Experimenting to a better life
I have lost more than 100 pounds since last September. I have many mixed emotions about this. At first you would think that I am proud of the hard work that went into this change, but there is more of a nuance:
– I am annoyed at myself for letting me get to be ~300 pounds in the first place (the main point about that is that I let myself get that unhealthy, to a point where I increased my risk of death, which was irresponsible given the fact that I have family and friends)
– I am frustrated with the lack of understanding that we have around nutrition, exercise and health
– I am the same person now as I was then. I am not a better person. I didn’t do anything impressive to get fit again…. I just made some choices. I am trying hard to not be tough on myself for how I was back then, nor be impressed with myself for some success in getting a bit healthier. I think about Free Will a little like Sam Harris, which affects this thinking. The sum of my parts got me to where I was, and where I am now.
The change in my appearance has caused some people to ask “How did you lose the weight?” People tend to wait for the answer “diet and exercise”, and that could be it. What I have found though is that there is a difference between knowing “these are the changes that I made that brought me this outcome” and “these changes had the following effects in my body, which brought me this outcome”. Cause and effect, causation and correlation, they are touchy beasts.
What do I mean by that? Well, first, here are the actions I took to get healthier. I started to mindfully consume for nutrition (sadly, for the first time in my life. Before then I consumed for pleasure / laziness).
I started first with what I was consuming:
. Drink water (yup, before that, I have persuaded myself that I “don’t like water”) and stopped drinking soda and foofy drinks. Substitute frappacinos for an espresso, or a black coffee.
. Eat a high protein diet (yay omelets for breakfast!)
. Eat vegetables (I really didn’t before. Now I love cooking up veggies in some olive oil. I mean that, I truly enjoy the taste [this has been key… enjoyment over suffering])
. Stay away from wheat/gluten (NOTE: It isn’t that I think you should rush to the gluten free aisle of Whole Foods. I am generally wary about “X free” as I then immediately research what was added in to keep the taste. For example, fat free normally means an addition of sugar and refined crap. Ditto for gluten free. This is a good commentary/warning for gluten folks. On further study, scientists have found that the gluten free results may be false, as long as you don’t have celiac disease of course. It is impressive that someone added rigor to his initial study and ending up reversing his thinking. That is science done right).
Within two weeks I lost ~20 pounds. This was key. I couldn’t look at this data and not realize that I had been truly poisoning myself. It was the kick start that I needed to keep on going. There is nothing more motivating than progress.
I purposefully didn’t start exercising yet. I wanted to change one thing at a time. In the back of my mind I had tricked myself into believing “if I exercise I can eat anything… just burn those calories!” With that belief, all I needed to do was exercise, but at my size exercise wasn’t fun, and so no changes were occurring. 2 weeks in, I now knew that “you can’t exercise your way out of a bad diet”, or maybe more correctly: changing the diet is incredibly key and it was working that way around.
I started to notice many side effects to the change, well beyond appearance:
– Mentally I was so much happier, my mood changed and I was able to deal with other things so much better
– I didn’t notice but I was internally inflamed all the time. I would have coughs that wouldn’t go away for months. I was running the car on high RPM constantly and it was killing me. I was pre-diabetic at this point and my insulin resistance was high.
– My skin started to change (no more rough patches)
– Other physical effects that I won’t go into now 🙂
What was the tipping point to start this change? Why September 2012?
I am still trying to work that to be honest. What was the tipping point? I don’t really know. A few things came together at once.
I was starting to worry about not having the chance to see any potential grandkids, or even worse…. leaving behind loved ones sooner than that. This thought wasn’t due to an illness or anything though, so I don’t quite know why the thought was surfacing more and more often. Maybe it was just a natural phenomenon of age?
Ben was interested in a book called “Why We Get Fat” by Gary Taubes, and we listened to much of it in the car ride to and from work. This book did two things:
#1: Make me re-think the “wisdom” of the food pyramid, “low fat” diets, and nutrition vs. exercise
#2: Got me really mad about what stemmed out of the Nixon administration where scientists made the wrong choice (in my opinion) and setup the flawed version of science that lead to the “fat is evil” mess up that has screwed people for decades now.
