Fat free thinking
Clueless about how to lose weight, the author set out to find his way—and discovered these simple, clear methods
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A 40-year-old man stands on his bathroom scale right after the holidays, looks down and sees a number that is much larger than it was 15 years ago. In fact, the number is bigger than any he’s ever read on scale on which he was standing.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Americans are fat. Really fat. The numbers are staggering: 33.8 percent of adults and 16.9 percent of children in America are now obese. And no one is unaffected by this so-called “epidemic”—you’re either struggling with too much weight yourself or you’re feeling the consequences in the form of rising health-care costs—or both.
None of this is news to you, right? Chances are you’re nodding in exasperated recognition or shaking your head in disgust. I was doing a little bit of both on that fateful New Year’s Eve (yes, I was the 40-year-old on the scale). And it got worse after I plugged the number flashing up at me from the scale (214) into a body mass index (BMI) formula with my height (5 feet, 8 inches) and yet another number came out: 32.5.
Even though I don’t really fit into the oft-demonized and generalized “fat American” stereotype (I don’t eat fast or other processed foods, don’t drink sodas, rarely eat sweets and enjoy only two to three beers a week), according to the BMI—the measurement utilized for all the fat stats we hear—I was “obese.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say a number of 30 or more bumps you up from “overweight” into that area where the discussion turns to conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.
All these new numbers plunged into my psyche and were added to a decade and a half’s worth of figures swirling around—the increasing number of photographs where I hardly recognized myself; the diminishing minutes I was able to keep pace in pick-up basketball games; and the countless times I refused to take off my shirt in front of other humans.
I was not happy. I decided I needed to change.
Having no clue where to start, I made what turned out to be, for me, a transformative decision. After seeing In Motion Fitness’s TV commercial that “challenged you,” I blindly joined its group weight-loss program, the Biggest Challenge.
It has been nearly seven months now, and the $80/month program ($120 for non-members) has paid off more than I could have imagined. Working out on a consistent basis, reining in out-of-control food-portion sizes, and skipping the late-night snacking (my comforting “fourth meal”) has given me more energy, boosted my self-esteem, helped me sleep better, reduced my body fat by nearly 9 percent and dropped my triglyceride and LDL/bad cholesterol levels (and increased my HDL/good cholesterol levels) from borderline to optimal ranges. I think I might even have detected a visible muscle or two.
So, this is where I tell you that all you have to do is eat less and exercise more in order to lose the weight, right? Nope. That well-tread, well-meaning mantra is like any piece of practical advice: It’s going to work only if you have the tools to apply it.
Like so many of my fellow Americans, I was not equipped with the confidence, knowledge or emotional maturity to get ’er done—but somehow, without knowing it was happening, I may have acquired them along the way over the past seven months. And, if I’m right, there are three things you can do to obtain your own set of tools.
1. Start small
I almost puked on the first day of my fitness class. I wanted to make a good impression—prove that I wasn’t in such bad shape—and so when we started on the stationary bikes, I thought, “Piece of cake,” and went all out. After no more than 10 minutes, I was so nauseated I had to excuse myself to the bathroom, where I pressed my clammy body against the cold floor until the feeling passed. At that moment, I was this close to bailing.
Thankfully, the class was led by Elyse Nelson. Not only is she an experienced trainer, but she’s also exceedingly kind to her often-struggling clients. She told me and everyone else in the class to stop and let her know when we were hurting, but always while enthusiastically encouraging us to keep moving—even if it was to just walk around in circles.
So I walked. And I stepped. I pushed, pulled, and eventually jumped and squatted and lunged for one hour straight, three to four times a week. The exercises were almost like doing chores around the house (walk up the steps and through the front door; go back out; step back in; out; in …), only more exaggerated and repeated over and over.
“My whole take on exercise is you have to make it something that you like,” Nelson explained, adding that’s it’s vital that a person think, “This is something I can do.”
I can’t say I liked everything about that first week, but I did start to think, “This is something I can do.” At first glance, the exercises were so rudimentary that it was hard to see how they were going to yield significant results. We would move in a circuit around the room, going from station to station at a steady clip, doing a minute or so at each station: Sit-ups, push-ups on a bar, lifting a medicine ball and throwing it to the ground, squatting/balancing atop a rubber Bosu Ball, swinging an iron kettle bell, then a quick 200-meter run. And repeat. To my surprise, those simple movements quickly began to add up to increased stamina, and my confidence to push my body harder grew.
Actually, nearly all of the exercises we did were things you could do in your own living room. It’s not necessary to spend money on a gym membership to get in shape. If you do chose to go it alone, though, it would be smart to seek out a professional or an experienced fitness buff to show you proper technique so that you get the most out of the exercises and don’t throw your back out in the process.
Of course, going through the exercises with others in the class who were in the same shape as myself was invaluable. The shared experience enhanced the connection I was making to fitness.
Especially inspiring in those early weeks was fellow team member Christy Hanson, the de facto “second trainer” in the class, who would give pointers and tips that were usually followed by a boisterous, infectious laugh.
