Wednesday, March 13, 2019

My Six Year Journey of Weight-Loss and Improved Health

After six long years of trial, error, hard work, slacking off, pain, and joy, I'm proud to say that I'm finally back to a healthy body weight. I made a lot of mistakes along the way and learned a lot in the process, and while it certainly wasn't easy, I can easily say that it was all worth it.

Although my transformation may not be spectacular or dramatic, I think it's important to share here because those more incredible stories do not reflect most people's experiences trying to become healthier. By sharing my full story, I hope that I can help anyone who is looking to lose weight and become healthier avoid some of my pitfalls, gain some usable knowledge, and understand that it's okay to fail sometimes and totally miss your goal date several times over. Keep at it, because it's worth working for. Getting in shape and developing a healthier lifestyle has made me feel more confident, energetic, and in control of my life.

The Journey Begins

I was quite skinny in high school. This was largely thanks to me getting a part-time job as a cart-pusher at a local grocery store when I was 16 years old, which kept me outside and moving around all year long. I was also a picky eater, so I had a habit of not eating much of whatever my parents cooked for me. Here's a photo of me in 2008 for context—I'll be including photos of every major stage of my weight-loss journey in this post to help you get a clearer picture for how much my weight changed.
Fortunately, my sense of style has dramatically improved since this photo was taken.
Four years later, on 12/12/12 (honestly) I stepped on a scale for the first time in years and realized that I'd let myself get fat in college.

I found several reasons to blame my increased weight on. These included that (1) healthy food didn't taste good, (2) exercise was hard and not worth the time or pain, and (3) I now worked at an on-campus restaurant (4) which was attached to an all-you-can-eat buffet (5) which had ice cream. I was satisfied that I'd identified the cause of my weight gain until I got on the scale half a month later only to see the number climb two pounds higher.

It was then that I came to terms with the only real reason I had gotten fat: I had been incredibly careless (translation: stupid) about my diet, health, and appearance. In fact, I had been so oblivious as to what was going on with my own body that the only reason I stepped on the scale in the first place was that I noticed my large-sized tee shirts were becoming tight after years of comfortable looseness.

December 12, 2012: 172 lbs – Never Again

The unintentional "before" photo.
At 172 lbs, I was the heaviest I'd ever been in my life. Being only 5'6" tall, it also officially made me "overweight." I'd gone up two pant sizes at the waistline since high school, and yet I was beginning to notice that my bigger jeans were starting to feel tight. My face had become pudgy, and I hated to see photos taken of me from most angles. On top of it all, my fiancée—who is taller than me and has a very lean build—and I were set to get married in a year and a half. I couldn't bear the thought of looking the way I did in our future wedding photos. I needed to make a change.

I wanted to get down to 150 lbs, but I had no real plan on how to accomplish it and I didn't understand the amount of work it would take to get there by the wedding date. In an effort to make this plan a reality, I simply decided to go for half-hour long walks outdoors during my lunch breaks at work and to reduce my meal portions (and lay off the desserts—I can't stress enough how much I love ice cream). I also started checking my weight every now and then and tracked it in a spreadsheet, which is how I'm able to recall so many dates and weights to you in this blog post.

These changes were far from specific, measured, or aggressive, but they were easy enough for me to adapt to. A few weeks before the wedding, I went to get refitted for a tuxedo and was delighted to learn that my original order was now too big for me. I managed to get down to 159 lbs on the day of my wedding.

June 14, 2014: 159 lbs – Don't Get Cocky

I'm pretty sure that a fitted tuxedo subtracts the 10 lbs that a camera adds.
I felt great about myself, and confident that I'd discovered the super-easy secret to my weight loss that would carry me even further down into a healthier weight without subjecting me to the terrors of actual exercise.

My wife and I honeymooned at a Mexican all-inclusive resort, and we took full advantage of it. Without needing to ever exchange money while on the premises, we ate and drank until we were full while getting very little physical activity outside of the occasional walk during an excursion. It was paradise, and my body paid dearly for it. After spending almost every day eating heartily and basking in the sun with a constant buzz, I returned home feeling a vague sense of alcohol withdrawal, sun poisoning, and with an extra 6 lbs of body weight. I was back up to 165 lbs.

