Friday, May 28, 2010

Sam's guide to weight loss: Part 4, Fanning the flames

I think the "Shake Weight" commercials may be definitive proof of my long-held theory:

"The exercise equipment industry is a running joke, perpetrated on the public by designers who like making people perform ridiculous physical feats."

The truth is that you don't need much at all to be in shape. You can become a perfectly healthy, fit person without spending a dime on equipment, or even a gym.

Just as with dieting, you need to let go of the idea that there's some "magic" to working out. Any physical activity burns calories, so important thing isn't finding the "most efficient way," to work out, but to find the way that works best for you. And the best way, in my opinion, is the easiest way.

"If you want to exercise, make it as easy as possible for you to do so."

Just like with eating poorly, your inactivity probably has a lot of causes that don't relate any personal defects. With many of the people I know, the real problem is that they set out on an exercise plan that are too difficult to stay motivated on.

-Don't start a plan that's too hard for you. If you aren't used to doing cardio, you're not going to be able to start running 3 miles everyday. A better plan is to run a quarter or half mile each day, then increase the distance when you feel like you've got some extra energy.

-Don't pick something that's a logistical hassle for you. Let's say you start a gym membership to lose some weight. How much time does that involve? You've got to come home from school/work, change into workout clothes, drive to the gym, do your routine, then drive home to shower and change clothes again. Even best case scenario, that's probably an extra 30 minute commitment that isn't the workout itself.

That extra hassle makes a difference. Not only do you have to be motivated enough to work out, you also have to be motivated enough to do all that extra stuff.

-Don't choose workouts that are boring! If you hate the activity, that's another motivational barrier. There are plenty of ways to exercise that you'll enjoy, or at least be able to combine with things that you enjoy.

-The "hassle" and "hate" factors can offset one another. If you like the activity, it's worth more hassle. If it's less hassle, you don't need to enjoy it as much.

So with those points in mind, I'd like you to try a very simple plan. It requires no special equipment, wastes no time with preparation, is easy on your body, and is easy to enjoy.

-Take a 45 minute walk everyday.

Doesn't seem like enough, does it? How can you ever hope to lose weight with something so simple?

Well guess what. For most people, that walk will burn around 200 calories. If you're watching your caloric intake and holding it steady, that 200 calorie difference means you're going to start dropping weight at a a nice, healthy pace.*

But maybe you have loftier goals than what a walking routine can provide. I understand. But why not start with this? It will get you used to regular activity, and the weight you lose will make any future workout programs easier on you.

A few notes before you begin:

1. Check your shoes. You'd be surprised how many aches and pains you have may be caused by worn out footwear. And since you're going to be walking more than usual, it's especially important.

2. Keep watching your calories! One of the great revelations of my dieting was that working out makes you hungrier. If you don't keep track of your calories, you end up eating more and compensating for all that exercise. One really good idea-keep some fresh carrots or other veggies around as a post workout snack.

3. Stretch after your walks. You'll be warm and loose from the activity, so it's a good time to do this. It will make you feel better and help you wind down.

4. Keep it from being boring. Take someone with you, or bring music/podcasts/audiobooks.

*Not to mention the psychological benefits.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Sam's guide to weight loss: Part 3, Ignition

With your body rested, your mind aware, finally we're ready to talk more specifically about eating. First, though, we need to add one more item to awareness: knowing your estimated daily caloric intake. You can get this information from a number of sources online. They may vary a bit, but it's a ballpark number anyway. Here's one from the Mayo Clinic. Once you know what you (generally) need to maintain your weight, you can begin trying to take in a little less than that each day.

As you continue keeping a weight and food journal, you'll be able to tune your daily calories up or down based on your results. Important piece of advice here: you shouldn't be losing more than a couple of pounds per week. Any more than that is unhealthy.

So why should manage your diet using calories, rather than fat or carbs?

1. It doesn't matter. You can absolutely lose weight by reducing calories, people have been doing it for a long time, and that's how I did it.
2. I think taking out a specific dietary element leads you to eat a more limited, less healthy diet. Reducing calories can be done across the board, without unbalancing variety.
3. There's no good reason to believe that low fat/carb diets are any faster or better. The body of research on this kind of thing is quite muddled. If you read much beyond the headline of a "Low Carb Diets are the Best!" article, you''ll find that the data leaves lot of room for interpretation. (When I'm done with the principle articles in this series, I'll probably write a supplement about dieting misinformation.)

