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Archive for the ‘exercise’ Category

Walking, Jogging, and Running

After a particularly brutal Chicago Winter the cold weather lifted for the first time this weekend and so everyone, including your humble narrator, was out and about.  I’ve been trying to be more active, but it’s hard when the cold weather makes your whole body hurt.  I’ve been having issues with muscle contractions and overall tightness in my muscles and joints all season, so it was nice to get out and walk in the (relatively) warmer air.  The temperature reached a high of 55°F on Saturday.

The warmer weather came at a very opportune time for me, as I was >this close< to hitting the 700 mile milestone since I’ve been keeping track of my walking (other than incidental walking at work, in stores, etc.).  I figured I’d probably be able to get out and walk the nine miles I was shy of this milestone over the weekend. Since the weather was so nice, and I’d been cooped-up for so long, I actually crossed that milestone on Saturday alone, walking a little shy of twelve miles in about four hours (an average of 3mph over that length of time is pretty good for me – it means I probably started out at closer to 4mph for the first mile or two).

I was exhausted at the end of my long walking.  I also walked another mile home after meeting some friends, putting me at 704 total since the end of July.  To put that into perspective, that’s about the distance from Chicago to Philadelphia, or like walking from my new home to my old home over a period of six months.

walk_jog_run_logoOne of the tools I’ve been using to track how far I walked when I don’t start out with a pre-fab route is Walk Jog Run, run by (excuse the pun) a couple of friends and co-workers.  I had checked out their site when we first met, and then didn’t really use it again until I started on my exercise routine and wanted to see how far my walk to work was (it was ≈ 2.5mi). Now I find it invaluable for logging my progress and seeing how far I’ve walked, which sadly is never really as far as it feels while I’m walking it.

Walk Jog Run routes overlayed on a Google Map.An early Google Maps mashup, Walk Jog Run incorporates Google maps with custom pins and overlays to allow you to place markers on a map and show the route you’ve travelled (or are planning to travel) along with a tally of the distance of each leg and total distanced walked, jogged, or run.

One of the things I love about it are the mile markers (the yellow diamonds on the map) that make it really obvious exactly how far you’ve traveled.  You can save a route you travel often (like I do with my walk to and from work) or take a look at other people’s public routes to get an idea from other users of the site. I’ll definitely be taking a look at more public routes in the future. Right now I like to just go to a new neighbourhood and get my wander-on.  I’m still relatively new to Chicago, so it’s nice to get to know a place by walking around it.  I also have my iPhone to keep me from getting too lost when I’m in a new place.

Walk Jog Run doesn’t really work on the iPhone unfortunately, but there is a native iPhone app in the works according to the site’s Twitter stream.

Another feature I like is the overlay at the base of the map showing you how long your current route will take to travel given your velocity (I pick an average of 3mph) and how many calories you’ll burn (approximately) based on your body weight.  I know the caloric data isn’t that accurate, but it’s pretty close, and good enough for a quick evaluation.

Stats Overlay

Losing Weight Over the Holidays

Jough - Christmas 2008Back in the Fall the news screen on the elevator at work said that Americans gain an average of nine pounds between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.  A little research reveals that scientists say it can be as little as one pound, five pounds, seven pounds, etc., depending on which study or set of statistics you read.

However, the number nine stuck with me and since it’s not unreasonable for me to lose ten pounds in five weeks, I thought I would try to lose nine pounds while everyone else was gaining them. Also, losing weight over the holidays would help me be a little more smug when I got back to work.

So how did I do?  I lost six pounds between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day – not my goal of nine, but I also didn’t gain any weight.  I’m going to call this one a “win.”

Besides working out (somewhat – I definitely didn’t go to the gym as often as I regularly do, or should have, throughout the holidays) I also tried to reduce my portions of holiday snacks, cookies, fancy meats and cheeses, beer and mixed drinks, etc. – but it wasn’t easy.  I figured I could have a little of various bad-for-me things.  I probably over did it.

I also doubled-up on my walking between Christmas and New Year’s.  I usually walk an average of three miles per day – during my “staycation” in Chicago (where I took vacation days and just stayed in town relaxing) I walked an average of seven miles a day, more than twice what I usually walk on average.  I probably would have walked more if it wasn’t so cold.

So that was my first moderately healthy holiday. Will next year be easier or harder? I’ll certainly weigh a lot less by this time next year, so maybe I’ll have an easier time avoiding the cookies, sausages, drinks, and eating out.

Or maybe I’ll be like everyone else and just work out more in January.

