Saturday, January 26, 2013

Metapost: Musings on weight loss and why it doesn't matter


We interrupt your regularly scheduled Eye Candy: Store Inspiration post to go way off-topic and talk about weight loss. I've gotten way more emails, twitter DMs and Facebook messages about sharing how I did it than I expected it, so despite my reservations I've put together a post talking about it.



This post is just my experiences and shouldn't be taken as any kind of professional advice. If you want to start an exercise/weight loss regimen the best place to start is with a doctor's visit to evaluate your current health. I'm midstream in my work right now; I'm happy where I'm at but would ideally like to lose another 10-15 lbs. And as I've mentioned it's very possible I'll end up going the other way. Hopefully not but one never knows.

I've had periods of my life both thin and overweight. As a kid I was pretty pudgy until high school when regular exercise, sports and a healthy lifestyle helped lose the baby weight. In college I stayed slim til my last year when stress helped the scale tip. In my 20s I was mostly average until about 3 years ago when I let my last job push me into stress eating mixed with a sedentary lifestyle. A true formula for disaster.

Although I'd been thinking about weight loss for a few years, I didn't really get serious about it until May of 2012. I felt like my body was starting to get out of control. I would drop 10 lbs and then gain it all back. I'd be so not hungry and then insatiable. I was counting calories and miserable or gorging and miserable. Basically I was going about it all wrong. I was still in the normal BMI for my height but the tummy and hips area were showing signs of the bad fat that signals health issues.

My story is not normal because I had all the time in the world to work on my body -- I took time off from my job and had taken on some freelance work that was much less time-demanding. I was still getting paid from my old job plus freelance work and had health insurance so the consequences were minor to my lifestyle. I don't have kids and had a supportive boyfriend. All I needed was the desire to change and I finally had it!


STEP 1: GET YOUR HEAD ON STRAIGHT
This is the hardest step though it sounds deceptively simple. You may feel very motivated, you might have support all around you, maybe you've got a gym membership and a personal trainer. But I promise you none of that matters if your mind isn't healthy. Oh sure you might lose some weight but it will come back if your head's not on straight.

The most important facet to having your head on straight is finding reasons to lose the weight for yourself. Selfish? No. It's the difference between owning the issue and the victim mentality. When you lose the weight for your own reasons it's much more likely to stay off. Failing someone else sucks but failing yourself is the worst. This ties in to self-esteem a lot and if you're at a low point it's going to make it that much harder to lose the weight. You have to like yourself, you have to want to make yourself better and you have to be able to forgive yourself for whatever got you here in the first place.

You have to be willing to acknowledge that some kind of mental issue got you here. If you can't face that issue you're not ready to lose weight. You'll try, you'll fail, you'll feel worse and it will be a self-perpetuating cycle of devastation. We've all got shit. Skinny people, average people, fat people, every single one of us. Don't beat yourself up over it. Don't let anyone else beat you up over it. Figure out what the underlying issue is, name it, motivate yourself to overcome it and then you're ready to start moving on. It's never that simple of course but those are the steps.

Maybe the trigger to help you start working on weight loss comes from outside but remember to turn it back into self-motivation. You're not losing weight so your husband will find you sexier, you're losing weight because you want to feel sexier. You're not losing weight because you're afraid of not being around for your children, you're losing weight so that you can be active with your children and a part of their lives for a long time. You're not losing weight to stop people from making fun of you, you're losing weight because you know that you'll feel even better about yourself. See the difference? If you let external factors motivate you success is not assured. Don't make someone else responsible for your actions. Be an adult and take ownership of your own life.

You think it's tough beforehand? Just wait til you lose the weight. It gets even tougher and you need to be mentally prepared.


STEP 2: UNTIL YOU CAN OWN ACCOUNTABILITY, GET SOMEONE TO HELP
As you're working through your issues and learning to love yourself it helps to have a watchful eye that will help push you along. It could be a friend, your partner, maybe a family member. For me, it's a personal trainer. I knew that I would flake out on the regimen quickly if I didn't have an authority figure of sorts to help me learn to hold myself accountable for exercising.