Not at all discouraged, I dutifully returned to limiting meal portions and using my break at work to go for a walk outside. I managed to keep the habit up even as I moved on to a different job, where I was fortunate enough to work in an office located very close to a beautiful nature trail that encouraged my healthy habit. However, by the end of 2014 I was still hovering around 160 lbs.

So, going into 2015, I continued to make small adjustments to what I was eating and went on regular walks. Through these small changes I managed to get myself down to 153 lbs in the summer. This milestone, however, was short-lived, and I ended the year just about where I started, at 159 lbs. The winter weather and holiday treats had apparently gotten the best of me. I was getting annoyed.

At the start of 2016, I set another goal for myself to get down to 149 lbs by the end of the year. I made subtle, semi-conscious changes in my diet and exercise. For example, I bought ice cream to keep in the house much less frequently that year, I started trying and enjoying healthier foods, and I was taking our dog (adopted the previous year) for more walks. I also happened to lose about 5 lbs in the weeks following my job termination—because stress is a real killer and I kept myself busy around the house while I looked for work—but while getting terminated helped, I would not suggest it.

Through these small changes, I managed to get down to 149 lbs in the final days of 2016.

December 23, 2016: 149 lbs – A Brief Victory

Looking and feeling good.
Again, I felt great about myself. I was the lightest I'd been in years, I seemed to have finally broke through the cycle of loss and gain that I'd been in for years, and I'd done all of it with small, easily-managed changes.

It didn't matter, though, because although I promised myself that I would continue the trend and get down to 145 lbs, and although I was still checking my weight about once or twice a month, and although I didn't consciously ease up on my healthier lifestyle, almost all of my progress since 2012 was undone in 2017.

You see, while my weight hovered around 150 lbs for the first half of 2017, I spent the second half of the year watching it slowly increase without understanding why, especially since I'd invested in a set of dumbbells that I was using regularly. In retrospect, I now see how the smallness—the almost complete imperceptibility—of the changes that I'd made to get me down to 149 lbs is what also made it hard to realize when I'd gone back on those changes. I'd stopped going for walks as frequently so that I could work on freelance projects during my lunch breaks instead, I'd started keeping ice cream in the house more often, and I'd stopped worrying so much about my meal portions. These changes were so small that I didn't think about just how much they'd all add up.

The final day of the year arrived after a very sugar-filled holiday season, and I dreaded stepping on the scale. It was getting hard to look at photos of myself again, and I knew what that meant. I took a deep breath, stepped onto the scale, looked down at the number, and my heart immediately sank. It read 167 lbs.

December 31, 2017: 167 lbs – Time to Get Serious

The second unintentional "before" photo.
Okay, just to be clear, while 167 lbs is what the scale read, there's a lot of factors to take into account, like time of day. The reason I mention this is that I stepped on the scale the next day and was relieved to see a slightly less terrifying readout of 164 lbs. That being said, 164 lbs was still a huge letdown, and I was terrified that perhaps my "true" weight was actually closer to or even higher than 167 lbs. I kept the higher number in my head rather than using the lower one for comfort. I needed that fear to fuel what was to come. I needed to finally get serious about my weight loss.

I made two healthy decisions in the next several weeks. The first was to weigh myself more consistently. Rather than once or twice every month or two when I felt like it, I vowed to weigh myself on every Monday morning of 2018. I set a recurring alarm on my phone to remind me of this promise and hold myself accountable. I hoped that, through this habit, I would be able to more closely monitor my weight trends, through which I hoped to better understand what in my life was affecting my weight.

The second healthy decision I made was to wholeheartedly embrace a birthday gift from my family—a Fitbit Charge 2. I'd had some fitness trackers before, but aside from basic features like a pedometer, sleep tracker, and timer, they didn't do much to inspire me to be more conscious about my health. In fact, my first fitness tracker was purchased solely to prevent our insurance rates from going up (on the condition that I got 50,000 steps a day, which was easy to get without even trying, considering I went on a half hour walk almost every day). However, unlike my previous fitness trackers, this one included features such as a heart rate tracker and GPS (via my phone). For the first time, I felt like I had a tool that could give me the information about myself that I needed to succeed.

