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How I found my fitness mojo and lost 38 pounds in 6 months

February 26th, 2008

For the first time since college I’m a healthy weight for my height, I’m eating right, I’m exercising regularly, and I feel terrific.

I’m 6 feet tall (182 centimeters). In September of 2007 I weighed 213 pounds (96.6 kilograms). That gave me a BMI of 29 putting me firmly in the overweight category and near the border of obese.

But today, I’m happy and proud to report that, as of this morning:

  • I’ve lost a total of 38 pounds (17 kilograms) in 6 months bringing my new weight to 175 pounds (79 kilograms).
  • My BMI is now in the normal range.
  • I’ve lost 4 inches off my waist. I had to donate most of my clothes to charity.
  • I now exercise regularly. Yesterday I did 75 pushups in 3 sets of 25. I run 6 miles per week when it isn’t raining.
  • It’s my birthday. I’m 36 today and I’m in better shape now than I was when I was 22.

I’m really proud of myself. This has been one of the biggest and most important projects I’ve ever worked on. I’m writing this because I wanted to share why and how I did it—maybe I can inspire someone who is in a similar situation.

Why

In September of 2007, I decided enough was enough. I hadn’t been happy with my body for a long time. I was six feet tall and 213 pounds. Blessed with good genes I guess, I didn’t look fat. But my BMI score showed that I was about to cross the boundary from overweight to obese. More importantly, I felt unhealthy. I was tired a lot. And, after many years of gradual decline, I knew I always over-ate and too quickly. I was never hungry.

My wife had just left on a month-long business trip. It would be fun to surprise her. What better time to make a change?

How

I wasn’t interested in the latest diet fads or losing weight fast. I’d never engaged in a weight loss or fitness program before. I knew that I wanted to make a permanent, healthy change and that would require permanent changes to my lifestyle. I had no interest in being “on a diet.” I made an important realization early: I was leading an unhealthy lifestyle and it had to change.

I started slowly. For the first week, I made no changes except one: I started a food diary. I wanted to know exactly what and how much I ate, what my calorie intake was, and what nutrition I was getting from my food. This was an eye-opener. I suggest that anyone who wants to change their eating habits start a food diary. I think that anyone who feels like they are eating very little but still gaining weight are lying to themselves. A food diary, kept diligently, will tell you the truth.

At the same time, I changed my attitude towards food. Prior to September, I didn’t think much about food at all. I enjoyed the taste of it. I liked eating. But I didn’t think much about why I was eating. Food is fuel for your body. You need calories and nutrients in the right proportions for the activities you are going to be doing. It makes no sense to fill up on large quantities of high-energy food and then take a nap. It makes no sense to starve yourself and then tackle a long day of constant activity.

Weight loss is a very simple formula. You lose weight by eating fewer calories than you use. If you are at equilibrium (not gaining or losing weight) then changing your diet to eat less (fewer calories coming in) or exercise more (more calories used) will cause you to lose weight. Period.

After a week of keeping the food diary, I knew exactly how many calories I needed to cut out of my diet on a daily basis to achieve my goal by a specific date. I also knew, based on my food diary, what nutrients I wasn’t getting enough of. A little research from there led to a long list of healthy alternatives that would reduce my calorie intake and increase my nutrient intake.

Cutting calories out of your diet is at once very easy and very difficult. You simply identify the high-calorie, low-nutrient foods (soda, candy, fast-food) in your diet and replace them with healthier (lower-calorie, higher-nutrient) alternatives. For example, two 12 ounce sodas every day adds up to 30 pounds over a year.

I didn’t go “cold turkey” on anything. I gradually reduced my intake of certain foods (fast-food and sugar mainly). I didn’t punish myself for having a soda or a piece of candy once in a while. I did not give up coffee. Gradual works. I can honestly say that I have completely kicked my cola addiction. One day I realized I just didn’t care if I had any or not. I simply don’t crave it anymore.

I knew I ate too much at each sitting. Americans seem trained from birth to overeat. We want value. But “value” in food, for most people, seems to mean larger portions instead of better quality. Reducing my portion was accomplished in three different ways:

  • Education. Based on my diary and nutrition guides, I knew what a healthy, nutritious portion was.
  • Measurement. I bought batteries for our kitchen scale and began weighing all of the food I prepared at home so I would know exactly how much I was eating. This is important to make sure your food diary is accurate. I can now accurately estimate the weight of food in ounces by looking at it. I was hopeless at it before I began weighing my food. If you enjoyed food and dining out like I did, you may be in for a huge shock the first time you weigh a 3 ounce portion of beef.
  • Action. I don’t know who invented the idea of “three square meals a day” but I have a feeling it was somebody who cared more about worker productivity on an assembly line than your health. Eating three squares a day is a bad idea. Here’s a better one: eat when you are hungry and eat an appropriate amount for the activity you will be doing for the next three hours. I started eating smaller portions more frequently. Sometimes I eat six times a day. I eat healthy snacks all day long. I don’t eat at night because sleeping doesn’t require many calories.

