Over the last few years, when it comes up in conversation, many people have asked me about my health & fitness habits, which eventually leads me down the path of explaining that I never used to be as fit as I am now. In fact, I regularly lived a routine that involved almost never exercising, and eating an entire box of mac & cheese or a package of Oreos in one sitting on a more regular basis than is ever socially acceptable. Unfortunately most people don’t know or perhaps wouldn’t guess that full back story, so I decided it might be worth my time to write it down in case it might help anyone out there struggling with some of the same things that I did/am.
So, here’s my story. A few years ago, I was working a job that I didn’t really like, with a long commute and not so great work environment. I often worked long hours in addition to the commute, so by the time I would make it home at night I would find myself with little energy to make dinner at all, nevermind something healthy. I often would stop and pick up fast food on the way home, or just buy unhealthy “quick” foods from the grocery store. Because I was unhappy, I gained weight, and because I gained weight, I was depressed, and I became stuck in this spiral. Back in 2015, a member of my family was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, which we later learned was more prevalent in our family history than we had initially realized, because nobody ever talked about it. It was after this realization that I started to wake up to the reality that would be my life years from now if I didn’t get my act in gear–I was at risk of being diagnosed myself, and I wasn’t doing any favors treating my body so poorly. I may as well have been racing to that inevitability living my current lifestyle.
So I decided to get my life together. In October of 2015, I looked at photos of myself with my dad on our trip to the Texas State Fair, and I had a moment of clarity where I realized how much weight I had really gained–I could see it in my face, my clothes–everything. I had pretty much stopped getting on the scale because it was creeping up around 200 and I couldn’t mentally handle that I was responsible for this number. It had crept up on me–how did this happen? And how long and painful would the journey be to get back down to where I was comfortable with myself and healthy again?
So I started small (which by the way, is the only way TO start). I found allies–other people around me trying to practice healthy habits as well, and I used them as my inspiration and support system. I spoke the words aloud to the people in my life–I was going to work really hard on losing weight, that this was important to me, that I needed their support to stay accountable. I saved up a little bit of money so I could go get some workout gear, and I started looking around to figure out what exercise I could do that wasn’t ridiculously intimidating and that I would be able to commit to at least 3 days a week. I started small with baby steps, because everything I had read told me not to set lofty goals, and it was right. When you set a small goal (drink enough water every day) and you accomplish that goal, you build your confidence to take on bigger and bigger goals until you’re at, and even past, the finish line you originally set for yourself. Below I’ve compiled a list of the things that were helpful to me in successfully accomplishing my goals. Overall, I lost over 50 pounds in my journey and three years later I’m still working on staying healthy in body and mind.
1. Find your exercise.
This one is HUGE, or at least it was for me. This is the first step towards making any meaningful changes in your life, because just changing your diet, even if it’s a healthy one, will not make you a healthy person–you have to exercise to stay in good health. ANd it doesn’t have to be awful or unenjoyable, it can be fun and rewarding. This one took a while for me. I tried doing routines at my apartment gym, I tried videos at home, I tried a bootcamp, yoga, zumba, softball, everything. Finally, a coworker invited me to a class at OrangeTheory Fitness, and I was hooked and have been ever since. I enjoyed the variety of every workout, and the mixture of cardio, weight lifting, body weight movements, and more. I also like that it tailors to lazy people like me who don’t have the time/energy to create all of my own workout routines. Once I figured out that all I had to do was show up in gear and someone else would walk me through a different workout step by step every day, I knew this would be the right fit for me. It didn’t happen overnight–I had to find a lot of things that I didn’t like first. This is okay, and it’s important. If you don’t love running, don’t force yourself to go run a 5k every day because that’s what you think is good for you. You’ll end up have a negative relationship with exercise, which isn’t necessary. Try some different things, and figure out what works best for you in ability, timing, etc. Exercise should be an enjoyable time where you can challenge your body and mind and improve yourself every day. For me, it’s even meditative–it’s where I tackle my hardest challenge at the beginning of the day to remind myself that I’m capable of anything.
