Where I’m Coming From
In my teens I was heavy, very heavy. I have always been a big guy but this was not an issue of being large-framed or big-boned, even though I am 6’4”. I was fat, I was obese, and I hated being that way.
The first 17 years of life didn’t teach me very good dietary or exercise habits, and the issue was only exacerbated in my early teens, when I discovered my love for computing technology. I spent countless hours sitting on my butt with my face buried in my computer monitor. I learned a lot about computers and programming, but gained a lot of weight on top of already being heavy.
During the worst years of my teens, when I was inactive and habitually eating very poorly, my weight maxed out at 398 pounds. I hated being that heavy but had no compelling reason to change and so I didn’t. I sat at my desk, ate chips, and wrote C code.
It wasn’t until I entered college at the age of 17 that I started caring about my weight and my appearance. Most people would think that the societal and peer pressure of high school might have encouraged me to change, but unfortunately I did not have that influence, as I was homeschooled through high school. And let’s be honest with ourselves, even in public schools there are plenty of excuses to not care about how we look, and how healthy we are.
After entering college, it didn’t take long for me to feel an overwhelming desire to change. I didn’t want to die of a heart attack at 45, I wanted to fit in, I wanted to be able to participate in sports and physical activities, and even more, I wanted to have a fighting chance at dating, and, given that I was already an antisocial nerd, I knew I needed any help I could get.
At first I didn’t have the first clue about what I needed to do to lose weight and get in shape. After my first year of self-loathing and overwhelming desire to change I began to study, and study, and study, and what I found was that there is no magic diet, no wonder pill: nothing but hard work and smart thinking was going to help me. Being a technically minded individual I felt like my best approach was to program myself into a healthier lifestyle.
And so I set out on a path that would change every aspect of my life for the better. It is my hope that the experiences I have been through, the process I created for myself, and the knowledge I have gained will be a help to others who have been in, or who are in, the same situation that I was in.
The learning process that I went though has several stages, and unfolded over many years. I want to give you a brief outline of the key stages to making a transformative lifestyle change before I tell you about my journey through them.
The first step is mental preparation. You will have to be harsh, and brutally honest with yourself during this stage. As much as honesty can hurt, and as hard as it is to be so grossly unhappy with yourself, it is a necessary part of the process in order to motivate yourself to change.
I went through years, in my teens, of disliking myself and my body, hating that I sat on my butt at my desk all day and all night. When I entered college I was doubly unhappy with myself and my body and all that time of self-loathing was preparing me for a change.
Ultimately, the motivation to change has to come from within. No one will make you change or make you lose weight; you have to have the motivation and mental preparation for yourself. This is exactly the same as solving a hard coding problem, designing a complicated system, or even writing a long boring technical document. The focus and motivation has to come from you.
Habits & skills
As with learning any new discipline, it is more important early on to memorize what you know is correct and act on it, even if you don’t understand yet why it is correct. Park further away from the door. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Never order a “large” combo meal from the drive-through. Eat more fiber. Drink more water. All of these things are little examples.
When you are learning to code, your text books or instructors tell you, “Never use a GOTO! GOTO statements are bad!” You don’t know why they are bad, but you sure as heck don’t use them. You have to build up good habits, and good decision-making abilities before you can think for yourself. (This is different from willpower, as I will explain later on).
This was the second stage I went through: training myself to see my own life from the outside in, and practicing good habits and good decision-making, even if I didn’t understand why something was important.
Once I had some basic skills mastered and knowledge sets acquired, it was time to start really flexing my willpower and basic decision-making skills. I started out by walking around my block every day, no exceptions. Over time, as it became easier and easier, I forced myself to do more laps, until one day I began to jog the laps— fewer than walking at first, but eventually I built back up to the same number of laps, and more.
Adding activities that will exercise your body, but also provide you with joy is a major part of changing your health for the better. If I had gone to the gym every day and made myself work out on an exercise machine, I’d have been bored out of my mind.
Getting outside gave me exercise, and gave me some joy. You have to have both to succeed.
Training your Tastes
By far the hardest, but also most important stage I went through was this one. Training my tastes to be satisfied with healthier foods. This is hard, and will require the most willpower of any of the stages. You can lose weight without doing this, but you cannot be “healthy” overall. If you do not go through this stage, the burden of losing weight will be placed solely on the activities stage, which can be done, but it makes it that much more demanding.