Constant Feedback

“If you really want to be depressed, weigh yourself in grams.”
— Jason Love

One of the tricks I’ve found for keeping up with my own fitness progress is to try to get as much feedback that I can. When you drive a car you can look at the speedometer to see how fast you’re going, look at the lines that divide each lane to stay on course, and look at other gauges and dials to tell the status of your vehicle. Unfortunately, your body’s feedback is vaguer and less precise. You know when you need water because you feel thirsty. You know when you need food because you feel hungry. In theory, you know when you’ve had enough food when you feel full.

The problem is that my mechanism for feeling full is broken. I tend to not feel full until I’ve already eaten too much. If I eat a little and stop, I’ll feel full (or not) after waiting a while. So my meals have been broken up into small grazing periods where I’ll eat a little, log it, wait to see if I’m still hungry, and then eat a little more if so (sometimes).  So since I don’t have a working mechanism for knowing what and how much to eat, I needed some help. Technology to the rescue!

Plotting Your Downsizing

One of the most important pieces of information you can easily measure is your weight.  Get a scale that is reasonably accurate and weigh yourself every day. Log that weight somewhere, even if it’s just a simple spreadsheet or by using an online service (I like Gyminee, but there are many more out there).  Weigh yourself wearing the same thing (if anything) in the same place at the same time every day if possible. The overall accuracy of the scale isn’t as important as how accurate it is compared to itself. You really only care about the change in your weight, so if it’s mostly accurate, that’s probably good enough.  Most new scales are very, very accurate.  I got this scale and it works great.

I wrote a script to log my weight in a database every day and I can export those weights to Excel or Numbers to draw this graph. A number of online weight loss sites will also provide some great-looking graphs and charts to help you visualize your weight loss.
I wrote a script to log my weight in a database every day and I can export those weights to Excel or Numbers to draw this graph. A number of online weight loss sites will also provide some great-looking graphs and charts to help you visualize your weight loss.”

You can’t really count on your day-to-day weight as having too much meaning since your water balance will vary by up to several pounds per day, but you can plot the trend over time.  As you burn fat you’ll retain more water temporarily, and so you’ll actually gain some weight (since water weighs more than fat) before you lose it.  Contrary to popular myth, fat cells never fill with water, and while they do shrink they never go away. You can read more about how fat is burned.  I’m finding that my weight loss, when plotted on a chart, looks more like a saw blade than a constant negative slope pointing down.

As you can see in the “Weight Over Time” chart (which shows my actual daily weigh-ins) the overall trend is down (in this case each grey horizontal line represents ten pounds and the x-axis is time), but there may be a few days where my weight increases before starting on a downward trend again.  Sometimes it levels-off for a few days.

My actual weight change from 16 June to 10 December 2008.
My actual weight change from 16 June to 10 December 2008.

Just because you’re logging your weight every day doesn’t mean you have to give that weight too much meaning. It’s okay if it goes up for a few days. Of course, human nature being what it is, it feels better when you see your weight decrease, since that’s your goal, but given the trend I’ve been seeing in my graph I know enough now to recognize the pattern of weight loss. Do I tend to eat more healthily and maybe get a little more exercise in on days when my weight increases?  You bet.  That’s good positive feedback. You go off course, you can correct.  If you only weighed-in once a week you’d have that much longer to go that much further astray before you adjusted your habits.

Since a little weight gain is a good thing (as long as it’s temporary) I don’t really worry too much about my daily weight as much as the trend over time. I calculate my “true weight” by taking an average of my weights for the past two weeks and dividing by fourteen.  Even though there’s math involved it’s not all that scientific – it’s just a straight average weight over a two week period, but then I composite that data each week and compare that to a week ago.  Yes, that means that every week gets averaged twice – once it’s the “front” week and the other it’s the “back” week – it makes it easier to see the trend.

It’s been working pretty well so far.  Weighing-in every day is quick and easy.  My scale has a nice big readout and shows me the previous day’s weight so I can compare whenever I weigh in.

Count On It

Another important thing to measure is your calorie intake. You can probably do this with a book and a piece of paper, but this is the kind of thing for which a computer is perfect. You can find lots of calorie databases on the internet, or buy lots and lots of different programs that have the data for counting the calories in a large amount of different foods.  Some even include caloric information for chain restaurants and pre-packaged food.

I’ll tell you one thing – I haven’t been able to consistently count my calories every day. I started out well, but eventually logging everything I ate became too much of a chore to maintain.  I’m still looking for a system that will make this easier, but I haven’t found it yet. However, you should record the food you eat every day and the number of calories it contains so you can tell what you should eat, and how much of it.  I could justify my own lax performance by saying that I recorded my eating faithfully for the first 2-3 months, so I know what I should and shouldn’t eat now, but that’s not really true.

