Jon O'Connor knew it was time to act when his friends started calling him Johnny Two Bellies. So he went to a health club to confess his sins and get to know his toes again
Every holiday I get this feeling I should get myself together again. My friend Eddie feels the same. He's stressed out, I'm stressed out. He plays squash, I play squash. He looks mean and lean . . . yes, well. Eddie's taken to calling me Johnny TwoBellies lately. Overweight, overtired and over the hill. Thanks, Eddie.
In the middle of this male menopause The TES calls up and asks if I would like a life-enhancing experience. I make a feeble effort to query the options. So someone else got the flying lessons, huh? Anyone doing space station repairs? Somehow I knew there would be a fitness kick in the end. The TES has the ideal place: an Espree Health Centre in London. Joie de vivre, esprit de corps, that sort of thing.
My karma is already kicking and struggling with the concept. But, manfully, I agree. A lorry hits a railway bridge. My train is cancelled. I arrive 10 minutes late at the health club, and I'm sweating before we start.
The Blackfriars Espree club, deep in the heart of the City, is totally cool. Everyone looks normal. No pretensions, no fanatics, no snobbery at all. No City lawyers in pinstripe tracksuits, and no misunderstandings with Lycra.
I had a slight misunderstanding with Lycra on my previous (and only other) visit to a gym. A girl opposite me kept smiling at me as I pushed furiously upwards against four kilos which refused to budge. I smiled back, of course, and breathed aerobically. Then she came towards me on a tidal wave of perfect physique. I crumpled in a sweaty heap at her feet. Whereupon she explained how you pushed the bars to the sides. To the sides, not up. No wonder she was smiling.
Espree is different: wholesome, professional and very welcoming. Shop, bar and restaurant; nice lighting, clean wooden flooring, frosted discretion in glass cubicles. Like seeing your bank manager on a good day.
James, the club manager, is the soul of tact and discretion. During my pre-workout MOT, he politely ignores my nervous facetiousness and makes it clear I am totally in charge of my own destiny. Nothing will happen, no sordid details will be revealed without my consent. Thank God.
He uses a specially designed computer program which absorbs my health history and essential data into a personal profile.
Blood pressure: near normal. Weight: a sore point, touching 15 stone, recorded without a flicker.
Then the computer hits paydirt: my waist-hip ratio exposes deep fubsiness. A score of 9.23 provokes the technological equivalent of a discreet cough from Jeeves. Sir may have a moderate risk of coronary trouble. Would Sir care to identify three goals for a new fitness mission?
In the end, I'm more candid about my lifestyle and self-image than I am with my mirror. Two words stare out from my profile. Fat. Greedy. I said them. James certainly wouldn't. Facing reality, I start to babble: I know I need to eat less, I have no time for lunch, I pig out when I get home, I finish off my kids' leftovers. My mum taught me never to waste food; I should cut out sugary drinks. James cuts me short. "So our goal might be to eat less." My other goals are to adjust my addiction to soft drinks and to commit myself to two weekly exercise sessions.
And then I'm out into the gym. Normally around 600 people a day come here, but it's a quiet August afternoon. Not a Power Ranger in sight. Just ordinary people pumping blood. I'm in with a shout here. James tells me that Espree Health Clubs support the British winter Olympic squad. I think I'd better warm up first.
Two minutes at a gentle pace on the rowing machine. Imagine, this is where the international rowing champion sits. James corrects my flailing action and I rearrange my delusions. I agree that we should put the rate up and do another 10 minutes. Note that plural. I'm several miles downstream by the time we finish battling against the tide.
And on to the Stairmaster. This machine soon masters my legs, which are behaving rather oddly at this stage, but I'm actually enjoying myself. Until Jez the photographer shows up, that is. Previous assignments for Jez include investigating the East German secret police. It obviously stood him in good stead, because over the next half an hour he puts me through hell. This is not the carefully measured routine that James and I originally discussed. I feel a sense of foreboding.
With a smile, Jez straps me into a chest press. "Look at that. Perhaps we won't need the water spray to simulate sweat, after all."
Karen takes over from James as my guide and explains the Power-Assisted Dips and Chins machine. I disguise a slight wheeze as casual humming, an old instrumental called "The Rise and Fall of Flingel Bunt". The Row and Rear Delt machine defines my deltoids effortlessly. They're what is known in the trade as "missing, inaction".
Karen smiles. I've seen that smile before somewhere. "Laugh," she says. Karen is trying to keep me breathing while I work. She's finding it easier to laugh than I am, for some reason. But now I'm enjoying myself again. I really am.
Karen kindly finds my thorax for me, when I'm having a spot of bother on the abdomen exerciser. Meanwhile, Jez's lust for power is finally sated, having exhausted his Stasi techniques. He congratulates me. "I thought you looked particularly good with the towel." The phrase "Quit while you're ahead" comes to mind. While you're still alive, too.
I think it's time for the warm-down and the freebies: free lockers, fresh towels, shower gel, hairdryers, deodorant spay. It's all laid on back in the changing rooms and it's wonderful.
I feel great. I have actually worked out how to do a workout, and it didn't hurt a bit. Until the next morning.
There are two Espree Health Clubs in London: 3 Tudor Street, Blackfriars, EC4 (tel: 0171 488 1222), and Royal Mint Court, EC3 (tel: 0171 867 1222). Each club has a full range of classes (aerobics, ski fitness, yoga, etc) a weights room, dance studio and gym. Both offer physiotherapy, sports massage and holistic treatments. Espree is offering TES readers one day's free admission to either club. Just take a copy of this article along with you. For those who subsequently take out a membership there will be a 50 per cent reduction in the joining fee.