I’ve been losing weight for a month and have managed to shed around 12 pounds; I’ve still got a ways to go, but I’ve been happy enough with the results and have received enough good advice about the topic that I thought it would be worthwhile to share. These thoughts are “wildly premature” because hey, I haven’t lost a huge amount of weight yet or kept it off, etc, so you’re free to wholly discount everything here. I’ll post again as I’m further through the process.
1) Have a reason you’re losing weight.
For years, I’ve generally had the thought that losing weight would be nice and that gosh I was getting a little uncomfortably soft around the middle. But it wasn’t until about six weeks ago that I decided to do something about it. I went in for my physical and my doctor looked me over, took my measurements, then looked me squarely in the eye and said “you’re in good health, but you really need to do something about your weight.” I realized then that I really did have a problem. I’m 30 years old, 6’1″ and was at 222 pounds – a BMI of 29.3, just 0.7 shy of obese! My sophomore year of high school, I was at full height and wrestled in the 172 pound weight class. So I had literally gained 50 pounds since then. Now I was pretty scrawny back then; a Fortune article on me my freshman year (after I was up to ~180) described me as “thin”. I’ve probably been consistently putting on around 3 pounds a year.
My frame’s large – my dad’s side of the family is big…and I don’t mean numerous. So I carry the weight well. But this has worked against me by making it difficult for me to see what was really going on. That I had not only become seriously overweight, but I could almost have been considered medically obese! It was time for me to do something. I finally had authoritative input I needed to lose weight. As a guy, this external impetus was important. Guys don’t want to lose weight for reasons of vanity: aren’t we supposed to not obsess about weight? aren’t we already attractive?
2) Set a specific goal over a reasonable period of time.
Since BMI was my concern, I looked up what my target BMI was and, since I’m a big-framed guy, picked something on the high end of the range of healthy – 189 pounds. I put a six month time horizon on getting to weight.
3) It’s a numbers game, dummy.
Then starts the actual work of weight loss, which is actually pretty darn simple matter of math. A pound of fat is about 3000 calories. So if you want to lose a pound of fat, you need to not eat (or exercise off) 3000 calories that you otherwise would have consumed (or not exercised). Since I want to lose 33 pounds, that’s around 100,000 calories over the next six months I have to burn off or not eat. That’s an odometer I have in my head – every time I work out it counts down and every time I save a few calories with a decision about what to eat, it counts down.
And a calorie is a calorie is a calorie. Different foods will let you feel different degrees of fullness or energy on a per-calorie basis, absolutely. But from the perspective of weight loss, I personally don’t feel it matters a whit where the calorie came from. I’m not on an Atkins diet, but the reason why Atkins (or any other effective diet) works is that it manages hunger and makes you feel full with a small number of calories.
Incidentally, alcohol has a huge number of calories. Some less-than-well-informed people insist that a “jack and diet coke” has no calories because it has no carbs. False: it’s got 64-128 calories. Things like choosing to have a glass of wine instead of splitting a bottle can make a big impact on your diet.
4) It’s much easier to not eat a calorie than to burn it off.
Especially if you are starting out not in shape, burning 300 calories is a lot of work! It could take about half an hour of huffing and puffing. But if at the office you switch from drinking two cans of Mountain Dew a day to two cans of sugar-free Red Bull, you’ve just put the same amount of savings. I decided to switch from putting cream and sugar in my coffee to adding Splenda, which probably saves ~100 calories a cup of joe. I actually decided to view every decision about food as a chance to roll that odometer down.
That’s not to say exercise isn’t important. Exercise is tremendously important to your mental and physical health! But the surprising thing is that exercise is not where you’re going to lose most of your weight.
5) You need to manage your hunger and energy.
If you’re consuming fewer calories, you’re going to have less natural energy and you’re going to be hungry more often. Find foods that fill you up but are low in calories. Oddly enough, water is pretty good for this. I’ve started drinking out of this HUGE VASE I keep next to me all the time at work. My coworkers think I’m silly, but I’m much better hydrated now and my stomach’s usually full of water. 😉 But that doesn’t solve the energy problem. Recognize that you’re going to need to compensate. Don’t just rely on caffeine. As a big help here, recognize that working out at the gym actually gives you quite an energy boost! Watch out for mood swings that you didn’t have before or are stronger than expected. Don’t blame the people around you – recognize that it might be related to your weight loss.
