I’m often asked how I lost so much weight, but I don’t think many people are satisfied with my answer.
“I changed my lifestyle,” I say, as they look at me with a blank expression.
Weight gain was a side effect of the lifestyle that I lived for most of my twenties. Overeating, excessive alcohol consumption, little to no physical activity other than occasional trysts at the gym, and constant escapism through movies, television, books, and video games. I changed how I lived–adopting a lifestyle based around endurance sports and a healthy diet–and voilà…the weight disappeared.
But they’re not looking for that. What they want, rather, is some secret or life hack. They want the One True Diet or a trick that will get the job done in a few months. Many people are totally fine with who they are and what they do–they just want to look better while doing it. The idea of altering their lifestyle seems a bit extreme.
I get it though, because that’s how I used to be. I knew I had the willpower to forcibly endure a few months of hardship or deprivation, and I thought that was the key to losing weight. I once watched Fat, Sick, & Nearly Dead, immediately rushed out to purchase a $150 Breville juicer, and spent a month living off of fruit and vegetable juice. I lost some weight, became excited, and eagerly told everyone the Good News. I even convinced friends to give it a try. Of course I probably looked ridiculous preaching about health and wellness given that I was overweight and obviously unhealthy, but thought I’d found The Answer. I truly believed that weight loss was about finding the right hack or trick. Otherwise, it seemed that the only option was years of boring salads with long hours on treadmills.
And I think that’s how many people see it.
A few weeks ago, a person I know–let’s call her Jane–waited two hours at a Christmas party before suddenly approaching the topic. “What exactly did you do to lose so much weight?” she asked. “You look great.” Like many folks in her late twenties, she’s begun to put on some extra pounds. She’s busy, works a hectic schedule, and has a new child to take care of. She’s hardly the first one to go through this, nor will she be the last. And don’t interpret my comments as if I’m casting judgment, because I’m not. Jane’s a great person who I both like and respect.
But what caught my attention was the look on her face. The emotion, curiosity, and intrigue behind it…I imagine that’s how I looked when I talked to people years ago, wondering how in the hell they managed to get lean and fit. It’s like I was in possession of a secret or special life hack, and she wanted to know if I’d reveal it.
I imagine my answer was a disappointment, but it’s the honest truth. If you want to lose weight, then change your lifestyle. It’s a simple solution that’s, unfortunately, very difficult to understand.
I really admire the ultrarunner, David Clark. Years ago, caught in the grips of alcoholism and an unhealthy lifestyle, David ballooned to three-hundred and twenty pounds. But just like my situation, his weight was symptomatic of deeper problems. And the solution was a complete and total change in lifestyle. In his case, this meant becoming a runner and redesigning his diet.
As he describes in his memoir, Out There: A Story of Ultra Recovery:
I quickly discarded the old picture of me and replaced it with a new one. Well, that isn’t exactly right; I decided not to only replace the picture, but actually become a new person instantly. I was no longer thinking of how it would feel to be living the life I wanted, I was behaving as if I was already there. I started to research marathon distance events and training, and I learned everything I could on the subject of running. I started to think of myself as a runner. I started to dress like and talk like a runner. Fuck everyone if they thought I looked ridiculous walking around in track pants and running shoes at 320 pounds. I didn’t care what they said. I used to worry about what others thought and it got me drunk. Now I was doing something for me, to make me a better person, father, and son. So every time I ate, or planned my day, or even sat on the couch, I imagined myself as an Olympic marathoner. I wasn’t “relaxing”, I was recovering from training. I didn’t “eat”, I fueled my body for tough workouts. All of my thoughts and actions were filtered through my new lens.
Of course most people’s situations probably aren’t as extreme as that. Maybe they’re thirty, forty, or fifty pounds overweight. They’ve bought new clothes because the old ones no longer fit. They look in the mirror and don’t like this, but they think they’re fine because they get up, go to work, and make a good living. They’re responsible adults living the American Dream. They’ve earned the right to come home, crack open a beer, pop the cork on a wine bottle, and fire up the grill. Watching “the game” on a massive television–and consuming a few thousand calories in the process–is a reward for working hard and succeeding. Besides, it’s easy to make excuses for one’s health when you’re busy doing more important things, right?
