Posts Tagged ‘change’

The Secret

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?

But… HOW?

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.

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.


“Get busy living, or get busy dying.”
Stephen King

I first realized I was dying in the Spring of 2006. I don’t mean in the zen sense – such as how from the moment we’re born we begin to die – but rather in the actual, keel over suddenly and prematurely sense.

I had just turned 30, which itself isn’t such a big deal, but for someone as introspective as me, it was a good opportunity to reëvaluate my life. I felt awful all the time. Any kind of exercise left me out of breath and feeling run-down. I was thinking about this for a few weeks before I did anything about it. Then I started eating better (subjectively) and started walking. I couldn’t do much at first, but little by little, week after week, I could walk a little longer and farther, and I started to lose weight.

Actually, I lost a lot of weight – over 70 pounds in just under five months.  Then I moved to Chicago, and while I was still doing a lot of walking, I also started eating poorly. I switched from doing freelance work where I could set my own schedule to working a 9-to-5 job where I had to work (and eat) on someone else’s schedule.  I still did okay with my weight until February 2007 when the weather stayed below 10F for a solid month.  Walking wasn’t an option. I started taking cabs both to and from work.  When the summer came, my train stop was closed for construction work, and I kept up the cab habit.  I also started to get bone spurs in both of my heels which made walking painful at the time (I still have the problem – it’s just not as bad now).

Of course, there was more to not exercising and not eating right other than just laziness. By the end of the work day I’d just want to get home and do other things (some of those “other things” are just more work sometimes) and taking a fifteen minute cab ride and having someone cook and deliver food gave me an hour or two (at least) of extra time every day.  However, in a little over a year I not only put the 70 pounds I’d lost back on, but I also added on another 40-50 lbs of extra weight on top of it.

Eating at work was a problem too. The office buys a lot of food for us, which is great, but they always stock Pop Tarts and lots and lots of candy and other junk food. There are candy dishes everywhere around the office, and it’s really easy to just pick at it all afternoon. Also, the fridge is always stocked with lots of Coke, and there’s always coffee. So in my average work day I’d eat or drink:

  • 3-5 cups of coffee in the morning
  • 2 Pop Tarts (usually the brown sugar ones – without the pretense of fruit, although ironically they’re lower in calories than the fruit variations)
  • A lunch of pasta or fried foods, along with a large fountain Coke
  • 4-6 cans of Coke in the afternoon
  • Various “fun size” candies – maybe 3-4 a day
  • A cappuccino or iced sugary Frappuccino during an afternoon Starbucks run

    (aside – the afternoon coffee run where a few of us would leave the building to go somewhere to get a drink – is pretty essential to the work day and makes those last few hours of work far more productive then if I’d just sit at my desk and get more sluggish and brain-addled by the hour)

  • On some days, birthday cake for someone in the office, sometimes in addition to my morning Pop Tarts

A nutritionist would call my daily eating habits a “target-rich environment” since there were so many possible areas for change.  It’s no wonder I’d get out of breath getting up from my chair. And that list doesn’t even count the crap I’d eat when I got home (or often, went out after work).

My Kind of Town

Chicago is a fantastic city, and I think it has more bars per capita than any other city on the planet [citation needed].  You can get beer and wine at any convenience store. The local drug store has a champagne aisle. Even some movie theatres here have a liquor license.  As I met people and started to do more social things in town, I started to drink a lot.  Back in Philly, where I grew up, I hardly drank at all.  Actually, I didn’t drink at all until I was in college, and even then I’d just have a little wine from time to time (excepting a few times that I got shamefully drunk that I can count on one hand).

I don’t think I’m an alcoholic – I would probably count myself as an Extreme Social Drinker (I could’ve had a show on ESPN.  I was actually considering joining the U.S. Olympic Drinking Team for a time…) I was drinking in excess – and I’m being kind by calling it merely “excess” – at least 3-4 nights a week. Some of my friends outpace me, too, so clearly we’re all a bunch of lushes.