Hanson has been going to personal-training sessions at various gyms for nearly five years. She got started not long after her 40th birthday, when she weighed 371 pounds.
“I was on the highest dose of blood-pressure pills they could give me, and they weren’t working anymore.” Her voice choked a little as she remembered not being able to sleep for fear that she might not wake up.
Having no other choice, she made two drastic changes—she started Weight Watchers, and eventually she started seeing a personal trainer at Fit One Athletic Club.
“For real overweight people it’s a scary place to be when you walk [into the gym],” Hanson said. She pointed out that the impact vigorous exercise has on someone carrying so much extra weight can be a painful deterrent, and that it took focusing on the simple steps provided by a sensitive trainer, and not looking too far ahead, to get her fitness program rolling.
“I lost 190 pounds, so I know it’s possible now,” she said.
“I think people need a simple message,” said Cindy Wolff, director of the Center for Nutrition and Activity Promotion at Chico State University.
CNAP exists to provide nutrition education and promote physical activity for children, and many of the efforts of the organization’s different programs—OPT Fit for Kids, Sierra Cascade Nutrition and Activity Consortium—are based on the premise that simpler is better. Wolff pointed out that a basic, very memorable message can be effective in creating change without overwhelming children and parents with too much science.
“We don’t have to talk about the calories and the nutrition,” she offered. If they can implement the simple message—“Rethink your drink” (and stay away from sugary choices), eat fruits and veggies more, or walk around with a pedometer and shoot for 12,000 steps a day—then confidence and even results will follow.
This approach is something First Lady Michelle Obama is putting to use as well with her ambitious Let’s Move! campaign for solving childhood obesity in America. The program encourages communities, schools and families with “simple steps to success” in the form of specific action plans, such as “Plan a menu for the week. Get children involved” for parents, or “Plant a garden” for schools.
Looking back, I was keeping my approach to diet as simple as my fundamental workouts—mostly, I just tried to eat smaller portions.
One of the handouts I received on the first day of the program had a little drawing with a plate divided into equal protein, starch and vegetable sections. After applying my eating habits to that math, it became clear that the steak and potatoes portions of my plate weren’t jibing with this new geometry.
But I didn’t believe I could sustain a diet where I denied myself things that I really enjoyed eating, so I still had the occasional rib-eye steak. I just ate 4-6 ounces’ worth instead of 8-12.
And even if fast food is a big part of your diet, you can make small changes that will help you lose weight. You don’t have to make a dramatic switch to organic, locally grown sprouts and free-range, skinless chicken breasts to make a difference in your life. Next time you’re at McDonald’s, just skip the soda and get a small order of fries instead of large, and you’ll shave 420 calories and 14 grams of fat off your lunch. Do the equivalent of that every day of the week, and you’ll be down nearly 3,000 calories, close to the 3,500 calories it takes to add a pound of fat to your body. That’s one pound you won’t have to work off later! Pretty simple.[page]
2. Ask for help
Sitting in her office deep in the maze of In Motion Fitness, General Manager Marie Phillips looked serene just a couple days removed from completing the grueling Death Ride, the 129-mile-long cycling challenge that climbs a total of 15,000 elevation feet through the Alpine County portion of the Sierra Nevada.
“You need help to stop the snowball,” she said with a sparkle in her eyes.
That may be the most valuable quotation in this story. Much like snow on a snowball, Phillips explained, layers of fat gradually add up on the body, and over time it becomes harder and harder to push that growing snowball back up the hill.
“I think [overweight people] just don’t know what to do,” she said.
We don’t. Like so many, I had a gym membership for six years and never lost more than five pounds. And when I did lose a little, it came right back. I had no clue what to do to start melting that snowball. Should I just run on the treadmill for 30 minutes while watching half of a Law and Order rerun on one of the flat screens? Is 1,200 calories a day enough for me?
I never asked anyone for help, either, so I never gained any understanding. Now I was part of a program that had a fitness expert watching my every move, not only showing me the exercises, but also teaching me how to be a person who works out. Gradually, patterns emerged from exercise to exercise, and I could feel it when my body was working the routine properly.
It’s revelatory to feel such a connection to what your body is doing. And once you create those muscle memories, you can’t forget them.
Of course, there are resources other than In Motion for getting help. That’s just where my story takes place. Chico has more fitness businesses than you might even know about, including several other large health clubs—Chico Sports Club, Fit One Athletic Club and the new Wildcat Rec Center at Chico State—that offer a variety of classes and expert training that can help you understand the fundamentals and educate you on fitness options.
There’s also a handful of smaller, no-frills fitness spots in warehouses and old strip malls in town, places like Alpha Co., home of Micah’s Boot Camp; Angelo Poli Whole Body Fitness; and NorCal Strength & Conditioning, where mother-of-three Sarah Fragoso completely transformed herself (see before/after photos) in just seven months.
