Most of my adult life, I’ve had this nagging feeling that I needed to do more to maintain my health. I had a lot of excuses – work stress, travel, email. I even told myself that I just loved pizza, french fries, craft beer, and brie too much.
Well, that all changed. It is possible, and I am going to show you how. I lost 30 lbs over the last 12 months, lost four inches on my waist, got stronger, got faster, and increased my V02 max to 55 – a number many cyclists and runners would kill for, but more importantly, it’s the number one indicator of how healthy you are – and perhaps more importantly, it likely indicates how healthy you will be the last ten years of your life. When most people are in old folks homes and hospitals, I hope to be out snowboarding like my friend Thom, who is in his mid seventies.
First and foremost, you CAN do this. It’s just going to suck because it requires change, and change is painful. The good part is “the suck” goes away after about a month. Oh, and I am 42, you are probably younger, so this should be easier for you 🙂
Here are the steps, in order…
Lie to Yourself
Do whatever it takes to get yourself to do this program for one month. That’s what I did. I told myself, let’s just “try” this for a month. Here I am a year later, and the journey has been life altering.
Most tech people and business travelers have a set of priorities similar to:
This needs to change. It needs to be:
This is going to be painful. Remember the old financial saying, “pay yourself first?” This is just like that, but your health is way more important than money. Without it, you cannot raise your children, work, or live life. Diet and exercise are the key to health. So, prioritize them above everything else. You might feel “selfish” at times when you dedicate time to work out, but it’s not. It’s what you have to do. You can pay someone to help with your lawn or your house, but nobody can put the time in at the gym for you – nobody can eat healthier food for you, except for you.
Diet is actually quite straightforward. Follow these three steps and prioritize them in this order. Missing the macros or micros some days isn’t going to kill you, but consistently eating too many calories will hinder your weight loss.
Track your calories with an app like MyFitnessPal. Actually, just use MyFitnessPal, it’s the best. MyFitnessPal has great listings for packaged or restaurant food, but when cooking at home, weigh everything. Weighing food is the most accurate and it will teach you how many calories are in many types of food.
As for diet, target 10 calories for every pound of desired body weight. If you are 200lbs like I was, and want to be 170 lbs, then target 1700 calories. This is your baseline. This is what you will burn for just being alive and sedentary. Just know this as a general piece of information – use it as a subconscious tool when thinking about calorie consumption.
The good part is, MyFitnessPal will track everything – your calorie intake, steps and exercise. Starting with your baseline, it will add calories for exercise and subtract calories to help you lose weight. But, you absolutely have to track every drop, dab, chunk, piece, nibble and drink of food that goes in your mouth. Also, tracking your food as you eat it trains your subconscious mind – it turns out that the act of recording a log of bad habits trains your subconscious mind and helps you make better choices (I only recently learned this).
You will find that as you get closer to your target weight, you might have to reset the numbers and go a bit lower. MyFitnessPal can do this automatically. Target 1/2, to 1 pound per week, never more. Never more – if you try to go too fast, it will not be a lifestyle change and you will probably loose muscle.
Before starting this program, I found that my calories could be as high as 6000 or 7000 on a a day with three meals, and drinking with friends that night. This is WAY, WAY, WAY too many. Once I tracked my food intake, I corrected this very quickly.
People talk about food quality, nutrient rich and non-GMO. These are buzzwords and I didn’t pay ANY attention to any of this. I consider ALL of these buzzwords noise which does nothing to help me get to my goal. Instead, eat a balance of carbohydrates, fats and protein. Period. Make the pie chart in MyFitnessPal look balanced. That’s it.
If you want to get fancy, you can go with a formula. I used:
- 1 gram of protein per pound of desired body weight. In my case 170
- 1/2 the grams of protein in fat. In my case 85. Yes, 85. That’s crazy high by what you have probably heard. Go 1/3 if you are really scared.
- The rest in carbs. When loosing weight, my carb number was pretty similar to my protein number.
Just eat a balance. When I started, I found that my carbs and fat were way too high, and my protein was way too low. Once I corrected that, things fell into place. There have been days that I ate a piece of cheesecake that was 780 calories – I balanced it by chugging 400 calories worth of protein shakes and eggs (roughly 80 grams of protein). The bottom line is you “can” eat whatever you want, it just makes it really, really hard to balance out your macronutrients while staying under your calorie goal. Just remember, if you eat cheesecake and chug protein shakes, you will be starving later in the day – STARVING. It’s best to balance out healthy foods throughout the day and slide right into your calorie and macronutrient goals by the end of the day.
