Over about the past year I’ve become something of a fitness junkie. Despite a few prior failed attempts, this time I finally succeeded in sticking to it and wanted to share a history about my particular journey.
There are two people who served as tremendous inspirations for me and I’d like to thank them both publicly: my mom and my wife.
My mother has suffered with multiple sclerosis for years and, I’d argue, suffered even more at the hands of conventional medicine in “managing it.” There came a point where she decided to take her health into her own hands, dropped the medications and added a good dose of healthier foods, exercise and time outdoors. Additionally, she dropped a lot of unhealthy weight and she’s managing MS far better than any of her doctors ever did. What was my excuse?
Miss Loving has been a fitness buff of sorts since we met. She’s never really been the type to over eat and while she doesn’t shy away from the occasional indulgence she actually understands what occasional means. Whether it means going to the gym or doing home workouts, she almost never misses one. Even during her pregnancy she stayed active to the end. (Her water broke during our nightly walk!) She even shed her baby weight post-pregnancy at a rate that many women would be envious of. Living with someone who really cares about being healthy makes it a lot easier to stay on the right track.
A Big but Ultimately Inadequate Epiphany
Regardless, even with years of seeing both of these individuals improve their lives and have more energy and vibrance than myself, I was your standard bag of excuses when it came to doing it myself. There was always something more important right now than getting healthy—and healthy is really the key word here. Looking good is nice, as is being strong and having some endurance but being healthy is without question the best foundation to lay down when making lifestyle changes.
Shortly before getting married, I came down with a rather nasty case of the flu. It was a four day bought of misery. I was sore, I was weak and I just felt awful. This wasn’t the first time I’d been really sick but it was the first time I truly realized, “Man, death isn’t the worst thing that can happen. Imagine feeling this bad for years at a time.”
This, combined with my upcoming wedding had me primed for getting in better shape. I did the usual: cut calories, ate “healthier” food and tried P90 (not P90X) for a few months. In all, I lost about 10 lbs over a few months and looked better for my wedding photos.
This didn’t last though. Every weekend after getting married turned into a reason to celebrate and, on top of that, I hated my job. I turned to stress-eating and a lot of video gaming to deal with it. This is not exactly a recipe for healthy living.
I gained back what I had lost and then some. I looked it too and, quite frankly, felt it.
In July of 2012, Miss Loving and I found out we were pregnant. This tends to be a pretty life-changing event that evokes a lot of introspection. Health was obviously something I thought about and even astutely realized that lifestyle changes would probably be easier to make before having a baby rather than after.
Unfortunately, despite my excellent forethought, I didn’t really change things up before having a child. Part of it was because of a new job (that I also hated) but it was mostly the same reason as before, I was full of excuses. There was always next week or next month—until, of course, there wasn’t.
Late March came and suddenly I was a dad, the proud father of a precious baby girl. The change is comes like a switch being flipped. One day you’re not a parent and the next you are. Being a new parent brings a lot of stress, worry and a drain on sleep. At this point, I already had a major lifestyle change to make and wasn’t about to further complicate the matter.
During this period though, I was struck with another major realization and this was the one that would stick: while we were breastfeeding our daughter in her infancy, at some point I was going to have to teach her how to eat and how to take care of herself. How on earth was I in any position to do so if I couldn’t even take care of myself?
I was overweight, low on energy, lacked the apparent willpower to say no to food I knew was garbage and far weaker than a man should be. Not only would I have to teach my daughter to make the right decisions, I’d need to be an example. On top of all that, I now had this helpless little baby that I needed to be prepared to defend to the death and in my condition at the time I wasn’t looking to put up much of a fight if I needed to.
In short, I was very humbled and had to make some changes.
Okay, But What Should I Do?
The Internet is wonderful. The World Wide Web is wonderful. The free flow of information in this day and age is, in my opinion, the greatest part of being alive in this particular era. It’s also horrible.
Health is one of the worst topics to study for a couple of reasons. The topic is full of “experts” all with contradictory advice and information. To make things worse, many of these “experts” are selling something. This doesn’t mean a person trying to make a living from their methods and information is lying to you but it does mean they’re more likely to approach it from a marketing rather than scientific perspective.
Another reality that’s hard for the layman to accept is this: collectively, we still don’t know far more than we do know about health, nutrition, fitness and disease prevention. A lot of people may be inclined to disagree with me on this point, but nothing I’ve seen to date indicates we “get it” yet. Like fitness, medicine is also very much a profit-driven industry, not a health-driven one.
Still, I started looking and questions started flying:
- Do I eat less meat?
- Should I be a vegetarian?
- Should I cut the fat?
- Do I need to count calories?
- Should I exercise a lot?
- What kind of exercises should I do?
- Can I over train?
- What about that Atkins stuff? Is low carb good or bad?
