On Being Healthier, Losing Weight, Numbers, etc.

January 2nd, 2016 by Phil Leave a reply »

In August 2014, I weighed about 184 pounds. Today, 16 months later, I weigh 159.

My one resolution for 2015 was to run a 5K. I did this, in late September, running it in 30:24. Then in mid-November I ran a second 5K, and my time went down to 24:54.

I’ve learned a lot over this time that I think could be helpful, inspirational, and/or cautionary to others. Now, I won’t claim to be an expert on being healthy. I’m not writing this from the “here’s what you need to know” perspective. Rather, I’m writing from the “here’s what I think you might be interested to know” perspective. Nominal experts might disagree with some of what I write. And you might too. And that’s okay by me.

Before I get into the specifics, I want to note three things. First, weight is not some sort of end-all be-all number, and I’m not going to claim it is. Rather, it is a very simple benchmark, a figure which allows for some sort of imperfect quantification of “how much healthier” a person has become. It’s been very useful to me, but as I’ll explain below, there are some very real potential problems with it.

Second, I didn’t do anything exotic. This is a story primarily about fairly ordinarily diet and exercise, or at least I think it is. It’s because of the “regularness” of the story that I think it’s worth sharing.

Third, I want to note a bit about my methodology. I will weigh myself in the morning before I eat or take a shower, as doing so gives me the best apples-to-apples comparison (i.e., no fluxuations in terms of how much my clothes weigh, or time of day, or how much I’ve eaten on a given day, etc.) I also think less in terms of how much I weigh on a given morning and more in terms of what my average weight has been for the last couple of mornings. My weight can potentially be +/- 5 pounds over the course of a given week. Eat a lot one day, eat little a different day, it makes a difference. Thinking in terms of a moving average levels that out, and keeps a person from freaking out too much about being +/- 3 pounds on a given day.

Officially, I’m 6′ tall, though I’d probably need my winter boots on to pull that off. Over perhaps the last 5 years, my average weight has probably been somewhere around 180. My peak weight of 209 came about 17 years ago when I was in grad school. I definitely weigh less today than at any time since high school.

I’ve been a vegetarian for 12 years. I’ve never been a smoker. I’ve never been a heavy alcohol drinker. Those are all kind of baseline things to know.

I know I was about 184 in August 2014 because that’s when I came up with a half-conceived plan for steady weight loss. I wasn’t huge and I wasn’t thinking “Oh crap, I have to get healthy.” But I was¬†thinking, well, I’ve got an infant at home, and I’m in my later 30s, and I simply have to get in shape if I’m going to be chasing him around.

That initial plan kind of went nowhere. I tried to start running a little that August / September. There was one particular day in October where I ran outside and thought I’d done pretty well. Then the next day my body kind of fell apart. I had crazy joint pain, was very weak. Whatever exactly that was at that point, it degraded into a sinus infection. I wound up having numerous sinus infections over the course of the winter and into the spring of 2015. All of this could have demoralizing to the point of not getting anywhere, but two things kept me driven throughout this. First, that 5K resolution was intended to be a very tangible goal, not to be sloughed off. Second, I was adamant about being in shape for Dylan.

At some point in the spring, I finally got to where the sinus infections were less frequent, and the weather was more forgiving, and I slowly got into a running habit. We live about three-quarters of a mile from four different parks, three of which have loops through the inside of the park. What I settled into was putting earbuds in and listening to music while running to a park, running through/around the park, and then running home; or, I would just run around the blocks of our immediate residential neighborhood, which is very easy to do.

As the summer came on, and I got a little more focused, I also downloaded a couple of running apps to my phone. The one I’ve settled into using is MapMyRun, and for me, it’s legitimately made a big difference. It’s given me the ability to better understanding pacing myself; to think in terms of how often I’m running and how far those runs are; and even to kind of challenge myself by trying to run better times on a couple of “courses” which coincide with loops through or around local parks.

I also lucked my way into being able to play 16 inch softball this summer with the Gapers Block team. I’m not going to claim that playing 8-10 softball games over the course of 2-3 months made a huge difference in terms of fitness, but it did make a difference in terms of my measuring¬†myself. By the end of the year, my stamina was higher, I was hitting the ball better, and I went from being kind of just an extra guy out there to holding my own (or at least so I’d like to think!)

