I have long thought that people will only change – only improve – at the very last, very final moment, the moment just before which the Unimaginable happens. Change is uncertain and all people despise uncertainty, even they try to tell you otherwise. So it’s in that final moment that change happens, no matter how many people will benefit, or the world improved.
I’ve thought that forever because, of course, it’s true for me. No matter how badly I want something, I’ve always found it nearly impossible to shake off the weights of habit and do anything about it. That’s what I’ve had to build systems and blogs and post publicly and so on. I’m the person that needs that shit most. The least likely. The least motivated.
It’s very common, when you feel like this, to be filled with dislike for yourself. There is the ideal version of yourself, the things you want to be and do – and then there’s this worthless, present version, the one that can’t bring him or herself to get up and work at it, give up the things that limit you, etc. It’s depressing. It’s frustrating. It’s infuriating. Everything feels so close, but so far away.
I go through this every few months or so, a circadian rhythm I can’t seem to break out of. A few months ago, it was my weight, an issue that comes up over and over again when my insecurities conquer the better parts of my nature.
Over the past year I’d been working from home more, giving me more stationary time than my previous job at a school. I’d been going to the gym and working out, but infrequently – sometimes 3 times a week, sometimes twice, sometimes once. I’d also (so slowly, I’d barely noticed) begun to eat larger meals, while also consuming an extra cup of coffee (with cream and sugar) each day.
As with all habits, the immediate effects are negligible, and the long-term effects are drastic. My weight drifted upwards over time until plateauing at 199 lbs, the heaviest I’d been.
Since I’d been working out, I fooled myself into thinking that I was gaining weight due to increased muscle mass, which may have been partly true – I did have period where I looked more “muscley.” But I was never muscular, never actually looked like I was in shape.
When I stepped on the scale one morning and saw the inevitable “200” on the digital display, I suddenly felt awash in feelings of disgust. I’d been told a week before that I had a condition that made me more susceptible than average to dying of a stroke. I felt out of control. I didn’t control my body – my body controlled me. It had decided. I was powerless, weak, and dying.
That moment was so intense, so over-powering, that it’s stayed with me ever since. It has driven me to drastically change what I eat, how I eat, how I work out, even how I think about food in general. I changed dozens of daily habits and rituals in order to align with a better sense of myself – essentially, to pull myself out of the sea of hate, and on to dry land again.
What follows is a break down of the tools and methodology I’ve used to lose 13 lbs. over the last month, and what I’m doing to continue more gradually downward towards my goal of 180 lbs.
The most important take-away for me, however, has been that initial feeling of disgust – the sea of hate. I still remember it and carry it around with me each day.
People only change at the last possible moment.
I switched from a “regular” eating schedule of breakfast, lunch, dinner, with some snacking in between, to “Intermittent Fasting” – a fancy term for not eating outside of an 8-hour window each day (for me, falling between 12 and 8pm).
Not consuming any calories until Noon each day has noticeably improved my blood-sugar highs and lows – something that was very marked for me, before. I would get very shaky and hungry before meals. Often, eating a healthy breakfast would be followed by a huge lunch, something that just doesn’t occur any more.
I’m hungry a lot less often now. I feel the desire to eat, but only in a vague way – it has more to do with just missing the act of eating than it does being legitimately hungry. I have more energy and feel lighter in general.
I still eat three full meals, mind; they just fall between 12 and 8. This has three main effects, as I see it:
- It is harder to eat excess calories when your eating window is constricted;
- It prevents eating too late in the day;
- Eating within a constricted window makes you feel that you are eating a lot, even when on a restricted-calorie diet.
In any case, there are supposed hormonal benefits to fasting that I don’t have enough expertise to vouch for; suffice to say, it’s worked well for me so far, and is applicable to any diet, whether for weight loss or maintenance, making it a useful framework for approaching eating patterns.
It’s often said that 90% of any weight loss plan has to address diet, and I think that’s true. The vast majority of calories must be eliminated by restricting intake, even on an extremely active workout schedule; exercise just doesn’t burn off the amount of calories people think it does. Losing a pound of fat requires a deficit of 3500 calories; it’s a lot easier to simply not intake those calories than it is to burn them off after the fact.
To this end, I deliberately set about a systematic restriction of my overall calorie intake, as well as my carbohydrate consumption.
Carbohydrates aren’t necessarily bad, but they’re connected to fluctuations in blood sugar levels, which over time can cause a higher percentage of sugars to be stored in the body (known as insulin sensitivity). Insulin sensitivity can be lowered over time by a strategic elimination of carbohydrates from the diet – in my case, over the course of a month, with the gradual reintroduction of carbs back into my diet over the course of the following two months. The goal of this is to decrease the impact of future carbohydrates on my body fat levels.
