A healthy transition

A couple of years ago, Justice Gray shared his journey from out of shape, yet still sexy to in shape.  Believe it or not, it was actually a bit of a motivation for me to get back in shape.  It had been a long descent when I left college until my late 20s, until no donut was safe, no fry was left un-eaten, and no shake left unslurped.

So, I joined a gym and decided to get fit.  I proceeded to procrastinate about 4 months, but then got serious.  That was about 2 years ago, and I went from 218 lbs and a 36” waist to about 155-156 lbs and six inches off the waistline.

When I first stepped on the scale, I hadn’t really realized how far I had traveled down bacon lane.  I imagined about 200 or so, but pushing 220 on a 5’ 9” frame can make it difficult to navigate narrow hallways.  I tried to find a picture of me back then for before/after, but unfortunately I didn’t fit in the frame back then.

My journey from flab to fit was deliberate, however, as I wanted to make lifestyle changes that I could live with and habits I could continue for a lifetime.  And if anyone else is in the same boat I was a couple of years ago and wants to make a change, perhaps my journey might help.

A plan of action

I knew I got where I was because of basic biology.  You gain weight when you consume more calories than you burn.  I had let a bunch of bad habits creep in, all of which added up over time to weight gain.  But I knew that my goal was a lifetime of health, so right off the bat I eliminated any kind of diet I wasn’t comfortable with keeping for the rest of my life.  And besides, diets don’t work.  Not long-term, anyway, which is what I cared about.

Since it was a series of bad habits that led me to this point, my plan of action to get back on track was to:

  • Make incremental and iterative improvements in my habits
  • Measure my progress

Measuring progress

It’s true that whatever you measure will improve.  I started weighing myself on a daily basis, at the same time every day in the morning.  I see folks weight themselves at the gym, which seems rather silly as you lose a lot of water weight after working out.  Morning weigh-ins provide the most accurate numbers, and the same time every day provides consistency.

I do wish I actually kept track on a daily basis, but I just basically remembered as time went on.  I felt quite a bit of apprehension on daily weigh-ins at first, as it was a number I wanted to hide from at first.  But the only way I can determine if I’m on the right track is to measure progress, so every little goal of 5 or 10 pounds was very encouraging.

But unless you weight yourself, you won’t know if you’ve gained or lost weight.  I would know after going home for the holidays exactly how much I had indulged.  Until I measured, I just wouldn’t know.

Changing habits

I had very poor eating habits since I had left college.  I ate out lunch every day, drank lots of sodas, snacked, didn’t eat many fruits or veggies, etc.  I didn’t do a lot of physical activity, either.  Since the formula for weight loss is a simple “burn more than you consume”, I just needed to tip the scales the other way.

I can’t do a complete lifestyle change in one day, so I focused on changing one thing at a time, until it became a habit.  It probably meant I didn’t lose weight as fast as I could, but it was also much easier to deal with.

The habits I started, in order:

  1. Cardio exercise 3-4 times a week, for at least 30 minutes at a time (this is where the Wii and PS3 started getting lonely)
  2. Eat out at most 1 time during the week, bring lunch the other
  3. Eat breakfast
  4. No beer during the week
  5. Replace chips in lunch with fruit/veggies
  6. Include at least 2 servings of fruit/veggies with each meal
  7. Include resistance training/lifting with workouts (this pushed me over the plateau of about 190 lbs)
  8. Replace sugar soft drinks with diet soft drinks
  9. When eating out in a restaurant, divide plate in half and take the rest home
  10. Replace diet soft drinks with water in restaurants
  11. Replace diet soft drinks with green or black tea during the day (now I do 1-4 cups/day, this alone let me drop about 4 pounds in one week with no other changes)
  12. Substitute fries with mixed fruit/veggies
  13. Include snacks of nuts and grains during the day

All of these were done over the course of about 18-20 months.  My strategy was to transition away from high-carb diets rich in starches and sugars to one higher in protein and fiber, which incidentally help you feel full.  I also transitioned away from processed foods to more fruits and veggies, which besides the vitamins etc., these foods are harder to digest, so your body won’t necessarily absorb all of the calories present in the food.  This let me lose weight of about 1-2 pounds per week for normal weeks.  Weeks I went on vacation inevitably led to gains.

Restaurants were harder, as the temptation is there to overeat.  Portion size in a restaurant is double what it should be, so an easy fix is just to divide the plate in half and take the rest home.  Saves money, too.

When I met people I hadn’t seen in a while, my answer to “how did you lose all that weight?” is a pretty simple “eat right and exercise”.  Two habits I’m comfortable with for the rest of my life.  The tough part, and it really was tough, was identifying bad habits, substituting better behaviors, and making these my new habits.  Continue until I reached my target weight, 2 years and 60+ pounds lost later.

Treats versus habits

I didn’t really want to give up fries, queso, beer, queso, chips, queso, ice cream, queso or queso.  I didn’t want to live a life of culinary celibacy.  But the material I read was that none of these items are bad by themselves, they just have to be eaten seldom and in moderation.  That’s pretty much what I’ve stuck to.

A cookie is fine, ice cream is fine, fries are fine, but I can’t eat those every day and not expect to blow up like a surprisingly handsome balloon.  Temptations at home are tougher, so I opted instead to not have tempting foods around.  Chips were replaced by celery and peanut butter.  Microwave corndogs with soup that doesn’t have 8 lbs of sodium.  A treat eaten every day is then a habit, and there will be side effects of making a treat a habit.  I still have soft drinks, but I might have 1 a week instead of 10.  And there’s usually some sort of vodka or rum in it, so it doesn’t count anyway ;)  I still play video games, but not 4-5 days a week.  Instead, I’ll go to the gym.

I’ve known quite a few folks go on a diet, make great progress, then quit the diet only to see the weight return.  By identifying habits I could keep for the rest of my life, incrementally adopt these habits, measure my results, and treat myself in moderation, I have a lifestyle I’m happy with and won’t lead to health problems further down the road.


Final tips

Read a lot on diet, nutrition and exercise.  Don’t adopt a diet you can’t do for the rest of your life.  Don’t try and change everything at once.  Weight yourself every day.  And finally, attack this as a transition to lifelong habits for a healthy lifestyle, instead of merely a goal of losing weight.  There are a lot of ways to just lose weight, but most of these don’t work long-term.  If you adopt a healthy lifestyle, weight loss becomes just a nice side effect.

Anyway, I hope this helps some else, as Justice’s journey helped me.

Natural selection in IT