It all started with a picture. Specifically, this one:

It’s a picture of me, hunched over on the couch, holding an at the time tiny kitten. I can make excuses all I want (bad angle, bad posture, etc.), but this picture was the moment when I finally said “Enough!!!”

I have a mental image of myself. This size, and these dimensions, are not it. I made a commitment I would turn this around on August 14, 2015. We were at a celebratory dinner for my son’s 19th birthday. When we came home, I weighed myself and about screamed when I saw I was 260 pounds!

Four months and a few days later, my daughter took another picture. Specifically, this one:

This picture was taken Saturday, December 19, 2015, after a day strolling around the Dickens Faire. Having bought new clothes a couple days earlier, and having tipped the scale at 205 pounds that morning, I felt a little celebratory, and wanted to record the moment. Along with other pictures, I posted this one as a way to say “here’s what I’ve done so far, and I still have quite a ways to go.”
 I received a number of comments, and a few people asking “what’s your secret?”. 
As I’ve pointed out many times, there is no secret other than “do more and eat less”, but I want to thank my friend Adam Yuret for, amusingly, pointing something out to me. He said that, as a consultant, he is often asked by clients to share “secrets of success”. Were he to answer them with “there are no secrets, just hard work and execution”,  the result would be he would have angry clients. They want to have something to grab on to, something that will help them know that, this time, they will succeed. You may know different, you may know there’s no magic bullets, but they aren’t asking you for a talisman… they are asking “How did you get from Point A to Point B?”
Another friend sent me a message asking a similar question, i.e. “what’s your secret”, but they made it clear in the message that what they really wanted to know was “what is your system?” They could see I’m doing something that is working, but could I give them some more details about what I chose to do, and why, so they could see it in a broader context? That is absolutely a fair question, and yes, by going back and reviewing the past four months data I have accumulated, I realized I do have a “system”. It’s not elegant or clean, but I can offer some thoughts on what I have been able to do and learn over the past four months. 
Some of this is going to seem very elementary, and some of this might sound a bit… odd. Nevertheless, after going back and reviewing what I’ve actually done, here’s the system that has brought me to this point in time, with the caveat that what has worked in the past may not work in the future, and it may not work as well for anyone else.

Pick an Activity Goal That is Easy to Remember and Accomplish

I made a commitment to “Walk 10,000 Steps Each Day”. Regardless of any other activity I may do, that’s the one I treat as a mantra.

For those curious, this goal is cumulative, and you can do a surprising amount of walking just in your every day activities. 10,000 steps is roughly five miles, and an hour and forty minutes of total walking. Since I commute by train, I’ve worked into my daily commute most of those steps. When you make your exercise part of your daily routine and integrate it into things like your commute, that helps keep it consistent.

I should also add that I allow myself one break day each week, usually Sunday. I’m LDS, and as such, I try to not do certain things on the Sabbath. It’s a personal decision, and one that I have found I get great benefit from when I follow it. If I am out for a day with my family after church, and I happen to cover 10,000 steps, I don’t get too bent out of shape over it. In general, though, I let myself have that day where I don’t specifically train. That chance to rest, I feel, is critical to keep focused the other six days to let me go full force. Often, I will go a little further, say 12,000 steps, on the six days so that I still have an every day average of 10,000 or more.

Focus on Variety in Your Activity, Do What Works and is Engaging, Drop What Isn’t or Hurts

I think it’s important to have a variety of stimulus to get moving and keep moving. Over the course of four months, I have done weight training, calisthenics, body weight exercises, used resistance devices, played a variety of sports, pulled my Dance Dance Revolution games and dance pads out of the closet, and taken up yoga. Some of these activities have had to be curtailed or modified because of joint pains or prior injuries that I am still recovering from. If something hurts, or I am genuinely just not into it, I will find something else to do. What I do is not as important as the fact that I do something, and do it each training day. This is in addition to the 10,000 steps, although I do sometimes combine my 10,000 steps when I play DDR. When I do that, I split the difference calorie wise, which brings me to…

Get a Good Gauge on The Exercise Calories You Expend, In All Categories

This is not as straightforward as many people think, as calorie expenditures for exercises, and the use of trackers like FitBit, etc. are often normalized over the course of a day. Some activities that seem fairly straightforward and mellow have huge calorie counts, and those where we feel we are putting a lot into don’t register very much. Yes, exercise burns calories, but not near as much as we think it does. We also eat more calories than we give ourselves credit for, so counting calories honestly and dependably is important, and needs to be done daily. Check this calculator out to get an idea as to how much certain activities measure up in total calories burned.

