I had a few wake up calls a while back.
The first came when I was looking at some photos of myself, I looked really chubby. It was somewhat unexpected. I didn’t think of myself as overweight, and didn’t see that when I looked in the mirror, but there it was — photographic evidence.
The second big wake up call came when I purchased a smart scale. It was an Amazon lightning deal, and I got it on somewhat of a whim. I like technology and like data, so it seemed like an interesting thing to do. But when I stepped on the scale and went through some of the analysis, not only did it confirm what the photos had shown, but took away all possible excuses. Not only was I overweight, but I was flabby and soft too. Well outside of the weight range for my height, way too much visceral fat, a slow metabolism, weak bones, and on and on. I could no longer use the excuse that the camera adds 10 pounds or that muscle is heavier than fat. I had to face reality.
We can certainly debate the accuracy of photographs and consumer smart scales, but that isn’t the point here. The point is that I needed to change. I needed to lose weight and get into shape. Not only for myself but for my wife and my kids. I wanted to be a fit husband and the kind of dad that my kids would not only be proud of, but would want to emulate.
So that is what kicked off my journey. This post is a bit different than my usual writing. I’m not a fitness writer and probably won’t become one. But this is about the things that worked for me. I know that they won’t work for everyone. So if you’re reading this and disagree, you’re probably right in some way. Your mileage may vary and you’ll need to find the things that work for you.
But these are the steps that worked extremely well for me. I’ve lost around 35 pounds and am much more fit and lean than ever before (including my high school and college days). And the main reason I am writing this because a person very close to me asked for some help and guidance. So this is mostly for them. But if there is something useful, hopefully others will be able to leverage it as well.
1. Measure, Track, & Monitor
The first step to making any change is to start to take measurements. As the saying goes, it is difficult to change what you don’t measure.
Get a Smart Scale
To start, get yourself a smart scale and start weighing yourself. This will help establish a baseline and allow you to track progress and trends. I use Eufy. There are lots of good ones based on Amazon reviews. I haven’t tried out many others, but mine was $25 and works perfectly for what I need. I weigh myself every day at the same time so I can keep track of my progress and my trends over time. This helped me establish a baseline and begin to actually monitor my progress as I began to make changes.
Track Your Movement
I’ve been a Fitbit user since the very first wristband came out. Way back when it was just 5 dots and no one had any idea what you were wearing on your wrist. I’m a big believer in it. Tracking your activity level and sleep will help establish a baseline that you can build from.
I’ve personally set a goal of 10,000 steps each day. That tends to be a stretch for me most days. It gets me going outside to walk around the office complex a few times a day (it’s about 1,000 steps to make a full loop). I wouldn’t otherwise do that.
I don’t think there is anything magical about 10,000 steps. But understanding where you are currently and then setting a stretch goal is the real key. Once you have measured your current activity, you can then start to set those stretch goals and actually get moving.
Track Your Eating
To truly make a change, you have to track what you’re eating. I’ve used MyFitnessPal for this, though there are other good apps as well. Enter everything into it, even if you don’t change anything to start. Simply understanding what and how much you’re eating will be critical to making changes.
This may feel onerous to start. And it is. However, you won’t have to do this forever. This is meant to help you get started. Once you’ve established the right habits (more on that below), you’ll likely be able to scale this back. But it is critical to get started. You’ll likely be surprised at how much you’re eating every day. I know I was shocked when I started tracking my food. It helped me make a few changes right off the bat, though that hadn’t been my intention.
Tie It All Together to Monitor
There are numerous apps that can bring everything together for you. As a Fitbit user, that one has worked well for me. I also use Google Fit to see some of my trends, including weight trends since I can add my smart scale to it. Whether it is a single app or multiple apps, use technology to your advantage. I’ve tended to use a variety of apps since each have their own strength. You can certainly tie them together though since many of them have integrations with each other (though not all of them, so don’t expect to get your Fitbit data into Google Fit for example).
2. Eat Right — Diet Is Key
I used to believe that exercise was the most important key to fitness. With that mindset, I used to exercise frequently with little regard to what I ate. When that didn’t work, I continued to increase my level of exercise more and more, spinning my wheels endlessly. At the same time I was spinning, my wife was taking the opposite approach. She didn’t have a massive exercise regimen like I did, but focused on eating right, both in quantity and quality. And she managed to lose weight and look great. This was especially pronounced after she gave birth to our kids. She was able to rapidly return to her pre-pregnancy weight while I struggled to do anything.
When I switched to a similar mindset, I was actually able to make massive progress.