So why did I stop? Because I haven’t found a tool yet that isn’t time consuming and frustrating to use. I still recommend you find one, even a bad tool, and stick with it for a bit, especially if you’re just starting out, because just being aware of what you put in your body will make you conscious of something that used to glide completely under your radar. To control your eating habits you have to first be aware of them.

When I first started counting the calories I consumed and logging everything I ate I discovered three things:

  1. I ate a LOT more calories than I thought I did, even when I didn’t eat that much food overall.
  2. I didn’t really think about how much I ate throughout the day (snacks, candy, etc.) until I started logging everything.
  3. When you have a daily caloric budget and stick to it, you tend to fill your diet with things that contain fewer calories so you won’t be hungry.  Eating lower-calorie foods means you can eat even more than you would have otherwise, although that can be a problem sometimes. If I eat too healthily I have to make up extra calories I don’t want at dinner so I don’t trigger the starvation storage of extra fat.  From experience, I can tell you that this is rarely an issue.

My diet plan doesn’t have many rules. The fewer the rules the easier they are to remember and keep faithful to them.  One of those rules, though, is that calorie savings aren’t cumulative – if I’m supposed to take in 1800-2000 calories a day, I can’t consume 1600 calories for four days and then eat 2800 calories on Saturday. My caloric clock resets at midnight (or when I go to sleep, but realistically I’m not eating that late anymore).  I can bank calories during the day if I know I’m going out to dinner at night, but not for more than a 24 hour period.

So how do I keep faithful if I’ve stopped logging my daily caloric intake?  I eyeball it.  I’ve done enough counting and logging to know roughly how many calories I’m getting from most of the foods that I eat. I like a lot of variety in my diet, but after a while you’ll know roughly how many calories your meals contain, you can do the math either in your head (which I’m bad at) or in a note or application.  I’ve been using a few different iPhone applications, but I still haven’t found one that completely works for me. In any case, I roughly estimate my calories now. I can usually predict within a half a pound what my weight will be from day to day based on what I ate and how much water I drank the day before. I should probably go back to being more stringent in my counting since I’ve been plateauing a little (and not eating right since Thanksgiving – a topic for another time).

Still, I can’t fall too far off the wagon because I know I’ll be weighing-in every day. It’s all connected – your diet, exercise, attitude, etc.  Weighing-in is such a regular part of my day that I almost never neglect to get on the scale.  Sometimes I forget to record it, but I usually get 6-7 weigh-ins recorded per week.  Having that data lets me plan goals, too.  More on that later.

My Dysfunctional Relationship

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…

Twelve Steps

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:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.

What This Thing Is

This is the story of how I lost over two hundred pounds and got into fighting shape by making incremental adjustments to my lifestyle.  Within I will reveal what I’ve learned about fitness, nutrition, exercise, and the various industries centered on helping you get fit or fat.  I’m looking at fitness and health as a new hobby, and whenever I develop a new interest I tend to turn my innate geekiness toward learning as much as I can about things in which I’m interested.  I’m reading the books and blogs, talking to experts, specialists, and trying to coalesce as much knowledge as possible down to its essence.  While this is my personal story, I expect there are many more people like me who may benefit from my efforts.

I started this site because my personal trainer suggested that I start a log of my goals, progress, feelings about exercise, dieting, food, &c., and I thought it would be easier to type it than write it, and easier to keep it on the Internet then tied to a particular computer or location.  As I started writing, I thought I’d keep myself more honest by making it public so anyone reading could view my progress and comment on my findings.

My goal is not simply to be thin, or generally fit, but also healthy, athletic, strong, agile, active, and (most importantly), to look great naked. To achieve my fitness goals I’m also changing other habits (slowly) and taking this opportunity to foster overall self-improvement.  I’m not just losing weight, I’m trying to be a better person.  It isn’t easy, but little that is worthwhile ever is.

However, if you’re trying to get fit in modern society, you’re fighting an uphill battle.  The deck is stacked against you, and getting fit can be made a whole lot easier and more fun than most diet specialists make it sound.
Here we go…

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Disclaimer: I am not a doctor. I'm just some guy who lost a lot of weight and studied up on nutrition, diet, and exercise in order to improve my personal fitness. The contents of this site in no way contains medical advice. You should visit your doctor before making any dramatic changes to your diet or activity. While I make every attempt to be as accurate as possible regarding current knowledge and scientific studies (please feel free to let me know when I'm wrong about something), and may from time to time post updates to correct inaccuracies in previous entries, the information on this site is provided "as-is" for entertainment purposes only. Don't do something stupid and then sue me. I'm just trying to help. Thanks.