It is one thing to feel like people are making poor choices on their own accord (another debate surrounding free will can be had here!) but when you see people being told something that you think is wrong, and seeing them suffer because of it, then you get really angry. “Fat Chance” by the local chap Robert Lustig hit this home too as he pushed against sugar (where Gary pushes against carbs in general). Too many people think that “fat people are lazy” and get the cause and effect the wrong way around.
All of this added up to me willing to make the most important step of my recent journey (which my wife Emily loves to tease me about… calling it my renaissance [read: mid life crisis]). I gave this all that 2 week chance.
If I could do anything for someone who also wants to make a change, it would be to have them give change a chance. Try something for two weeks and give it your all. If you slip, don’t worry, get up and try again. Don’t get bogged down in choosing a diet and falling into the paradox of choice. Just pick a plan and stick to it.
As much as I want to share some of these feelings and help people, I also know all too well how a change has to be self-motivational. Intrinsic. My family had tried to have me change my ways for some time, but ironically if I think deeply about it, it may have partially stopped me from making the change. I didn’t want to do it for someone to say “see I knew you could do it!” Very sad and self destructive.
There was a period of fierce reading about nutrition (from the books mentioned above to others such as Wheat Belly (William Davis), The 4-Hour Body (Tim Ferriss), The Blood Sugar Solution (Mark Hyman), Perfect Health Diet (Paul Jaminet), and The 8-Hour Diet (David Zinczenko)). I tried to work out how I felt about milk (lactose bad, soy good? almond milk only?), and then what about coffee and wine? There are so many arguments on both sides. I decided to stick with coffee, but I went black. I never thought I would enjoy black coffee but I quickly got into it. I will put in some Almond milk one day, maybe some soy another, and even regular now and then.
I took some pills, specifically raspberry ketones, a multi-vitamin, and cod liver / fish oil. I went back and forth on these, and then decided to drop them. I may go back to the oils, but I think vitamins may be snake oil. It is hard to really tell though.
As well as what I was eating, I started to notice that there was a large change in when. I prescribed to the “listen to your body, and eat when it is hungry, not because it is a certain time” routine. In the past my diet was mainly carbs, and I was always hungry. I wouldn’t have one slice of pizza, I would absent-mindedly swallow a pie. I would trick myself to think “you are thirsty! you need a Dr. Pepper!” when I was craving the sugar. Now that I had re-balanced to a protein diet I found that I wasn’t regularly that hungry at all. I would rarely eat past 6pm, and my dinner would be a small meal. I hadn’t planned it, but I had started to intermittently fast (which I realized when reading the “8 hour diet”).
I got into this more after watching a show via BBC by Dr. Michael Mosely, and reading his book “Fast Diet”. I experimented by doing a fast, and was shocked to find that it wasn’t hard! I expected it to be crazy hard and that my body would be shouting at me to EAT DARN YOU. Instead, I started to enjoy the senses of feeling a lil hungry, but then having the hunger pass. We will get to running soon, but I never feel better than on a fast day, and my best runs are always on these days (which was strange to me “don’t I need the energy???”)
It turns out the biggest gift that I have been given through all of this is the change in mindset that occurred with the success. I realized that, if I can make this change, what else could I do? At the same time I started to be concerned that I was rarely present and in the moment. I was always thinking about this, that, and the other. The next meeting. Tomorrows plans. Anything but what was going on in the moment. Was I an automaton moving through life?