Details of my Stages
Now that I’ve given you a frame of reference with which to approach the rest of this article, I’d like to jump right in with the details of what I went through in each of the stages of my weight loss process.
As mentioned before, this was the easiest stage. It isn’t hard to feel bad about yourself and want to change. Heck, if you are human, you feel this way every day of your life about some aspect of your body, personality, position, etc.
What’s difficult is actually doing something about it. When you decide to act you have to have the correct mindset, otherwise you will fail. A parallel would be trying to write functional code in an object-oriented language. If your mindset and frame of reference is wrong, you will fail.
Everybody knows someone like this. A friend or relative who is unhappy with their weight, and who, unlike a lot of people, is trying to do something about it. They try the Paleo diet, they try the Atkins diet, they try to take pills that they bought at 3 a.m. from the home shopping network that will just make the fat “melt away.”
The problem is, what this friend or relative is doing is not going to work, and whatever they do in the future will not work! Not until they change the way they are thinking about weight loss.
Wanting to change is good, but you have to first understand that change cannot be for a day, or a month, or a year.
Change is something you do with the goal of it being forever. You might say to me, “Duh, I don’t want to be skinny and fit for just a year, I want to be skinny and fit for the rest of my life!” and that’s great. I want you to be skinny and fit the rest of your life too!
Training Your Mind
There is a problem with your thinking, though. And the problem is that in order for your body to change for the rest of your life, your mind has to change for the rest of your life as well.
A programmer can’t learn how to code simply by typing syntax over and over until muscle memory makes it easy to type a programming language—your brain has to be engaged in understanding the meaning of what you’re doing, otherwise you will never be a programmer. So why is it that we think we can lose weight without training our minds as we would with any other acquired skill?
Now, I’m not saying your mind has to change all at once right now, but you have to realize that just like how changing your body is a slow iterative process that happens over time, so is changing and training your mind and your thinking processes.
If you spent zero effort attempting to diet and exercise, but spent every ounce of mental energy convincing yourself that fast food is bad and that raw vegetables are delicious and good, I guarantee you would lose weight and be healthier than you would by trying to diet and exercise while craving a BigMac every waking moment.
The goal here is not to change the way you think overnight, or even before you start anything else, but rather just to recognize that working iteratively over time on your thinking is just as important as daily exercise. There is no magical overnight solution. If you want to change for life, then you have to be willing to invest a large amount of time and effort into changing.
Tip: An exercise that helped me a lot in this stage was just telling myself, out loud, that I was doing something unhealthy whenever I did it. I didn’t expect to stop doing it right away, I just didn’t hide anything from myself with ignorance or half-truths.
Habits & Skills
We often learn how to do certain things correctly without knowing why we do them that way. But people often want to know why they should eat a certain way or follow a specific workout plan. And if they don’t get an answer to ‘why’ that they understand, they may not want to follow that program.
When I was reading my first C programming book, I had no idea what inversion of dependency was, or why it was good, or even how to do something like that, even if someone with years of experience tried very carefully to explain to me why it is good, and why I should know about it. I was clueless.
When you are just barely starting to learn how to do something like losing weight and starting a fitness program, you need to understand that when you ask “Why?” you are likely to get a beginner answer. There may be a much more complicated answer that is harder to understand or explain but that answer is earned with time and practice.
If we fail to lose weight or get fit, it’s usually because we are not training our brains with good habits.
Eating large portions of bacon every day, and nothing else, may be something you want to do, but it will not be healthy for you. You may lose weight in the short term, but you will not be healthier for it.
There are any number of things we tell ourselves in order to justify something we want, or to justify not doing something we dislike. You have to remove this weakness, and you remove it by training yourself in good habits and skills, without question.
These things do not have to be huge things—as with any trained set of good habits each one is likely to be very small and manageable.
I never used an elevator. Ever. To this day I will take the stairs unless something requires me to use the elevator.
- I never parked in the first 10 spots closest to the store or business I was going to.
- I never ordered a “large” size value meal from a fast food restaurant.
- I never ate in the car while driving.
- I never ate at the computer or while watching TV.
- If I wanted to eat, I dedicated time just to eating, then went back to what I was doing.
- I ate smaller, more frequent meals. I didn’t understand why this mattered, but a lot of people said it helped, so I did it.
