourishment boosted my natural desire to seize any advantage that might allow me to become still healthier.


Consequently, it fascinated me to find out the sem boasted a weight room – of sorts. It was in an open-air bay of a workshop run by the school’s handyman and custodian. The weights and a crude bench in that bay belonged to a pair of beefy upperclassmen, both named Mike – Mike Berry and Mike Dineen. These Irish boyos had wide shoulders and biceps so thick they’d split their shirt sleeves if they raised a fork in the wrong manner at dinner. (The right method was for them to bend their heads down to the fork after bringing it up halfway to their mouths.)

I didn’t aim to turn myself into a buffed palooka the likes of those Mikes. I hoped to build up more along the chiseled lines of Charles Atlas – “America’s Most Perfectly Developed Man,” and a perennial star of comic book ads. Obviously, a long journey lay ahead for me if I wanted to get there, and I was plagued by doubts that I’d ever arrive. My arms were thin as reeds, and my hips spread wider than my shoulders. Thus, my underweight shape pretty much resembled that of a runt avocado.

Well, the Mikes said it was okay if I pumped their iron while they were not using it. Given the paltry amount I could lift, it probably seemed clear to them I wouldn’t put much wear-and-tear on their equipment. Shackled to a rigorous schedule, we seminarians won a grand total of ninety minutes of “free” time per day. I’d use two or three such sessions per week to work out. Otherwise, I kept quiet and concentrated on my classes.


All went well until the seminary held an in-house party that we called a “Gaudeamus” (meaning, let us rejoice, in Latin) a few months later. This event featured skits, songs and jokes. And I got to be the butt of a big joke. “Out at Hank’s workshop, there are two huge guys lifting weights,” the announcer said, “and one puny, scrawny figure stands in their shadow desperately trying to imitate them. Paul McHugh! Come on up and get your signed photo of Mike Dineen in his bathing suit.”

Maybe I should’ve responded to that invite by telling the announcer that he could take his picture, fold it till it was all corners, then stuff it where the sun never shines. But that would’ve made it much less likely that they’d let me stay at the seminary.

Alternatively, I could have jumped up on the improvised stage and flexed my thin limbs, to make the audience howl with laughter and award me at least partial ownership of the joke. However, back then I lacked any psychological savvy or enough skill at self-mockery to let me make that kind of move. Instead, my face aflame with embarrassment, I slouched up, grabbed the gift-wrapped square, slunk back to my seat and tore it open – only to see the cardboard of a crummy old record album cover.

Inwardly, I seethed with anger at this needless humiliation. Yet I also felt educated. The same casual cruelty, the same in-crowd/out-crowd clique dynamic I’d seen “in the world” operated within this seminary as well. Just with a somewhat thicker frosting of respectability smeared on top.

And I had one more takeaway.


I walked out of that seminary’s Gaudeamus party gripped by an unbreakable, unshakeable resolve. Naturally, I’d go on lifting. But I’d also follow any other protocol I could conceive to build myself a more powerful and useful body through all remaining years of my life.

Anyone who tried to make fun of me again, or criticize me, could go pound sand. As it turned out, there would still be a few. One was a priest on the faculty who steadily dinged me for being materialistic, arrogant and selfish because of my unyielding attempt to grow stronger. I assigned his and any such bouts of annoyance to a niche in Oblivion somewhere between the whine of a mosquito and the buzzing of a horsefly. Six years later, when I bailed out of the place, I’d grown near to attaining my physical aims. Yet I must report that the sanctity goal had remained remarkably elusive.

At the summit of White Mountain Peak, 14, 252 feet


More than 50 years have passed. I exercise every day. I have low blood pressure, low body fat, and a resting pulse rate of 48. I’ve got great digestion, never have had a back problem. I still can and do work at construction projects. And I regularly pursue most of my favorite activities, which include surfing, skiing, hunting, trail running and swimming.

Oh yes, also writing! Regardless of any other demand our scribbling craft inflicts on a person, a steady practice of writing exacts a physical toll that’s best answered by an enduring fitness regimen.


Many studies have emphasized the positive impact of physical exercise on brain health and mental acuity. In brief, a regular workout regimen improves oxygen flow, blood circulation and general metabolism. It stimulates hormone release, enhances neural connections, reduces stress and subdues depression. Such effects can last through life. The physically active elderly always perform far better on cognitive tests than the sedentary elderly do.

I always read with great interest any fresh pieces on this topic. But I’ve never been surprised by them, since my intuition has long been avidly on the case. I could cite studies, but I’ll make this piece much easier to read by simply relating my own findings over the years. And I’ll offer my best advice on how to integrate an active physical lifestyle with a writing career.


