Archive for October, 2008
I’ve been reading Ed Levine’s Serious Diet posts (as part of the excellent Serious Eats blog) since I started on my path to getting fit. With a sedentary lifestyle and a job that requires me to sit at a desk and type for hours at a time, I have a difficult time with getting enough exercise. Since I’m out so much I also tend to have to eat out a lot, or have to whip things together quickly when I’m home, so I have a difficult time eating right too. Compared to most people, I have an uphill battle. Thankfully, I have to lose so much weight that cutting calories and finding ways to increase mobility is an easy target. My nutrition and exercise were so bad prior to my new habits that it would have been difficult to do any less to get healthy.
Now consider this blogger for a bit of contrast. Ed Levine eats for a living. Well, technically he writes for a living, but he has to try out all sorts of different rich and calorie-packed foods and then write about them. Sure, it sounds like a dream job, but I imagine he has a harder time losing weight than nearly anyone on the whole damn planet.
For the past 38 weeks Levine has been posting updates every Friday morning on his progress for the past week. As diet and exercise blogs go, it’s not as filled with tips and tricks that you can use as some others (that I’ll mention here soon) but it’s a good consistently updated journal of one man’s diet, and the comments from other serious eaters are also usually excellent and positive.
I plan to follow Levine’s lead and write weekly updates starting this weekend just to keep a running commentary of my progress, pitfalls I’ve befallen, and other extenuating circumstances each week. The week seems like a good unit of time for measuring progress.
Imagine that you took the mind of an Olympic athlete like swimmer Michael Phelps and put his consciousness into my body. After he was done screaming “Holy shit! What the fuck happened to my beautiful body? What have you done to my long-torsoed, dolphin-like physique?” – how long do you think it would take him to turn my overweight, atrophied, out of shape body back into a precision swimming machine? Well, okay, probably a while. But is there any doubt that he’d do it? (Hint: there is no doubt).
So if an athlete’s mind could get my body into good shape, my body isn’t really the problem. The problem is that I was a fat guy, mentally, for a long time. As a consequence, I shaped my body to match my mind.
The “trick” to weight loss and a healthy body isn’t a secret in and of itself: eat healthy foods, not too much of them, and get exercise. That’s what you have to do. What people don’t tell you is how to do it.
Here’s how. The Secret – the key to getting healthy:
Become a healthy person, then act naturally.
Fitter, Happier, More Productive
How do you do that, then? I wish I could tell you that it was easy, or that there was a secret elixer you could drink to become a thin person. It would be simple if you could go to the county faire and see the hypnotist. The truth is both simpler and more difficult than that.
You become a fit person by choosing to be one. You have to make the choice every day, several times a day, at least at first. After a while your new lifestyle becomes habit and it’s not as much of a chore. Every morning you’ll decide to exercise. At every meal you have to choose to eat more healty foods, and in much smaller portions than you’re used to. Why do you do this? Because you have to. Because you’re sick of being held back by a body that doesn’t work the way you want it to. Because to live another day as a fat person is unbearable and it’s stopping you from doing the things that you, as a healthy, fit person, want to do.
What kinds of things do I want to do? At first I just wanted to be able to walk up a couple flights of steps without being out of breath and getting chest pain. I wanted to be able to keep up with thin people when walking somewhere. I wanted to be able to get up from a chair or pick up something that weighs more than five pounds without grunting a little.
In just a few weeks of eating right and exercising regularly, I was able to do those things, so I continue to re-assess and re-set my goals. Now I’m feeling cocky and ambitious. I want to go hiking without feeling like I’m going to die. I want to play tennis regularly. I want to learn how to swim, which I’ve never done. I want to run a 5K. I want to run a marathon. I want to run across an entire state. I want to dance with the prettiest girl in the club (I do this already, truth be told) and I want her to want to have sex with me. I want to wear shirts without sleeves to show off my massive guns. I want to climb a fucking mountain.
Keep in mind that these are my short term goals. Once I accomplish these I’ll come up with something more impressive.
So given my goals, why the hell would I eat a piece of cheesecake when it takes me a step back from them? Why would I take a cab or ride the bus when I could walk somewhere? Why wouldn’t I hit the gym most days when the gym helps me make my muscles bigger and makes me stronger?
Okay, I know, I still haven’t said how to become a fit person with your mind. Some people have accused me of tricking myself. Fine, if that’s what you need to believe. The truth is that once I thought about what I was doing and how unhealthy my relationship with food was I changed instantly. It was like I awoke from a dream, as though I were sleepwalking through my life up until that point and was now finally awake. I had (Christ I cannot believe I’m going to say this) a moment of clarity. My thinking was so clear that I couldn’t believe that I ate the crap I used to eat and exercised as little as I did. In that instant I was transformed into a healthy person and emerged like a phoenix from the… well, you get the idea.
So all I can do is tell you how I arrived at my decision to be healthy, and how transformative that moment was for me. I made a decision and the rest has been fairly easy. You may not be able to make that decision, or not know how. I bet that going through the motions will yield the same results that I’ve seen. Why not give it a try?
Say Something Nice
Most people I know have been really helpful and encouraging. Even complete strangers sometimes say nice things, like when I’m looking through books on nutrition and exercise at the book store, or walking on the treadmill looking unhappy (I find the treadmill to be dull as all hell and it gives me motion sickness a little). Most of my friends have been extremely supportive.