I started to study and practice, and quickly learned how friggin’ hard it is to be mindful. This mindfulness started to help me with my nutrition too. I started to enjoy abstinence and appreciated that I was strong enough to own this. It seems like there is an exception almost every day. Someone’s birthday. A holiday. “Come on, just one!” I was just at a baby shower where I decided to enjoy the fact that I wasn’t having the cake (that I am sure was lovely!) Instead of fighting it, enjoy it. This was a turning point. Another technique that helped was a psychological one. I would pretend to take a photo of the food and visualize it as a photo rather than food to consume right there. In my studies I kept reading about how being mindful of the food that you are about to eat is a large part of the battle. Taking a photo of the food that you are about to consume has a massive effect, as it acts to bring you into that moment. Doing this and/or documenting your consumption is statistically better than going on any diet.
I really despise the word diet too. From the beginning I made it my mission to create a lifestyle not a diet. This isn’t a crash course. The Happiness Project (Gretchen Rubin) talks about the difference between resolutions vs. goals. You keep a resolution vs. obtaining and finishing a goal. I don’t want to finish. I want to keep going. Baby steps.
I kept getting more meta. First body, then mind, and next up was mindset. Literally, the book by Carol Dweck. I quickly saw that I had created a fixed mindset for myself. If you shared a new food that I hadn’t tried I would think “I may not like it, so naaaah why try!” This happened throughout my life. I would default to no. How sad when I hear that out loud! One trial was when on vacation with Emily and friends in the Caribbean. I was nervous to go scuba diving, but I took a step back and gave it a go. And, of course, I loved it.
I feel like I have had such a privileged existence until now. Many of my generation live in a bubble. We are “at war” right now but do you feel it? Where is the sacrifice? (It will be there for our grand kids if we don’t fix things!) I was so lucky that I hadn’t felt much discomfort even. Thus, when it occurred I would shy away and get comfortable again. I would keep to a “happy path” that didn’t push me, so I could never get to the next level and see a promised land that I didn’t know existed. It is OK to have sore muscles, this is just a feeling, and I feel lucky to be able to have it and push my body!
As I drove to change my mindset to be one of growth, I realized how often I labeled myself and others. I have two sons (7 and 3 1/2) and I would say “this one is good at Math and that one is sporty”. They are so young. They are not defined. For myself, I would always think that “I have no talent for art”. But, wait a minute, had I ever really tried to enjoy art and work at it? Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (Betty Edwards) talks about the importance of art for the brain, and shows how you can very much get the important skills…. those being more about how to perceive rather than how to draw.
There came a time where I had shown myself the power of nutrition and I wanted to get strong with exercise. I used to love sport. Cricket, football (soccer), tennis, you name it. My fixed mindset had turned this all off though, and I was excited to get back in shape to turn it back on.
I always disliked running. Too much of that discomfort. Too “boring”. So, I decided that I wanted to give myself a month to see what I could do. I started slowly. First, I remember going on long walks. Then I got into the run – walk – run routine. I remember the first time that I managed to run all the way around the block. It felt great! Fast forward a lil more and I had my first mile in, and then it quickly moved on from there.
Once again I found that study in other areas touched each other. I thought that I needed to trick myself, and would listen to podcasts and music while running. Anything not to think about the discomfort of running. I found that the first mile was always the hardest as the muscles and my body warmed up. I even talked to a neighbor and friend who was a professional runner. Once she said that the first mile was always like that, I accepted it. When I start out now I prepare myself, and I know that in a few minutes my body will kick in, understand what I am asking of it, and it will get going. Since I was new to running I also asked to get my running motion checked out. I was paranoid about messing up my knees through bad form. I ended up getting Altra zero-drop shoes and I am so glad that I made the transition. After running ~400 miles, nothing bad has happened yet (touch wood!). It also lead me to check out the Gokhale Method to help with my hunched posture.
