In 2008, I weighed 255 pounds. Maybe 260. And I’m 6’2″. Even my mom thought I was fat (although she would never say that outright).
Today I weigh 175. My driver’s license photo was taken in 2008. When I show it to people, their reaction is usually a mix of surprise and disbelief. I once saw a bouncer do a double-take before letting me in. “Lost a little weight, huh?” he said as he handed back my ID.
Once the initial shock wears off, the question inevitably follows: “How did you do it?” I’ve spent years evading that question, either with a sheepish shrug or a joke (“I have AIDS” is a popular one). Lately, I’ve been feeling that by not answering, I’m being selfish. Sometimes I detect a tinge of hopefulness in the question. Maybe someone wants to know how I did it so that they can too.
The hidden question within the question is: what’s my secret? To answer that, I would like to borrow a quote from Anatoli Tarasov. “There is imagination, hard work, discipline, and dedication to achieving whatever the goal is. But there are no secrets, none at all.” If you’re looking for a “hack” or magic trick to losing 80 pounds without any effort, my story is going to disappoint you.
Don’t be discouraged. In analyzing my weight loss journey, I came up with ten rules. I’m not saying you have to follow them to the letter. But they worked for me.
Rule #1: Set a goal.
My “scared straight” moment came at a health screening provided by my employer. A nurse took my weight, blood pressure, a blood sample for cholesterol testing; basically, a physical. My blood pressure results came back “not high, but higher than normal.” Considering that my main food intake at this point was Whataburger, that may have been a relief. My family has history with high blood pressure. At age 23, it seemed like I was heading down the same path.
Goals have taken something of a beating recently. I think it’s because many of us don’t know how to set good goals. For example, “lose weight” isn’t a good goal because it is too open-ended. How much weight? And by when? I set myself a specific goal with a defined timeline. By the next year’s health screening, I would have my blood pressure back to normal levels. It wasn’t any sort of Herculean task. It was just enough to get me started. Set a goal that is achievable. It can be as simple as getting up off the couch for five minutes a night and stretching.
Rule #2: Make a change.
The first step on my journey was reading. I remember an article where Steve Nash described how cutting sugar out of his diet kept him healthy enough to play in the NBA into his late 30s. Certainly a dietary change that helped a 30-something man compete in the best basketball league in the world against much younger athletes could benefit me, too. I immediately stopped consuming processed sugars. I stopped buying candy bars. I passed on dessert. I learned to like diet sodas. I only kept eating fruit and drinking juice–those were natural, so I thought they would be okay.
You can’t get there by doing what got you here. If you want to improve your health, you are going to have to do something different. Again, it doesn’t have to be anything drastic. In fact, trying to change too much at once can be counterproductive. You’ll either exhaust your willpower, or the unintended consequences will leave you worse off than before. Start small. Pick one thing you can control. Focus on it until it becomes a habit. Then you can move on to the next change.
Rule #3: Exercise.
I hope that word didn’t scare you away. “Diet and exercise” might be the most dreaded phrase in the English language. I think it’s a failure of culture. Words like “workout” and mottos such as, “No pain, no gain,” don’t inspire me to want to get off the couch. Exercise shouldn’t be work, unless you’re a pro athlete, in which case you shouldn’t need my advice on weight loss.
I started playing my favorite sport–hockey. The local adult hockey league wasn’t exactly intense cardio. It was the kind of league where everyone hung out and drank beer after the game. But it was a step up from playing video games and watching TV in my apartment. Even with all the 12 ounce curls, I noticed that I was slimming down, that I had more energy, and fewer aches and pains.
Exercise doesn’t have to mean 6 hours a week on the elliptical. Think of an activity that you love to do. Especially if it was something you used to do as a kid. Do it once or twice a week. Keep the intensity low. Make sure you have fun.
Rule #4: Review.
At the next year’s health screening, I had dropped 20 pounds and gotten my blood pressure back to normal. By any definition, I was a success.
I was also single. Armed with newfound confidence, I asked out an athletic blonde–a runner, with great legs. She was the kind of hot where you can actually hear necks break as heads whip around when she enters a room. As politely as she could, she said no, she wasn’t ready to date anyone, but was happy to have me as a friend.
This setback led to self-evaluation. It occurred to me that women who take care of their appearance might prefer to date guys who did the same (that may not be what happened, but that’s how I rationalized it). I resolved to become the kind of guy who could land a girl like that.
You don’t need that kind of vanity, but you do need to evaluate your progress honestly. Laird Hamilton said, “If you don’t continually revise your goals, the only place you’ve got to go is down.” Whatever your motivation, let it keep taking you to new heights (or lows, as it may be).
Rule #5: Have good friends.
Through hockey, I met the guys who would become my closest friends.. We were in the same age group, similar in social status, and roughly belonged to the same tax bracket. They were all in better shape than me.
I was never teased about my weight, and I didn’t have to be. Just being the fat guy in the group drove me to better health habits. Yes, I still drank beer and was a regular at the 24-hour taco shops on the weekends. But I began to cook for myself the other nights of the week. My standard dinner became grilled chicken with a salad. And I played even more hockey–as often as four times a week.
There’s a saying that you are the product of the five people you spend most of your time with. I’m not saying that you should ditch all your friends for five fitness models. I am suggesting that your friends should be supportive of your goals and encourage you, not belittle you for your shortcomings or trying to improve yourself.
Rule #6: Create accountability.
