About three years ago, my walkabout the country made me noticed how winded I was just walking around. Some time after returning home I decided it was time to get serious about my own fitness.
Like many habits that you accrue over time, physical activity & diet are established in formative years then you totally forget about it. Sadly, our bodies don't care about these habits; it is almost inevitable that your metabolism will slow down as either you get older, move into a less physically demanding job, or probably both. The slow creep of habits and time is hard to stay vigilant against. Especially, when there's more crazy fattening foods more than ever.
Over the course of the next year I was able to drop 40 lbs. (~25% of my weight), drop my body fat down to a trim level, and get my blood pressure to a healthy range.
I don't consider myself much of a motivational writer, but I thought I would recap what I did in the hope it helps someone. I'm a pretty lazy person so I feel like most anyone could probably do the same, provided that they have a bit of grit in them (I'll say I have more than average) and are determined.
Which gets me into the first thing: motivation. If you're not motivated toward some tangible & realistic end goal, you'll probably fall back into whatever slump you feel like you want to get out of. Mine was pretty simple, I just don't want to be winded while climbing. To that end, I just targeted some generic normal BMI goal (21.75). BMI isn't a perfect measure (especially for someone like me who's below average height), but it's good enough. The important thing is to give yourself a simple direction that isn't too long to work towards, because the tough part will be reworking your own habits to keep on the path.
From here, I'll cover in 3 broad topics how I got to my goals.
You can't know what direction you're going without a map, GPS, or some guidance measurements. Likewise, there's no way you can realistically tell if you've made progress without tracking your health metrics. I wouldn't have been nearly as successful without a handful of health tracking tools to measure my progress. When you're looking a cold hard data, it's much easier to be objective about progress than superficial things. For example, I never really thought that l looked fat until I looked at myself retrospectively.
Here's what I used:
- A digital scale that tracks body fat %: This is pretty much required. Almost any sort fitness plan is going to be about balancing diet & excercise. You can't have a good gauge of that without some regular measurement of your weight, and, more importantly, your body fat. This is because everyone is going to weigh differently based on their gender, height, bone mass, and other factors beyond your control. Body fat, however, should give you an idea to how much muscle you have vs. your fat. Like BMI, there are general guidelines you can take based on your gender and target level of trimness (I shot for a goal of 15% body fat).
- A pedometer: This is a good general tool. It might be optional depending on your exercise preference, but, again, I went with something completely generic: walking. The WHO has some guidelines about how much you should exercise, but, again, I'm like most people: lazy. In lieu of that, I went with a generic goal of 10,000 steps. It's a simple goal the Japanese figured out back in the day based on some simple math on calorie burning. It roughly translates to about 5 miles, which might sound like a lot for some people, but I do a lot of pacing while in deep thought or listening to music, so it works for me.
- Calorie counting app: Calorie counting sucks. Nothing else is sure to suck the fun out of life than creating a spreadsheet for eating food. However, there's no way around this fact; if you know nothing about how calorific your food is, you'll never get a grasp of how much you need to balance diet & excercise. I used MyFitnessPal's Calorie Counter for about 3 to 6 months with everything I ate. It's not perfect (especially with restaurant meals), but after using it everyday it gave me an intuition about my core diet, and other meals, which is very useful in shaping your habits. Most apps also have a calculator where you can punch in your physical traits and come up with a calorie target so you can head toward a goal of weight loss.
- Blood pressure monitor: This is probably optional. I have hereditary high blood pressure issues so it's probably more important to me than the average person.
There are many manufacturers of health measurement tools. I ended up going with the Withings set of products since they seemed to have the most open data platform (a big thing for me as a software developer). All data shows in their Health Mate app (the above screenshots were from the app). The most expensive item is the digital scale which cost around $100-200. Pedometers & Calorie Counting apps are free all over the Android/iOS platform so there's no big cost there. Blood pressure monitors are in the same price range as scales, but that's optional.
Once you have the tools to guide you, the next step is heading down the path to your goals.