Control the Quality
The first key to eating right is to focus on the quality of the food you consume.
When I started really focusing on my eating, I wasn’t as concerned about the amount of food as much as I was concerned about getting the food right. For me, that meant switching to a Keto-style diet. I’ve long believed that fat and meat and those types of food are significantly better for you (check out The Big Fat Surprise for a fascinating read about the history of dietary guidance). A Keto diet focuses on cutting out most of the carbs and sugars in your diet and replacing them primarily with fat and protein.
I started scrambling some eggs for breakfast every morning. I started to cut out breads and carbs in other meals wherever I could. I also switched some of my snacks from crackers (I love Ritz Bitz) to nuts like almonds.
At first, I didn’t even cut back too much on how much food I was eating. I simply started by replacing foods and eating better. That massively helped the transition and got my body ready for bigger changes.
Now I’m not a Keto purist, and I may be missing some of the benefits of that. I still have some sweets and some carbs and some things occasionally that aren’t the best. But I do believe in the principles and have found that the closer I can align to a Keto diet, the better I’ve done and the better I’ve felt.
Control the QuantityMy next focus was on reducing the quantity of food. Once I established a baseline for my daily calories and food intake, I started to scale back.
My first step was to cut out a lot of junk food. I noticed (by tracking) that I ate a lot of sugary foods. I have a sweet tooth, and anyone who knows me can attest. So starting to limit myself to a few treats a day was the first step.
Next, started to cut out other snacks. I found (again, by tracking) that I ate a lot of snacks. My meals were pretty normal sized, but I ate a few meals worth of calories each day just in snacks. So cutting that back was a key to success.
Start Intermittent Fasting
I’d heard about the benefits of fasting for some time, but hadn’t really tried it until more recently. And it was a huge boost to my weight loss.
The idea behind intermittent fasting is that going without food for an extended period of time forces your body to use its fat stores (rather than the food in your system) for energy. So you start to use up that stored fat. It also helps decrease your insulin, which also helps your body start to use its fat stores as energy. A good start may be 12 hours of fasting, while going up to 14–16 hours is often the goal of many folks. There are other combinations as well, but I haven’t tried those.
I’ve seen the benefit fasting for myself. Not only have I been able to lose weight, but I’ve also been able to lower my body fat, and I largely attribute that to fasting. I still haven’t even fully optimized my fasting routine either, so I hope that as I get better at it, I’ll see even more benefits.
Personally, I started my intermittent fasting by ending snacks in the evening. We usually finish dinner around 6:00 pm, so that is when I finish eating for the day. This was a huge change in itself because I always used to eat in the evening. And not healthy food. I know some folks skip breakfast, but I never have done that. I have my scrambled eggs around 7:30 am (sometimes 8:00 am if I’m lucky enough). That typically gives me around 14 hours of fasting, which I’ve found to be great. If you can push that further, go for it. The key for me was cutting out evening snacks (and desserts). Other people aren’t breakfast people. I have a friend who prefers to eat in the evening and skip breakfast. That has worked for him. Personally, I’m a breakfast person. But the key is narrowing the window of time you’re eating on a given day.
3. Exercise — Resistance Training First
Another misconception I had a while ago was that cardio was key to weight loss and fitness. When I didn’t see results with cardio, I doubled down, often skipping lifting days to do more cardio. It was a vicious cycle.
Lifting and Resistance Training
The reality is that strength training is more important than cardio in my experience. If you have to choose, choose to lift or do resistance training over the cardio. When I made that switch, I started (gradually) to see much better results. The great thing with strength training is that it compounds over time. By increasing your muscle mass you can increase your metabolism and actually burn more calories at rest. Which is the dream, right? Actually being able to burn more calories by not having to constantly be exercising.
Cardio and Steps
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t do cardio type exercise. Like I mentioned above, moving is really important. Doing it every day is important, especially if you sit at a desk all day like most of us.
Additionally, I’ve found that switching to high-intensity intervals is better than simply hopping on the elliptical every day. So as I’ve done cardio, I’ve been doing my normal cardio routine for about 3 minutes, and then I kick up my speed and resistance for 30 seconds, basically sprinting for a short burst. Then going back to a jog.