A Key Value: BMR + 200

Learn your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), and understand that it will change as you lose weight. Your BMR is what you would burn in calories even if you were to stay in bed all day and do absolutely nothing. Your heart, lungs, brain, kidneys, stomach, muscles, bones, and every cell in your body needs to be nourished, oxygenated and replenished. That process is energy demanding. Based on your height, weight, age and gender,
you can determine what your BMR is at any given time. Here’s a calculator you can use to get started.

When I started this process, my BMR was 2,304 calories each day. Today, at 205, my BMR is 1,961 calories each day. Yep, down by 343 calories. The key here is regularly keep checking in on your BMR. Eat up to the level of your CURRENT BMR, plus maybe 200 additional calories for good measure. Check in weekly to determine where your BMR is, and adjust your caloric intake appropriately. Trust me, you will still lose weight because…

Subtract Your Activity Calories from Your Daily Calorie Budget

Your additional activities above and beyond BMR are subtracted from your daily needs. Put simply, “DO NOT EAT BACK YOUR EXERCISE CALORIES”. If you have a BMR of 2,000 calories a day, eat 2,200 calories for good measure. Then exercise, work out, go for a walk, do yoga, clean the house, do yard work, play baseball, be a jungle gym for your kids, whatever. Figure out the caloric expenditure of these activities (a FitBit may be helpful here, or some other device, or use the calculator above or an app that has calorie tracking, but again, it will still be an approximation). Subtract those expended calories from your daily BMR+200. If you find yourself going into a fully negative deficit, meaning you exercised more than you actually ate that day, then by all means eat more, but generally determine to not eat back exercise calories. Remember that 3500 calories is the equivalent of one pound of fat, so you need to be running that level of a deficit to actually burn that fat away. 7000 calories is roughly two pounds of fat, and that is a good goal to target each week because…

Pick a Target You Can Commit To, Such as Two Pounds a Week

In the mid 1980’s, I was taught that two pounds a week was a good max number because anything beyond that would start catabolizing muscle. I now know a bit more, and understand that no matter what you do, you will burn some muscle in the process of burning bodyfat, just as you will build more muscle if you are willing to accept some extra bodyfat deposits in the process. Also, there’s a fair amount of fluctuation with water weight that can cause you to go up or down by several pounds.

The key thing to remember is that your body is very aware of what is happening to it. The human body doesn’t care about fashion, vanity or self expression. It cares about survival. It is optimized for that express purpose. We have to work with it so that we don’t convince it that we are in a famine, or that we are facing severe trauma. For me, that has meant trying to not be too severe with my weight loss. Additionally, two pounds a week is a good target simply because of mathematics; losing more than that is just plain hard in terms of calorie restriction and time to exercise. Two pounds a week is doable for me. Your mileage may vary.  See this article for a good explanation for the number, why some can do more and why it’s not an absolute value.