And you know what? That's basically it. The fastest weight loss I ever achieved came from adding these simple elements-sleeping right, monitoring weight, counting and reducing daily calories-into my life. That's all you need.

But, of course, the real difficulty is holding yourself to those rules. It can be very difficult, and when your smoldering initial efforts die out (and you eat a pint of ice cream one night), it can leave you wondering what the "real secret" to weight loss is.

What makes it so hard? Let's go back to my original thesis:

"If you want something to happen, begin by creating an environment where it can happen"

If your environment doesn't support a strictly controlled diet, it's very difficult to keep one. And that's why it's time to recognize something: there are reasons that you eat poorly, and they don't have anything to do with you being lazy or undisciplined.


1. Habit-A lot of people are simply in the habit of eating too much junk food. Seeing a movie? Stop at the candy counter. Taking a car trip? Get a soda from the gas station. Out at a restaurant? Let's look at the desert menu!*
2. Boredom-Food can be something to do, a form of stimulus when there's nothing else of interest going on.
3. Anxiety/Depression/etc. - Like alcohol or nicotine, food acts as a form of medication for many people with psychological problems. And just as alcoholics are treated for those underlying issues, it's really difficult to lose weight if you don't deal with (or at least acknowledge) the emotional background of your eating habits.

"If you want to lose weight, figure out why you don't eat well."

New assignments-

-Start looking back at your food journal. Look for patterns in your eating, especially when you eat sweets.
-Remove all sweets from your home, making it more difficult for you to have access to them.
-Go completely off sweets (candy, cookies, soda, ice cream, anything with a significant amount of sugar) for a couple of weeks.

It's not necessary to completely avoid sweets to lose weight. However, cutting yourself off from them can be very revealing. You'll realize how often you "reach" for those things, and gain some insight into when/why you go to them.

*Labor Day? Time for some donuts!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Sam's guide to weight loss: Part 2, The Tipi

Feeling rested? I hope so. If not, it's ok, because that brings us to another tenant of my philosophy:

"Accept that you won't always stick to the plan. You are not perfect, and it's unfair to expect it of yourself. Don't use individual failures as an excuse to give up, use them as an excuse to work harder."

Success is not a steady upward slope. It's a jagged, volatile line where, over the course of time, the gains are greater than the losses. If you don't understand that, your mental and spiritual environment isn't right for accomplishing anything.

That lesson is particularly important today, since this one has a lot to do with noticing your failures!

Keeping with the fire metaphor, this post is about building the "tipi," the structure that keeps the fire together. For weight loss, your tipi is built from awareness.

Awareness is an important principle in many philosophies, so you see it everywhere. The Zen story of the Tiger and the Strawberry, the old Irish tale of "the music of what happens," even the incredible reasonings of Sherlock Holmes, they all preach the power of awareness.

But awareness is a tricky thing to get a handle on. While humans are quite good, sometimes too good, at finding associations between things, it's difficult "see" those associations over long periods of time.

My sleep advice is a perfect example:

If you don't get enough sleep, you don't feel like working out and you're more likely to eat poorly, right? It makes perfect sense. But because those things are separated by an extra domino (your mood) you probably never caught the connection.

And if that little bit of causality was so difficult to "see," it's going to be even harder to lose weight if you can't observe the nebulous interactions of your lifestyle and your body. The best mental environment for losing weight is one where you can observe those interactions easily.

"If you want to lose weight, increase your awareness: track your weight along with the things that influence it."

This concept is an essential part, probably the most important part, of this series. It requires very little, but has a profound effect. It's quite likely that you'll lose weight just by doing this weeks assignment. Awareness is simply that powerful.

Here are your tasks:

-Weigh yourself exactly once a day, every day, and log the result.
1.Do not obsess over this number. You are not being scored on anything, so there's no reason to "cheat" the scale (Example: Drinking less water during the day will make the number come out lower, but it's bad for you and doesn't actually help anything.)
2.Aim for consistency, so the weight you record will be meaningful. Weigh in wearing the same clothes, at the same time of day. The best time (for reasons I'll get into later) is first thing in the morning, before you eat, drink, or shower.
3.The measurement doesn't even have to be "accurate" in an absolute sense. Even if the scale is off by 2 pounds, it will still register the change in your weight correctly, and the change is what we're really interested in.
4.Do not avoid your scale! If you ate too much yesterday, it's going to be reflected when you weigh in. Accept it. Don't avoid the scale for a day so you won't have to see the high number. If you do that, you're losing the awareness that we're after. Seeing your habits reflected is the whole point.
5.Remember always that the goal is awareness of how your weight is changing, not getting a "prize" of a lower number or a "punishment" of a higher one. You are weighing in to help yourself "see" what's going on.