As David said on Rich Roll’s podcast:
I used to have this concept of like, “well yeah, I’m overweight, and yeah I drink too much, but other than that, I got life figured out.”
That’s why this is so difficult. It’s hard to look inward and understand that the problem is the way we choose to live our lives. Losing weight is simple. Learning to live in a way that doesn’t cause weight gain? That’s where it gets tricky. That means we have to question fundamental assumptions about who we are and how we spend your time.
And it’s not that folks don’t want to lose the weight. They really do. Just like I did for all those years. But I also wanted to play Call of Duty all night, order from Domino’s instead of taking the time to cook my own food, get drunk and binge-watch Battlestar Galactica, or–at a later point–constantly go to Buffalo Wild Wings and the downtown bars with friends. The weight was a nagging, persistent issue, but I didn’t want to address it as much as I wanted to do those other things.
If everything had worked out after I left Teach For America, I really don’t know if I’d have been able to do what I did. I spent years identifying as the “smart guy”, taking pride in being “better” than those around me and having it all “figured out”. To suddenly find myself trapped in a shitty situation, feeling like I’d fallen into a hole and couldn’t pull myself out, well, it was humbling. It forced me examine who I was, ask difficult questions, and realize that maybe, just maybe, I was the problem. Maybe I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was. After all, I’d obviously decided that becoming fat and sedentary was a perfectly rational thing to do.
If I’d walked into a solid career, purchased a house, started saving for retirement, and occasionally boasted on Facebook about an expensive purchase, it would have been easy to avoid introspection. How can I be the problem when I’m doing so well in life, right? Becoming a person who sits around on his ass and doesn’t really do anything other than go to work–I may have ignored that. Or I’d have justified it by saying that my situation isn’t really that bad. After all, I’m only wearing extra large clothing and purchasing non-prescription antacids. It’s not like I have type 2 diabetes and multiple X’s next to the L on my shirt tags. I probably would have looked down on the guy hauling a $3,000 bicycle on the back of a ten-year-old car, thinking that he’s a failure who just doesn’t get it.
But I’m grateful that didn’t happen. I’m glad I failed, because it allowed me to reach a point where I was just done with everything. I was tired of Netflix, tired of the video games, and tired of needing a bottle of alcohol to get through the day. I was tired of glancing at the mirror and witnessing the two-hundred and forty pound manifestation of my failures staring back. I wasn’t that person, and he wasn’t me. And yet that’s exactly who I’d become. Maybe I can’t fix the job situation right away, I realized, but I can fix me.
I didn’t know what I was doing. Not a clue. But that never stops a determined person who desires change more than anything. I figured it out along the way. I stepped out into the unknown armed only with the knowledge that somehow, some way, I was going to fix this problem once and for all. But that wasn’t possible until the present had become so fundamentally unacceptable that change was the only option.
And then it was easy. Once you get past the mental roadblock, the rest is a piece of cake. The weight just went away once I began living differently.
David Clark had a similar experience:
Instinctively, I could feel a change in the power behind what I was doing in my life now. There was a weight and a depth to it. I felt like I had a damn good chance at getting through to the other side. I felt as if there was an ease to the process that was absent in my past attempts at losing weight or quitting drinking. It felt easy. Now all I could think of was how to keep it going.
It occurred to me many years later what happened. I saw from the distance so clearly why I was able to so quickly drop the weight of all my past failures and never look back–I was simply being me. Certainly not the old me that struggled so many times and failed at losing weight, but the “new me” I wanted to create. No struggle, no will power needed. I was being the new person I created in my mind. Once I changed the vision of who I really was, my behaviors changed automatically.
And that’s just it. Sustainable change happens when you become the person who does the things you want to do–whether that’s running Badwater 135 like David Clark, or just going for daily walks and eating a healthy diet. No tips, tricks, or life hacks will get you there. There are no shortcuts.
But that’s not what people sign up for when they say they’re ready to lose weight. They don’t want to change themselves–just the number on the scale. They’re totally fine with everything else. The extra pounds are like an unwelcome illness that just showed up one day, and it needs treated with a few months of dieting.
That’s why, when people ask me about losing weight, what I really want to say is this: you can change, but you probably won’t.