Be Prepared to Change What and How You Eat, Perhaps Drastically

As part of my process, I developed an approach of “eat it whole, eat it raw, eat it unprocessed, as much as possible”. This has meant, generally, that most processed foods I have enjoyed eating (chips, cereals, pasta, packaged bread products, crackers, cookies, soda, juices, condiments, etc.) are no longer a regular part of my diet. That doesn’t mean I never eat them, but they are an exception, whereas before it was more the rule. In their place, I tend to eat fresh fruit (raw or from frozen); raw or simply cooked vegetables (again, typically fresh or from frozen); smaller amounts and greater varieties of meats, including eggs; high quality oils, typically in the form of either pressed oils or from nuts; milk products, typically in soft cheeses, yogurt and kefir. I also purchase a protein supplement to help make sure I’m getting enough protein each day. The fiber in fresh fruits and vegetables fills me up to the point that I don’t feel the need to eat all the time. I include grains like wheat, rice or oats, but I eat them preferably as unprocessed as possible. I like getting the full berries (red wheat, bulgur, teff, barley, groats, quinoa, amaranth, etc.) and cooking them in a rice cooker (yes, it works the same way, although it needs more water and takes a little longer). Key here is I do not eschew any particular food items, but I try my best to keep them balanced and consume them in a way that my body can reap the most nutritional benefit.

No matter what, though, I find that I have an occasional craving for something sweet and a need to chew something, and vegetables ain’t gonna cut it. In these moments, I do have a secret weapon, and that’s sugarless chewing gum. Seriously, I chew a lot of gum! I also tend to drink about two liters of water a day.

One thing to point out is that eating clean (meaning focusing on fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, oils, etc.) can be pricy. On average, I spend $50 a week on food. That does not include meat or other miscellaneous food items. With that in mind, sometimes I have to make economic choices with what I choose to eat. My optimal choice may not always be practical. Fresh is best. Frozen is a good second option, with the benefit that there are no “aspirational frozen vegetables” (they can keep for several weeks in the freezer, and they are often considerably less expensive than buying fresh). Dried would be next (think beans, rice, minimally processed fruits, etc.). I will eat canned food if I absolutely must, but only after a good rinsing because…

Wild Fluctuations With Weight? Hello Sodium, My Frenemy!

Sodium is part of the canning and pickling process, and sodium can be awful to the process of losing weight, especially if you are one to check your weight every day (which, I should mention, I do). It is not uncommon to reach a new low, then spike three pounds, drop two pounds, jump up two pounds again, drop four pounds and then settle at a new low. What is going on?! Days when I see these wild spikes and dips, I can almost guarantee it was because I ate at a restaurant or otherwise didn’t have the option to prepare my own food, and excess salt was part of that meal.

Sodium is insidious, it’s in just about everything. Don’t get me wrong, sodium is important. We’d die without it, but most of us get way too much of it, and definitely more than the potassium we should be consuming to help balance it out. Within 48 hours, most of that weight is gone, usually because I consume enough water to dilute it out, or I increase the concentration of potassium in my system to do the same (bananas are my friend… no, seriously, I love bananas specifically for this purpose). Either way, if you notice that you have suddenly put on a bunch of weight in a day, and you are struggling to figure out why, some of it could be fat deposition, some of it is additional mass in the digestive tract (totally normal and expected), but a good amount of it is water binding due to sodium being a greedy element.

In most of my recipes I do not use salt because I typically don’t need to; there’s plenty there already. Using it as a flavor enhancer is fine, but be sure you are aware of how much you use and consume, and be prepared the next day when the scale spikes. It’ll go away in a day or two.

Pick a Macronutrient Breakdown You Can Live With

Bring balance to what you eat, in the way that makes the most sense. My approach may make sense for you, or it may not. There’s lots of mitigating circumstances you have to consider. Health conditions, moral choices, religious considerations, etc. may require you do do different things. Again, being LDS, I do have a couple of food restrictions I choose to follow. Food items
and beverages derived from coffee beans and black/green/white tea are not part of my diet. I also do not drink anything with alcohol in it. Outside of those, I consider myself an overall omnivore, with a love for food from all over the world. I’ve often referred to myself as “utilitarian” when it comes to food. I respect those who choose to be various levels of vegetarian/vegan, and I experiment with recipes in that vein to see what I can do, and often go considerable stretches where I don’t eat any meat at all, but I find it overall helpful to my diet and goals, so I keep it as a component, albeit considerably reduced from my prior eating habits before August.