So I hired Dan, my personal trainer. I chose him in large part because he lives in my building. And in the same elevator bank. Before hiring him I told him all my weaknesses -- most of which he'd heard before. I knew that on days when I tried to flake he'd come beat on my door, I knew he would push me beyond what I thought my limits were and I knew that eventually I wouldn't need him anymore. He knew all this too and since I was paying him he was happy to oblige! Actually Dan is a super-cool guy. We still run together once every couple of weeks and he's become a friend. I even set him up with one of my friends and they're doing very well 7 months in! You never know how these things will turn out. Dan and I clicked.

Maybe you're more self-motivated than I am and don't need such a gigantic kick in the rear to get started. I have to say Dan helped me not only at the beginning but also at each step along the way.


STEP 3: DON'T EXPECT INSTANT RESULTS
I'm impatient. I like instant gratification. You know that I was stepping on that scale every day, especially after a big workout, and hoping to see a drop even though my rational mind knew better. Of course it doesn't really work that way. In fact it doesn't work that way at all for women.

At the beginning of my program in June 2012 I made a bunch of changes at the same time. Some quickly, like going on a 5-times-a-week exercise program. Some more slowly, like modifying my diet.

My diet wasn't horrible but I had a few things to work on: too much red meat, too many simple carbs and generally too much calorie intake. I also had some good habits: salads most days for lunch, a growing interest in home cooking, an appetite for legumes and fibers that I'd lacked when younger. Instead of throwing out the baby with the bathwater I learned how to make incremental changes. It was a gradual change over months instead of a knee-jerk diet overhaul. So at first I had one day a week where I ate off of a healthy roster of food options. Then after a few weeks it was two. And so on. If I wanted a hamburger I had a hamburger. If friends ordered pizza I ate it. I didn't beat myself up. I just worked on controlling the days I could control better so that I could enjoy the bad days more. I never thought this would be me, but I did find that over time bad foods which had once tempted me so became much less appealing. Now I'm much less tempted by super-greasy foods. They just seem less appetizing to me because I know how I'll feel after I eat them.

On the exercise side it was the opposite. I threw myself into a heavy workout regimen. At least an hour a day, at least 5 times a week. Oftentimes 2 hours. At first I could run a mile before keeling over and walking the rest of the way. Then it was two miles. Then three. These days I'm up to 6-7 miles in about an hour, though I've hit a plateau as I'll discuss later. When I started on the elliptical I was on level 6 for an hour. Now I'm at level 12. I could run/walk intervals on the treadmill at 3.5 and 4.5 mph. Now I walk at 4.5 and run at 6.5.

Here's the scary part: in my first two months, I didn't lose any weight. I gained!! I hit a number I'd never seen in my life and freaked the fuck out. Thank god I had Dan. I would have quit without him. He helped explain what was going on -- I was building muscle mass more quickly than I was losing fat. Working together we made adjustments in both my workout routines and eating, first to help stop the weight gain and then eventually to turn me towards losing weight.


STEP 4: IN FACT, DON'T EXPECT RESULTS FOR A LONG WHILE
I started my weight loss program in June of 2012 and come September 1 I wanted to quit. I had lost a grand total of 5 lbs. I was eating better, I was working my heart out in the gym and I wasn't seeing results. I felt doomed to be pudgy forever, which isn't the worst thing ever but is tough when you expect results.

Even my doctor was a bit mystified. We checked my thyroid, did a diabetes test, did some bloodwork to see if it was a physical problem. My nutritionist inspected my food journal for dietary contributing factors. We didn't find anything.

Once again, Dan was the man. He'd seen it before where the weight held on stubbornly. He reminded me that I was putting on muscle and that weighs more than fat. He told me that I needed to go two more months. If it got to be Thanksgiving and I still wanted to quit he'd let me. He reminded me that it was the kind of journey where you look at how far you've come rather than seeing specific sites along the way. So I pressed on.

A funny thing happened in October -- 4 months in. My body finally got the message that it no longer had to hold on to the fat. I also seemed to get to a stable muscle mass if there is such a thing. In October I dropped 12 lbs. (I'd probably started dropping in late September but was on bi-weekly weigh-in schedule.) And then in November I went down 8 more. And in December I held steady even with an ungodly amount of holiday chocolate. In January I've dropped 2 lbs even as my workouts have dropped off a bit due to a light injury. More importantly my clothes fit differently and I've lost inches, especially in my tummy, hips and even my still-thunderous thighs where I never thought I'd lose weight.