These are things like vitamins and minerals. They are the easiest of the three steps and generally fall into place. Try to target the recommended daily intake in MyFitnessPal.
I only had trouble with three:
- Sodium – to this day, my sodium is often double the recommended intake. It didn’t stop my weight loss at all. And, my blood pressure is phenomenal, but check with your doctor.
- Potassium – mine is still a bit low most days, but WAY better than when I started.
- Vitamin D – most of the people in the US have a vitamin D deficiency and don’t know it. When I had my blood panel done, I was low.
Work with a doctor and supplement where recommend.
I work and travel a lot, so eating at home is not an option. Also, I am tired and lazy at home, so I eat a lot of packaged and easy to make food. Here are some hacks that I used. You will also find your own based on your taste preferences:
- Protein Shakes – these are the number one hack. I was constantly high on carbs and fat because even if I can only eat a small portion, I still like eating what I like. There are days I ate cheesecake -annoyingly 780 calories 🙁 – and I balanced things back out with protein shakes. Also, thesr shakes make you full and help you eat less. So, slam them all the time. Vegan, Whey, Casein, I drink them all at for different reasons at different times. I always bring protein powder when I travel which is a LIFE SAVER! Slam one before dinner to eat less. Slam a casein shake before bed to make it through the night.
- Cottage Cheese – I always thought this was bad. I was so wrong – it’s high in protein, low in carbs and is great in 2% or low fat form. Replace ricotta cheese, mayo, or even regular cheese with cottage cheese. Use a blender and put it in almost anything. It makes any food creamier, and tastes great. Put flavored granola in it and it tastes totally different, almost like a bowl of cereal (cinnamon, raisin, chocolate granola, etc).
- Healthy Choice Steamers – There are like 10 different options for steamed Chicken – Parmesan, Marsala, with potatoes, etc. They are mostly between 200-300 calories and they take 5 minutes to make. They are very filling and almost always balance the piechart.
- Atkins Bars – low carb diets like Atkins, IMHO are ridiculous, but they make awesome protein bars. They are between 150 and 300 calories – I target the peanut butter ones that are 150-170. They are super high fiber, have decent protein, use sugar alcohol which is actually good for your teeth like Dentine, and taste like candy bars. These are a work of art and science.
- Low Sodium V8 – these small cans helped me with my Potassium deficiency and they are only 30 calories which makes them easy to drink.
- Supplements – work with your doctor, but Vitamin D, Creatine, Beta-Alanine, EGCG, Fish Oil, Glucosamine, and a Centrum are all in my repertoire.
Exercise cannot overcome a bad diet. Stated another way, your mouth can eat more than your body can burn off. Stated one more way, you will literally wear your joints out trying to burn off the calories your mouth ate too much of – so, stop eating too much!!!!
About 10 years ago, I did Couch to 5K. The app made it so easy and I made “some” progress. But, I stalled. I just never changed my body composition in a meaningful way. It sucked because running takes SO FUCKING LONG too.
This year, I found strength training and conditioning (which is different than “cardio”). Strength training takes WAY less time, and the progress is WAY more precise, which made it addictive, more like a game with your body.
I still run today, and ironically, I can run a faster 5K now then when my exercise was focused around running. I will explain….
Everything I do is built around a strength training program – this is the core. One year ago I started with StrongLifts 5×5. The app is awesome, and the progress of a linear strength training system like this is addictive.
After about six months, I started to stall out. It got hard, really hard. That’s when I moved to a Wendler 5/3/1 program – there’s also an awesome app. You could probably start with either, but 5×5 is dead simple – life changing.
Just remember to pick a program focused around big, complex, multi joint exercises – these work the most muscles and give you the most progress. Focus on a program that is centered around squats, deadlifts, bench press and overhead press (sometimes just called “press”).
StrongLifts 5×5 and Wendler 5/3/1 are both “Powerlifting” programs. I had no idea when I started. I never thought of myself as a Powerlifter. But, what I have found is that Powerlifting is very technical and most of the people that develop the programs are essentially hackers/nerds. You will see these HUGE dudes that are very precise in their diet and programming. Since I am a nerd, this helped.
Pick one program, stick with it for 6 months. Do NOT program hop. As you progress, you will learn a ton and add accessory work, but take your time. Even get a personal trainer for a couple months to learn the lifts and movements if that helps.
