**Below is an exert from an article I wrote for my company newsletter in January of 2014 in preparation for our annual office “Get Healthy” challenge, with a few minor tweaks to better fit this platform. I hope it will inspire my readers to start the process of change and have the patience to see it through.**
No matter what size you are, body image is a sensitive subject for most, not to mention that living a healthy lifestyle is a struggle for most Americans. I can tell you that in January 2013 I really didn’t want to start the office “health” challenge, because I felt the odds of me trying to lose weight and failing were pretty high. Whatever your personal situation, I don’t know anyone who hasn’t tried a diet (or 10) and failed to lose weight, or failed to keep it off. It leaves you with the taste of frustration and disappointment… when you’d rather being tasting donuts, or pizza or beer. However, despite my misgivings about my chances of success, I signed up for the challenge. Let me tell you why.
In December 2012, I was at the heaviest weight of my life. While I have never been ‘skinny’, for most of my life my body image hadn’t stopped me from doing the things I wanted to do. But the farther I got into my 20’s, the more my weight went up. It kinda crept up on me. I would diet, lose 5 lbs, gain back 10; repeat that cycle enough times and well, you get the picture. It’s a pretty common story. In January of 2013, I was 3 months away from my 30th birthday and I had reached a turning point because I realized my weight was hampering my ability to enjoy life. I used to love taking pictures, but now hated how I looked in them. I used to love doing adventurous things, but now felt anxious in social situations. I didn’t want people to look at me. I talked about how much I loved certain foods, but really… if you love something, it shouldn’t make you feel like crap. And I felt like crap. My skin and hair were bad, my stomach was typically upset, my joints were always stiff. I was mildly depressed all the time. Physically, I felt much older than I wanted to; and mentally, I felt more insecure and unsatisfied than ever. Not exactly the way to ring in a new decade of life. My goal for the challenge was get to a place where I could feel ‘normal’ again.
What actually happened, far exceeded my expectations.
From January to August of 2013, I ended up losing 60 lbs and I have managed to keep it off since. I still want to lose a little more, but I’ve focused on maintaining what I lost – which is harder than losing in my opinion. I am wearing pants that I saved from my high school days – and they are baggy. And most importantly, I feel amazing – younger, stronger, and happier. When I see old friends, they notice the physical difference and the question I get is, “How did you do it?” If you really want to know, I’ll warn you, the information flies in the face of lots of ‘conventional’ weight loss wisdom. And I can give you recipes, exercise ideas and links to articles that explain the science behind my strategy for shedding the weight. But truthfully, the question of “How?” is the wrong question. What is more important to know is why I succeed this time, even though I had failed to lose weight many, many times before. There are 2 main reasons – and anyone, anywhere can apply them to their life. If you are serious about improving your health, please consider the why of my success before you attempt to apply the how.
First, I wasn’t alone. Every diet I’d ever tried, I had attempted to power through by myself, on sheer willpower. But this time around, the support of having the whole office be in the same frame of mind was invaluable. After all, it’s hard to be healthy if people around you are snacking all day or encouraging behaviors you are trying to avoid. The structure of our office challenge added an element of accountability and fun, competitive spirit to the process. In a strange way, it was also helpful to watch some of my co-workers deal which their own struggles. The attitude was always “It might have been a bad week, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to quit.” As the saying goes, “if you want to go far, go together.” So don’t do it alone. Get others on board with you and create some structure around what your goals are. Take advantage of the support of your colleagues, get your family or roommates on board. You will very likely reflect the attitude of the people around you, so make sure the are positive, persistent and do not enable the bad habits you are trying to change.
Second, I did not try to change everything at once. Americans love to see results immediately, but weight loss doesn’t work that way. It’s hard to not get discouraged or bored while waiting for the changes to come. In the past, I had always tried to change everything at once, to speed up the process (ie: I’m gonna count calories and give up eating XYZ and workout for 5 days a week – starting tomorrow!) And I always failed. It was a terrible strategy. Changing your way of life in a meaningful way requires time to learn and practice new habits – and how was I going to have time to learn and practice if was trying to juggle 5 different things on top of normal life!?