STEP 5: KNOW THAT YOU'LL PLATEAU
The problem with having a weight loss target is that your body is going to plateau at some point. All the hard work you do will affect no change in your body. You'll try working out more or eating less or changing what you're eating and none of it will matter.

In late November I hit 7 miles on my runs, but in December I couldn't push it any farther even though I'd grown my distance in every previous month. Sometimes I dropped, only able to go 6. To my surprise, Dan's advice at that point was to take a break. I 'd tweaked my ankle anyway so I took a couple of weeks off. Not only have I continued to lose weight, I've actually felt better. I guess my body needed a rest.


STEP 6: KNOW THAT THIS HAS TO BE YOUR LIFESTYLE NOW
Once you've dropped the weight, it will only stay off if you keep up with your diet and exercise. It's easy to beg off once you've hit the number. But unfortunately once you have cellulite is only shrinks. It never goes away. If you give up on what made you healthy in the first place your health will abandon you.

That's why it's so important to do this for yourself. If you lose the motivation it's very easy to put the weight back on. And it comes back quickly!

I'm using races as my motivation right now. I ran a 5K last fall and I'm training for a half-marathon in the spring. Even if I end up running a shorter distance race instead I will always keep working towards something so I have motivation to keep going.


EPILOGUE: THE WEIGHT YOU LOSE LANDS RIGHT ON YOUR SHOULDERS
They say that exercise is 80% mental and 20% physical. What they don't tell you is that after weight loss there's even more mental strain.

Because our society is so messed up that we place far too much value on physical appearance, people you don't know all that well and people you haven't seen in awhile are going to make a big deal about the weight loss. Friends I only see once a year or so; former co-workers; your Starbucks barista, the maintenance guys in your building. At first I delighted in it -- there was one discussion board I'm on where I even tooted my own damn horn about the loss. But after awhile it starts to wear on you.

They mean well of course! People just want to congratulate you on your hard work and mental fortitude. It will raise ire inside though. You can't help but wonder what the previous impression you left was. You'll feel like you might have been inadequate before. You'll feel a bit resentful about how something simple like weighing less can help you get ahead.

Most of all, much as you appreciate the accolades it just gets exhausting after awhile. Yes I lost weight. Yes I feel so much better. Yes it was hard work. Yes I deserve a cookie but no I won't eat it because cookies aren't really my thing any more. No I don't want to talk about how I did it. No you're right I hope the weight doesn't come back. Here's a card with all these answers pre-written so I don't have to relive it for the 100th time.

Because I'm already dealing with lots of feelings about all the physical changes I've gone through having outside contributors makes it nearly overwhelming. I was shocked by some old insecurities that came to the surface when I hit certain weight milestones. I'm dealing with them as they arise, trying not to beat myself up too much, and it's nice to move beyond them in a healthy way. But it's stripped me bare in some respects and I feel less equipped to cope with all this attention.

Having those feelings is completely natural. Letting them control or overwhelm you is not. Although I get the pangs of these thoughts, I work hard to push them out and let the positive thoughts instead. I feel good! I look even better than I did before! Guys are clamoring even more to get near me! Exes are writing me slimy notes! (Just me?) Etc. In time I'll stabilize and be back to my normal bouncy, cheerful self. In the meantime I'm volatile in ways I've never been before.

Then again, inner work comes with outer work. I know I must be on the right track because my friends have been right there for me, sometimes more than I probably deserve. It shows I must be moving in the right direction because that hasn't always been the case for me. Although this is a personal transformation it also solidifies the generous, humble, community parts of my psyche. I have found myself feeling lighter in more ways than one. Losing weight has motivated me to work on the inner parts more and that's been much more rewarding than the number on the scale.

Your weight doesn't matter. Don't let any jerk tell you otherwise. If you want to get healthy do it for yourself. If you're beautiful on the inside you're ten times sexier than if you look great but have an ugly soul.


Hopefully this post helps if you're on a program, thinking about starting a program, or are just unsure of what to do next. For the record I tried Weight Watchers and it didn't do much for me. But I've had many friends who had great success on it. If you have questions feel free to ask in the comments or via email. I'm happy to  answer as best I can. Feel free as well to share your own stories!