2. Use a Food Tracker (At Least in the Beginning)
This step was important for me at the beginning, and I think it is for most people. I don’t have a ton of patience for tracking things like this, so it was definitely a challenge for me at the start, but it served a specific purpose–to be abundantly aware of what I was putting into my mouth on a regular basis. I used it when I first started my journey to commit to being better for about two months. This helped me figure out what I was eating that I thought was “healthy” that really wasn’t, and to get a good baseline and some encouragement on what effects my changes would have on my weight/shape overall. MyFitnessPal, often referred to as MFP, is a great one because it can allow you to track macros and other things as well (these are helpful if you’re working with a nutritionist, which I currently am). You can share meals, so if you eat at a friend’s or want to share a recipe with your spouse/significant other to log to stay accountable, that’s totally possible. It also allows some visibility so your friends can cheer you on. This tool was really helpful for me starting out, and I still default back to it during times of stress/struggle so I don’t let myself get away with sneaking in too many “bad” foods.
3. Choose your tool set.
This can also be an important one, although not necessary at the outset. If you’re interested in something like a Fitbit or an Apple Watch (I personally currently am using a Fitbit Alta and have been using Fitbit for years now), and you can fit this in your budget, it can be a great tool to assist you in your goals and help you have more insight into your daily habits (such as how much you’re walking daily, sleeping, exercising, water consumption, etc.). That being said, this can be helpful, but it is not necessary for you to get started on your journey. There are plenty of free mobile apps and tools out there, you don’t need fancy gadgets at all to get started. These tools can help motivate you, and provide data points, but don’t let a $100+ purchase keep you from getting started. (Maybe use a goal to help you reach the purchase of one as a goal! For example, if you hit your goal of losing 10 pounds, you’ll reward yourself with a new Fitbit or something along those lines). Other tools, such as smart scales, can also greatly help in this endeavor, but again are not necessary. They’re just one more thing that can help along the way.
4. You Are Not A Number (But Numbers Can Be Your Friend)
The saddest, scariest thing for me when I got started on this path was having my moment of truth and stepping on the scale and taking my body size measurements to create my baseline. When I weighed myself (around 200lbs), I was avoiding the scale because I felt so much shame and disappointment with myself and how I had ended up there. But I knew that in order to make any progress, that I had to be honest with myself and get the data so I could know if I was moving forward. It was tough, but I created a basic chart in Excel, printed it off and taped it to my wall. Once a month, I would step on the scale for my official weigh in, followed by body weight measurements. Why is this important? Well, for starters, it’s very encouraging when you do know that you’ve got actual pounds to lose. It’s helpful to have some sort of way to measure your progress, which is the first reason why it’s important. Secondly, on months where you’ve been working hard, your number on the scale might stay the same, or even go up, which can be frustrating. But, when you’re also taking your measurements (arms, legs, waist, chest, etc.) you’ll have a more accurate/real way to see if you’re losing inches and progress. Not sure where to start? The internet is a magical place with tons of resources, or you can grab a friend once a month to assist.
5. KISS (Keep Is Simple, Stupid)
This one is always hard at first. When you’re goal setting, it’s easy to go overboard with things and try to go nuts and do “all the things.” You go buy the gear, you fill your fridge with healthy food, download new workout videos, buy yourself a fancy new water bottle, and by Friday of your first week your on the couch eating a bag of Doritos and feeling bad about your newfound failure. It’s really easy to fall into this trap–trust me, I’ve done it myself multiple times. We all have the best of intentions, but when the bar is set too high, it’s just not attainable. And rightfully so; we usually make it so hard on ourself right out of the gate. Instead of making this mistake, I propose the complete opposite approach. Start incredibly small, and build on that success. Try just packing your own lunch and snacks for a week. Or to eat a healthy breakfast every day. Or to go a week without having soda, or maybe limiting your booze. Set one goal to start, and keep track of it. Once you hit it, you can continue to build on that success.