Next I blended the worlds of meditation and running by reading Running with the Mind of Meditation (Sakyong Mipham). After learning about the phase of the Wild Horse, I decided to listen to some advice and went out for a run without anything but myself. No phone or technology. So much for boredom, I really enjoyed it! Between the meditation exercises and being in my own head, I had my best run ever. Since then I haven’t touched technology for a run. I missed out on some time where I wasn’t tracking my runs (I had been using Nike+ Running on my phone) but I then got a Nike+ SportsWatch and I use that to get the data. Speaking of technology, I got going with a Nike+ FuelBand early on. It did one thing really well for me: if at the end of the day I was close to my goal I would make sure to head out for a walk (then run) to make sure to hit it. This all started to backfire though. First, I got frustrated that the magic formula was fake. If I did a work out at the gym, I wouldn’t get much (e.g. sitting on a bike, doing weights) so it started to make me do something else just to get the darn “fuel”. This felt wrong. The final blow was that the battery died and after 150 days of hitting a target I missed one. At that point I was done. I think that I will get back into tracking with a tool that measures more (keep looking at FitBit, Jawbone, etc…. but nothing is exciting me yet).
I use the Withings scale, and it is great to be able to jump on it almost daily and see the tracking. Other habits / tech that I was trying was the 100 pushups, and 200 squats.
Another piece of the puzzle is sleep. Most of us don’t get enough of it (good quality sleep). I am the kind of person who likes to fall asleep to the TV, but I lost that habit due to Emily not allowing it. I do tend to do a lot of work at night though (some of my best work in fact, as distractions / meetings are out of the way) but that screen light would keep me up for a long time. I started to build a routine by doing things like: run => warm bath => read a book. This would knock me out every time and I would sleep hard.
I use an iPhone application called Sleep Cycle that you put on the bed and it detects vibrations to know when to wake you up (not in deep sleep if it can help it). This actually worked pretty well for me, but does have a fatal flaw. I don’t sleep alone. Not only does it sometimes think Emily is me, but I often have one lil kid jumping into my bed in the middle of the night. So it is far from a perfect solution, and I really need to nail sleep better (trying a Sleep Watch and other solutions). I know that it is key to health, and I am far from optimizing it.
I couldn’t have done this without the support of family and friends. There has been an out-pouring of love and I have learned so much from people. You quickly see how many others have been, and are on the same journey. Emily kindly never complains when I go out for a run at night when part of us would love to just sit and chat more. She doesn’t complain when I make some concoction in the kitchen. I also can’t believe that she never complained about how I used to be. The people that truly love you come out strong when you go through this. They aren’t shocked to see a “new you” because they know that it is one and the same. They already saw you for the pureness of being rather than the outside shell.
One of the best moments I have had was when I heard my oldest boy saying to his friend “I would like some water as I want to be healthy like my Dad”. As I look at how to be the best parent I can be, so much of it comes down to modeling. There is only so much you can pass through words and talk. Action is where it is at.
Although embarrassed, I have appreciated comments from folks too. It helps remind me of the path I am on. One friend told me his story, where he had lost 90 pounds and put 50 back on. I had to ask what caused the reversal, as I wanted to learn from that. He said that one day he moved house, and after a tiring day of moving boxes he stopped in at McDonalds. Fast forward a month later and he had gone there pretty much every day. It is that easy. I am so glad that he passed that on as it helps me be mindful of the long path ahead.
There is much more that I would love to talk about, but man have I gone on too long already. Although I don’t know which of the myriad of changes I made lead to the improvements that I have seen, that doesn’t mean that I won’t keep trying the experiments and measuring. I can not about appearance, but rather about the numbers (cholesterol, how my body handles glucose, blood pressure, IGF-1 numbers, etc).
I am excited to push myself in all directions. I feel like the world is my oyster, and I want to help deliver happiness where I can. I am but a novice in many disciplines, but that is just fine. In some of the brain research that I was doing (“Thinking, Fast and Slow (Daniel Kahneman)”, “On Intelligence (Jeff Hawkins)”, “The Science of Fear: How the Culture of Fear Manipulates Your Brain (Daniel Gardner)”, “Super Brain (Deepak Chopra)”) I noticed that one of the keys to maximizing your life is to keep the brain learning. There is a natural push to grow old and get set in your ways. I am tracking a list of things I want to learn and keep pushing new pathways into the grey matter. Hopefully I get the opportunity to learn a few more tricks. Want to play?