One Year of Getting Healthy

I received my Apple Watch just over a year ago. I bought it because it felt like it was going to be the next big platform, and I didn’t want to miss out. That didn’t turn out to be the case, but what did suck me in were its fitness tracking capabilities. I’d been concerned about my overall health and weight since I hit my 30s; my family history that includes such fun things as diabetes and heart disease, and I wanted to avoid those. The watch finally served as the catalyst to really try to do something about it.

A year later, I’ve lost 50 pounds. I can run 8 miles without stopping and will be running a half marathon in early 2017. This is how I did that and how I plan to lose a little more, and keep it off. Also note: this worked for me and may not be replicable. People are different and there are so many other factors with regards to health and weight. I don’t write this to brag (ok, well maybe just a smidge), or to instruct, but to log.

This was not my first rodeo. A few years ago I was traveling back forth from Phoenix to Dallas for work. Since this was going to last for a few months, so I decided to take advantage of the “free” time and get serious about working out. I signed up for a gym membership, mapped out a plan with a trainer, and started to lift weights and do the various gym things you do. I also had a per diem for eating expenses from the company and ate far better than I normally would have if left to my own devices1. It worked pretty well. I went from about 235 down to 195. I had all the intention to keep it off, but then I didn’t.

When that project was over I was back at home. I kept up the gym work, but it got harder to fit that in my schedule. In Dallas I didn’t have anything else to do but work, go to the gym, and watch bad TV in my hotel room. At home I had a family and friends to, y’know, do things with. I was back to thinking about my own food again, and the laziness and lack of discipline crept back in. Working in an office with lots of free snacks and soda did not help either.

Eventually the gym attendence faded too. The process of putting on the gym clothes, finding my bag, driving to the gym, doing the locker room thing, then going to lift weights, all on a relatively strict schedule started to be too many hurdles for my lazy butt. I would go to the gym but then put in a low effort on a treadmill for 20 minutes. Then I just didn’t even go anymore.

Time went on and I found myself fatter than I had been before, somewhere north of 2402. It crept up on me and I didn’t think I had gotten back to where I was before, and then some.

After some thought I realized that my failure with the Dallas plan wasn’t sustainable at home. Everything I had done was based on the notion of being away from home and having the time and money to do all the right things. I needed to come up with a plan that would work with my irregular schedule. I also didn’t want to go on a special diet, or any kind of diet really. I’ve seen so many people lose weight from dieting and then gain it right back. The evidence supports that notion. I knew that for something permanent to happen, it would have to last me the rest of my life. I came up with three rules to improve my health:

  1. Eat a little less
  2. Eat a little better
  3. Exercise a little more

And let time and attrition do its thing. I knew this wasn’t going to get me any book deals, but it felt like it would work with me.

Eat a little less & Eat a little better

I like to eat. No, I really like to eat. I find it to be one of life’s pleasures, and you get to do it three times a day!3 I could never be a vegetarian, despite any health risks because I love to eat cows and pigs. Paleo won’t work for me because I have a torrid love affair with sandwiches.

Yeah, any diet that was courting me was gonna need a really good pre-nup before I’d commit to it.

I also had developed quite a fondness for soda. That became my caffeine delivery system of choice. Some people would come into the office with their Starbucks cup, I had my thirstbuster. At some point I switched over to diet soda, which is gross, but had less calories. I never really dug into the science of it, but I don’t know if that’s an even tradeoff, especially at 48oz (or more, yikes) per day. I eventually decided to ween myself off soda and force myself to like coffee (and it’s miniscule calorie content) instead. It took some doing, but I now appreciate the stuff. Being able to do the ceremony of Aeropressing everything helped trick my brain into thinking it was doing something fancy too.