Realizing that my dumbbells weren't getting me anywhere on their own (and, in retrospect, may have actually contributed to my weight gain by tricking me into thinking that a quick dumbbell workout was using more energy than it possibly could), I started doing some floor exercises in addition to continuing to go for walks, snacking less, and limiting my meal portions.

While I made steady progress for a while that resulted in my weight dropping to 158 lbs in the beginning of April, it slowly bounced back up to 164 lbs by the end of that same month. It is then that I made the two biggest and healthiest changes of my life: I started tracking calories eaten and burned every single day, and I took up running.

Calorie Counting

Calorie counting was a no-brainer decision for me, as I'd occasionally experimented with tracking calories eaten in the past. In these instances, I would log calories consumed for a week or a month at a time, during which I'd have small realizations (like that eating half a frozen pizza is a really big caloric investment), and then I'd use what I learned to try and make healthier decisions going forward. However, the idea at the time was always to eat normally while tracking, and then once I felt like I had a better grasp of things I would simultaneously stop tracking calories and change my eating habits. After all, counting calories was tedious, and I didn't want to do it forever.

However, this would always produce decent short-term results, but never helped me long-term. I decided that I was going to not only count calories consumed, but compare that to my Fitbit's more accurate readout of my calories burned (thanks to the heart rate monitor), and then I would continue to monitor all of that information while making adjustments to my lifestyle.

After following my Fitbit's calorie-counting guidance on how to lose one pound per week, I stepped on the scale two weeks later and was frustrated to see no such change. I assumed I was either burning fewer or eating more calories than my Fitbit app calculated, despite my best efforts to track every little thing consumed. I needed to be more aggressive, especially since my wife just found out she was pregnant, which made me more determined than ever to shed the weight. I needed to be a healthy, active father in my child's life.

Please note that evidence shows that your weight actually increases in the first week(s) after you start exercising, due to your body adjusting to the new lifestyle. I did not know this at the time.


Running charts and graphs!
While a part of me always liked the idea of running around outside in the fresh air for exercise, my few attempts to practice it had always ended in me completely winded and hating myself for putting myself through such torture. Still, after a bit of research online, running seemed like the most convenient and effective way for me to burn more calories and shed my weight. I was starting to consider giving it another go, especially because my older brother had gotten into running in the previous year, through which he'd lost a significant amount of weight and was now looking better than ever. I was inspired by his success, but also, frankly, I was jealous.

One evening, he and I took our mom out to dinner at a place known for its excessive use of bacon. While I felt like a greasy fat mess after eating just half of my plate, he ate his entire plate easily and remarked that, because of how active he'd become, he could easily eat more if he wanted to. Upon hearing that, I was not only jealous of his weight loss success, but also of his ability to put fatty food away. I told him that I was thinking about getting into running, but that my prior attempts had gone terribly because I always wore myself out to the point of exhaustion and then hated myself for it. I asked him if he had any advice.

"There's this app, called C25K—it means 'couch to 5k'—that can help you pace yourself. The app guides you from being a couch potato to running a 5k in three months, a half hour at a time. You should try it out."

My interest piqued, I downloaded the app that night. Then, after work one afternoon, I put on the running shorts that I hadn't worn in years, stepped outside, and followed the audio instructions of the C25K app. It started with a five-minute warm-up walk, followed by alternating 60 seconds of running and 90 seconds of walking for a total of 20 minutes, finishing with a 5-minute cool-down walk.

I won't say it was painless (I was really out of shape), but the app made running seem more doable than I had expected. Feeling confident, I continued to run every other day, following the app's instructions, which increased the difficulty/duration spent running every week (at least until it started increasing every single run). I did this all in secret at first, but after a few successes I felt bold enough to tell my wife and brother of my new hobby.

May 2, 2018: 161 lbs – Running the Fat Away

Funny how much better you feel when you're not living like a fat slug.
Shortly after completing my first week of C25K, I made the decision to check and log my weight daily instead of weekly. This was largely because I wanted to have a better idea of my actual weekly weight (averaging the whole week) rather than just taking whatever I happened to weigh a morning after a (often food-filled) weekend as representative of that week's number. Additionally, weighing myself daily would help me to better understand the more immediate effects that my food intake and activities had in my weight. In other words, I wasn't seeing the progress I wanted to see, so I needed to keep a closer eye on myself.