Note: You may find your daily dietary schedule will change once you reach your target weight and go into maintenance mode, but this is a very different stage from weight loss. You may even find one meal a day is best for you in maintenance mode.
- I made myself stand up from my desk and walk around for a minute or two every hour or two. I can’t imagine why this little bit of exercise would help, but I did it because a lot of more experienced people than I was said it would.
- I did bicep curls sitting at my desk with my copy of Knuth’s Art of Computer Programming while I was thinking about a hard problem. Eventually I added volume two!
- I started to try to stay standing as often as I could, work at a tall table, and even picked up the habit of pacing back and forth when I was thinking.
Tip: The added benefit to pacing is that it will likely drive your coworkers crazy!
There were countless other things that I did without question because I knew that even though I may or may not have fully understood why, I knew they would be good for me in the long run.
You have to train yourself in good habits and skills now in order to give you the foundation that you need later on when things actually get hard. For example, when you desperately don’t want to do your five-mile jog or eat another serving of chicken and brown rice. You have to have the practice and discipline engrained in your brain to just do what you know is right, and practicing on the little things makes this easier for the larger things later on.
This is where it gets hard. No more five minute walks or short “stand up and stretch” sessions. At some point you really have to start working on the hard things, and adding major activities to your weekly routine becomes a necessary step.
Just like any other step, starting out slow is a good idea. As I mentioned above, my first activity was making myself walk around the block every day, whether I wanted to or not. Come rain or shine, a busy work or school day, it didn’t matter; I made myself take a walk. Having had practice making myself follow the little rules made this easier. Besides, it’s just a walk, right?
Tip: An easy way to make this time productive is to get audiobooks to listen to, or practice explaining design patterns in your head. If you are a contractor or remote employee schedule a meeting that you can be on the phone for during this time. Be efficient and creative with the time and you’ll never notice that you aren’t sitting at your desk.
Over time my walks got longer and longer. I added a lap every few days, until I was walking for over an hour a day. Well, that consumes a lot of time, so being the efficiency-minded nerd that I am, I decided that I needed to start jogging.
Of course, I didn’t jog as many laps as I was walking; I would have had a heart attack. Just as with the walking laps, I started with one. I’d walk a lap to warm up, then jog a lap.
The first jogged lap was a nightmare. I hurt everywhere the next day. Not to mention the embarrassment that I felt, being overweight and bouncing down the street. But there was one thing I knew I had to do: keep going.
Just like the walking, rain or shine, busy day or not, party to get to or lazy evening at home, I always jogged my lap. Eventually, I added a second lap. That was a great day! The day I made two laps jogging around the block I celebrated with my roommate. I think I had a couple beers that night, which of course I had been trying to avoid.
Tip: If you find yourself craving the occasional drink while working on losing weight, hard alcohol has much fewer calories than beer or wine. During my years of weight loss I became quite the Scotch connoisseur, while refraining from that beer or glass of wine with dinner (but remember to always be responsible).
This pattern continued, and over time I added more and more laps. Eventually I was jogging for half an hour straight, not fast, or elegantly, and I was still bouncing down the street, but I was doing it, and that was amazing!
Tip: These triumphs are incredibly important; revel in them. Enjoying overcoming the challenges at each stage, and throughout the stages, is one of the primary fuels that propels you forward. This is no different than when you solve a hard coding problem, or learn a new design pattern. Your excitement and enthusiasm for technology is what drives you forward. Harness that same drive and enthusiasm with your physical fitness.
Taking it Up a Notch
It was at this point that I started feeling more and more comfortable with the idea of more strenuous activities. I had never worked out on weights before, so I gave that a try. I always loved the outdoors, so I gave more challenging hiking a try, and a co-worker who liked to cycle convinced me to buy a bike and go on rides with him.
At first all of those activities were great supplements, but still, I never skipped my jogging.
Eventually my “dabbling” in different activities turned into love of a few. I very much enjoyed weight lifting, and hiking. To this day elements of those activities are in my weekly routine.
Tip: One of the best ways to quickly overcome the soreness of any major physical activity is to do a light warm up exercise before anything strenuous, and full body stretching exercises after any activity.
This is the overarching idea here: I loved a few activities. When you are first getting into the major activities phase you are going to try things you hate, and that’s fine—just do them a little while and move on—but you have to find some that you like.