The amount of change one can reasonably implement is different for everyone – we all have different commitments and stresses. The point is this – work on changing one thing at a time. Practice that one thing until you are a rockstar at it, until it feels normal – until you don’t have to think about doing it. Let me tell you what this meant for me:
1) I changed my mind before any of my habits. I knew the office challenge was coming, so I thought about how much I wanted to succeed, long before it started. For about a month in December of 2012, I thought about the shape my body was in, how uncomfortable I was; I let myself actually feel it – rather than ignore it. I got honest with myself: ie I don’t want to keep living like this. Eating this food is not making me happy, I say it is, but it’s not. I mentally prepared myself to not give up and focused on how much I needed to change.
2) I changed my food. For 3 months, I focused on learning how to eat differently. You can find more information on that around my blog, but food was my only focus. I didn’t go to the gym. I didn’t run a single mile or lift a weight. To meet my exercise hours per the rules of the challenge, I walked at the mall, or outside if it was nice. Usually, I invited a friend and it became our social time, rather than going for coffee or a beer. I also had solo dance parties in my living room. I’m not kidding. I just turned on music and danced. I didn’t schedule this stuff, I just did it when it felt good. My food was my priority and in 3 months, I mastered a strategy for cooking and eating, in all situations.
3) Once food became a habit, I added ‘real’ workouts. After the office challenge ended, I started working out more intensely. Because the weather was nicer, I started walking outside more. I ran occasionally, but only when I wanted to. My main focus was on learning how to lift weights at my gym. I worked with a trainer who taught me proper techniques. This was a financial sacrifice, but it was worth it. Now, months later, I can walk on to the floor of my gym with all the ‘jocks’ and I’m not intimidated. I know how to work different parts of my body and I can put myself through a solid workout – I’m not dependent on classes at certain times or days, which means I literally never have an excuse to not work out – no matter where I am.
So here’s what I learned: increasing my workouts did not help me lose weight faster. Workouts don’t even guarantee that I’ll lose weight. They helped me maintain my weight on weeks when my eating got a little off track and they certainly changed the shape of my body, with tone and strength, but basically, you cannot exercise your way out of poor food choices. Changing my food habits account for at least 85-90 % of my success in actual weight loss. And slipping back into bad habits with eating always shows up on my scale, even if I’m still working out.
I also learned that most diets ask that you remove things from your life but this process of removal is not enough. You must remove the bad stuff, AND replace it with good stuff. Healthy food that you like. Activities that are not centered around food and drink. Things you enjoy that promote your general health. This might require that you try new and uncomfortable things. You don’t have to like everything you try. You just have to keep looking, until you find something.
But more importantly, I learned, in a very real, tangible way, that the body and the soul are inextricably linked. It’s one thing to understand that as an intellectual concept. It’s another thing to experience that truth in your being. And I did. That is why I included that quote by C.S. Lewis at the beginning of the article. I am a soul, and I live in a body. It is the only body I will ever have. Whatever you believe abut souls – it is fact that bodies do not last. And the quality of our lives is greatly impacted by our physical health. I was blessed enough to be born with all my limbs, my sight and hearing, and I have enjoyed general good health – so any limits I have, are of my own making – a consequence of not caring for what I was given. Once I started taking that care seriously, I became lighter – and not just on a scale. Our bodies want to be healthy and when they are, our souls are happy. Not “I’m happy while I’m eating this donut in my car” happy… happy in a very deep, lasting way that transcends specific circumstances.
You can read more about my experiences throughout my blog. There is also a Resources page, with links to information about the diet I followed (Paleo) – how to implement it and the science behind it. I’m always willing to answer any questions, so feel free to ask.
More than anything, I want people to know that I am not special. Anyone can do what I did – change their life and get their health and joy back. It just requires some humility, honesty and a personal vow to not quit. Challenge yourself – you might be shocked at what you are capable of.