At first this led to frustration, as I naively believed I would see the results of a day of particularly light calorie intake and heavy calorie burn represented on the scale the very next day, when in fact I would not. Through this frustration, I learned much more about how the human body actually works, such as the concept of water weight, the different major sources of calories (fat, carbs, and protein) and how the body doesn't treat them all equally. This in turn helped me to adjust my diet so that I wasn't just eating fewer calories, but that I was eating healthier calories.

As the summer days got hotter, I switched from running after work to running in the early morning. I woke up at around 4:30 am for a jog every other day of the work week. No excuses.

I received a boost of motivation to continue my journey in late June, when I managed to run for a whole 17 minutes straight for the first time in my life. Additionally, by eating healthier, continuing to run every other day, and steadily increasing the length I was able to run, I had the pleasure of watching my average weight slowly decrease every single week.
Out for a run, and apparently approving of it.
Then, on August 22nd, a little over three months after I started using the C25K app, I ran a full 5 kilometers in 31 minutes, and that week I averaged 156 lbs—a number I hadn't seen  on my scale since approximately a year before. From that point forward I knew with absolute certainty that I could do this. I had achieved my running goal and was well on my way to achieving my weight-loss goal, which was to have a healthy BMI (a weight of 148, specifically) by the time of my wife's due date of November 10th.

Still, the journey wasn't easy. Some days I'd get on the scale and feel utterly defeated by the sight of a number I really didn't like, and other days I'd try my hardest to run 5 kilometers only to have to stop short due to rain, exhaustion, thirst, or a sudden pain in my side or ankle. In fact, I only completed a handful of actual 5K-length runs that summer for various reasons, including not waking up and getting outside with enough time to run for a whole 30 minutes in the morning, running at a slower pace, and the simple fact that the 5K route I mapped for myself in my neighborhood relied on me passing by my house near the end of the route, and the temptation to go home just shy of a full 5K often admittedly got the best of me.

Another frustration was the lack of the fabled "runner's high"—the rush of endorphins that comes from prolonged exercise often described by runners as being as addicting as a drug high. As the summer months faded away and the morning runs grew colder and darker, I couldn't help but be upset that I'd not yet experienced the runner's high, and worried that I'd close out the year without feeling one at all. After all, even after months of conditioning my body to run, running still often hurt physically and completely broke me down mentally. Even when distracting myself with podcasts or audiobooks, I'd often find that my mind was determined to be my greatest enemy. Anywhere from half to a quarter of the way toward the end of my run, my mind would begin to tell me to stop, walk home, and spend the morning relaxing instead of putting myself through such a physical and mental strain.

However, I persisted. On September 28th, after running every other day for about five months, I finally felt my first runner's high, and it was amazing. I remember it vividly. I was coming toward the end of my run, I had just turned a corner to see a fresh street stretched out ahead of me, and I suddenly felt invincible. All the pain in my muscles and lungs went away, and I felt like I could run forever. The feeling was so great that I ended up breaking out into a full-on sprint for a whole block. I felt like I was flying. Once the high faded and my aches caught back up to me, I returned to a jogging pace and finished the route.

September 28, 2018: 152 lbs – The Final Stretch

Getting healthy helped me climb new heights!
My goal date was fast approaching, and while my weight loss was on schedule, I still had to be careful not to let that get to my head, slip up, and undo my progress. I was also racing against the clock of my wife's bulging belly. With each passing day, the chances grew higher and higher that she could go into labor, and while labor would mean we'd get the greatest gift imaginable, it would also completely alter our lives and routines in the process. I was determined to work as hard as possible so that my daughter would have a father who could keep up with her, be in her life a long time, and be living proof that anything is possible if you put your mind to it.

As the days passed by, my weight continued to fluctuate—emphasizing my need to ignore the daily readings on the scale and instead focus on the weekly averages—and my runs remained strenuous, especially as the mornings grew colder with the approaching winter. A month before the due date, I begrudgingly decided it was smartest to switch from running outside in the freezing temperatures to exercising on our elliptical indoors. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I burned a similar—albeit slightly lower—number of calories from the elliptical as I did from running outdoors.