In mid-September I changed jobs. I went from working in the Loop and taking the El downtown everyday to working from home. As of this point I had gotten myself down to about 170.

Working from home presented a couple of challenges. First, most days I had been doing a lot of walking just to get to and from train stops, perhaps 2 1/2 miles of walking on a typical weekday. Second, working from home means taking all meals at home, with a full refrigerator immediately available.

The first challenge was fairly easy to address. Although I was no longer walking as much, I had won back about 2 hours a day which had previously been spent in transit. It made it far easier to find time to run or use my exercise bike. But it’s the second challenge where I think the second part of the overall story kicks in.

When I was going into work downtown, it was very common that I would have coffee and something like soy yogurt or a smoothie before I left, and then I’d stop and get a latte and a pastry before I got into the office. I tried to have something like peanut butter and jelly on hand at the office, but I’d still often wind up having to get something like Subway for lunch. If I was hungry for anything else that I didn’t have immediately on hand, my first option was usually the weird convenience store on the ground level, run by someone we simply new as Snack Guy, which probably says a lot about what kind of fare was available.

I made a conscious decision to keep extra junk out of the house. As a result, what I essentially did was cut out the latte/pastry combination, in favor of more basic coffee, plus a lighter snack like an apple or a piece of cinnamon toast or some cheese. That whole change in and of itself pretty much slashed 300-500 calories from the day, most of those in sugars. Lunch has wound up being very redundant – it’s peanut butter and jelly the vast majority of the time – but one other thing I did was I simply stopped bringing sugary soda into the house. Almost all of the time now, the only soda in the house is one or another kind of Zevia, which is sweetened by stevia; and when I have coffee, my sweetener there is also stevia. In addition to excising a sugary soda from lunch, it also meant I haven’t been having one for dinner either; and what else has happened along the way is that I’ve simply stopped drinking beer at home. It’s not that I was ever drinking to excess, but if my drink with dinner is now Zevia or water instead of Dr Pepper or beer, that’s another 150 calories slashed.

My daily existence, then, involved getting up a little earlier (since I start work for the day at 8); exercising more often (because the recovered travel time has made it easier to find exercise time); and also cutting down significantly not just on calories but on really shitty calories (pastries, sodas, beers) – perhaps 700 calories a day. On top of all that, I’ve saved money. (Lattes are expensive!)

And so about 4-6 weeks in to working from home, I went down from about 170 pounds to the low 160s. And in December, it’s slipped slightly below 160. The goal I had set in 2014 had been solely to get down to 170. I didn’t expect to keep falling from there, and I never anticipated eventually getting down under 160.

I can be very obsessive about numbers. I keep logs of every time I get gas, so I can try and see if the car’s performance is badly slipping. So as I saw that weight very steadily slipping down over time, it was almost like a game at times. It was a strange kind of game, admittedly. It’s not like I ever went to any extremes out of some need to see the number keep dropping. But the thinking about it is always there, and I know that it’s led to a lot of decisions about what and when to eat and not eat.

At 6′-ish, with slightly broad shoulders and slightly long arms for my height, I arguably shouldn’t be below 160. As I’ve lost this weight, the fat from a lot of parts of my body has just kind of gone away. My arms are really skinny now, for a good example. My exercise regimen hasn’t been solely about running, but it also hasn’t been super-balanced. Even though I feel stronger, and I’m definitely in much better shape, I arguably ought to bulk back up a little. But I still look in the mirror and wish what’s left of my gut would tighten up too. It’s kind of a weird mental place to be in.

I think what makes it weirdest, though, is that really, I’ve moved beyond “needing to get in shape” and “hoping to lose weight”, and I’ve really moved into that place where I “simply” need to maintain. I have to put “simply” in quotes because while maintaining really just means doing more of the same, it’s hardly an easy thing, and I find it’s an especially difficult thing to mentally wrap my mind around, if for no other reason than because there are no obvious targets available. I guess I could lose more weight, but I’m kind of at the point where I think it might be counterproductive to do so. I could set new physical / athletic challenges – for example, this year I intend to run a 10K, maybe working myself up to a half-marathon after another year or so – but in terms of that being a target that helps push me to real fitness, that’s beginning to feel kind of esoteric.