This means changing your habits. This is the toughest part. We are, ultimately, a collection of thoughts, beliefs, and habits that emerge from them. To change your habits is to question some of your thoughts and beliefs. This might be easier or harder depending on the details (e.g. your thinking, and convictions), but it's not impossible. You just need the will & desire to change who you are, and to find what works for you: changes you can make that won't make you miserable in the process or, even better, make you happier.
This change in lifestyle isn't something that happens overnight. It's small, incremental improvements that lead you toward your end goal.
To that end, I'll go back to the first topic, measurement. Every day you need to measure yourself: your weight, your body fat, your BMI, your calorie intake, your physical activity.
That's why the digital scale was so important for me. The change was pretty simple; flop out of bed naked, and stand on scale for a few seconds. For physical activity, the passive pedometer app was working in the background to record how much I move, again, simple change. For calorie counting, every meal I ate I would pop open an app and search for details (or use a barcode scanner for packaged food), then punch in what I ate. This was a little more involved, but it gets easier after it becomes a habit. Especially since most apps will remember details if you have a somewhat consistent diet (which you should).
If you do nothing else, you should build this habit to give you some idea of your diet/exercise compared to some benchmark (the average for people, the recommended amount, or a set goal), and how you feel after any adjustment to your lifestyle. In that habit you can find the things that work for you.
This leads me to diet. This, I think, is the toughest of all habits to changes. Taste, like our other senses, is a subjective experience. Trying to change habits of what you eat is tough because we're hardwired to crave all the stuff (sweets, fats, etc.) that is bad for us in excess. You're essentially trying to fight many millennia of evolution, the force of billions of advertising dollars, and the inertia of the average diet of whatever country/culture you live (I had to fight through what I call southern/midwestern comfort food grazing culture).
The trick here, for me, was finding small changes in eating habits that, over time, would make big changes. These are things like finding lower calorie/fat versions of things you always eat to see if you can live with the big trade off: taste & satiation vs. nutrient & calorie improvements. For me, it was things like swapping out soda for diet soda, discovering yogurt can be awesome when mixed with other things, finding snacks that weren't as bad as my go-to snacks, using other spices & sauces to make otherwise boring staple foods tasty.
Over time, and with enough self-reflection on your eating habits, you can learn to manage your discipline, rewards, & substitutions to lead yourself to better habits. One big thing is to realize that, save for a few set of base tastes, most taste in food is learned. From birth, we're given a bunch of foods/flavors that we learn to associate with happiness/survival. Over time, our eating habits settle on a group of foods/flavors that we rely on without even thinking about it. Anything else outside that group, depending on how open your mind, is some foreign food/flavor that can range from a neutral to hostile sensation.
This helps if you have a frame of reference for things you used to hate, but now love. For me, it was onions or, in a later examples, exotic types of beer like a sour gueuze, or coffee (which I picked up when I moved to the Pacific Northwest). Learned tastes all have the same process, fighting through the body's initial repulsion, adapting to the unpleasantness, then noticing the other sensations that were initially muted.
In those other sensations you can learn what sensation is good about it vs. what sensation that you've adapted to (e.g. the happy stimulus of warm coffee over the initial bitter shock). Over time, the negative dissipates over the positive aspects, and your body will learn a new habit.
The other big habit is exercise. Generally, I consider this a tough habit to change, but not as tough as changing your diet; with exercise you can add something you like to do (e.g. hiking, running, biking, etc.) whereas diet is often removing something you like to do (e.g. eating a ton of pizza with beer or soda).
In forming a positive habit here, you got to find something you like to do. For me, I'd already decided to take the lazy route: walking. But within that otherwise tedious task, I was able to do things I liked to do: listen to music or podcasts or wander to different areas I've never explored before. I photoshpere'd the shit out Louisville's parks back when Google had this great service calls Google Maps Views (and before they turned it into a lame Yelp! clone).