Some people haven’t, though. And some never will. It’s okay that people will feel resentment that you’re making a change that they haven’t chosen to make for themselves, or wish they had the “willpower” or whatever excuse they come up with to not do the right thing. They’ll tell you that your habits won’t last. Or they’ll say something like “We’ll see” or “Oh, wouldn’t that be nice!” like your goals are an unattainable pipe dream. Fuck those people. They can pretty much die in a fire.
If they come around once they see you getting fitter, that’s great. Everyone is welcome to come around and join Team Jough at any time, even if they’ve been jerks to me in the past about my newfound healthiness. Some people may see you as an inspiration and start eating healthier and exercising themselves. That’s totally cool.
I used to work with a guy who lives near where I work, and works near where I live, and I pass him from time to time when I walk the three miles to work (while he’s on his way to catch the bus). Sure, we stopped and talked the first time. Then I just got a little wave. Now he gives me this sheepish wave, or says something like “Walking to work again?” in a critical tone. You bet I’m walking to work again. And it’s okay that he’s taking the bus. He doesn’t have to walk to work just because I’m walking a somewhat longer distance than he would have to. Maybe he’ll start walking to work some day and feel better about his situation. I don’t really let his unhappiness affect me.
After all, I delight in my condition.
Prior to my current healthy habits my relationship with food and eating could only be described as dysfunctional. It was a bad relationship – one I clung to and even nurtured despite how much it was hurting me.
I’d eat out of boredom or depression, to have something to do. I ate things that were tremendously unhealthy almost all the time. Many of the things I ate don’t even really taste all that good – but fried food, cookies, cakes, and meats slathered with barbecue sauce or covered in breading are satisfying in other ways. Foods that are high in fat or sugar actually affect your brain chemistry, making you feel happier. Recent studies show that the average fast food value meal is highly addictive. It certainly explained my cravings. I realized I was an addict, and that I’d have to break my addiction first before I could get on with getting healthy.
So I thought about addiction and the methods that have already been developed to help break addiction and get on the road to recovery. I figured this was going to be difficult enough without me having to become a Magellan-like explorer, discovering new ground. Perhaps there was even a process of some sort, or maybe a series of…
Narcotics Anonymous has a slogan that people in the program follow: just for today. I like it better than Alcoholics Anonymous’s “one day at a time” because it’s more immediate. For me it means “Yes, I can eat this piece of cake if I want to, but I don’t have to, and right now I won’t.” Of course, for me cake isn’t much of a draw. My problem was savory fried foods, ribs, starchy food like pasta, french fries.
Anyway, it helped me to go back to the source, to Bill W. and his twelve steps that have kept many on the wagon. These are the original Twelve Steps as published by Alcoholics Anonymous:
- We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
- Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
- Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
- Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
- Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
- Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
- Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
- Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
- Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
- Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
- Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His Will for us and the power to carry that out.
- Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
One of the problems I have with this list is that it shuts the door on godless heathens like myself. Without having ever read the actual steps I went from step one to four in a single day. I recognized that I had a problem, and started to take inventory of myself, my life, and my bad decisions and actions during The Long Sunday when I decided to change.
In a way, this blog is my step five. My exercise and diet program are making amends with myself. I haven’t had a spiritual awakening yet, but I have had several mental breakthroughs and discoveries.
A problem that I have that someone in NA or AA doesn’t is that I can’t simply give up food cold turkey (or apparently food metaphors either). You can survive without any drugs or alcohol, but you have to eat, so it makes it that much harder to only eat those that are good for you. Also, while anyone can surely tell that broccoli is a healthier choice than fried chicken, if I switched to foods that were healthy but didn’t also taste good I’d never keep up with a healthier lifestyle.
Sizing Up My Diet
To be honest, I wasn’t really sure how much I should be eating. I used nutritional labels’ serving sizes to tell me how much a “serving” of something is supposed to be. That’s what healthy people eat. You can’t really go by restaurant serving sizes, because most American restaurants serve way too much food at one meal. I browsed diet books, web sites, advice from people, but just because a diet book says something doesn’t mean it’s true or right. A guiding principle that helped me make choices was The Formula – consume fewer calories than you burn.
So, without a guide or plan I simply started recording what I ate into a fitness web site and tallied up what I ate every day. Nutritional labels show percentages of daily nutrients based on a 2000 calorie diet, so that’s where I started. I’d eat what I thought was a healthy breakfast – oatmeal, cereal with berries or a banana, yogurt and granola, etc. I’d record it. I’d eat a decent but reasonably healthy lunch, record it too, then plan my dinner based on how many calories I had left, like they were a daily budget.
When I go to sleep the counter resets – so I can’t bank up caloric credits for several days and then eat poorly all weekend. Sure, the rules that I set up for myself are fairly arbitrary, but they’re better than not having any guidelines or principles to follow.
Here’s another guiding principle that I think about regularly:
“Nothing ever tastes as good as it feels to be thin.”
— Gov. Mike Huckabee in “Quit Digging Your Grave with a Knife and Fork”
The truth is that so far it’s been really easy to do the right thing and eat right, be more active, go to the gym regularly, drink lots of water, drink very little alcohol, and be generally healthier. It’s easy because I discovered a secret (at least, it was a revelation to me) that changed the way I looked at myself and my health.