By David Mandeix
Today I’d like to discuss the seemingly incongruous idea of nerds and fitness.
Specifically, I’d like to focus on the strange dichotomy that exists wherein nerds are not great physical specimens, but almost every character in their preferred obsession is.
And why was this? Largely because the typical physical activities associated with lean muscle and general good health hold no interest to the common nerd; at least I knew this to be the case for me. Also, those things were difficult, not very exciting, I wasn’t good at them, and I was lazy. This compounded my difficulties in socializing in general, as I shared no interest or aptitude in activities that generally made one popular (see: sports). And could you blame me? #Sorrynotsorry: I thought that lords, swords, and dragons were more exciting than watching a person hit, throw, or run with a sports-ball, and if HBO’s viewership was anything to go by, the number of people who agreed with me was on the rise.
It dawned on me one day that it was profoundly strange to admire my heroes and follow their fantastical adventures without actually having adventures of my own. If these things were so exciting to me, why wasn’t I out there doing them? Thus began a long and arduous journey that blossomed into a love of fitness and physical challenges. I submit myself and my own experiences as the case study. This is partially because I know my own story best, partially because I hope you will find it interesting, but mostly because I am in the process of inflicting my fitness mania on my long-suffering roommate Kerey (known to Nerds who Read readers as the resident expert on all things steampunk).
One day, after dragging him through a particularly tough workout, Kerey put the question to me: “What books or films inspired you to get fit?” It was a valid question; after all, it’s hard to maintain enthusiasm for hard work when you’re not inspired! While there are many books and movies that have gotten me to this point, I’d like to submit to you my top five nerd-fitness motivators:
5. Altered Carbon (Richard Morgan, 2002). A neo-noir cyberpunk novel and a hell of a great read, this book’s hero (anti-hero?) drove home the need for mental toughness, personal grit, and borderline psychotic motivation during his adventures. This is the sort of thing that made me want to go back to the gym the next day, even though my body was in agony. This book will make you want to run that extra mile and do that extra rep. (Disclaimer: It will also make you want whisky and cigarettes, but you’ve got to take the good with the bad).
4. Martin the Warrior (Brian Jacques, 1993). This was the first book I remember staying up all night to read. I couldn’t put it down. I think I was in sixth grade at the time. Gripping story and indomitable heroes, in spite of all the suffering that was heaped upon them. This book probably first instilled in me the admiration of heroes that spit in death’s eye when their backs were to the wall. Also, bonus points because all of the characters are woodland creatures, and when a mouse can inspire you to be badass, that says something.
3. Gates of Fire (Steven Pressfield, 1998) is a 1998 historical novel that recounts the Battle of Thermopylae through the eyes of an auxiliary, but also chronicles the training of the Spartan warriors and their noble battle and sacrifice. In addition to coming into my possession around the same time 300 came out, it paints a vivid picture of the ruthless Spartan training regime; it’s the kind of story that makes you want to heft a spear and shield and engage in a raucous clash of arms. After reading this book, my training relied heavily on a weight vest (Forty pounds was the closest approximation I could get to a hoplite’s armor).
2. Spartacus (Starz, 2010). A spectacular premium cable series in terms of both story line, cinematography, and—let's face it—some extremely good muscle porn. It chronicles the story of the eponymous gladiator, and should have enough violence, intrigue, and historical sentence structure for any nerd. Bonus: it features excellent performances by John Hannah and Lucy Lawless. Lucy, by the way, was 42 at the time of the filming and looks absolutely stunning. The actor playing the main character was 39 and incredibly ripped. Not to mention the (now) 46 year old actor playing Crixus. Just goes to show the lasting benefits of fitness... I challenge anyone to watch this TV show and not want to work out.
1. Conan the Barbarian (books and films). The granddaddy of them all. From Robert E. Howard, to L. Sprague de Camp, to Robert Jordan (yes, in his early days!), I loved loved LOVED the Conan series. Introduced to the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie at a formative moment of my youth, but forced to acknowledge that I did not possess the “strength of a great ape,” the “lithe movements of a panther,” or even “well-oiled muscles that moved like snakes under the torchlight,” I determined to acquire these things. Though at the time, my thighs were neither mighty nor steely, Conan was really what made me start putting the hours in at the gym. And is it any surprise? Eighty per cent of Conan’s problems are solved through judicious application of his barbarian physique. Sign me up for Body by Cimmeria.
There are countless other books and movies that inspired or added fuel to my fitness journey (possibly to be covered in another article), but these five make up the core of my motivation to set down the book and pick up the weight. Don’t get me wrong—I haven’t given up books. I still read nightly and use my nerdy obsessions to help drive my fitness goals. If anything, imagining that I’m scaling a Cimmerian cliff or running down a Persian scout makes the exercises a little bit easier to stomach. It is my sincere hope that they can somehow inspire other folks as well!