Then in early June I flew back to Philadelphia to attend my Nana’s funeral.  My mother died when I was 11 so Nana was for all intents and purposes my surrogate mother. Her death hit me pretty hard.  After I got back to Chicago I went to a friend’s party (there is always a friend’s party to go – I didn’t go to parties this much when I was in college) and drank about as much as I could swallow. Actually, I met up with some other friends who were going to the party before that and got pretty smashed before we even went to the party.

Three hours after I got home and tried to sleep I woke up and felt that “dying” feeling again. Something was very, very wrong. I got dressed, somehow managed to walk downstairs, got into a cab, and went to the emergency room.

Now, a Saturday night (or really, very early Sunday morning) in a downtown Chicago hospital is quite an experience. I was competing with gun shot victims for attention. I actually ended up falling asleep, or perhaps unconscious, in the ER waiting room.  When I finally saw a doctor it was too late to pump my stomach (probably just as well), they took some blood, told me to stay awake as long as I could, gave me a cup of coffee and some aspirin, and sent me on my way.

The Long Sunday

I called my dad later that day to wish him a happy Father’s Day. I didn’t tell him about my binge drinking. Otherwise I spent the rest of the day thinking a lot about my life, my weight, and what I could do about it. Since I’d lost a lot of weight before I knew I could do it. It was just a matter of actually doing it.

I had actually been thinking about getting back into better shape for a long while. A month or two prior I bought a scale that went up to 450lbs so I could weigh myself. The only problem – when I got the scale I couldn’t weigh myself. I weighed more than four fucking hundred and fucking fifty pounds. I think I may have actually said “Holy shit!” out loud.

So when The Long Sunday came I was ready to make a change. There was never any question that I needed to make some major changes in my life. This was just the initiating incident that prompted that change.


The next day was Bloomsday, 16 June 2008. It seemed a fitting day to make a major change toward healthiness. I didn’t immediately start eating better, but just about. I started to walk a bit, which was a chore at first but I started to see some major improvements in my capabilities after just two weeks. I transitioned into eating more healthily at the same time. I started using the fitness center in my apartment building (it’s been there since I moved in a year and a half ago – I just never really used it before) and started walking more. Rather than finding ways to get somewhere with the least amount of walking, I started finding excuses to walk, adding in an extra walk somewhere throughout the day.

Then I decided to up the ante even further, to remove any possible excuses for not working out, and joined the $90/month fitness center in my office building. Their facilities are only so-so, but they have all of the equipment I’ll need, and a nice locker room with showers. Even without working out it’s nice to have a place to change and take a shower at the office so I don’t have to go home first if I’m going out somewhere after work.

I also hired a personal trainer through the center with whom I’m meeting twice a week (to start, then I’ll probably switch to once a week). It’s expensive, but once I reclaimed the money I’d previously spent on take-out, alcohol, and taxis, I think I’m actually saving money by paying for the gym membership and training sessions. My trainer is pretty much kicking my ass, but I’m really seeing improvements already after only a short time, so it’s encouraging.

I’m currently finishing up Week 6 and it’s been pretty easy so far. Sure, it’s a lot of work, and a lot of extra time to walk to the train, then walk from the train to my apartment, then cook dinner, clean up from cooking dinner, etc. Things that used to take twenty minutes are taking two hours, but I’m more active and Chicago is pretty much paradise in the summer. I’m getting out more and enjoying what the city has to offer (other than alcohol).

I do worry about the upcoming holidays and extreme Winter cold. We had an especially nasty Winter this year and I probably won’t have nearly as much fun walking outside when it’s dangerously cold out. I know that’s why I have the gym memberships, but the treadmill isn’t nearly as enjoyable as just walking somewhere, seeing more of the city, people watching, etc.

However, by that time I expect my workouts and eating better will be habits (if they aren’t already – they say it only takes 21 days to form a new habit – and it’s been twice that already) so maybe I’ll be okay.

Everyone has been really supportive so far – friends, family, coworkers, strangers posting comments to the healthy foods I’m posting on Flickr – so I’m grateful for that support because it makes getting healthier a lot easier.

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.