Yes, there were days I got really hungry. It can be a shock to feel hunger. It wasn’t easy. But it’s natural to feel hunger. Hunger is how your body tells you it needs more fuel. Listen to your body. Don’t eat if you’re not hungry. Eat slowly. Stop when you are full.

I started exercising. Very slowly at first. Embarrassingly slowly. I hadn’t done any real exercise in years. I couldn’t run one mile. This may sound silly but we got a Nintendo Wii that week. I started doing jumping jacks every morning while I played tennis. It was becoming too easy once I could do 900 jumping jacks in 20 minutes. So I decided to start running.

I don’t like the idea of gym memberships or treadmills. I’m a big guy in a safe neighborhood so I’m not afraid of being attacked on the street. So I did some research and bought some running shoes and some clothes I could run and sweat in—less than $100. Again, I started slowly. I’m not going to lie. Running is hard. It’s very, very difficult. I planned my routes so I could measure the distance I ran. And I timed myself. But I never challenged myself to always improve my time. I wasn’t trying to win a race. I’m currently up to 2 miles a day, 3 days a week. I do resistance exercises on alternate days.

Starting running is very hard. But here’s another truth: after two weeks, I missed it on days when I couldn’t run. Exercise makes me feel good. When I exercise I have energy all day long.

I set reasonable goals for myself, tracked my progress, and I tweaked them so that they got easier as I went along. I gave myself about three weeks each for my first two goals, two months for my third goal, and nearly three months for my fourth goal. Tracking my progress helped a lot. It always felt good to add a new accomplishment and to be able to see my improvement over time. I just used a simple text diary.

I didn’t punish myself for not achieving my goals on schedule. In one case, I realized after a couple of weeks that the goal I had set was unreasonable—I wasn’t going to make it—so I changed it. And you know what? I felt much better once I did. There’s no reason to have any guilt or disappointment as long as you are still making progress.

Conclusions

And that’s it. It all seems like common sense really. There were weeks when I became discouraged because I didn’t seem to be making progress. But I didn’t give in and I didn’t punish myself. I just made corrections and carried on. I don’t claim to have some kind of super-human will power.

Will power isn’t something that happens in a vacuum. Will power comes from having a strong conviction or desire to do something. In other words, you have to really want it. If you really want something badly enough, the will power to do what it takes to achieve that goal comes naturally as a side-effect. If you don’t really want it, you won’t have the will power to do it.

I don’t have any secrets to share. Changing from a high-calorie, low-activity, low-nutrition fast-food lifestyle to one that is healthier in the long-term is extremely difficult. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news but it’s simply not an easy thing to do no matter what anyone tells you. I don’t consider what I’ve described here a “diet.” If you want to be healthier, you need to make gradual, permanent changes in your lifestyle and your relationship to food and exercise. There is no easy, one-size-fits-all way to make a positive, long-term change in your life. It’s hard work. But having an intense desire to make a change helps.

The bad news is that it isn’t easy to change. But the good news is that once you’ve changed, it’s very difficult to go back. If you concentrate on long-term, gradual changes to your lifestyle that lead to a higher level of fitness, I’m convinced you will be able to maintain that fitness level easily for the rest of your life.

I think most people think of weight loss like this:

Decide to lose weight -> Diet -> Reach goal

A straight line from start to finish and then… you’re done? That’s great if you don’t mind gaining the weight back again after you’re “done.” But if you want permanent, healthy weight loss, real fitness works more like this:

Decide to be healthy -> Take action -> Evaluate & adjust -> Repeat

And not only that, there are at least two cycles depending on whether you are trying to change or maintain your weight.

Dieting is something you do. Being fit is something you are.

I’ve kept at it for six months. It’s taken me that long to achieve my weight and fitness goals. Today I moved into long-term maintenance mode which was easy because it basically just means I keep living the new lifestyle I’ve already been living. I’ll probably still step on the scale once a week to make sure I’m not going off course. But I’m not worried. I’m confident that the new habits I’ve learned over the last six months will keep me on track for the rest of my life.