I moved in with one of my friends during the summer of 2012. By this time, my weight was around 220 pounds.
I would come home from work, and he would be dripping with sweat in the living room from pushups, burpees, dumbbell curls, etc. Meanwhile, I still struggled to do even ten pushups. Pull-ups were out of the question. When I looked in the mirror, I saw an unsculpted block of clay.
I decided to begin my own routine. Three nights a week, I would do five sets of pushups alternated with crunches. That’s what Herschel Walker did to get ripped, I told myself. I didn’t exactly tell my roommate what I was doing. He never said anything, but if I ever wanted to skip a session, I would have to watch him go through his (far more grueling) regimen. That always left me with a sense of shame, and shame is arguably the greatest motivator.
It’s easier if you tell someone what you’re doing. You can get yourself an accountability partner that way. The two of you can work toward your goals together. Some people like to use a monetary incentive; for example, exercise three times per week for a month or be forced to donate money to a charity you hate. Or you can do it my way and create an internal source of accountability. Whatever your method, it’s a powerful tool.
Rule #7: Allow yourself to fail.
Dave Grohl’s advice for aspiring musicians is to suck. Get together with your friends and make shitty music. Keep making shitty music, and you’ll start to get better. Eventually, the day will come when you don’t suck anymore. I took the same approach to fitness.
My goal was to reach 100 pushups and sit-ups per day. At first, I could only do two sets of ten pushups. After that, I would have to finish the three remaining sets with kneeling pushups. But I gradually got better. Eventually, I got to the point where I could do five sets of twelve pushups without going to my knees.
And that’s where I stalled. I couldn’t seem to get over the hump. Furthermore, I could only do a max of about thirty pushups in one set. I tried following the 100 pushup workout, but to no avail.
I had to accept that I wasn’t going to achieve this goal doing what I was doing. Failing doesn’t mean giving up. It’s simply acknowledging that one way isn’t working, and that it’s time to try something else.
Rule #8: Get a coach.
Desperate for a solution to my problem, I stumbled across the online fitness community. I think it was John “Roman” Romaniello who served as my entry point. I discovered that many elite fitness professionals were also excellent writers who shared their wisdom on blogs.
Through Roman, I ended up on Craig Ballantyne’s Turbulence Training blog. Craig is a proponent of interval training, and particularly fond of bodyweight exercises. I began following the bodyweight training circuits Craig would share each week. Eventually, I took the plunge and bought a Turbulence Training program.
The number of personal trainers and health coaches available is staggering. The paradox of choice comes into play for those of us who want the “best” option. We either try everything, or we are unable to choose and end up doing nothing. My advice is to learn as much as you can about a particular coach, and if you find yourself agreeing with most of their ideas, stop searching and go with them.
Coaching is an invaluable resource. Think of all the other aspects of life influenced by coaches. Sports teams have coaches. Teachers and professors are basically coaching you to an education. There are life coaches, acting coaches, dance coaches. Why wouldn’t health and fitness be important enough for a coach?
Rule #9: Stay grounded.
In 2014, my weight fell under 200 pounds for the first time since high school. I used to hate the idea of strength training, but, encouraged by my results with Turbulence Training, I began looking forward to my gym sessions. I started seeing myself as one of “those guys.” And I claimed that I would have six-pack abs by the following summer.
I didn’t realize that six-pack abs require insanely hard work. For starters, you need to have sub-10% bodyfat to have any chance of visible abs. Given my physique–I tend to carry fat around my midsection–my number is more like 7-8%. I needed to clean up my diet, cut way back on beer, and train harder than ever. I did one of those things. Maybe one and a half, depending on whether adding protein shakes counts toward cleaning up my diet.
Six-pack abs are a nice symbol of health, but ultimately it was vanity that pushed me toward that goal. Don’t let weight loss become a detriment to self-improvement. Get healthier because it’s the best thing you can do for yourself in the long run, not to seek attention or validation.
Rule #10: Be yourself.
My current goal is so weird and foreign to me that I almost feel like I’m talking about somebody else: I’m trying to gain weight. My new size 32 jeans are too loose, and I don’t want to go down another waist size. Some of my friends have commented that I look too skinny. Specifically, I’d like to gain about 10 pounds. The funny thing is, I can’t. I’ve tried eating more, lifting more in the gym, changing programs, yet I’m stuck at 175.
Sure, I could let myself have a few more sweets, skip a training day, or veg out on the couch and watch TV all day. Those 10 pounds would probably come back in no time. But I’m not compromising on the values that got me here. I’m moving better than ever before. I have more energy to devote to the things that matter to me.
I haven’t been able to add the muscle I’d like. But I’m happy with myself as is. And that’s the most important lesson I learned through this experience. There was never anything wrong with me. Sure, the path I was walking at age 23 was dangerous. I was likely headed for health problems and an early grave. That doesn’t mean I’m “better” than I was then.
Recognize the power you have right now to take control of your life. The world didn’t put you where you are now, and it sure as hell isn’t going to get you out of there. Not unless you decide to make the first move. But if you do something, anything, you might find the little coincidences begin to add up in your favor.
Everything I’ve written here worked for me. That doesn’t mean it’s right for you. The best diet is the one you can stick to. The best exercise gets you excited to do it. The only hack is to build better habits. It takes time, but you can start today.
P.S. Rule #11: Listen to kick-ass music while you train. I put together a Spotify playlist of my favorite gym tunes. Feel free to use them for yourself.