Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Secret is That There *Is* No Secret



I apologize in advance for another fitness/weight loss post in advance if they're are annoying you in any way...

Also, I'm going to do my best to not be preachy or condescending, and if anything comes across that way, I apologize in advance. I'm no expert or inspiration by ANY stretch. I'm just a 31 yr old guy with a family and a job who got tired of being fat and finally did something about it after many aborted attempts in the past...

In case you're new to reading this blog or don't know me well in person, I'm a big guy. I'm 6'5" tall and up until my birthday this past February, I was very heavy, too. I had been active and involved in sports from the age of 5 but as soon as I started graduate school at 21, got married, had 4 kids with my wife, got my PhD, did a postdoc, and a full-time job/career, I let myself go and topped out at 359 lbs. I made the decision (spurred on with help and support from my wife and oldest daughter) to get in shape this past spring. I decided to take up running again as it's something I really enjoyed as a teenager and it's something I can do cheaply (all you need are sneakers) and anytime I want, indoors or out (although I should add I've always *HATED* running on treadmills!). Since I made a concerted effort to run regularly (3-4 times a week) in May 2011, as of today I've lost 93 lbs, 5 inches off my waist, and gone from an XXXL tall in my shirts to an XL tall. I feel fantastic...no more daily knee pain, no more lower back pain, I sleep fantastically now, and I think I look pretty good.

So all of this leads me to the crux of this post. Whether people are seeing me for the first time in a while or regularly, when they notice my weight loss and how fast it's come off (and I will admit, losing 93 lbs in 5 months *is* pretty quick, and something I never thought I could do), the inevitable question always comes up:

"What's your secret?"

I'm here to tell you my secret, to reveal the hidden mystery about weight-loss that has been kept from humanity for decades:

There is *no* secret.

Yes, that's right. There is no secret. Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. A big ol' goose egg. And so on.

A lot of people don't believe me. Hell, even my own doctor at one point asked me how I did it, and asked if I'd had gastric bypass, lap band surgery (neither of which I would have even been a candidate for with my frame size...359 was MUCH too heavy, but I have a broad frame so it's not like I was morbidly obese or even close to it). Some people have asked about diet pills, supplements, etc.

Nope. None of those. How have I done it?

The old fashioned way. Good ol' DIET AND EXERCISE.

Yes, you read that right. I've done it *ALL* with watching my diet and exercising on a regular basis.

DIET: I'm 100% Greek-American. Both sides of my family came to America from Greece about 100 years ago or so. I'm third generation, and it's no secret Greeks love to cook and love to eat, so I grew up eating lots of yummy homemade Greek food from my two Yiayia's kitchens. Most Greek food is pretty healthy, but I developed bad eating habits along the way. Now, when you're a growing teenage boy and constantly on the move with sports practices, playing pickup basketball or football with your buddies, and generally running around doing stuff all of the time (not to mention having a fast metabolism) it can keep you in check. But once I hit my early 20s and the exercising slowed down and then stopped (mainly due to having NO TIME to sleep, let alone be active, when my PhD studies got really crazy busy) then it caught up to me. So how did I break 30 years of bad habits so easily?  I started tracking my calories.  People have mentioned keeping a food journal for years, and I'd tried it and it worked, but I never stuck with it.  The reason I finally did this time and it worked is because they now have websites and accompanying smartphone apps that do the same thing.  I'm a huge tech geek and Apple fanboy in particular. There are numerous websites and iPhone apps (and these sites usually have Droid and Blackberry apps, too, if you don't have an iPhone) that do this very thing. I tried a few of them, including MyFitnessPal and Free Calorie Counter, but the one I liked the most and have stuck with and will continue to stick with is called Lose It. It's a free website (www.loseit.com) and they have apps, too. You set your height, weight, age, and gender and it calculates your daily calorie budget. The goal is to not go over it each day. Also, as you exercise, you input your activity, which "wins" you calories back in your budget. I like Lose It for a variety of reasons. To me, it has the most visually pleasing aesthetic and layout. It's very easy and user friendly to navigate. There are some fascinating charts and graphs it constantly updates for you so you can track your progress, performance, and behavior. And this might sound lame, but there are little extra things that are great motivators, such as winning badges for certain achievements relating to weight loss and exercise, as well as posting (optionally) your activities to Facebook and Twitter. That's a great motivator...obviously you don't want to embarrass yourself in front of all of your friends and family (albeit online)!

