The way to solve the problem you see in life is to live in a way that will make what is problematic disappear.
That was me, six years ago. The big guy on the left. I never got as large as the folks you see on Dr. Oz and The Biggest Loser, but I was headed down that path.
I reached two-hundred and forty pounds at my heaviest–eighty more than I currently weigh. I wore size 42 pants, downed Nexium like M&M’s, and I convinced myself that size XL shirts were acceptable because hey, at least I’m not wearing XXL. When I looked in the mirror, I knew deep down that women weren’t attracted to the guy staring back–or at least not the ones I was attracted to. So I concocted a fantasy-land in which they were the problem and I was perfectly fine. It sounds silly, of course, but humans are extraordinarily susceptible to delusion. I was no exception.
So when I say I know a little bit about weight loss, I’m speaking from experience. I struggled with it for most of my twenties. I also learned that the conventional thinking about weight loss is bullshit.
When people want to lose weight, they’re often told to go on a diet or start exercising. Usually both. But there’s a problem with that approach: it doesn’t address the real problem. It’s not that diets and exercise are inherently ineffective tools. Nearly every diet, including the ones from books about bulletproof-this and low-carb-that, will work if you actually follow them. And although exercise is not a weight management tool, it can still help.
But what is weight gain, really? It’s a side effect of the way that certain people live their lives. Temporary strategies like diets and twelve-week bootcamps only mitigate the damage. They don’t fix the problem, and they don’t stop it from coming back. Real, sustained change happens when you change your lifestyle. As Wittgenstein wrote, “the way to solve the problem you see in life is to live in a way that will make what is problematic disappear”.
But people don’t want to change. I know I didn’t. I just wanted to continue doing what I did but look good while doing it. I wanted to binge on Netflix, stuff my face at Buffalo Wild Wings, play video games, and drink myself into a stupor. I was fine with all that; I just wanted to see a thinner, fit person looking back in the mirror.
So when I heard about fad diets like juicing, I was sold. You mean to tell me that all I have to do is drink this shit for two months, and I’ll lose a ton of weight? Sign me up! And it worked, actually. I did lose a lot of weight. But four or five months later, I put it back on. I even lost some weight with one and two-month trysts at the gym. Thirty, forty minutes on the elliptical machine a few evenings a week. An hour on the stationary bike. But I quickly grew bored and stopped going. Like many folks, a rollercoaster of weight loss and weight gain was my reality.
But I eventually reached a fork in the road. When I returned to Des Moines after a rough patch in my life, I decided that enough was enough. Everything needed to change. I wanted to live a life that I could be proud of.
I decided to put myself out there and try new things. I borrowed a bike from a guy who works for my father and joined them on a twenty-mile ride, and I struggled to keep up since I was embarrassingly out of shape. But I was hooked. Cycling was fun, and I wanted to do it. Winter was coming, however, so I decided I’d buy a road bike in the spring.
I was still overweight though, and cyclists aren’t overweight. That had to change before April and May. So I stuck with a diet and saw it through until the end. I downloaded MyFitnessPal and learned how to count calories. I researched nutrition. I monitored everything I put in my mouth and learned to cook quick, healthy meals. I forced myself to try different food even if I believed I wouldn’t like it. It took multiple months and wasn’t easy, but it made a difference.
And once I purchased my first road bike, I was on it for four, five, and sometimes six nights a week. I struggled with twenty miles at first, but I was soon riding for fifty or more. I even adjusted my diet to become a better cyclist. I got faster, started sprinting up hills, and researched other exercises that would make be a stronger cyclist.
After a while, I began to notice something: all of the changes I’d made, all of the self-improvements I’d pursued, they were now integrated into my life. I’d become a different person. I didn’t exercise because I wanted to lose weight; I ran, swam, and cycled because it’s what I wanted to do. Instead of coming home from work and wanting to stuff my face and watch Netflix, I rushed to the trails. I woke up early and swam laps at the gym before work. I even stopped playing video games.
And the weight didn’t come back. It never has. Other than minor fluctuations around the holidays, my lifestyle doesn’t put me at risk of weight gain. I don’t even bother looking at a scale.
So what’s a person to do?
That’s for each individual to decide. There’s no universal answer, no One True Lifestyle. And it’s not as simple as just waking up and saying “today I’m going to adopt a different lifestyle”. These things take time. They require breaking habits and establishing new ones, and sometimes folks need to make mistakes before they learn what works.
But there are actionable steps that, based upon my experience, can help a person move in the right direction.
- Change your diet. Weight management begins and ends with what you put into your mouth. End of story. It’s certainly why I got fat. I ate too much, drank too much, and consumed unhealthy, high-calorie food. But diet doesn’t have to be complicated or frustrating. As Dr. Yoni Freedhoff says, the best diet is the one about which you can say “I’d feel comfortable eating like this for the rest of my life”. And although folks tend to cluster in certain camps when it comes to the question of what to eat, don’t let that confuse you. As Michael Pollen says: eat food, not too much, and mostly plants. This essay, which he wrote for the New York Times, offers excellent advice about nutrition. I also recommend the guidelines from Harvard Medical School.
- Learn to count calories. You don’t have to track what you eat forever, but a few months of meticulous monitoring will help establish good habits. Use a program like MyFitnessPal to calculate how much you should eat, and stick to it religiously. Before long, you’ll be able to keep a running total in your head throughout the day. You’ll also identify areas in which you’re consuming more calories than necessary.
- Get active. Although exercise is not a weight loss tool, it’s perhaps the single best thing a person can do for their physical and mental health. When I’m out running for miles on a beautiful trail, it’s like taking a happy pill. It’s the single most enjoyable part of my day. But that’s the key: you have to enjoy what you do. Much of what people consider exercise is nothing more than boring, repetitive drudgery. That’s why many folks jam headphones in their ears–they want to forget what they’re doing. But if you’re having fun, then you don’t need to force yourself to exercise. You’ll do it because you want to.
- Try new activities. Rent a bicycle and hit the local trails. Get a day pass at an indoor rock climbing facility and rent their equipment. Join a “couch to 5k” program and see it through. Give kayaking a try and enjoy listening to the sounds of nature around you, or get some friends together and go hiking. Buy a month of instruction from a local yoga teacher. Whatever you do, just put yourself out there and try new things. You may end up discovering a new passion.
- Cut back on the entertainment and vices. Video games, movies, and television will always be there. The bars won’t go away, and Jack Daniels won’t stop selling whiskey. All of that stuff can wait. Use your time wisely and don’t waste it on bullshit.
But take it slow, and don’t worry if change doesn’t happen immediately. It’s a continual process, and you may struggle along the way and make mistakes. It’s not always simple or easy. And you don’t have to take it to extremes and become a badass ultramarathoner–although that’s awesome if you do. Living a healthy lifestyle can be as simple as eating nutritious meals and going for long, casual walks every evening. Many folks do exactly that.
But it works. And now that I think about it, I don’t remember the last time I purchased a box of Nexium. Acid reflux doesn’t seem to come around these days.