A no-nonsense testimony
I’ll be the first one to admit that I don’t have any right to talk about health, nutrition, exercise and all that stuff. I live a sedentary lifestyle, my eating habits are downright dangerous, I don’t like exercise and I don’t have any training -formal or otherwise- in any of those fields.
On the other hand, I managed to lose twenty-five pounds in five months and more or less maintain the resulting weight for six more sedentary winter months. If it can work for me, it might work for you. (Though the program described below if optimized for freakishly obsessive geeks like me.)
If nothing else, heck, you’re not paying anything to read this essay.
Oh yes, an important note: Taking the following as gospel and following it to the letter may kill you. I can’t see how, but one can’t be too careful concerning health matters. You’ve heard it before, but I’ll repeat it again for good measure: any drastic weight-loss program should be undertaken in consultation with a health professional.
1. What, Me Fat?
It’s not as if I woke up one morning and suddenly realized I was overweight. It’s something that gradually crept up on me through tighter pants, an expanding gut and looser rolls of flesh.
I used to be painfully thin through most of grade school and high school. At 5’10" / 155 pounds with an average bone structure, I looked and acted like your typical scrawny computer geek.
Things got worse though college, as my weight gradually creeped up around 190 pounds. I didn’t look fat (it was evenly distributed), but suddenly, pants didn’t fit and I was getting increasingly concerned at how much flesh I was able to grasp around my midriff.
If you want to blame one specific event as the genesis of my weight-loss effort, you can point to a meeting with equally-sedentary friends: All in their mid-twenties, but looking like stuffed caricatures of themselves three years before. Yikes! Was that where I was headed?
2. The Accidental Hiker
I never consciously set out to lose weight. I’d made half-hearted attempts at dieting and exercising before, but nothing really worked. I’d even come to believe that 190-195 pounds was my "natural" weight and that nothing could be done to modify that.
What I did set out to do, however, was to train myself to walk ridiculously long distances. I wanted to be able to say to myself that, at least once, I would walk from my work to my house, nearly forty kilometres away.
An explanation is in order; to get from West-Rockland (where I live) to Downtown Ottawa (where I work), my usual routine is to drive 20 kilometres to the Orleans bus station and then take the bus for the 20 remaining kilometres. If I split up the trip in two walks, it would be a relatively simple matter to walk from Ottawa to Orleans and, another day, walk from Orleans to Rockland hence being able to say that I’ve walked every step of the way.
It was an obsessive goal. But as you can see from this web site, obsession is one of my main drivers.
Naturally, you can’t just wake up one day and walk 15+ kilometres, especially when you haven’t done any serious physical exercise in years. So I started modestly. One week after another, I’d set out from work to a destination 8, 10, 12 kilometres away. It usually fit in my movie-going schedule. I discovered areas of Ottawa I didn’t know very well. It impressed the chicks at the office.
Worst of all; I discovered that I actually liked walking for hours at a time. It fit my passive-aggressive personality. It wasn’t a high-impact physical activity. It was actually useful in that it strengthened my knowledge of the city. It wasn’t a meaningless physical effort; it could take me places I wanted to go. Before long, I was setting ridiculously high objectives for myself and walking until the sunset.
As I said, I never set out to lose weight. Before long, though, my leg muscle mass defined itself (that took roughly three months) and my body started looking elsewhere for energy. Suddenly, I started losing five pounds every three weeks. I had to pin together my pants to prevent them from falling down. People (even other guys!) started commenting on how much weight I’d lost.
Walking is insidiously effective; once you’ve trained your feet to tolerate long distances, you can hit a point where you can walk as far as you can without ever feeling out of breath. While you eventually wind yourself down with running or jogging, walking can be sustained for hours at a time. The first two hours aren’t all that effective, but watch out for anything beyond that; you’ll lose weight without even noticing it.
I certainly wasn’t expecting the sheer addictive nature of walking. It got to a point that, if I missed out on a week’s walk, I’d feel guilty and unfulfilled. I started looking forward to every walk with something approaching endorphin-fueled glee.
3. Walking Isn’t Enough
Dieting is actually very simple. You can reduce it to a simple physical equation: (Energy absorbed) – (Energy consumed) = (Energy kept)
In short, and I’m not sure how much simpler I can make it, if you consume (exercise) more than you absorb (eat), you will not keep your energy and, hey, you’ll start losing it!
That’s why exercising must go hand-in-hand with at least an effort to diet properly. By "diet", keep in mind that I’m not suggesting "starvation". In fact, I think that what I’m suggesting is that "watching what you eat" isn’t nearly as important at "watching when you eat"
(There are thousands of diet books out there. Most of them are probably effective. As for me, though, I can’t be bothered to stick to another person’s recommendations. Caveat reader.)
What I did was to crack down on breakfasts, lunches and snacks.
Snacks were the hardest: No snacks. If I didn’t eat at regular meals, then I couldn’t eat between meals. Not buying snacks worked wonders for that resolution at home.