As I lifted weights more and more, something very unexpected happened – my cardio got better, way better. I was a decent mountain biker and a decent snowboarder, but I never thought my cardio was all that great – and it probably wasn’t – until I discovered conditioning. Little did I know, I was already doing a bit of conditioning with the weights. Conditioning is like cardio, in that it improves your cardiovascular system, but it takes WAY less time. Seriously, like 10 or 20 minutes versus hours and hours. Think of it as intense cardio with a bit of strength mixed in.
I started with jumping rope between my warm up lifts and then a bit more with my accessory work (the other strength training you do, like pull-ups, or dips). Little did I know, this was the beginning of my conditioning program.
Now, I jump rope, swing kettlebells, sprint, do bear crawls, and a multitude of heart pounding exercises between my warm up sets and accessory work. Basically, do anything that gets your heart rate up high. This is conditioning. Tabata is a very specific, optimized version developed by the Japanese and the science is showing that intense heart training increases your vO2 Max, and VO2 Max is the number one indicator of health. Don’t get bogged in the details, just slowly add a cardiovascular component to your accessory work.
- Lie to yourself. I used to tell myself that I was just going for the sauna or steam room. Then, once I was there…
- Powerlifters will tell you not to do conditioning mixed with your lifting days because it will slow down your progress of lifting heavier and heavier weights. Who cares, I don’t want to compete in a powerlifting competition. I want to live as long and healthy as possible and mixing them takes way less time. The lifts already get your heart rate going, I just drive them even higher after the lifts.
- Get a weight vest. Trail run in it for one mile. It will suck worse than anything you have ever done. When complete, the entire world will be back in perspective and going to the gym will be easy.
- Change accessory work often, but stick with a program for your core work.
- Have fun. I know this sounds crazy, but try new stuff. Don’t be embarrassed. Most other people at the gym have no clue what they are doing either, or they only know the few things that they do. I have found that my flexibility is WAY better one year later and it makes life more fun.
- 10 calories for every pound of desired weight
- 1 gram of protein for every pound of desired weight
- 1/2 gram of fat for every pound of desired weight
- V02 Max – This can be done at a local facility, but usually the more “sciency” ones. I went to Amp Fitness in Cleveland, but there are facilities in any large city. Basically, they make you run on a treadmill with something akin to a gas mask on. It sucks bad, but it tells you what your VO2 Max is.
- RMR – Resting Metabolic Rate – This can be done at a local facility to determine how many calories you burn per day doing nothing. Check the same places that do V02 Max as the machines are the same.
- Blood Panel – this is done by your doctor and will tell you about your cholesterol, vitamin deficiencies, etc
That’s it. Go out and do it. I believe in you. I will leave you with a couple more hacks:
- Don’t be intimidated by all of the crazy vocabulary in the fitness world. You will learn about Hypertrophy, Hyperplasia, Accessory Work, Energetic Systems like ATP, Glycolysis and Oxidative, but they don’t matter to get started.
- Forget the “everybody is different” line. Forget it right now. It is never an excuse for something not working. Generalized diet and strength programs work for almost 99.9% of people except where they have actual health conditions. Everyone is different when squeezing out the last 5% or 10% – this is optimization, but you can absolutely get started with a general program.
- Much of what you read, and even personal trainers will ask what your goals are – I struggled with this the first year because I didn’t even know what goals were possible. I just wanted to be “healthier” – but, that is a bad goal because it is way too general. Come up with a simple goal – something like “lose 20 pounds” or “lose 4 inches on your waist” – these will seem crazy, but you can do it.
I will leave you with some final prose. Much like today, it was a November day in Ohio – the Fall leaves were Burnt Orange and Brown, Red and Yellow. I knew I hadn’t exercised much the preceding summer and I had also been eating pizza, chicken wings, and drinking without care. I told myself it was part of my job – meeting with customers, conferences, airports, etc. I told myself that I had to be social which makes it difficult to eat right.
That November day, I was scared to step on the scale because I knew “scale don’t lie!” Well, scale told me it was 202 lbs. I was heartbroken. I had never broken 200 lbs before. It was some magical level which thou shalt not cross. I am only 5’9″ on a good day, so this was too much. It hurt when I sat at my desk too long because my stomach pushed on my organs. My back hurt if I stood too long. I would get chafed when I walked too long in the city. Minor things in the big scheme of things, but I couldn’t deny it any longer.
If you are anything like me, you are having the same struggle – work, life, kids, eating out, packaged food, alcohol, whatever. It all makes it difficult. I love pizza, chicken wings, and beer – LOVE it. But, you can change, you can follow this program. You can learn all of the things I learned. It might sound cheesy, but I know anybody can do this and I hope this article helps.