Now, one thing I could do is make an even bigger point of improving my diet. We’ve talked about this at home – every few months we read or watch something which reconvinces us of the need to cut out even more processed foods. But here too it’s so hard for this to turn into anything measurable.

I think maintenance is going to prove more difficult than having gotten to this point. I think, somehow, I’m going to have to find some way to turn basic diet and exercise into something else measurable, just because that’s how it works for me. It’s kind of a way of harnessing my OCD tendencies. But it’s also kind of a way of giving in to them, when they might just drive the people around me a little batty. That’s a hard balance to strike.

With all that said: I think that the having been able to measure both “health” using the proxy of weight and “fitness” using running frequency and distance – and, importantly, measuring them in tandem as the weeks have gone on – has made a huge difference. Having sort of instituted “house rules” which I follow mostly strictly has been very important as well.

I know for a lot of people it’s very hard to break habits, or to set new habits, or anything like that. And I know most people aren’t as OCD or as number-obsessed as I am. But I hope there’s something in here that can help other people who are trying to figure out how to get on a healthier and fitter track. And I also hope by sharing some of this it can spur some conversation which will in turn benefit me as well.

Fitness has simply never been a top personal priority until recently. It might have gotten lip service as such, but honestly, it was always pretty far down the list. Even at times when I was going to the gym 3-4 times a week, I feel like it wasn’t because I’d made a huge priority of fitness, but more so that I’d kind of made a priority of putting a fitness show on, if that makes sense.

I’ll be 40 this year, though, and damn it, I’m going to be in good shape throughout my 40s and throughout my 50s. I’ll be in my mid-50s when Dylan graduates high school, and when that day comes, I’m going to be fit and I’m going to be regularly exercising. I’m going to be a good example for him, and I have to be, because this kid is going to run us ragged, and we better be in shape enough to keep up with him for a long time.

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1 comment

  1. David McCorquodale says:

    Phil,

    Congratulations on your weight loss, healthy lifestyle and improving 5K times. I’d be glad to write in the future on any questions you have about running. However, today I have a few reflections on your impression of your weight.

    I’ll point out that I am an extreme example of an ectomorph. Very few people are naturally as skinny as I am. When I was approaching my forty-eighth birthday my weight had gone up around the middle. At 6’5″, my maximum weight was 175, but it was all around my waist and I was embarrassed when I had to buy a pair of Bermuda shorts with a 36″ waist as it hung on me with my skinny legs. I resolved to lose weight – doing things similarly to what you did. I cut out the Tastycake I used to eat in the morning, substituting an apple (and I have had an apple almost every day since). I totally cut out snacks, beer, and desserts. I did have an active job at the Postal Service. With all the changes, I lost close to 20 pounds in a month. After that I decided to try running as a way to continue maintaining weight and to stay fit. I also felt I could add back some of my indulgences, like beer and chips. This set-up has worked for me for two decades now for the most part. Three years ago, my weight had gone back up into the mid 160s and my running times had slowed as a consequence. I again restricted my calories for a month. But having retired in 2007, I substituted a lot of walking (in addition to my normal running routine) in order to help burn off the fast. I agains dropped my weight into the mid 150s (and in the following fall ran my fastest marathon in several years).

    So I think you have done the right things. I am a little questioning of your thinking you need to weight more. A good rule of thumb that I have heard about is that ideally an adult should keep his weight at about 20 pounds more than when graduating high school – whatever that means for you. I was SO SKINNY that even in the mid 150s, I am 30 pounds more than when I left high school (at the same height). The real question is when you are losing weight, is it body fat or muscle? If you are losing body fat, then I favor losing more. Even the government recommendations on ideal fat percentage have dropped over time.

    Of course, if you don’t want to lose any more weight, then you should feel free to allow yourself to indulge if some things you have given up. For me that is one benefit of running – being able to snack or have a couple of beers – in addition to all the other health benefits running brings.

    BTW, on another issue, I have long thought about the lack of physical conditioning that many Greens have. I even spoke to Jill Stein about that a couple years ago. She has noted that also, but is of course too busy to lead any sort of effort to change it. I have long pondered how to approach the issue without being preachy or making people feel badly (which is unhelpful).

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