I reached my goal today—180 pounds. This was more than just the loss of 30 pounds, but rather a story of what was gained—I feel better, my clothes fit better (actually need to buy smaller sizes now), I am in better shape than I’ve been for years, and I have more confidence that I’ll be around to see my grandchildren’s wedding days. (Need grandchildren first—another story).
But even more than these gains is what I learned about learning to change my behaviors. Well… learning IS behavioral change, but I gained new insights into how that happens, at least for me. I knew that this would have to be more than just a confined project to lose weight over a short time-span; I needed to change the way I eat and live forever, otherwise it all comes back. So how do I learn to do that?
Someone in the café at work noticed my slimmer frame the other day (such comments are nearly daily now) and asked breathlessly “how did you do it?” My answer mentioned no miracle food, fad diet or some infomercial product. It was a matter of eating less and moving more, and to this news my colleague was crestfallen. Sorry, no tricks or shortcuts here.
But if there is a trick, it has to do with how we learn and change. I will say a few things about how I learned to lose after I tell the story of the loss itself.
OK, So I Lost It
My weight fluctuated between 205 and 215 for the last several years. I got there slowly after a rail-thin adolescence, then a few pounds after marriage, and amending in growth spurts over the years. I gained an average of a pound per year, I figure – weighing somewhere in the 170’s in the 70’s and then the 210’s in the 2010’s.
The desire for less heft had been with me for a time. I hid my girth as best I could—my best abs workout was keeping my gut pulled in. We were into “portion control” for several years, eating half the burger from Islands at one meal, the other half out of the box later. Not much happened.
Late Spring of 2012 it started, prompted by the following series of events:
- Introduced to juicing, thanks Tessa. I was surprised how good it tasted: Apples, beets, kale, carrots, pineapple, peaches, celery, etc, with some lemon juice to smooth any hints of garden-taste. About three dinners per week. Inspiration added by the film Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead, the story of a guy who turned his health around with a radical juicing regimen he calls “rebooting.”
- My Fitness Pal, an app for my phone recommended by an Intel health coach. Computes a recommended daily calorie intake based on current age, weight, activity level, weight goal, intended rate of loss, etc. It becomes a diary of intake and exercise and you can look up the calories of what you’re eating. Coincidentally, Nancy had discovered the app while prowling the iTunes store the same day as my appointment with the health coach.
- Daily logging of calories and exercise using the app. Each day was a game, each food a strategic decision. That slice of bread? 120! Do I have room for it in my numbers? My 45 minute walk today? That added 300 calories to my allowance! My allowance was 1370 per day if I did not exercise, more if I did.
- Exercise, realistically pursued. I ran track in High School, so prior returns to running were idealistic, and then discouraging. This time I just walked at first, later I did a walk/run, then eventually ran it all. Trips to the gym were light on weights at first, then increasing. Because it built my allowance in My Fitness Pal, it soon became an advantage to do some exercise nearly every day.
- Encouragement. I was encouraged by the downward trend of my weight,a zig-zag line ofdaily ups and downs, eventually more down than up. My body would almost seem to level out at a “new normal” for a while, then bust through the floor one day to zig-zag at a lower altitude. I was also encouraged by co-losers: Nancy, first of all, whose partnership in the same effort made food decisions easier, and then some coworkers (Jeff, Ann and Jon).
But the most encouraging thing of all is to feel the way I do now.
Learning to Lose
It’s more about the heart than the head. This was so much more about excitement and encouragement than any grim force of will. And if the numbers-tracking thing seems much more head than heart (it is data, don’t you know), it’s my use and response to those numbers that make it a heart-thing still. The bathroom scale can be a discouraging measure, but I had a daily chance to meet numbers on calorie intake. Daily progress heartened me.
It was a matter of heart that I felt so much better, and that I could sense some better odds at being around a few more years than before. It was a matter of wanting to feel and look better. These ambitions are always more effectively fueled by passion than by will.
It’s more about yes than no. In the weight loss game, I think most of the strategies are about “no.” No to food, and no to the couch. But this always felt like a “yes” to me. Yes to enter the new numbers, yes to what I could eat within the allowance, yes to the fun of finding a sandwich that was 500 calories instead of 1500. Yes to a walk that would build my allowance.
Will power always eventually failed in the face of chips, cheese and salsa—my favorite snack. Will power failed in its strategy to get me not to think about food. Ironically I think more about food now than ever before, though in a new way. I now manage food rather than succumb to it. I will say yes to it when I want to, maybe not now, or if now I will enter its numbers and subtract something else.
I have wrested the initiative from hunger and food and moved it to me. In the process I have replaced the hunger cues with my own proactivity.
In a way, it’s a game. If it sounds that way, it’s intentional. I admit that gaming is a risky metaphor that brings up imagery of insincere politicking, mere pastimes or entertainments. Discard those meanings, please. Instead, I refer to adventure games filled with story. Speaking metaphorically, I move as if on a quest for “points” and measure the moves to get to the next level. In this way, picking up 400 calories for my daily count by running for 50 minutes is like seizing the silver ring of Gondor or something. And then I move into the day with stealthy skill, going for the win.
The game made me aware, more a player in my diet than an unwitting consumer. On seeing my progress and marking each day, each level, each meal like a puzzle, encouragement piled up and I found new behaviors.
That, dear ones, is learning. As my use of the app starts to fall away, the new behaviors are sticking. I know what to do, or maybe I tally the numbers just in my head. I don’t need the app to tell me about the 2000 calorie dinner at Chili’s—I just don’t want it. Oh, yes, I do at times just give it up for a night; in fact it’s not unhealthy to do so. The body is prepared for those exceptions, especially when someplace like The Cheesecake Factory.
Or facing the Thanksgiving turkey.