The habits that you developed before this are going to help you keep looking for and doing the things that matter for a while; not forever, but hopefully long enough that you find an activity that you love. And doing what you love is key, because the only exercise that you will keep doing is the one you enjoy, and the only exercise that counts is the one you keep doing.
Ultimately this process of self-discovery lead me to karate. So now my own exercise routine revolves around my continued pursuit of martial skill.
Would you still be sitting at a desk typing away into Emacs, Visual Studio, Eclipse, etc. if you didn’t absolutely love what you were doing? Of course not. In fact, most other human beings think we are all psychotic for loving what we do.Whatever physical activity you love, this is the stage where you have to find it, and embrace it. Without a major activity that you can embrace and love doing, no amount of willpower is going to carry you through. It is always important to continually strengthen your willpower by building skills and habits, but that is just the start.
Changing Your Tastes
By far the hardest of the stages is this one. Our tastes are ingrained in us throughout the duration of our entire lives and the longer we do something for, the harder it is to change. But, it is possible.
As I said above, this stage is incredibly important and difficult. The failure of this stage in most people’s attempts at dieting is the reason so many people gain back the weight that they have lost.
Again, we start out slow.
The very first thing that I did was to stop adding salt to food. Oh sure, I still ate BigMacs and fries, tacos and burritos(or sushi and salads when I was trying to be healthier), but I never added salt from a shaker or a packet. It’s a little thing, but it’s a start. I noticed a taste difference in some things, and in some things I didn’t.
It may seem odd to start with salt, given that it doesn’t necessarily add to your waistline, but there is method to the madness. For me the reason was twofold: I was worried about blood pressure and my heart health, and salt is one of three things that modern society consumes too much of, inundating our taste buds with more flavor than they know what to do with.
Just think to yourself, “What is my favorite snack when I’m sitting at the computer working/gaming/binge watching?” I bet for most people it has a ton of salt in it.
The other two things, and the next steps in my taste-changing process, are sugar and fat.
Sugar was the second thing to go. No more sugar in my coffee or tea, and on the rare occasions that I had a soda I drank diet. When I ate dessert, I picked ones with lower sugar content. Since I was trying to cut down on salt at this stage too, my snacks of choice tended towards unsalted nuts.
I’m not going to lie. At this point I was dying! It’s easy to think or say what needs to be done, and much harder to actually do it. I struggled to keep salt and sugar out of my diet. I had overwhelming temptations, and what’s worse, the cravings were stronger because I knew what I was doing to myself. I was trying to get rid of those things, forever. I was trying to train my brain to hate salty and sweet things.
This stage is not easy, and you will struggle with it a long time, but it has to be done. The previous two stages lead up to this. Up to this stage you have been practicing good habits, training your brain to have healthier thoughts, and reveling in the small and large victories that come along the way to give yourself mental fortitude—all just for this.
Note: Absolutely do not stop practicing the steps of the previous stages here, especially the self-congratulatory parts when you achieve some new level of health or fitness. This is critical to keeping yourself motivated.
Yup, it was too much for me. I liked salt too much. Sugar was easier for me, but I regressed on salt. Before I could even get to fatty things, I regressed.
It’s a Struggle
I ended up fighting my taste for salt for years. Sugar was easier to limit over time, mostly because my taste for salt and fat has always been bigger than for sugar. I went back and forth, and back and forth.
Eventually, I decided that I was making progress on sugar, and that was a good thing. I was always going to be fighting myself with salt and I knew it, so, I might as well be fighting my taste for fat at the same time. I added fat to the mental war.
It didn’t seem like I was doing well at first. I struggled with keeping excessive salt and fat out of my diet. I had a few things that were easy to love and healthy, like sushi without soy sauce, but you can’t eat the same thing every day.
Through my ups and downs with changing my tastes, I relied on mastery of the previous steps. I reveled in every victory that I could. I marveled that I was close to my target weight, and keeping the weight off. I hiked to the tops of mountains, took 40-mile bike rides, got up to 65 pound bicep curls, and yet I was still unhappy that I couldn’t get rid of my taste for fat and salt.
Then only a few years ago, I had a realization. I was out to dinner with my wife, and I ordered something with a sauce of some sort, I think it was a chicken dish. The whole time we were waiting for dinner to arrive, I was telling myself how unhealthy I was being, how the sauce was probably full of fat, salt and sugar, and I should have ordered a plain meat, or salad. Then dinner arrived, and I tasted it… and it tasted bad! I didn’t like it. For the first time in my life, I thought to myself, “This food is too rich.” I scraped the sauce off, and ate the chicken without it.