Besides all of that, probably the biggest reasons I've stuck with it so long and will continue to is that it gives me a nice visual list and number to look at. I've got a touch of OCD (heavier on the O=obsessive part) and have always functioned best when I write out lists of tasks to do at school/work. Seeing things crossed off is a huge motivator to get things done. Likewise with Lose It and similar apps, seeing the actual numbers is a great way for me to stay on target.

More importantly, it's about changing bad habits. For instance, I used to drink a fair amount of soda. Now, I just stick to water and unsweetened iced tea, two things I always drank a lot of...now I just drink more of 'em. Both are low in calories (water = 0 and iced tea with a lemon wedge in it = ~5-10 calories for a HUGE glass of it). I still drink soda, but instead of having the equivalent of 3-7 cans/week, I'll maybe have the equivalent of 0-2 cans/week. People are shocked to hear this but I eat WHATEVER I WANT! Yes, I still eat even ice cream and french fries and pizza, etc The difference is now, since I track calories, I just don't eat as much of it.Whereas I used to eat 3-4 slices of pizza in a sitting, now I'll have 1 or 2. Instead of having a huge bowl of ice cream after dinner, I'll have a scoop or two as long as I have enough calories left in my budget for the day.  I never feel hungry or deprived, and it's helped me make better decisions about what to eat, when to eat it, and how much.  "Should I have a slice of cake now before dinner, or hold off and have a bit extra spaghetti and meatballs at dinner? I'll have this extra helping of lasagna now and run an extra mile tonight to work it off." And so on.  Little changes = HUGE results.

EXERCISE: Yeah, it's not too exciting, but you gotta exercise as well. Not only does it help with weight loss, but it's just good for you anyway, not that I'm telling you anything new! Now, for me, running has been a godsend...as well as being great exercise, for me it's great mental therapy, a fantastic way to de-stress and get some energy and anxiety/aggression out after long days at work. I've logged 170 miles (and counting) since the beginning of June and am now consistently running 4-5 miles each run at a 9:45/mile clip (when I started, I was barely running 1.75 miles in 30 minutes)! It's been great for me to notice the improvement in my performance as the weeks go on, and to notice how great I feel after long runs now, as opposed to feeling like death warmed over in the earlier weeks.  I also do stairclimbs in my house on non-running days, as well as sit-ups and push-ups. Eventually I'd like to get back into weight lifting, which is something I used to really like as a teenager.

Now, obviously, not everyone likes to run or wants to run or *CAN* run, for whatever reason. The important thing is just to do SOMETHING and do it consistently. Not only is it good for you physically and mentally (the adrenaline highs during long runs are AMAZING, for instance!) but it improves other aspects, too. You'll sleep better, feel better, have lower blood pressure and blood sugar, not get sick as much, etc. For me, it's helped with chronic knee and back pain which was brought on by being overweight (both are pretty much gone now) as well as eliminating my constant headaches and migraines (which I suspect were due to high blood pressure). And for me, exercise is almost an addiction now. On the days when I can't work up a sweat for whatever reason, I'm almost grumpy or cranky (ask my incredibly patient and long-suffering wife!) and cannot WAIT for the next time I can run or do something active.

You just need to get out there and DO IT. Even something simple like taking a walk, a little swim in the pool, riding your bike, etc is doing something active. It's always hard to do it the first time, but I've found the hardest time is doing it the SECOND time when you're sore and tired and still not into it. You have to force yourself to do it, initially, even when you don't want to. Eventually it becomes a habit, and then something you'll (hopefully) look forward to.