-Log everything you eat, along with the (at least approximate) calories.
1. We'll get further into diet next time, but for now just do this much. It's not as time consuming as you'd think either. Here's the method that worked well for me: Get some index cards and pick one up on your way out the door each morning. Write down every item that you eat in a day, along with the calories, if you know them. If you don't know the calories, look them up later and add them in. Write the date on your card and file it away somewhere. (You could also put your scale results on these cards.)
2.You don't have to aim for a particular number of calories (yet). I just want you to become aware of what you're eating, and be able to see it over a period of time.
3.Don't worry about any other factors besides calories (fat, carbs, etc). I'll talk about that later too.

Why are these habits so important, even more important than sticking to a diet or exercise routine? How is it that people lose weight from doing this, even without ascribing to a particular diet? Simple.

-It's easier to resist another helping of dinner if your weight was a little high this morning.
-You're less likely to get dessert if there's a card in your pocket reminding you that you had a donut after lunch.
-There's no better encouragement for getting a little exercise in than thinking "I've eaten pretty good today, if I take a walk tonight it might bring tomorrow's weigh-in down a bit. That'd be nice."

So next week, I want to see 7 index cards or journal entries from you*, and don't slack off on your sleep.

*Figure of speech, do not actually send me these.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Sam's guide to weight loss: Part 1, Kindling

"If you want something to happen, begin by creating an environment where it can happen"

Remember that statement, because it's very important. It is the guiding principle of everything I have to teach you in this series.

Example: Imagine how you'd build a fire. You'd gather dry wood, sorting it into light kindling and heavy logs. You'd get some paper to get the flames burning quickly. You'd arrange everything so that the smoke could escape and fresh air could get in. You would, in short, create fire by creating an environment where fire can happen. Only once that environment was prepared would you concern yourself with flame.

Yet when it comes to weight loss, most people spend their time trying to pick a brand of lighter. They read articles and books about this or that diet, they watch news reports about "how to get the most out of your power walking" or worse "why exercise won't help you lose weight." And they're always asking people like me, people who have been through it and lost a significant amount of weight, the same ridiculous question: "What's your secret?"

And the only answer I can give amounts to "stop trying to build a fire in a pool."

-Stop trying to follow an exercise routine that your body isn't ready for
-Stop trying to follow a diet when you've got a bowl of candy on your coffee table
-Stop trying to lose weight without getting enough sleep

Did I throw you with that last one? Then you're my audience. Here is your first lesson, a corollary to my thesis.

"If you're trying to lose weight, start by getting more sleep."

Before you begin a new diet, before you start going to the gym more, do this one thing. Don't skip it. Don't think that you'll work on it along the way. Do it FIRST.


-A well rested person has energy and endurance. If you haven't had enough sleep, you won't have much luck following a workout routine.
-A well rested person has willpower. If you haven't had enough sleep, you don't have the mental energy to resist temptations.
-A well rested person has a more positive outlook. Being tired makes you grouchy, irritable, and negative. When you feel that way, you're more likely to think things like "Screw it, I'm having a cupcake, it'll make me feel better" or "I'm not working out today, it's not like it matters. I'm never going to lose weight." These thoughts are destructive to you and your weight loss. Being rested may not stop the dark thoughts, but it sure makes them quieter.

Adequate sleep, in other words, creates an environment in your mind and body that is conducive to weight loss. It dries out the kindling.

Let me emphasize again that you shouldn't skip this step. I know it's tempting. Our tendency is to read this sort of "health class" advice with a kind of "Yeah, yeah, I know I really should" mentality. You know it's important but you want me to get on to the part about actually losing weight.

And that's the kind of thinking I have to break you of.

This is not a "tip" that will "help" you lose weight. This is how you actually do it. If you are trying anything else without doing this, you are striking matches and dropping them to the ground, hoping to start a fire. They may burn for a bit, may even light a scattered leaf or two. But if you really want to do this, we're going to need good kindling. If you can't manage something as simple as altering your sleep habits, what's the rest of it good for?

You've got a week. I need 56 solid hours of sleep from you. Do whatever you have to (within reason): reduce your caffeine intake, skip out of the party early, miss your favorite show so you have time to shower and brush your teeth.

Do your best, and I'll see you back here next Friday.*

*That is unless you're reading this after the series is finished, and can just read on to the next post. Screw you, future-man!