- Is diet or exercise more important?
- Should I take vitamins?
- What about other supplements?
- Should I get a gym membership?
The list goes on and on. It’s really overwhelming. I was overwhelmed. Still, I kept reading and studying.
Something had to be Better than Nothing
I tend to overanalyze everything and I knew I was doing it in this instance. I decided I really had two options:
- I could read and read and read until I found the “perfect” solution or;
- I could take what I’d learned at this point and do something using myself as a sort of guinea pig.
I went with the second option, thankfully. If not, I wouldn’t be writing this right now. I’d still be reading.
In all the reading and contradictory information, there seemed to be a few things that most everyone agreed on and I used that as my starting place:
- What you eat is more important than how much you exercise.
- Drink water and ditch just about everything else, fruit juice included.
- Ditch sugars and refined foods.
- Eat “healthy” fats.
- Eat “healthy” carbs.
- Diet and exercise are better for managing depression, stress, insomnia and many other problems than medication.
So I started there. I started to curb my meat consumption, stayed away from the “white stuff” (white potatoes, white rice, white flour and white sugar) and replaced ith with “whole grains” like brown rice. I also avoided fats to bring the calories down. I increased my fruit and vegetable intake. I even started working out with a buddy from work who was a body builder and spent time on treadmills and stair steppers a few times a week.
I followed this course over a couple of months and, much to my surprise, it really didn’t do much for me at all. I lost virtually no weight, only now I was hungry more than I used to be. I was definitely not more energetic, in fact I was more tired. Eating wasn’t something I looked forward to. Working out was miserable for the most part, except that I found I liked weight lifting. Virtually nothing about the experience was positive. Even my grocery bill had increased with nothing to show for it.
While I get that fitness is a journey—more now than ever really—two months of work is a lot of work. I was working myself breathless on the cardio machines. I was practically starving myself on some days while counting caloric intake. I was weighing my lunches. I wasn’t lifting a lot of weight, but by the time I was done on “arm day” my arms felt like jello and after “leg day” I was terrified of staircases. I was putting in the work but nothing was changing. It was really, really frustrating. Surely I should have seen something in two months.
The upside was that surrender was no longer an option. In fact, the discouragement was something of a simultaneous motivator. Did I want my daughter facing this? No. Did I want her to be in her 30s trying to reverse the course of years of bad decision making? Definitely not.
Finding Something that Worked
In late November of 2012, Miss Loving had decided to watch a documentary on Netflix called Food, Inc. which, while tangentially interesting wasn’t enough to captivate my attention too much. What it did do though was get me to take a closer look at exactly what I was eating, specifically the “healthy” stuff. This was primarily because it was expensive and I wanted to have a better idea if the food I was eating was really worth the money.
The first thing I looked into was the bread we were eating, which turned out to be a fortuitous turn of events. Most of our home bread intake was in the form of Ezekiel 4:9 Sprouted Grain Bread from Food for Life. This stuff was expensive compared to other breads, had to be refrigerated and had the taste and texture of cardboard. (And don’t even think about the low sodium version, yuck!)
Still, it was healthy, right? In fact, healthy food is plain and boring and expensive, right? That seemed to be the case.
Surely, the mighty Google would have the answer! And, in a sense, it did. A brief search lead me to this article from Mark’s Daily Apple. This wasn’t terribly interesting by itself, especially since I had no context for what “primal” meant.
However, something Mark’s Daily Apple is really good at is linking to a lot of other articles within itself. In fact, this is a staple of any good Internet marketing venture. There were two linked articles there that I read and they had me intrigued: Why Grains Are Unhealthy and How to Quit Grains.
After checking those out I went through the whole Getting Started section and read everything there including many of the links inside those articles. I was hooked. Long ago I had made fun of “paleo” diets because it seemed like a silly fad and I generally made fun of diets anyway. My position was, “Yeah well, being a caveman was miserable. Why would I want to replicate that?”
I had never considered my food consumption in terms of my evolutionary makeup though. (In fact, as someone who was avidly opposed to the idea of evolution for most of my young life I would have found this ridiculous on its face a decade ago!) This, to me, made more sense than anything I had read to date on why we should and should not eat certain things. It wasn’t perfect and there was a heavy dose of salesmanship going on but this was something.
Finally, Some Results
I decided to go all in on this one. There were some pretty serious claims about results and in my current state I figured it couldn’t be any more unpleasant than what I was doing already. I talked it over with Miss Loving and she opted to try it with me—and let me tell you, it helped in ways that cannot be overstated. I cleaned out our pantry, picked up a digital copy of The Primal Blueprint and started treating donuts like poison.
Additionally, I picked some books that I’d call the “best hits” among a lot of people adopting this lifestyle: Protein Power and Wheat Belly. I also read through a lot of the articles on Dr. Michael Eades’ Blog. There is a lot of good information to be found here (even if I think Eades hates on carbs a little too much).