  • It’s never too late to begin. Any improvement in physical life, undertaken at any point, prompts a gain in mental vigor.
  • Don’t sit too much. Arise every hour. A fine way to do a workout is to break it into sections over the course of a day. Don’t worry, you still can think about writing while slinging dumbbells around. Write, exercise. Write, exercise. That’s the rhythm.
  • An easy way to turn the use of weights into an aerobic exercise is to go for many quick repetitions instead of maintaining your focus on heavy mass. The only reason to go for heavy mass is if you wish to add bulk. Fine, if that’s what you want. But great bulk isn’t useful for most real-world tasks. Bulk tends to be packed on by insecure people so they can show it off. Thus, it tends to signify its opposite.
  • A key to proper hydration is color of your urine. Go for a pale yellow, light champagne color of pee. When its darker, drink more. I mean, branch water! (Bourbon dehydrates, even if, as Faulkner observed, “There’s a heap of nourishment in an acre of corn.”)
  • The Paleo Diet folks make good points, yet I don’t swallow their whole caboodle. Yes, a few vegetables are excellent for you raw, but more end up nutritious and easier to digest if lightly cooked. By and large, you should eat lower on the food chain. Which means: whole grains, fresh fruit and veggies, nuts, beans. Do so daily, and you won’t need to take vitamins.
  • If you choose to eat meat, you’ll get all useful value from a per-day portion the size of a deck of cards. Shun fatty meats or preserved meats – sausage, ham, bacon, salami, pastrami and the like. These might be okay as infrequent treats, but they’re verboten as a steady diet. Much better – organic, free-range chicken, grass-fed beef, wild (not farmed) fish.
  • Industrial snacks are just poison. Avoid salt, fat, sugar, grease and most especially the many, many tempting yet insidious combos thereof. (Yeah, potato chips, I’m lookin’ at you!)
  • Stretching is your friend. You can hardly do too much of it. However, one can create problems by stretching too hard or too forcefully. Ease into everything.
  • The best fitness regimen is a highly varied one. Each word in the phrase, Repetitive Stress Injury, holds significance. To defeat RSI, try to use all parts of your body in a variable fashion. For a writer, this means a workout that employs your fingers, hands, wrists and forearms in a far different way than a keyboard or a smartphone or a pen does. Take up exercises that make you adopt more varied postures, forcing you to swivel your neck and loosen up your back and shoulders.
  • Walking seems destined to remain eternally underrated. Walk everywhere that you can. Carry packs and bags when you must, but always walk. Of course, bicycling is a reasonable alternative. Hey wait, I’ve got a great idea! Why not do both?
  • Swimming also can be a low-impact and aerobic exercise, good for anybody, but excellent for older folks. A vigorous swim session provides a lovely afterglow that I believe derives from one’s vastly improved circulation.
  • Naps should be part of an astute fitness program. Feel tired? Take a 30-60 minute nap whenever you feel a need. Then come back to your life feeling renewed and able to work twice as hard. If you have never tried to nap, it can seem odd at first. But practice shall make perfect. Need more instruction or encouragement? Spend a bit of time watching a cat. (NB: Those kitties also excel at post-nap stretching.)
  • Moderation in all things – including moderation! A humbling dose of vice can actually prove an asset. Nobody likes a prig. Self-righteousness or self-vaunting, any air of moral superiority, such presentations tend to nauseate onlookers. Allow yourself to be a little bit bad from time to time. If you happen to overdo at a certain point, well then, just give yourself a spanky.


After a lifetime spent in ardent pursuit of fitness, I now enter a Cruise Phase. I don’t seek to add capability, I simply try to hang onto and to prolong what I’ve won thus far. Keep my weight down, while keeping up strength, mobility and aerobic capacity. That’s why I still run, lift, bike, swim, hike and so on in some form daily.

My game now also focuses on avoiding any overuse or impact injury. Hunks of my risk sport repertoire must perforce fall by the wayside. For example, I no longer paddle whitewater, race sea kayaks, cross-country ski race, rock climb, skydive or scuba dive. All motorcycles have been sold. My last marathon, at age 65, was indeed my last.

A certain sadness does attend bidding farewell to these splendid activities. However, because they did consume considerable time, the good news is that dropping them grants me far more hours in which to focus on my writing. In fact, I expect the next decade to be my most productive. In this era, the body that I’ve developed shall be a buddy and a helpmate. Not merely a vehicle to tote my brain about through space, but an active partner in assisting that vital organ to work its magic.

The photo next to this sentence was taken shortly after my college years. The silhouette just below more closely resembles my current shape. More than fifty years on, I’m determined to draw within reach of that old college weight. And yeah, sure, a chunk of that college physique was a thick mane of head hair that no one will ever see again. But otherwise, I think I might be close in on similar level of body trim. Maybe that will take a few additional months of effort.

As per Browning, I want to boost the physical overlap of my reach and my grasp. Which should make it much easier for me to dead-lift, curl, or bench-press any ballpoint pen far into the future. Or what may remain of one…

Our mortality is the ultimate wrestling opponent. Give a good account of yourself.