At first I thought it was a fluke, that the chef had messed up and put too much of something in the dish, but it happened again. A few months later we were out again, and I had trouble eating some of the food. It was too rich.
Over time I realized these weren’t accidents. These were direct results of me fighting the battle every day, and I was winning. It wasn’t fast, and I couldn’t tell a difference from day to day, but there it was. I was winning. I trusted the process, and followed it day to day, and over time I saw results.
I was happy for a month after I had that realization. Like, “Passed Distributed Systems advanced study 789 with an ‘A’ during my grad program” happy. Got my first developer job out of college happy. Got my first “Senior” Software Engineer job title happy.
So, of course, I celebrated, and embraced the joy, and used it to redouble my efforts.
I still struggle, I still have days where I regret my dietary choices. I gain a few pounds and lose a few pounds. But now, I am happy to do so, because I am winning.
My Major Guiding Principle
During my time going through the weight lose process I gained a guiding principle that I want to share. This was something that I only discovered in hindsight, but is likely one of the most important things that I was doing, unknowingly, all along.
The 75% Rule
This is the big one; the one piece of advice to rule them all. The 75% Rule.
We are all human. We are all fallible, and nobody has infallible willpower. Because of this, you have to tailor your process to be tolerant to when you will fail, and optimized to when you are doing everything right.
In retrospect, around the same time that I realized that I was “winning,” I realized something that I was doing and had been doing the whole time. I was using the 75% rule. It’s a simple rule. No matter what stage you are in, or what particular thing you are struggling with at the moment, when you are struggling you just have to make the healthy choice 75% of the time.
Let’s be honest, I am not superman. I skipped workouts. I ate junk food in the later stages and regretted it. Even the healthiest people have “indulgences” of some sort. But for me, it was easy for me to control myself when I knew I would be able to have a burger occasionally, or skip a workout every once in a while. Roughly ¼ of the time, I would get to be lazy or unhealthy. And it kept me strong, because now instead of thinking to myself, “I will never get things X, Y, Z that I love again!”, I knew I would occasionally.
It’s important to not abuse this rule though. It only applies when you are struggling. Not every decision of every day. “Should I eat junk for breakfast, no, should I eat junk for lunch, no, should I have that candy bar in the afternoon, no, should I have a large supreme pizza all by myself for dinner, yes! 75% rule!”… it doesn’t work like that.
When your willpower is high, and a decision is easy, you make the right decision because it’s easier to do so. When your willpower is low and you are struggling, that’s when you tell yourself, “I am on two out of four cravings, hold out for one more craving and I can indulge.”
A Lifelong Pursuit
Struggle is a part of life. It is what defines us, and sets us apart.
No matter how motivated you become, you will struggle to stay motivated, and to make the right choices. The things that I’ve learned, I believe, can help anyone going through this kind of life change, but I by no means have all the answers to always staying motivated, and overcoming all your health struggles.
And what’s a life-changing article without some old Asian wisdom thrown in? Right?
So here goes. Something that I’ve reflected on quite a bit in my years of martial arts training and in my physical fitness journey are a pair of quotes from Gichin Funakoshi, the Okinawan karate master responsible for popularizing karate on mainland Japan in the 1920s. The first is this:
“Karate is a lifelong pursuit” – Gichin Funakoshi
How many of us have dedicated our lives to technology, to programming, to writing, or to business? A dedicated life is a productive one, and passion drives that. You have to have passion for your health and fitness, and with that passion you will have the drive to pursue a lifetime of good health.
The second quote is this:
“The ultimate aim of Karate lies not in victory or defeat, but in the perfection of the character of its participants.” – Gichin Funakoshi
Shouldn’t perfection of character be what we all strive towards in our daily lives, in our jobs, and in our personal relationships? If we want to perfect our character, then we want to lead a healthy and fit lifestyle, not only for ourselves, but as an example to others.
If you have gotten this far then thank you for reading. I genuinely hope that this article and my experiences can help you to have the kind of healthy lifestyle that you want. If only one person reads this and is inspired then I am satisfied, and all the hours I’ve spent writing this and reflecting on my experience will have been worth it, not just for myself, but for you as well, that one person.