After the birth of her third son, Fragoso was having trouble losing weight she’d gained during pregnancy. She had a gym membership, and she and her husband, Chico chiropractor John Fragoso, were active people, but it was the personal and practical training of NorCal’s intense cross-training program that got her motivated, so much so that she’s since become one of its trainers.
“It can seem unobtainable,” Fragoso said about the prospect of losing weight, but getting trainer guidance and encouragement can help with getting over the initial hump. “If people could look into the future and understand how they’re going to feel,” she added, then they’d believe the work will pay off.
“It’s not easy to be overweight and unhealthy,” she said. “It’s much harder to stay there than be healthy and fit.”
3. Change your thinking
Do you know how hungry you are right now? On a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being “stupid hungry” and 10 being “painfully full,” where are you?
If everyone could learn to answer that question, the diet-book industry would perish.
Chico State nutrition professor Deb McCafferty and OPT Fit for Kids nutrition counselor Laura Gilmore are experts who aren’t giving the same nutrition advice we’ve been fed our whole lives. They’re not focused on the food pyramid, saturated fat or counting calories. What they—as well as people like Geneen Roth, author of the recent Oprah Book Club-endorsed, current New York Times bestseller Women, Food, God—are proposing is that we take all restrictive dieting off the table and replace it with the non-diet approach to weight loss.
What they’re saying makes a lot of sense. Especially since they say it in such a fun and personable way. As we sat down over ice teas recently, the two playfully bantered back and forth, throwing out salient and complementary nuggets to illustrate the ideas behind the non-diet approach: “Babies know exactly what to eat.” “Restriction breeds wanting.” “Savor every bite. Live in the moment of each bite.” “My body knows what I need.”
The idea is that our bodies naturally know what they need, and if we can become conscious of internal hunger cues and not react so much to external ones (“Hey, my plate is full of food; I have to eat it all”), then we will gradually stop overeating.
“If we bring people back to internal regulation,” McCafferty explained, “they find their way back to their natural weight.”
If you’ve ever wondered why it is that some people seem able to eat whatever they want and never gain any weight, while so many others have trouble keeping their weight down, this is the theory increasingly being put forth to explain it. (There’s also the “thrifty gene” theory that suggests that some people may be genetically predisposed to pack it on during times of plenty in order to help them survive during famines.) Thin people are wired to be attuned to their bodies’ internal cues that tell them when they are hungry or full. When their bodies say they’re hungry, they eat. When their bodies say they’re full, they stop eating. As McCafferty points out, naturally thin people trust that they’ll never have to diet.
“I think America has more of a zoning-out problem,” added Gilmore. “We eat and eat.”
In her book, Geneen Roth addresses the roots of what is actually being fed with all this eating: “The bottom line, whether you weigh 340 pounds or 150 pounds, is that when you eat when you are not hungry, you are using food as a drug, grappling with boredom or illness or loss or grief or emptiness or loneliness or rejection. Food is only the middleman, the means to the end. Of altering your emotions.”
It’s hard to argue with the fact that we are largely dysfunctional when it comes to food as well as overly focused on our physical appearances. The non-diet approach to weight loss would seem to get to the heart of both issues. By becoming conscious of what our bodies are telling us, we shift our focus away from how much we weigh and how our weight might change and whatever external messages are coming at us, and replace them with a much less confusing, kinder, more natural and more healthful dialogue with ourselves.
I wanted to lose weight. I didn’t know what I was doing. I sought help. I started slow. I got stronger. And along the way, I started to change my thinking. That was how it went for me, and maybe something in that process will resonate for you.
It’s also worth mentioning that I was blessed to be matched with the perfect trainer for my temperament. Though Nelson admitted to me that she’d never struggled with her weight, she was sympathetic to a degree that made it feel like she was meeting us where we were—no matter how feeble, sweaty or exhausted that place might be.
And yes, I did lose some weight. Since New Year’s Eve 2009, I’ve lost 29 pounds, plus 7.5 inches from my waist, and had to replace my old shorts (down four sizes) and T-shirts for the summer.
But I am trying hard not just to replace one set of numbers with another. I include them only to provide a concrete example that a dramatic change is possible. I believe now that it wasn’t the inches, the pounds, the calories and the ideal BMI numbers that were motivating me to lose weight, no matter how fixated on them I was.
It’s probably still too early to tell whether I’ve figured out how to sustain my new diet and exercise patterns. I’m cutting the cord on the Biggest Challenge program this week and going into the gym on my own, so we’ll see how deep this new, conscious decision-making has burrowed.
The real trick was finding people who could help me. Learning from experienced and empathic people, making a connection with them and ultimately with myself, is something I feel I can sustain for a long time.
Be a joiner
The facilities, programs and instruction vary at every gym in Chico. Call around, ask for a tour, and find the one that fits you best.
15 Minute Fitness
Alpha Co. Fitness
Angelo Poli Whole Body Fitness
The Body Shop
Chico Sports Club
Fit One Athletic Club
In Motion Fitness
NorCal Strength & Conditioning
Wildcat Rec Center
(Chico State students and faculty only)