One other book worth mentioning is Rich Food, Poor Food. While I found this book to be a little hit or miss, it really educated me on reading food labels and got me into the habit of doing so, particularly on many organic foods that I had often just presumed were pretty clean. (As it turns out, this isn’t necessarily the case at all.)
Enough of my reading though. Here’s what happened very quickly:
- I lost 10lbs in the first month.
- I wasn’t hungry all the time.
- I started to feel “better” in a non-quantifiable way.
Something else very strange happened. I am very, very pigeon-toed. Many of my friends can recognize me from quite a distance based purely on my odd gait. Since my mid-twenties I have struggled with pain in my hips and knees. Once or twice a week I’d take naproxen sodium (Aleve) just to sleep.
This pain vanished within a couple weeks and has been nowhere to be found since. Of all the changes, this one in particular really impressed upon me that I was finally on the right track.
There’s No Silver Bullet
With all of this said, it wasn’t perfect. I was losing weight and continued to do so for a few months. I dropped about 25lbs in about four months. This was pretty easy, I believe, because I was very much overweight to start with. My wife, on the other hand, actually gained some weight and wasn’t as in love with things as I was. This was most likely the result of me going a little crazy with fats in our food. Calories are still calories and if you eat too much, your body will store it.
Also, that 25lbs became something of a plateau. I kept eating the same and wasn’t losing anymore weight. Some people might argue I had hit a sort of ideal weight, but looking in the mirror indicated otherwise. Body fat scanners, while inaccurate, were still putting me in the 20% body fat range which is still too much.
Things were certainly better, but there was more work to be done.
It’s a Lifestyle, Not a Diet
Your diet is, in my opinion, the best place to start if you’re going to change your lifestyle. It’s a great foundation but it’s only part of the equation. While I have read many books before and since The Primal Blueprint, none of the others have made this point so powerfully. Exercise is important, but even more than that sleep and stress reduction are hugely important. Being happy is important to your health! (Mind you, there is a wide chasm of difference between activities that make us happy and activities that merely deaden misery.)
If you want to be healthy, a short-term diet isn’t the answer. A crash diet isn’t the answer. These things might work to help you fit into some clothing before a big event, like a wedding, but they’re not solutions. Health requires a change in your lifestyle, from top to bottom. This sounds like a lot, but if you approach it properly, it really isn’t.
Actually seeing some results makes dedicating yourself to health a lot easier. Many of my early attempts were derailed because putting in a ton of work and having nothing to show for it is no fun at all. However, the further along you get the harder it is to see results. Losing 10% of your body fat when you have a body fat of 40% is easier than losing 10% if you’re at 20%. Muscle gains and fitness goals work the same way. In the early days things will come quickly, but over time that’s not the case.
This is completely normal for virtually every single person on the planet. The upside is that the early stages tend to help you develop the disciple necessary to the work through the later stages. This was the case for me.
Changing everything all at once is a bad idea. I’m not going to say no one can do it (and if you can, more power to you) but in my personal experience, most people who try to do too much at once, get overwhelmed and quit. So, what I began doing at this point was trying to pick a couple goals each week to stick to. These goals were not all that lofty, and even now I have to rededicate to some of them from time to time, but making incremental steps isn’t that hard at all.
Some weeks I’d cut some of my indulgences out. Other weeks I’d add just a little more exercise. Still other weeks I’d resolve to actively purge stress and negative influences from my life and finally there were resolutions to turn off the electronics and get to sleep at a reasonable hour.
The idea was to chip away at the things that were making me miserable, stressed out and unhealthy.
And Here I am Now
I began my real health journey back in mid-December of 2012—about 10 months ago. I’ve dropped 35lbs since (there were some fluctuations while I was experimenting with things) and I’ve gained some muscle mass as well, so pure fat loss is actually more than that. My blood pressure is normal for the first time in who knows how long and while my body isn’t exactly something most people are going to look at and say, “I want to be that guy!” I can see the outline of my abs for the first time in my adult life.
I can run faster, jump higher, lift more and walk further than I have ever been able to in my life. I feel better, heal faster and have energy again. There’s even a mental clarity that’s come in all of this. Again, it’s not something I can really quantify beyond just saying that I can think better.
This is by no means the end point but I wanted to write an account of how I got to where I am now. 10 months isn’t an eternity, but it’s a long time to for me to stick with something like this.
I’m a dedicated fitness geek now. I read up on tons of diet, nutrition, exercise and general health tips and am trying new stuff all the time. It’s one of my favorite past times and I’ll be writing about it a lot more here.
I encourage everyone reading to take their health seriously. If you think cheesecake is addictive, you should try feeling good because it’s the best kind of addictive.