Monday, April 8, 2013

More Calories, Less Fat

If there’s one thing I learned from my participation in the 2013 Transformation Challenge Sponsored by Dymatize that stands out from the rest it’s that when one eats is sometimes as important as what one eats.

In an effort to find an eating plan — I’m not even sure “plan” is the right word, it’s more of a lifestyle thing — that works for me, I’ve been steadily upping my calories since the Challenge ended. Whereas, the 3,040 calories I consumed on Feb. 28 was my highest total during the seven-week Challenge, lately I’ve been averaging more calories than that.

Yet, I’ve gained a grand total of 0.1 pounds since I took my Final pictures two weeks ago.

Frankly, my goal after the Challenge was to gain weight by “bulking” a bit, as I thought that might be a great way to allow me some extra calories. Now, I’m not sure what I should do. I’m OK at the calorie level I’m at — not hungry and, in fact, often full — but I want to have some goals in the gym besides working hard… and I’m still very, very nervous about quitting my cardio program altogether.

My thinking is: Why “bulk up” with fat? Right now, I’m maintaining my present weight and losing fat; that strikes me as a whole lot better than gaining weight and having to trim a ton of fat later on (been there, done that, didn’t care for it).

All things considered, it’s a good problem to have (it sure beats the alternative). I’m thinking that maybe I should set some strength goals since I go back and forth between strength- and size-building exercises anyway.

In the meantime, I think I’ll get something to eat.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

End of the Road

In three months, I lost 25 lbs.
I’ve got to admit: I entered the 2013 Transformation Challenge mostly on a lark. My brother told me about it and I thought it’d be fun (I would soon find out my definition of “fun” needs a little tightening).

The truth is — and I’m ashamed to admit it now — I thought I looked fine.  I knew I was a little heavy, of course, but I chalked it up to being 45 years old. I went to the gym; I ate relatively well… if my stomach gave the impression I was trying to “one-up” the Octomom, well, that was just age.

But something happened when I decided to enter the Challenge that altered my self-perception: my brother and I took our “before” photos.

Now, I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn when I say that “before” pictures, by their very nature, are not meant to be flattering — and ours were certainly no exception. In fact, they were so far from flattering that we could hardly keep the camera still — we were literally shaking with laughter when it was the other guy’s turn to say “cheese.”

Yet, afterwards, I couldn’t help but think that guys who are in decent shape — not great shape, mind you, just decent — simply can’t look as bad as we did. Yeah, our round bellies and forlorn expressions were funny, but only in the same way that watching “The Three Stooges” is funny. When one is on the receiving end of a slap to the face or a poke in the eye, it’s not quite so amusing. And our pictures were the ultimate poke in the eye/slap in the face (I apologize in advance to those who felt likewise upon viewing them).

As I reflected on those digital images, I resolved then and there to put everything I had into the Challenge. Unlike some of the entrants (and I’m not passing judgment here), I had no desire to do it more than once. Either I was going to change my life — eat healthy and exercise with a purpose — or I wasn’t. Sure, winning or even placing in the Challenge would be great, but ultimately I wanted to make a lasting lifestyle change.

I thought I had a fair amount of muscle going in, so the first thing I did was address my less-than-stellar diet. I consulted with a friend of mine, who’s a personal trainer, and he helped me set up a plan of action. Unfortunately, the one thing the plan didn’t take into account was portion size and, after a couple of weeks, despite my best efforts in the gym, I had lost a grand total of four pounds.

This prompted me to start tracking everything I ate, as well as my weight (with the hope that I could determine what worked and what didn’t) on a daily basis.

1/12 to 2/23

Click on graph to enlarge

2/24 to 3/23

Click on graph to enlarge

I also started getting serious about cardio — those blood-pumping, mind-numbing exercises that surely warrant consideration as one of Dante’s circles.

My visits to the gym began lasting longer and longer, as I made it a point to get on the treadmill at least three times a week… then four times a week… then five times a week. For awhile, it worked. From January 12 to January 24, I lost almost seven pounds, dropping below the 200-pound mark for the first time in a long time.

Then, life got in the way.

I found out in mid-January that, due to the poor economy, a client of mine (I’m a freelance writer) was shutting down the daily stock market newsletter that I had helped him produce since 2007… and I quickly received a firsthand lesson regarding the effect of stress on one’s weight loss.

Despite a great diet and consistently strong efforts in the gym — a typical workout was now approaching three hours — I started packing on the pounds.

From the time I found part-time work in early February until March 2, I gained 5 lbs. — which meant that my total weight loss stood at a mere 10 pounds in the nine weeks since I started the Challenge. I wrote about these difficult times on my BodySpace blog:

“I’m in a bit of a rut. I fear my diet, which I always thought was ridiculously light given my size and activity level (typically, well under 2,000 calories), may have actually lowered my metabolism. Recently, I’ve been terribly tired and, worse, terribly hungry — all the time.”

There was more bad news.

My treadmill workouts, which I already abhorred, were becoming a massive chore, thanks to shin splints that seemed to get more painful by the day. To other gym goers I probably looked severely constipated as I grimaced and groaned my way through the 30- to 40-minute sessions each afternoon. That would have been fine (I’m confident I look worse doing flyes), but, as I said, I was gaining weight.  

Luckily, I found the perfect solution.

Just for the heck of it, I decided to try the stationary bike one morning and not only was I able to keep my heart rate where I wanted it (a huge issue with the treadmill), I also found I could go much longer with less physical stress.