Then came another important date—my annual physical, and with it, the only official record of my weight. I paid extra attention to my diet in the preceding days, wore some of the lightest clothes I owned, and removed everything from my pants pockets as I stepped onto the only scale that would matter in my doctor's eyes. To my delight, it read 149.6 lbs, and I got to tell my doctor about everything I'd done in the past year to live up to my promise from the last time I saw him. According to him, I was now just barely in the upper-region of the healthy weight range for my height. I couldn't have been happier.

Except I was about to be.

You see, my wife had an appointment with a neonatologist at the very same time, and that neonatologist would voice concerns that our baby wasn't getting the nutrients she needed from the umbilical cord, which would mean she'd have to be induced into labor soon rather than waiting the 10 days left until the due date. That night, after the neonatologist consulted with our OB-GYN, our OB-GYN called us to ask if we were available to induce labor that same night.

You can read exactly how the next 28.5 hours went in my blog post about the birth of our baby girl, but the short version is that my life got very, very exciting.

Priorities shift when you become a parent. Suddenly my entire life revolved around this tiny little baby, and I had to put everything else in my life on the back burner as I spent the next two weeks on paternity leave getting used to my new life as a father. While there wasn't time to exercise regularly anymore (and I wanted to spend time with my daughter, anyway), I made sure to keep close watch of what food I was eating and continued to weigh myself every day.

Then, nine days after she was born came her original due date—the date by which I promised myself I would weigh 148 lbs at most. I stepped on the scale that morning convinced that it would read something like 148.6 or even 149.2 again, since it was hard to guess what I'd weigh at any given morning considering the slight fluctuations that a body goes through every day. Yet, to my surprise, on that morning, I saw the lowest number of my entire weight loss journey. It read 147.8 lbs. I had reached my goal weight by my goal date with 0.2 lbs to spare (again to be totally fair, I averaged 148.6 lbs that week, though that was still my lowest weekly average to date).

November 8, 2018: 147.8 lbs – Mission Accomplished!

The very intentional "after" photo.
In the months following when I reached my goal weight, a combination of the winter weather and caring for a newborn meant that my regular running/elliptical use completely fell by the wayside. Still, I managed to maintain my healthy weight, typically averaging around 147 lbs. I tried to get exercise in whatever small ways I could, such as going for walks at work and taking the stairs instead of the elevator if given the option (and I had to shovel a lot of snow since my snow blower was busted). Through this, I'd still been able to indulge in some less-than-healthy foods I love from time to time, which I credit to my newfound discipline for portion and frequency control.

Oh yeah, and I bought a bunch of new clothes that fit me way better now. Can you believe I fit comfortably in small shirts now?

The Journey Continues

When my birthday arrived, I noticed something different. For the first time in years, I didn't feel the least bit upset about being a year older. In fact, I felt healthier and more alive than ever! I made a decision that day that my rest period was over, and that it was time to recommit myself to my weight loss. After all, although I was finally maintaining healthy body weight, I was technically still only a few pounds away from being overweight, and I wanted to have my feet planted firmly in the healthy weight range. I went into my Fitbit app and updated my weight goal, setting it for 138 lbs, and I signed up to use my new job's fitness room, where I committed to running on the treadmill at least twice a week until the eventual warmer weather would allow me to run outside again. As an additional goal, I promised myself to run a 5K event in the 2019 calendar year, and as luck would have it, my new job holds a charity 5K every year. I started training immediately, and found it relatively easy to get back into the swing of things.

Though the journey may have taken me much longer than I would have liked (six years was not exactly what I had in mind), I think it's only evidence that I'm human. I try things, I fail, and if I really desire the end result I will try again using the lessons I've learned from my failures. Eventually, if I fail enough times, I will succeed.
Graph of every time I weighed myself since 12/12/12. Click to enlarge.
I am not special. My weight loss story isn't particularly interesting or unique, but I wanted to share it not only because I think it's important to celebrate one's own accomplishments, but also because I now join the countless others who are living proof  to anyone who doubts themselves that anybody can change their life for the better, and it is absolutely worth trying.

If even one person reading this is thinking about starting their own weight loss/health journey, this is my only advice to you:

Go out there and kick some ass.