Whatever exercise habit you pick up, you must integrate into your life. It already helped that I had a job that afforded me to wander around in short bursts between periods of sitting and thinking. When I wasn't working, I could throw walking into other habits. If I went to restaurants, I'd park my car between a park and a restaurant that forced me to walk through it. Adding little small bursts of physical activity over time will add up. Again, this is habit you got to find for yourself and it has to be natural flow into your daily activities.
Over time, I found walking surprisingly effective. That was almost the bulk of my exercise. The only other big things I did were daily push ups (which I'm up to 100 each day) and an exercise bike supplemented with binge TV watching when I couldn't go out and walk. In both these cases, I'd to do an amount of activity up to the point of complete exhaustion then I'd stop.
Just like with learned tastes, the body adapts and learns. When I went from no exercise to some exercise, aches eventually happened, but I got over it. This was where the walking would help. If I was tired from infrequent biking or running, I'd just walk. It was pretty simple and all I had to was move my legs and focus on other things that were pleasant (music and many, many podcasts). Eventually your body builds up a tolerance through what you put it through and you will gain endurance and muscle just by boring repetition. It now takes up to 50-60 push ups before I even notice I'm slowing down.
Between the sustained habits of measurement, diet, and exercise, you should be learning more about how your body is responding to your new habits. Which leads me to the last topic.
After setting in place many new habits, you should start noticing changes. If anything, your weight & body fat should be dropping. The rate of change will vary, but the important thing is it's heading in the right direction. One of the great things about digital scales is trendline tracking, so even if you're making progress slowly, it still means you're making progress; you just have to maintain your current habits.
If the previous paragraphs have emphasized anything, it's that there's no one right path. There are many fitness strategies out there. Your results will vary so you have to pick up general fitness knowledge and compare that to specific knowledge about your own habits.
For me, I'd read & learn general facts & knowledge about nutrition/exercise. Things like:
- The different between carb/fat/protein calories
- How do our bodies loose weight (spoiler: we breath out the majority of it)
- What is Basal metabolic rate.
- How many calories are in a pound of fat (3500 calories).
- Why haven't there been nutrition labels on beer and other alcohol?
Learning basic facts about nutrition/exercise let me compared what happened when I started eating foods that were more protein heavy than fat heavy. It actually made those boring nutrition labels have some tangible meaning. I'd started experimenting around before I learned on /r/fitness that macroing is a thing.
The important thing here is that knowledge makes facts tangible to your situation and it should engage you to try out new things and see what happens. You don't know what you'll come up with until you try different combinations of diet/exercise and see the result on your health measurement.
One odd thing I stumbled upon was something I called the Alcoholic's Diet. I'd find, despite the heavy calories of beer/alcohol, a night of drinking actually resulted in losing weight (with the caveat I didn't binge on some massive amount of food). I thought it might of been a fluke of being dehydrated, but I noticed as long as I didn't overcompensate on calories (e.g. eating a low calorie veggie meal with some protein instead of fatty burgers and fries) I'd generally lose weight.
It's not sustainable and I don't recommend it, but I thought it an odd consequence of my habits (being more lively than usual when I drink) and my body (not doing anything with empty calories it can't do anything with). I'm sure there's many other odd things you discover when your experiment around with your diet/exercise habits.
To close, I'll just throw some fun facts out there with the amount of energy I ended up burning off.
At my peak, weighing 169 lbs and 30% body fat, I had a total of 50.7 lbs of fat. At my trough, weighing 117 lbs and 10% body fat, I had 11.7 lbs of fat. Which makes for a fat loss of:
50.7 lbs - 11.7 lbs = 39 lbs
At 3500 calories / lb of fat (with some rules about initial fat loss notwithstanding) this translates to:
39 lbs x 3500 calories = 136,500
136,500 Cal x (4.184 x 103J) = 571,116,000 J
Or roughly, 571 Megajoules (5.71 x 108J) of fat burned. What else has the equivalent amount of energy? According to Wikipedia's Orders of Magnitude of Energy page: