In the past few months, I have gotten asked more and more questions regarding my weight. Some inquire about how much I have lost, while others worry out loud about my health. I usually thank them and tell them about how much I have lost and reassure them it was really on purpose, not due to a health condition. No matter how the conversation is started, it usually evolves to questions about how I have done it and continue to keep it off. I really wish I had a quick and simple solution to tell them and I usually end up speaking generally about eating better, working out, and making healthier life decisions, but the real answer is much more complex (and difficult) than that. It is for that reason that I have been wanting to write a post about my fitness journey and provide a lengthier explanation of what has worked for me.
PREFACE & WORDS OF CAUTION
As a preface, I must acknowledge a few things first: (1) I am no dietitian or personal trainer so what I offer is only personal experience and advice, not medical expertise, (2) I do not in any way endorse my journey as the proper or best way of working out or losing weight (so please do your homework on any advice I offer that you want to try), and (3) I encourage you to speak with a medical professional before making any dietary or physical fitness decisions or changes in your life. In other words, try any of this at your own risk and there are no guarantees made by me.
Just as I took a chance on the fitness plan I put together for myself, so too will you have to on your fitness plan. This has worked for me, but certainly it might not work for everyone. I just hope it gives you an idea of how to move forward on your own fitness journey. Too often we hear stories of people failing to lose weight or people losing weight quickly and easily, so I want to offer a real life story of a person who made lifestyle changes, stuck to them, and over time got fitter and healthier. There are no simple solutions (or mind-blowing new solutions that are not already out there), but there is truth to my fitness story and how it has changed my fitness for the better. I truly hope the same can be true for you and wish the best of health on all those who embark on a similar journey. The journey truly changes your life. That I can promise.
Before I go into specifics, though, I must first highlight an important date in my journey. January 26, 2013. In looking back at my calendar, that appears to be the date that I first scheduled a workout towards a goal I set. My new year’s resolution, although I prefer to call them new year’s themes or priorities, was to focus on healthy living, which included working out and eating better. I work at a university, so with the start of our spring semester it took me some time to get adjusted to the semester and focus on healthier living, as evidenced by me starting towards the end of January rather than the beginning. Needless to say, though, the end of January of 2013 was when I made a conscious decision and commitment to work out more and eat better. As a motivating factor, my partner, Daniel, and I were planning a vacation with friends to Pensacola, Florida for Memorial Day Weekend and with only four months between the end of January and the end of May, I knew I needed to get on it. So, that weekend in January, I hit the gym both days and have been going back ever since.
STEP 1 – SETTING GOALS
When I started, I weighed 167 pounds and wore (uncomfortably) 30-inch waist pants. I am only 5’8″, so pushing 170 pounds meant my Body Mass Index was well over the normal range. I went into working out with a goal of losing 1-2 pounds per week and hoping to lose about 20 pounds before our vacation. I had read that trying to lose more than 1-2 pounds per week is not healthy and so I kept that in mind as I changed my diet and started to work out. I think it is easy to want to lose a lot of weight really quickly and see results fast (I know I wanted to!), but what I learned through this is that taking things slow actually helps you in the long run. I think if I had tried to lose too much weight in a short amount of time I would have stopped because of how hard it would have been and how defeated I might have been if I did not lose as much weight as I wanted. In other words, my advice is this: set realistic (and healthy) weight lose goals. I have learned that you are trying to change your lifestyle which requires dedication and persistence, which can only happen if you set yourself up for success from the beginning. It really is a marathon, not a race, so I would definitely recommend setting smaller goals that work towards your larger goal.
STEP 2 – DIET & TRACKING
Before starting working out, I had to first change my diet. This, honestly, is the biggest lifestyle change I had to make. You see, I drank multiple cans of Dr. Pepper a day and ate biscuits and gravy almost every weekday at work. I seriously had poor eating habits that required some serious attention. I was always of the belief that you work out so you can eat whatever you want. In my 20s, this might have worked, but since I am now in my 30s that no longer works. You have to eat healthy to be healthy, with or without working out. That was and still is the biggest hurdle for me. I grew up in the South and absolutely love anything fried and truly believe that butter makes everything better. Like quitting anything, the first step is admitting you have a problem and then doing something about it.
So, I started by cutting a few items out of my diet. The main item was soda, specifically Dr. Pepper. For about three months, I did not drink soda at all. I replaced it solely with water. This was no easy feat for someone who had been drinking it by the gallons since I was a kid, but after a few weeks it turned into a habit and got easier. Still today, though, I will not lie and say I do not crave a good, cold soda, but it is much more manageable and I now prefer water most of the time. I also have transitioned to drinking coffee more than soda, so that still gives me the caffeine that I sometimes want but without all of the calories and sugar. If you drink a lot of soda and other carbonated beverages, I would recommend trying to give it up. Maybe start slow, like cutting it down from five cans a day to three, then two, then one, and then none. I think that is what I did because going cold turkey had not worked for me in the past and did not want to set myself up for failure. I just slowly cut it down in order to cut it out of my diet. So, step one, cut down empty calories like soda, followed by candy (I love chocolate!), ice cream (my ultimate favorite!), and carbs. I replaced unhealthy items like Rocky Road ice cream with low-fat yogurt and white bread with multigrain bread. It is not about cutting everything out of our diet, but just about eating healthier and making smarter choices. I think that cutting soda out of my diet (for the most part) and eating a low-fat Yoplait yogurt (approximately 90 calories) and granola bar (approximately 100 calories) with a cup of coffee for breakfast instead of soda and a combination of a Poptart or biscuits and gravy made a big difference in my diet. That small change in my routine probably helped me cut several pounds.
I now start every morning with a cup of coffee while I get ready and while I am driving to work, I drink a bottle of water and enjoy a low-fat Yoplait yogurt (Strawberries and Banana is my favorite, sometimes with a little granola) and granola bar. That usually tides me over until I eat lunch around noon. For lunch, I now try to have a salad, chicken sandwich, turkey sandwich, or stir fry (with chicken and egg whites) with water. In the afternoon, I usually have a small snack, which might be another granola bar, protein bar, fruit (love bananas!), or peanuts. That usually helps me make it to dinner, which mostly consists of a meat (chicken, fish, or sometimes hamburger meat) and veggies of some sort (salad, broccoli, corn, etc.). Throughout the day and at dinner, I try to only drink water. I carry a plastic cup with me around throughout the day and frequently refill it. Drinking water also helps keep me from stuffing my face with unhealthy options. I work at a college, so there is a lot of temptation, especially in the dining hall, that can easily catch your eye and make you want to eat that second. Once you start working out on top of watching what you eat, there comes a point where you do not want to eat junk that will require you to have to work out harder to burn it off. Between changing my breakfast, cutting out soda and most desserts, and changing food choices for most meals (from high carb and fat to low carb and lean protein), I have been able to eat much healthier and build muscle.
I explain my diet in hopes of inspiring you to make small, but important changes in your diet. It is not about eating nothing or never treating yourself. I still love food as much as I always have and treat myself here and there (instead of ice cream, now I usually go for frozen yogurt about once or twice a week). I honestly just think once you start changing your diet, though, and working out it makes you subconsciously want to eat healthier. I am not sure when in my journey that happened, but when it did it started making me want healthier options. Every now and then, I will have a big, heavy meal (like fried chicken or pizza or pasta) and how I feel physically afterwards makes me feel gross. You know that feeling, where you want to go lay down because of how full you feel? I try not to eat like that anymore, however the opportunity sometimes presents itself (holidays with family, work events, etc.) and now I try to still make as healthy of choices as I can. I really think, above all else, it is about balance and figuring out how to cut your calories while still having food options that you enjoy.
Speaking of cutting your calories, I highly recommend downloading a phone application that will help you count and cut your calories. In the first three or four months, I tracked everything that I ate. From breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks, as well as how much I worked out, all got tracked in my phone application called Lose It! There are plenty of other phone applications like this, such as MyFitnessPal, so find one that you like and start tracking. You may want to start by just tracking for a week what you currently eat before making any changes. This will give you a baseline to know how many calories you are currently putting into your body, as well as how much (or little) calories you are burning off by working out. A neat feature that most of these phone applications have is a way for you to set a goal for yourself and it will tell you how many calories you need to put into your body to reach that goal. For me, it was losing about 20 hours at 1-2 pounds per week, so it let me know how many calories I would need in order to do that and the date by which I would reach that goal if I cut my calories. Not only did this application help me track what I ate (and how many calories I was putting into my body) and how much I worked out (and how many calories I was burning off), it educated me on calories in food and helped me stay aware of how many calories I was taking in and burning off. Although I do not use this application anymore, during your beginning part of your journey, I would highly recommend using a phone application to help you track your calories and workouts.
STEP 3 – WORKING OUT
So, I have a confession. I last edited this entry on June 22, 2014 and still have yet to finish it despite thinking of it from time to time. I think this entry demonstrates that if you do not make something a habit (like working out, eating healthy, or journaling) and commit to it, you will not accomplish it. When I was in college, I made it a habit to write in my journal fairly frequently, but as life has gotten more busy and complicated, journaling fell off my priority list, much like working out and eating healthy can in our lives too. I am happy to report, though, that almost a year later and I have still managed to keep the habit of working out and eating healthier up despite life sometimes getting in the way. I actually have transitioned into a new phase in my journey of no longer focusing on losing weight, but on gaining muscle and bulking up so it has caused me to change my work out and eating habits slightly. But, for the purposes of this entry, I will get back to what I did to lose the initial weight and keep it off.
After setting my mind to the goal of working out more and eating healthier and then changing my diet, I began also working out 4-5 times a week. I would do 1-2 days of strictly cardio/abs (at least 30 minutes, if not an hour) and 3 days of weight lifting (usually 45 minutes). For cardio, I tried different things. Sometimes, I would spend 30 or 45 minutes on one machine (stationary bicycle, elliptical, or treadmill), whereas other times I would get too bored on one machine and switch it up (10-20 minutes on each). The main goal of cardio day was just to stay on the machine and keep going. My gym has televisions on most machines so I usually would put on HGTV, the news, or another show that interested me and just zone out while watching. If that did not do the trick, then I would make sure I had a playlist that really put me in the mood. I have also found that sometimes when I treat myself to buying a new CD that just came out (which I do not do that often), it is fun to do cardio while listening to the CD from star to finish as a great way of working out, but also learning all of the words to the songs. It is small things, like watching television, listening to music, or people watching, while doing cardio that helps me get through it. I highly recommend figuring out what works for you. Like I was told when I was writing my dissertation, just get words on the page, even if they are crappy words, because at least you got something down. The same is true for cardio–just get your feet on the peddles or treadmill and keep going–only stop when you have hit exhaustion or met your time goal. On the days I would do weightlifting, I would usually only do 5-10 minutes of cardio in the beginning just to get my blood flowing. In total, I was doing anywhere from one hour and forty-five minutes to three and a half hours of cardio each week. This helped me shed the pounds at the rate that I was going (1-2 pounds per week). Some weeks I would do better than others, but my goal was always just to make sure I showed up and did it, no matter if it was the shorter or longer periods of time. It’s all about that habit and sticking with it!
For the weight lifting, I divided my days into one day being arms/shoulders, one days being chest/back, and one days being legs. Although I could go into detail regarding each day and what I did, I will have to add that at another time because I really want to make sure I get this fully written and can come back and fill in more later. Some take aways, though, were that I tried each week to add a little weight and/or reps to each exercise. For instance, if one week I did 10 reps of 50 pounds (two 25 dumbbells) of bicep curls, then the next week I would either increase that to 12 reps at the same weight or 10 reps at a higher weight. Within the past six months, I discovered a really great bodybuilding app for your phone that allows you to track your workouts (much like the calorie counter application I used initially with my diet). This has helped me keep track of my previous weeks workout and how much I need to increase in terms of reps or weight to increase my overall weight for each exercise. Even if you only increase by a couple reps or a few pounds, or even if sometimes you stay at the same weight, the whole goal here is just to maintain or increase, however slight. You also have to decide if your goal here is to increase your bulk or endurance, because if you are wanting to bulk up then you want to do less reps but more weight, whereas if you want more endurance, then you want to do more reps but less weight. I fall more on the bulking up goal at this point, so have been doing less reps but higher weight than I did when I was focused on losing weight. Whatever feels right for you and your goal, I would suggest focusing on that and trying to increase your reps and weight based on what your goal is. In total, I would usually do 3-4 exercises per muscle group, for a total of 6-8 exercises each day. My gym is located in my apartment complex, so it was not a major gym with a lot of choices, but thankfully I was able to improvise enough to get in enough variety for each muscle group. Even if you at working out at home, I would suggest doing online research on variations to different exercises that will still allow you to do them with whatever equipment you have available. You would be amazed at the many different ways you can accomplish a particular exercise with different equipment. In other words, you should not often be able to use the excuse that you do not have the right equipment so you cannot workout whatever muscle group you want. If you research enough, you will find a way to accomplish whatever workout you are striving for.
STEP 4 – MAINTAINING & FURTHERING
Like I said before, the biggest thing is just showing up. Not once, not twice, but routinely. I think I read somewhere that it takes two weeks for something we do to become a habit. I would definitely agree with that and think that you should make your goal to give your workout and diet at least two weeks to see what difference it can make. I promise you that if you really make a plan and stick with it enough for it to become a habit, it will change not only your waistline, but also your life. After four months, just in time for my partner’s and my beach vacation, I am happy to report that I had lost the 20 pounds. After the vacation, instead of falling back into my old habits of not working out and eating unhealthy, I kept going to the gym and making healthier eating habits. I actually ended up losing another 10 pounds in the process and by that fall was around 138-140 pounds. I have since tried to bulk up a little and today weigh around 145 pounds give or take depending on the day. To further my goal of bulking up, which should not be confused with just gaining any type of weight (want muscle), I incorporated more weightlifting (4-5 days a week) and less cardio (incorporate it into every workout, but for shorter periods of time 5-10 minutes). This has given me a new goal to focus on and keep me motivated to not only maintain, but further my fitness goals. I think that this is really key: viewing fitness as not an end goal, but rather a journey that is lifelong. Sure, in the beginning I was focused on a goal of losing a certain amount of weight and hopefully looking a certain type of way, but after a while it shifted to just wanting to maintain a healthier lifestyle not for an end goal, but forever. I cannot say when that shift happened, but when it did it was like I was all in and now working out and eating healthy stay in the forefront of how I structure my time and what I put into my body. I am not sure if this will or does happen for everyone, but if it can, I hope it for everyone who wants to make such a lifestyle change. It really has made me feel healthier, better, and have an even more positive outlook on life.
STEP 5 – CELEBRATING & TREATING YOURSELF
And, with all the handwork required to work out and eat healthy, it is so critical to celebrate every victory, every milestone, and treat yourself along the way. For me, I chose a day each week to have something I really loved that might not be a healthy choice, such as frozen yogurt or pizza. Not all the time, but every now and again I would treat myself. I also started loving smoothies and would treat myself to a smoothie after a good workout. I also shared my news with people I knew were supportive of my change and journey. Their positive encouragement reinforced my commitment to my fitness goals and helped me remain dedicated. Like any goal we set, it is important to have others around us celebrating along with us and it certainly helped me having friends and family who noticed, acknowledged, and cheered me on. I hope that as you start or continue on your fitness journey, that you can celebrate yourself and have others celebrate with you. It really makes the journey so much more joyful, fun, and possible. I know I could not have done it solely without the support of my village. So, find your village, lift each other up, and treat yourself and others as you achieve your goals.