I’ve experimented with several different nutrient profiles, and the one I like best and find most effective is based on the Zone Diet. I strive to get a gram of protein per lean pound of body weight each day. From there, I aim to get 30% of my calories from protein, 30% from fats, and 40% from carbs. Sometimes I switch the protein and carb percentages (40% protein, 30% carbs, 30% fats).

Regardless of the method, you need to consume less than you burn to create a deficit, and you need to create a long term deficit to have a major impact on fat burning. That is the same regardless of the breakdown you choose to use. Another way I like to help stack this is I use a challenge template that’s run at LoseIt regarding fruits and vegetables. Every day, I aim to get 225 calories from fresh or frozen fruit. Additionally, I also aim to get 200 calories from fresh or frozen vegetables. The fruit calories are easy to meet. The vegetable calories, depending on what you choose, might take some doing. Added to that, I try to make a point of varying what I eat whenever possible, so as to get a broad cross section of fruits, vegetables, meats, oils, etc. and also get a broad spectrum of vitamins and minerals in the process. I also take a cheap daily multi-vitamin to cover my bases.

Get Help From an “Accountability Partner”

Find a support system to help you through the process of losing weight and training. Have an accountability partner, preferably one you are not married or otherwise related to. Our families love us, they really do. They can be our biggest cheerleaders, but they can also be our worst saboteurs, often at the same time and have no idea they are doing that. When you have a dispassionate accountability partner, those issues mostly go away. Your accountability partner can be electronic (apps, spreadsheets, training diaries, etc.) or they can be real people you interact with, in person or virtually. I have found a nice balance. I use electronic means, using apps like Pacer for step data, LoseIt for calories, and FitStar for workouts/training, plus I have a BlueTooth scale that integrates with LoseIt that tracks weight, BMI, body fat percentage and hydration levels (though the last two seem to be related in a strange counter symbiosis, and are not really reliable, but that’s another topic 😉 ).

Additionally, the Social community within LoseIt has been terrific for me. I take advantage of a variety of challenges that occur within LoseIt, and I am a greedy collector of “badges”. It makes the quest fun, and it keeps me looking forward rather than behind. Challenges also give you a chance to cheer on others, and let them cheer you on as well. You can certainly train on your own, but having a support system can be tremendously helpful, especially if you check in regularly.

Having said all of that, this is work. It takes time, dedication, and commitment, and will require it for a long time, not just for the duration to lose the weight, but for the time that follows so that you stay diligent and keep the weight off.

I should also mention that this “system” as described was derived over the course of four months, with the idea that I would tweak some small thing each week. Taken in its entirety, were I to say I was going to do everything outlined here on day one, I would probably have given up. This represents a major paradigm shift in the way I ate and exercised, but I made small incremental changes along the way. Consider it “Agile Dieting and Conditioning”, where very small changes made regularly brings you to a totally different place months down the road, but the individual changes were so small and so frequent that they were nearly imperceptible. I would suggest anyone looking to make major changes to their lifestyle do something similar. Don’t try to reinvent yourself all in one go. Let yourself experiment with small changes, be open to learning what works for you and keeps you engaged, and make small tweaks on a regular basis. I think “a tweak a week” is a good pace.

Another important consideration is “your body is adaptable”. What works at one point in time can stop working later. Plateaus happen. Reversals happen. You will get tired. You will get frustrated. You will get angry. You will get invited to events where you decide to chuck your willpower and self control. It happens. We’re human. The best advice I’ve received, and the advice I frequently give myself and others when this happens, is courtesy my friend and accountability partner Pat over at LoseIt…

“Own It… Log It… and Move On!”

If there is any “secret” in all of this, that statement is it. That’s the magic. It’s the magic of mindfulness, the secret is owning this process and being wholly responsible for success. When we do well, celebrate. When we backslide, acknowledge and learn. When we discover something doesn’t work any longer, adapt. Regardless of what it is, good or bad, euphoric or frustrating, enlightening or damning, “own it, log it, and move on”.

I’m not perfect by any means, but I know how this feels, and that is often a big help to others. Start your journey, and let me know if I can be of any help along the way. Likewise, I still have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep ;).