The main component of the diet, however, was lowered caloric intake, which benefits significantly from a lack of carbohydrates (which are calorically dense). After estimating my body fat percentage, and from that number calculating my resting metabolic rate (how many calories I burn each day just by staying alive) and lean body mass, I then set my daily caloric goals as 700 calories below my resting rates.
From these numbers, I could then pull the requisite numbers of grams of protein and fats I would need to consume to hit my caloric goals without carbohydrates.
It’s important to note with these numbers that, though I’m saying “no carbohydrates,” almost all vegetables (excepting starchy ones like potatoes) were considered “free.” This meant that I was supplementing my meals with a good amount of spinach, broccoli, etc.
I used the fantastic website EatThisMuch.com to get customized daily menus based on my macronutrient requirements. I then bought a food scale and literally measured out my food each day. After a while, the most common foods became second nature and I didn’t need to measure everything out, but in the beginning the weighing process was a revelation.
I really think that the major problem we have with eating is our insane portion sizes. The suggested portions of food are so much smaller than what we eat on average that portioning out our food using a scale is truly eye-opening. It helps to reorient you to appropriate serving sizes, and by extensions to gauge how much of anything you should eat. While a bit of a pain in the ass, the benefits far outweigh the costs in time.
The Cheat Day is simply one day of the week in which the dietary restrictions no longer apply – and, indeed, the point is to spike your caloric intake dramatically. This has two major benefits: psychologically, knowing that you have a cheat day coming up makes it easier to abstain from foods that give you pleasure. Secondly, the spike in caloric intake helps to limit the release of hormones that restrict fat loss, produced when the body senses a caloric deficit (an amazing evolution in terms of keeping a starving human being alive; a huge pain when trying to deliberately lose weight).
More than anything, I find cheat days refreshing. I always overdo it, and by the end I can’t wait to return to my diet and the general healthy feeling it gives me. The release of a day of binging is a big pressure-release from the overall effort of dieting, and helps to keep me on track.
I was already working on twice a week, but I’ve upped that to four. Two of those days I’m stil attending the same fitness class, which mostly focuses on aerobic capacity and general strength. The other two days, I’m working my way through a workout protocol that starts with fat loss as a goal, and slowly builds towards adding muscle mass as the months go by.
There’s nothing particularly unique about what I’m doing, but there is an overall strategy, which I need. Everything is done in circuits, which are far more effective than isolated exercises. Rest times are long, ensuring that you go from rest to energy expenditure as quickly as possibly, increasing the
total amount of calories expended (once explained to me as similar to the way in which a car that is always stopping and starting uses more gasoline).
More important than what I’m doing, however, is the extra workout days themselves, which provide structure and momentum to my sense of self-improvement. I’m also tracking my performance and benchmarking myself against previous workouts, which provides a sense of advancement I don’t necessarily get from the general fitness class.
I enjoy tracking progress, and the act of tracking itself can help to root a new habit in your day-to-day routine. I’ve been tracking in a few different ways:
The Aria is a wi-fi enabled scale that can automatically beam your weight to a web app that tracks it and provides some data on progress. Unlike some, I enjoy weighing myself each day, and use my daily weight fluctuations as a way to gauge the effect of different behaviors on my weight. The automatic tracking eliminates an additional step – inputting the data somewhere, whether it be in a computer program or a piece of paper – that had previously kept me from keeping accurate records. This, over time, led to a gradual loss of the weigh-in habit.
Overall, I’m happy with the scale, though it has it’s quirks. It makes things easier, which is important to habit formation.
(I’ve ordered a Fitbit clip-on tracker to record my general activity level and sleep, but it hasn’t come yet).
Ask Me Every is a fantastic web application with a simple function: It texts you a question, you text back the answer, and it logs it. That’s it.
I use Ask Me Every to track a few important metrics:
– How many drinks I have each night
– Things I’m grateful for (shown to improve overall feelings of contentment)
– Reasons I want to lose weight
– Overall mood for the day
The non-numerical questions (“Why are you committed to losing weight?”) serve as minimally-intrusive ways of recommitting myself daily, or drawing my attention to the things I want to focus on.
I find this way of gently reminding myself what’s important to me to be an invaluable way of keeping myself on task.
As I mentioned, I’m down to 186 or so, most of which was water weight lost in the first part of the process. I’m now working on losing fat while maintaining lean body mass – something that’s more difficult than it might seem.
To do this, I’m gradually increasing the amount of calories I consume on workout days, while decreasing my calories during the rest of the week. I’m also adding a 24 hour fast following cheat days, to protect against caloric spill-over. I’m increasing the difficulty of my workouts overall as well as increasing the amount of weight I lift between sets.
The specifics aren’t important, however. What’s far more important is the commitment to the ideal – and the drive to eliminate the weakest parts of my self.
It isn’t a fight you really win. I don’t think the ideal exists, except as an ideal. But there is huge value in the ideal as the thing we work towards; we might not ever arrive, but we can die on the road, headed in the right direction.