One of the biggest mistakes I see all the time is people going overboard with food. One hack I realized was a big part of my success was to simplify one meal every day. I chose a healthy breakfast (some greek yogurt with Kind granola, some fresh fruit, and a hard boiled egg or two) every morning and ate that every single day. I liked it, and it was easy/low cost for me to maintain. This took the effort/thought out of one meal a day for me, and it made sure I got my protein in after my morning workout. That meant if I could find a few simple recipes to keep in rotation for lunches/dinners, I’d be set–and that’s what I did. I didn’t do any crazy diets (sorry for anyone here hoping I have the tell-all secret, I don’t–there are no secrets except hard work and dedication and persisting through your own failures). I made small changes, like drinking less alcohol (and being more mindful when I did drink), not eating lots of starches/carbs in the evenings, eating less processed foods and sugars, and trying to eat for my workouts. Nothing revolutionary, but it worked for me when I kept it simple versus trying weird diet plans or trying to cook a different recipe every single night.
6. Don’t Put Yourself in Compromising Situations
This one is hard in practice, but really one of the easiest hacks. If you know you’re susceptible to peer pressure or cave in certain environments, try to avoid them. Maybe skip out on happy hour every now and then if you simply can’t resist the urge to have a few brews and you know it’ll set you back. Don’t buy ice cream or cookies if you know that you don’t have the ability to only consume it sparingly in small reasonable portions (this is me–I am NOT allowed to have ice cream or Oreos or anything in my apartment…I simply do not have the self control for them. I can have them in moderation outside of my apartment, but I won’t buy them myself). Communicate with the people you’re around so they won’t hassle you about eating healthy or not having a slice of cake on your coworker’s birthday. As they say, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail, and that’s never more true than on the journey to better your health.
7. Drink Lots of Water
Again–this one seems common sense and easy, but it bears pointing out/repeating. Feel free to Google for all of the research, but this will prove to help your sleep, your skin, your digestive system, your workouts–everything. You will be more full and your body will work better if you give it what it needs. A basic rule of thumb is to divide your weight in two, and that number in ounces is at least how much you should be drinking every day. Crushing it at the gym? Hot weather? You’ll probably need a bit more.
8. Get Plenty of Sleep
Again, the importance of this cannot be understated. Without enough sleep, we’re more likely to make other poor decisions about our health. Your workouts will suffer, and so will your focus and the motivation to put in the work and effort needed to succeed in doing tasks like food prep on the weekends, working out, and more.
9. Listen to Your Body
Another easy trap to fall into when you begin is to go nuts with your efforts–to be perfect at everything, and work out all the time. I do work out a lot myself, but it took me at least a year of doing it to learn how to listen to my body. There’s a difference between committing to going to the gym a certain number of days a week, and knowing when to give yourself a break. If you normally go 6 days a week, but your 5th that week was incredibly hard and you’re feeling worn down, it’s okay to listen to your body and take a rest day–that doesn’t mean you failed or didn’t hit your goal. You have to stay in tune with what you’re going through during this process, and pay attention to your body. If you overdo it, in either diet or exercise, you can hurt yourself and even possibly cause irreparable damage.
10. Be Kind To Yourself
This, above all else. You HAVE to be kind to yourself and willing to accept failure. The sooner you can do that, the sooner you can actually succeed (I know, it’s counter-intuitive). You will have bad days, and your best laid plans and intentions will fall apart some weeks. You might have a stressful day/week at work and get less sleep and eat crappy. You might injure yourself and not be able to work out. That’s okay. The sooner you can learn to forgive yourself and zoom out to look at the bigger picture and not lose sight of your goals, the sooner you’ll be back on track. This one is really, really hard but I can’t stress how important it is. If you lose 10 pounds, and then have a bad weekend and gain a few back because you’re full and bloated on fried food and beer, you can’t throw in the towel and tell yourself “What’s the point? I’ll just eat lousy now because I lost all my progress anyways.” Instead, you must remind yourself of the progress that you made and that the current state is just temporary. Once you get back on track, you can re-make that progress, because you already have proof it’s possible having done it before.
As I mentioned, literally none of these tips/conclusion are revolutionary. But they are some of the things that helped me in my journey to be a healthier person. My lowest weight to date saw me 55 pounds lighter than I was when I started–less than I weighed in college! I had a rough goal of what I had wanted to hit, and I accomplished it. It doesn’t end there though–I still work out and am always looking for new resources and suggestions on how to stay healthy, as evidenced by my recent partnering up with a nutritionist to review and assess some new goals. It’s a life-long journey, I just want to help anyone I know in any way I can, even if it’s just a small start like this.