Breakfast were comparatively easy; if you’re like me, breakfasts are an annoyance, especially when confronted at 6:20 in a half-asleep mode. What I did was to turn breakfast into a strictly mechanical step with rigidly-defined food. (In my case; a banana and a croissant. Yours may vary.) If you can get a strong fix on your breakfast (without skipping it!), that’s one aspect that you can control easily.
Weekday lunches are also relatively easy to fix if you brown-bag them from home. I negotiated myself down from two sandwiches, a cookie, soft drink and a few apples to a single sandwich and apples. (Again; that’s for me; find something that’ll work for you. The key element, though, is consistency in order to transform lunch from food to fuel.)
Dinner was left untouched. In fact, Dinner took another dimension given that it was the only meal of the day where I could let myself loose. One restriction, though; after dinner, no snacks! (This is easier to enforce than you think; simply brush your teeth after dinner. The taste of the toothpast wil lquickly disabuse you of any ideas about out-of-school snacking.)
The above cannot be done overnight; it has to be gradually implemented until it seems almost natural. Eventually, you’ll notice something wonderful; you won’t want to eat as much. Whereas two hamburgers were de rigueur, you’ll think that one will be enough. Your second plate at the all-you-can-eat buffet will become an ill-inducing indulgence. You can call it "stomach-shrinkage" if you want, but the truth is that as you eat less, you want to eat less.
(Warning! Holidays mess up with this condition in a major way.)
There is, incidentally, no need to be a constant Nazi abo
ut this dieting regime; if friends pop up at your place for an evening card game, don’t be a spaz and eat chips with them; it’s not as if you’ll never be able to exercise and diet again!
Like most dieting handbooks out there, I’ll argue that the point of watching when/what you eat isn’t to starve you on a semi-consistent fashion; it’s to limit your own worst excesses, and if not, to make you realize that you are indulging.
Losing weight is, despite its obvious physical component, mostly a mental endeavour; you mind is your own best weapon against being overweight. How important can it be? Read the next section.
4. The Last Five Pounds
I started my walking program in late April 2001. Though it took a while to build up muscle mass and start to lose some flab, by late September, I was down to 170 pounds. all the way from 190-195. As the days were running shorter, I realized that the walking season was nearing its ends and that I had probably found a happy weight compromise. In any case, I wasn’t seeing myself go much under 170 pounds for the rest of 2001.
Then stuff happened.
It’s hard to reduce complex emotional trauma to a few words. But even if "getting dumped" is both an over-dramatization and an over-simplification, the expression will do a fine job at representing what happened to me at that time.
So I got dumped.
Severe emotional trauma will do different things to different people. In my case, it completely made me lose interest in both sleeping and eating for a period of a few days.
By the time my neurochemical balance came back up to its usual levels, I had lost five pounds in roughly as many days.
I don’t bring this up merely for sympathy points. Nor do I point at this as a particularly effective way to lose a lot of weight quickly. ("Dr Quackzo’s Magical Diet, Step Three: Suffer severe emotional trauma.") I use this as an illustration of a deeper truth underlying everyone’s relationship with food.
What is food to you? Friend, nutrient, comfort, fuel or pleasure? Tests of characters like the one above can be revealing: Some people, when confronted with difficult situations, will eat until they’re sick and then eat some more. What I discovered, in my case, is that I don’t have that kind of relationship with food. It was as if the very desire to eat had been cleanly turned off. (Now imagine the money I could make synthesizing a pill that did that!)
All the more reason not to depend on severe emotional trauma to lose weight; you might find yourself coming back from the supermarket with four pails of chocolate ice cream wondering why this isn’t for you.
In the meantime, start thinking about your attitude toward food the next time you’re standing in line at the checkout lane. I’ll argue that to be successful in any long-term weight loss effort, you must learn to consider food as fuel, not friend.
5. Bruised, Battered, Humbled –But Thinner!
And so October 2001 rolled on, bringing this tale to a happy ending.
I had a highly rewarding reunion with friends I hadn’t seen in months: several of them were stunned by how thin I now looked.
I walked from Ottawa to Orleans. Four times.
I walked from Orleans to Rockland once, fulfilling my own goal.
Winter came and went.
As of April 2002, I managed to keep my weight down to around 170 pounds through the whole sedentary winter, even with a particularly festive holiday season.
Dieting revealed itself to be a new and valuable common topic of discussion with girls.
I started walking again as soon as the snow cleared.
My "non-nonsense" dieting regime continues, with occasional lapses.
I’m starting to wonder how low I can reasonably go this summer, and if it’s possible to walk straight from Ottawa to Rockland.
I’ll keep you updated.
Two interesting documents might be of further help and inspiration:
- The Hacker’s Diet, pointed out to me by a friend after I’d written this article, contains rigorous, non-nonsense weight loss advice that is actually based (gasp) on hard scientific data. It’s a joy to read and a wonder to behold. Essentially, it re-states all of the above, and much much more. I should probably take down this article now that I know that The Hacker’s Diet exists. I can’t recommend it enough.
- Why walk?: A short motivational article from the "Reebok University". Not much content, but it’s worth the quick read.