Despite curtailing soda significantly, I still usually had at least one 12oz can of Coke with lunch, nearly every day. I really wanted to kick it altogether, but the flesh is weak. Through sheer willpower I got it down to one (or two) per week. That maintained for a couple of months, and then I got the stomach flu and was waylaid for a few days. Due to a coincidence of timing, I managed to go a whole seven days without any soda, hitting that one week goal. After that, it was easier to skip. That’s a rather “unorthodox” approach, but I guess it worked? I’ll have a soda every now and then4, but it doesn’t have the same allure as it used to.

Snacking has been harder to cut back on. Free food at the office seems to be able to circumvent most of the circuits in my brain and hit the MUST-HAVE centers directly. After a really long fight I’ve cut back on trips to the candy dish full of delicious Hershey nuggets to a minimum.

And let’s talk about diet in general. Like I said, I’m never going to be be successful on one found in a magazine, but I could make changes to my diet in general. I’m not going to ever cut carbs out completely, but I don’t have bagels nearly as much as I used to. Now they’re more of a special occasion than a common occurrence.

Time permitting, I cook up some breakfast sausage and eggs in the morning. If I’m feeling like I really want to be healthy (which is rare), I’ll get some greek yogurt, granola, and fruit, but frankly I’m not much of a fan of that.

I try to track the calories too. I use MyFitnessPal, but I I’m not exactly in love with it. Their database is probably the best out there, but it’s not complete; and as a software developer I empathize with the notion of tracking every single food item in the world, but it’s still too annoying to try to find everything, especially if you cook a lot of your meals or don’t eat at chain restaurants. I probably only track about 50% of the stuff I eat, and sometimes go for days without tracking anything (which I’m betting maps up quite well with the times I eat worse).

My meals themselves aren’t too bad. My wife and I both like to cook, so we have a home cooked meal most days, and don’t go the Full Paula Deen. My achilles heel at home is snacks. I love chips, crackers, cookies, pretzels, anything crunchy really. If given the choice between some chocolate and cheez-its, I’ll side with Team Kellogg. I can’t mandate that those things are forbidden in our house either. My wife and kids have better self-discipline. Rather, I’m trying to look at trends when I snack down too much. I usually snack in the evenings. The snacks are downstairs, and I’ll usually spend the evenings upstairs. With these two data points, I try to avoid going downstairs in the evenings; laziness beats out food, usually.

I also regress more often than I care to admit. I’ll have a few good days, and then eat too many chips or cookies. It’s getting better, but fortunately the other prong in my plan helps offset some of that.

Exercise a little more

Filling in the rings on the Apple Watch is fun. Getting a chain is of completions is even better, and creates a virtuous cycle. I wanted to keep hitting my goal and increasing the streak of completions. I got my watch right before traveling to San Fransisco for WWDC, a conference for Apple-centric software developers. It was a full week out there, and involved a lot of walking. I hit 2.5-3x my move goal every day out there. I was hooked on keeping that thing filled out.

Since the gym wasn’t going to work for me, I tried to think about what I could do that would be sustainable for my lazy self. Walking was the obvious choice, but I also wanted to move just a little beyond that. I didn’t want to take up running [yet]; I had tried doing that before and burnt out on it quicker than weight training. Also it was summer in Phoenix which meant if you were outside you ran the risk of facing the wrath of an angry God.

Smaller steps were needed. I started to take a lap around the office atrium a few times a day. I’d walk for 8 minutes to a nearby shop for lunch rather than drive for 2. I even ended up running in place at home (in the air conditioning). Yes, that’s as dorky as it sounds, and I would stop if another human came within visual range because it’s just so embarrassing. But it worked well enough, and I could do it just a few minutes here and there to fill out the rings.

Eventually, I figured that I should try to suck it up and run again. So, in late July (yes, when your shoes might stick to the pavement because they’re melting) I “ran” a 5k. My time was 40:49 and involved a lot of walking, but I completed it, and drank a gallon of water afterward.

After that, and the heat, I didn’t do another run until mid September, and then again until early October. I remember not wanting to run — I felt incredibly sore, sweaty, and would much rather continue doing the little stuff that I had been for the first few months. But by this time, I wanted to “level-up” a bit. The competitive side of me started to kick in and I wanted to see if I could be a “runner”.