Granted, my “Eureka Moment” may have come too late to help me win the Challenge, but, again, my ultimate goal in entering was to change my life; finding a way to do cardio that didn’t result in debilitating pain or a look on my face that only Edvard Munch (painter of “The Scream”) could appreciate was definitely a step in the right direction.

Of course, what all of my “Challenge challenges” have taught me, or perhaps reinforced, is that losing weight/getting in shape is a highly individualized process. Sure, we all know the basics — healthy diet, portion control, exercise — but it’s up to the individual to find what works best for him/her. There is no cookie-cutter approach, at least for those seeking long-term solutions.

I also learned that motivation is highly overrated, because, like the moon, it waxes and wanes. When things were going well and I was dropping weight like a vegan at a barbecue, I was tremendously motivated and couldn’t wait to get to the gym each day. However, when things weren’t going so well — when I was gaining weight like a guy-pretending-to-be-a-vegan-to-impress-a-girl at a barbecue, my desire to exercise was practically non-existent.

Getting in shape does not require that one be motivated; it requires that one be dedicated. Even though I gave the Challenge everything I had — I worked out an average of 10+ hours a week and stuck to my diet religiously (the 3,040 calories I consumed on Feb. 28 represented the highest calorie total since I started recording my meals on Jan. 12) — I freely admit that losing weight/fat was much more difficult than I anticipated.

Had I relied solely on motivation derived from my achievements or the Challenge itself to get me through, I don’t think I’d be writing this. Instead, I’d be sitting on my couch enjoying a piece of pecan pie and telling myself I’d “get ‘em next time.”

Only, as we all know, “next time” never seems to come. We trade our health tomorrow for an artery-clogging meal today; we tell ourselves that the built-in inner-tube around our waist is age or stress or sympathy weight for our baby son or daughter… who is now a freshman in college.

Anyway, I’m so glad I actually finished the Challenge and didn’t quit or phone it in when the going got tough. My brother and I just finished taking our “after” pictures and, despite more setbacks — the normally empty room I made arrangements to use at the gym began filling up with folks from some class before we even got started, forcing us to rush — I think they turned out really well.

In retrospect, my slow and tedious weight/fat loss was probably a good thing, as I retained most, if not all, of my muscle size and density. Better still, I looked even bigger as a result of being so much thinner. (Over the course of the Challenge, I lost a total of 25 pounds and shaved six inches off my waist.)

This is precisely what I’d aimed to do and it feels great to have accomplished my goal.

Now, I said at the outset that I intended to enter this Challenge just once and that I would never let myself get as heavy as I did in those awful “before” pictures — and I’m serious about that. However, I think many of you will understand and even sympathize when I say that, right now, I need a slice of pizza.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Too Little, Too Late?

First, the good news: I found a cardio routine that works for me. It’s kept my heart rate up and I’ve lost both weight and body fat much, much faster than in the past. Now, the bad news: It might be too late as far as the 2013 Transformation Challenge is concerned.

While I definitely feel I’m ready for spring and summer, I’m just not quite as lean as I suspect others will be. On the plus side, my muscularity is good. Getting trim while still hitting the weights hard has done exactly what I’d hoped — I haven’t lost any size (that I can tell) and I look a whole lot more cut… I never knew I had so many veins!

I still have about two weeks left and will give it my all, but regardless of whether I place or not, I am excited about what I learned along the way.

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Dog Days of Winter

I haven’t posted much recently for a couple of reasons: 1) I had to take on another job to make ends meet; and 2) I just haven’t had much fire recently. I don’t believe for a second that 1 & 2 aren’t connected — even though the job is in fitness, which is great, I’ve been working full-time from home since 2007 and not being able to do so anymore has been tough, no matter the spin I put on it.

As far as the Challenge goes, I’m in a bit of a rut. I fear my diet, which I always thought was ridiculously light given my size and activity level (typically, well under 2,000 calories), may have actually lowered my metabolism. Recently, I’ve been terribly tired and, worse, terribly hungry — all the time.

The odd thing is in the past couple of weeks I’ve gained weight, yet may have (probably have) lost fat. But I’m still frustrated by how slow the process has been: my shin splints seem to get worse every day, making the treadmill a half-hour of torture. The thought of upping my time, given that I’m already doing it every day…

So, I’ve decided that, starting today, I will do different types of cardio—I like push-ups, I can do burpees, I can run in place with minimal pain (probably because it’s more of an up-and-down rather than a reaching motion).

Overall, I look a lot better, but there’s still a long way to go… and, now, a short time to get there.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Delicate Balance

One thing that drives me nuts — I’m sure others can relate — is the seemingly delicate balance between fat loss and muscle loss. In my zeal to lose weight — fast — for the 2013 Transformation Challenge, I discovered that I’ve been engaging in the latter and it’s discouraging.

I’ve lost an inch off my arms (which weren’t “fat” to begin with) as I’ve dropped 17 pounds over the past month. Yeah, my waist has gotten smaller; yeah, my abs and chest look better, but an inch off the arms? Give me a break.

Of course, this shouldn’t have come as a great surprise, given that I’ve been living on a diet of less than 2,000 calories while exercising 2-3 hours a day, 5-6 days a week.

So, I’ve decided to modify my diet. Last night, I upped my calories to 2,200 and I’ll continue at that level. Obviously, I’d love to do well in the Challenge, but it’s not worth losing a ton of muscle for. After all, I lift weights for size and strength, not to be small and malnourished.