By chance, I also found out that having rest days was critical for me. For a time, I was exercising every day. However, as my schedule got busier I had to start taking some evenings (I exercise in the evenings) for other work. Against my expectations, that actually seemed to jumpstart my progress in losing weight. I don’t know if I wasn’t getting as much out of my workouts by doing them each day or if I just needed some extra rest, but I’d suggest making sure that you have some rest days. Keep up with the steps, but try and do it throughout the day and take a break during your normal workout time. The key takeaway for me is that I didn’t have to exercise every single day to see results. I could actually have time for other things as well, as long as I was getting the most out of my workouts and eating right.
4. Push Through
One of the most difficult things is getting started. You’ve likely created habits that you have to start to break. Your body is going to be upset with you. I know that as I started to make changes, my body rebelled against me. I had overwhelming cravings for all things sweet. I occasionally binged on ice cream or pie or cookie dough.
The exciting thing about getting started, though, is that you’ll likely see some good progress up front. As you make some changes, you probably have some room to lose weight. Which will help you get going. Use that momentum!
It does get easier. But you will also hit some plateaus along the way. I hit several plateaus as I moved toward my target weight and fitness. It was hard to break through.
First, stick with it. As you focus on eating well, exercising and doing the things you need, you will be able to make progress, even if it seems slow or stalled.
Second, it may be worth it to “juice up” your returns by going to more extreme lengths for short periods of time. I’ve done this by completely cutting out snacks (even healthy ones) and any dessert/treats for a period of time. I’ve gone extra hard during my workouts and made a big push to get through. This has usually worked for me and has allowed me to then get back to my regular, sustainable routine but at a new, lower weight.
5. Create New Habits
None of the things I’ve talked about above are easy. They’re actually really hard. To be successful, you have to literally rewire your brain.
I found that giving up an evening snack was massively difficult. My body had gotten accustomed to eating around 9:00 pm every day. Breaking that habit was hard. But I established the habit of not eating after 6:00 pm, and now it’s hardly a temptation.
The ultimate goal of all of this is to change your lifestyle. It has to be long-term to be sustainable. You can’t starve yourself indefinitely, so you need to adjust your body and your habits to make these changes sustainable.
Hide the Food
Willpower is a muscle. You can build its strength over time, but you can exhaust it on any given day.
I know that when my favorite treats are out on the counter, I’m much more likely to snack on something than when it is hidden in the pantry. Make things easy on yourself, and don’t leave your favorite snacks out. Even better, stop buying some of those things. It is much easier to avoid Oreos if you don’t have any Oreos.
Create a Workout Routine
This is something that I did a long time ago, and it is a habit that has served me well. I’ve tried workouts at all different times of the day, but have found that the evening is best for me. The kids are in bed and I’ve done everything else I need. When 9:00 pm comes around on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, that is my workout time.
Find the time and days that work best for you and then make them a habit. No excuses because you’ve already planned for this time. Once it’s not in questions, it becomes so much easier.
And do something you enjoy while you workout. One of the few times I watch TV or movies is during my workout. It’s basically the only way I can keep up with any shows or Netflix. I’ve also gotten through a ton of audiobooks while working out. Find something you enjoy and add it to your workout.
Make Switches Wherever You Can
Swapping out breakfast food for eggs was a big change for me. But a couple of scrambled eggs in the morning are now a habit for me. It’s easy now. I eat eggs for breakfast.
Make these types of switches wherever you can. Get a big thing of Costco chicken strips and take those for lunch every day. I do something similar to that now. I’ve made a few switches where I’m in control and that gives me some more flexibility where I don’t have as much control (such as family dinners).
Be Intentional & Mindful
I’ve found that being intentional and mindful is another key to success. It is easy to mindlessly snack while watching TV or staring at your phone. I alwayseat more when I’m not paying attention. So pay attention! When you’re eating, take it slower. Focus on what you’re doing. Don’t zone out to the TV with a bag of chips. Even if you only intended on having a few, you will end up eating the whole bag before you realize it.
Stick With It
The biggest key is to great some routines and stick with them, even when it is difficult and even when you’re not seeing quick results. The goal isn’t to lose tons of weight immediately — it’s to create a new you. So make the changes, however small, and keep them going. The funny thing is that you’ll look back in 3 months and see tons of actual progress, even if it felt like you didn’t make any progress day to day. That is how my experience was. By sticking with it, you’ll be able to see massive (albeit gradual) changes too.
Nothing about this is easy, though some items are easier than others. The picture above is my actual trendline for this year. It is even more dramatic if you look at last year as well. It’s been an incredible journey, but it has taken time and commitment.
At the end of the day, you can do this. It may take some time, but don’t get discouraged. You’ve done harder things than this. You’ve survived much more difficult things. You can do this!
My personal musings on a variety of topics.