My first goal was to complete a 5k without taking a walking break, which I had never done before. As I got a little better, my time dropped down to the mid 30’s. Then I managed to run it with taking a single walking break for just one minute. Finally in mid November I ran 3.11 miles straight without any breaks. Shortly after that I cracked another goal and ran it in under 30 minutes5. I wasn’t expecting to do that quite so quickly.

This wasn’t without any hitches though. I had some nasty shin splints at the start. I would be incredibly sore from a run and hit the Advil right after the shower. And the chafing, oh the chafing [picture removed, gross, come on. —ed]. Taking it a little easier helped the shin splints to go away, and eventually the soreness stopped being an issue.

Something weird happened. I started to enjoy running. The sense of satisfaction from completing a run grew. I started to go a little longer, occasionally a little faster. I got to the end of my first 5 mile run and thought, “hey, I bet I could go a little further”. I forced myself to not overdo it and not add too much distance too quickly.

I also started to consider races. I am under no illusion that I would be competitive in any kind of race6, but actually putting something on an official record sounded interesting. I could run a 10k well enough, and thought about one of the longer races for a stretch goal. A full marathon was probably out of the question due to time constraints, but the half was alluring. You train for something like that by doing moderately short runs during the week and a longer one on weekends. You don’t even have to run the 13.1 miles during training. I figured why not? and signed up for the Rock-n-Roll half marathon in January 2017.

This process took a whole year. And it was a gradual, incredibly gradual, increase in effort. If 2015 me had flipped a switch and started running right away as often as I do now, he would have given up pretty quickly.

The other big question: is this sustainable? It’s been a year, and if anything, my dedication to getting healthier is stronger than it was before. I weigh 194 pounds now, and want to get to 175. The road has been uneven, but the trajectory is going in the right direction.

Misc

  • Calorie counting is such a pain in the butt, and I don’t necessarily believe what any of my trackers tell me… After putting my age/weight/goal into MyFitnessPal it told me that if I ate 2600 calories per day I’d lose a pound a week. That’s a flat out lie. If I want to lose weight, I need to keep it under 2000 and keep up my exercise routine.
  • Relatedly, that thing where if you lose a bunch of weight and then your body fights against you to gain it back? I think I’m seeing that to a small extent. My hope is that since I don’t plan to stop my routine, it won’t come flooding back, and that it’ll settle down after a while.
  • I still drink alcohol too. I don’t drink much beer anymore, preferring wine and whiskey.
  • My fastest 5k is 26:56, and I almost always keep them under 30 minutes. I don’t think I’ll be breaking that again until it cools off… in November.
  • I used to run at night, but switched to mornings. My body would be tired after a run, but my brain would be rocking out like Andrew WK, causing me sleep difficulty.
  • My calorie burn rate has dropped significantly. I think this is a good thing. The jog in place thing used to get up to 12 per minute, but that’s down to 9 now. Yes, I still do it if I’m close to my daily goal and don’t want to go back outside. Stop judging me.
  • If you’re on RunKeeper, look me up!
  1. Seriously, I’m not too proud to eat from a gas station if necessary. I find Olive Garden and Chili’s to be gross though.

  2. I don’t have the exact number because I was too embarrassed to weigh myself before starting on my latest track. I regret this decision because now I don’t know exactly how much weight I lost. My first measurement was at 239 after about a month and a half, so with a little guess work I figure it was around 245.

  3. This is why I don’t really understand Soylent and the things like it. I don’t eat to get full, I eat because food is great. This is probably also why I’m fat.

  4. I think I’ve had under 5 for all of 2016 so far.

  5. 29:56 on November 23.

  6. Hearing a teenaged runner talk about getting his 5k under 20 minutes was an eye-opener. I am optimistic about improving my speed, but I don’t think I’ll ever get that fast.

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