BE PATIENT AND STICK WITH IT: This is very important. In the past, if I wasn't seeing results in the mirror after a few weeks, I gave it up. You'll have results even if you don't see anything at first. Just stick with it and eventually you'll see results, which will make you want to keep at it. I wasn't seeing results the first month or so, but the numbers on the scale went down little by little and I kept at it. Eventually I noticed my pants were too loose, my shirts too big, my belly was smaller, my face thinner, etc. Once you get there, then it's pretty easy to keep at it.

THE FINAL WORD: In my opinion, fitness and diet fads are stupid and probably >99% of the time either fail or are so bad for your health that they do more damage than good. Anything promising "fast and easy" results are a sham, whether it's a special new piece of equipment, a diet that screws up the balance in your diet, pills, hormones, therapies, surgeries, etc. Just in my own life, I know MANY people that lost a bunch of weight via fad diets, surgery, pills, hormones, etc and then, as soon as they were "done" and stopped, gained it all back, and in many cases, added ADDITIONAL weight. Think about it:

1) WHAT in life can ever be meaningfully accomplished easier and faster in life than doing it the tried and true way via hard work and dedication? Whether it's in school, work, a relationship, a task, fitness, sports, music, art, writing, etc, the person who works hard and is dedicated to what they do will almost ALWAYS come out on top and be better at it than someone who looks for the easy way out. Obviously there are exceptions, i.e. people born with incredible God-given talent/looks/ability/etc but those people are just that, the rare EXCEPTIONS!

2) If you don't change the underlying habit, you're not addressing the problem. As a ridiculous but, I think, effective example, let's say you have a habit of constantly banging your head very hard against a brick wall day in and day out. It's giving you headaches and causing brain damage. So you decide to buy a football helmet and wear it when you keep on banging your head against said brick wall. Sure, the pain and the damage you're causing may lessen, but have you changed the actual habit and STOPPED hitting your head? It's easier to go buy a helmet than to stop whacking your cranium, but in the end are you really any better off? I know this is a completely ludicrous example, but the point is, if you don't take some personal ownership and modify your habits, you've really done nothing to address the problem. This goes hand in hand with the fad diets, surgeries, treatments, etc. The reason all of these people regain the weight is because they slide back into their old bad habits!  The problem was not addressed, just the effects of the symptom, so to speak.

IN CONCLUSION: Again, I'm totally NOT trying to be preachy or pretend like I know it all...I don't, and I know I don't! As I said at the beginning, I'm just a dude who got tired of being fat and finally did something about it. I'm only writing this to offer my personal insights and opinions based on my experiences (since this is *my* blog after all!), and to share it with anyone reading it to show you that you *CAN* do it and you *CAN* succeed if you just roll your sleeves up and put your head down and DO IT!

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For the last 15 years or so, I failed miserably at staying in shape (and later on, getting back INTO shape) and finally, at 31, I'm successful at it. Some of it has to due with simply being older and wiser and having a better perspective on life and myself. A huge part of it is having a wife and 4 kids who I love more than anything in the world and wanting to set a good example for them and be around for many, many years to see their kids and, God willing, their grandchildren! And a humongous part is being so sick of how I felt and looked and finally grabbing the bull by the horns and taking complete control of my behavior and harnessing my manic energy toward this goal. I tell people all the time that it's been easy, and I'm telling them the truth. It's been easy because all I had to do was change my behavior and put in some work. To me, that's much, much easier than paying lots of money and spending lots of time on all of these ridiculous machines and accessories and pills and pre-made meals and supplements and depriving yourself of certain foods or walking around in a starvation-induced zombie-like state on a crazy diet. I get to eat what I want, control how much of it I eat, and go work up a sweat for 30-60 minutes every day.  It doesn't get much easier than that, in my view!

That's probably the take-home message here, since, as I've learned as I've gotten older, those are real habits that will help you in ALL areas of life.

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