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

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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.

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