6) Don’t try to build strength and lose weight at the same time.
One of the dumb things a lot of people do in the New Year is to charge into the gym with a resolution to lose weight. They go every day of the week into the gym and work out like crazy, lifting, pulling, squatting. And then they realize they’re just sore, low on energy, and haven’t lost any weight. And they give up. The economics of most gyms depend on most of their members being in this category. (And you wouldn’t want to cancel your gym membership, would you?)
When you’re bulking up by lifting weights, you get none of the real benefits of exercise other than having huge rippling muscles. (See “Brain Rules” for more on the mental and energy benefits of cardio vs lifting.) You put extra strain on your body and prematurely put wear and tear on your muscles and tendons.
Where you get the proven benefit is in elevating your heart level for 20 minutes or more three times a week. If you go all out, you’ll get hungry and will be very likely to quickly eat back what you just worked off! You’ll also be sore or hurt something and that will make you not want to come back to the gym. It’s important that you train yourself to enjoy things that are good for you! Think about training yourself to enjoy the gym. In my case, I make sure to take a hot shower after a workout, which makes me feel great. Gold’s has a really nice smelling body wash. It sounds very silly, but little things like that help provide the motivation you need to keep going.
I would very highly recommend the elliptical trainers or bicycling machines at the gym. They are easy on the joints but let you work up a good sweat. You’re not going to tear anything on an elliptical or while spinning. Aim for half an hour and don’t go all out. Just take it at a pace that gets your heart going (but not racing!) and keep it up for half an hour.
7) Eat slowly, stop when full.
A problem I’ve always had since a kid has been scarfing down food fast as fast can be. But portion control is a proven, effective technique. It’s pretty simple – if you put less food in front of yourself, you’ll eat less. So serve yourself smaller helpings. Divide the food into smaller pieces. Put less in front of you. Chew the food. And as soon as you start to feel full, stop.
If you had parents who said “eat everything on your plate”, you need to train that out of your system NOW. Call the waiter and have them take away the food. Dump the extras in the trash and wash the plate. Don’t let it sit there tempting you to finish it. Be done with your meal when you’re full. Don’t be tempted to get dessert if you don’t have room. Any meal that you walk away from uncomfortably full is a failure.
8) Be happy. Make this sustainable.
Seriously, you need to figure out a way to integrate this reduced-calorie regime into your daily life in a sustainable way. Recognize that losing weight is not just some one-off sprint, but is a new and healthier way of living. That results will take time and that this is not a sprint. This is not a brief period of punishment for being fat. This is about inventing a new you. This means making sure that you still eat foods you like. If you switch entirely to gross “diet food” that you hate eating, you’re not going to be able to keep the pounds off after a diet, because you will want to run away from the suffering. Eat the things you like, just less of them. Find yummy replacements for sweets – instead of eating an Oreo, try grapes. Instead of Doritos, try carrots. Split a slice of cake instead of eating the whole thing. These small choices add up!
9) Talk about weight and your weight loss goals.
Before dating a sociologist-boxer, I was pretty shy to talk about my weight in front of others. But after reading her observations about how men encourage each other with weight goals in the gym and about how important that is to effective weight management, I decided to start being a lot more bold about how I talk about weight. I started telling people how much I weighed, that I was overweight, and about my goal to lose 33 pounds in six months
And the response, instead of being cruel and snickering, has been overwhelmingly supportive and encouraging. And my friends have started to open up about their weight loss goals, which I can then in turn encourage. A more open dialog about what we weigh, how we see ourselves, what we’d like to weigh, and what is and isn’t working is very helpful. Have the courage to say to your friends “I’m overweight and I’d like your help to get healthy.”
10) Measure! Celebrate your wins, accept fluctuation.
Measure yourself on the same scale and track your progress with a spreadsheet. (Google Docs is good for this.) Understand that you don’t need a constant downward trend. If you gained a pound or two over Thanksgiving, it’s not a huge deal – this is going to pay off gradually, over the course of many months, so a daily hiccup or two is not the end of the world. But note the general progression – as you start to make real measurable progress, let your friends know and cheer it on!
You can do it! 🙂