By August 24, 2010

Programmer Fitness Journey: A Lifestyle Change not a Diet

A little off topic from my usual posts, but I thought enough tech people struggle with some of the same problems I do for this to be an interesting post.

I’ve had an interesting fitness life.  I seem to always be swinging from one extreme to another in regards to physical fitness.

In high school I ended up deciding to start lifting weights and play sports.  I gained about 50 lbs of muscle over the summer of my sophomore year.

When I was in college, I started an acting and modeling career on the side, eventually moving to Santa Monica when I signed on with an agency down there.  I even competed in a bodybuilding competition.

But over time, perhaps due to stress, long hours, and so many life changes, I ended up gaining weight.  I would continually hit a point where I would want to get back in shape and I would do some extreme form of dieting and exercise program.

I would bounce from a peak of 300 lbs to a low of about 210 lbs.

It seems every time I would lose the weight, I would eventually gain it back.

Lifestyle vs extreme diet

The problem really is a matter of lifestyle vs extreme diet.  One of the things I have always been good at is extreme discipline.  I can do the most extreme thing for a long amount of time, but eventually it will wear anyone down.

I would do diets where I ate zero carbs for 2-3 months, eliminating anything that contains sugar, including fruit.  Or I would lift weights for 2+ hours each day.  Something like that is not maintainable over the long run, and when I finally would burn out from it, I would go the other way, undoing all that hard work.

I finally got to the point now where I’ve figured out that I need to have a healthy lifestyle instead of doing some kind of extreme diet.

What I am doing now

I am currently in the process of dropping down from 270 lbs (around Feb of this year) to probably around 210 lbs or so depending on body fat vs lean mass levels.

I’m currently down to 235 lbs, and this is how I’m doing it.

Walking while working

I bought a used treadmill off craigslist.  I have a cheap laptop that I can use to remote into my main workstation, and I set up a nice high resolution computer monitor on a wall mount by the treadmill.

programmer fitness

I work from home, so it is easier for me to do something like this.  But, I bet many people end up working from home to check email or do something else, even if you have a regular office job.

I set a pretty simple goal each day of walking about 45 minutes while I am working.  I just set the treadmill on 2 MPH and an incline which has been steadily rising and is now at 7.

At this pace it is pretty easy to type and control the track pad, but I usually try to time my treadmill time to be when I am in meetings.  Think about all those wasted hours sitting in a chair during a meeting when you could be burning calories.  If you are in a meeting with me, chances are, I am walking on the treadmill.

Walking while reading

I also set a goal for myself to read a technical book for 30 minutes a day.  No reason I can’t be walking on the treadmill while I do that.  So I grab my iPad and walk and read.  I end up burning a bunch more calories with really minimal effort.

Nutrition and portion size

I don’t do anything extreme anymore.  Basically, I just eat healthy most of the time.  I also am always aware of and limit my portion size.  This is a major change from what I used to do, but it works so much better.  I am not grumpy all the time and I am not cooking all the time.

Here is a typical day of meals for me.

Breakfast: Egg McMuffin sandwich which I make using a whole wheat english muffin, 1 egg and a piece of light pepper-jack cheese.

Mid-morning snack: An apple or a piece of fruit.

Lunch: A turkey sandwich on light bread or whole wheat bread with light cheese and light mayo.  Some baby carrots.  Some fruit.

Afternoon snack: A handful of peanuts or a piece of fruit.

Dinner: Usually a portion of a whole roasted chicken, some frozen vegetables and brown rice.  I’ll also grab a 6” subway sandwich or something else, I just limit the portion size.

Desert: A small 100 calorie or so ice cream pack or pudding.

I’m not starving, and if I am hungry during the day, I grab something.  I just make sure it is healthy.  Most of my nutrition information comes form articles I read on  It is a great resource for learning about nutrition.

I’ll usually go out to dinner once a week, but I split an entrée with my wife.  Most restaurants serve portions that are way too big for one person.  I’ll also cook something on the weekends when I have more time.  If I am going to eat something that I know isn’t going to be healthy, I make sure that I eat less at other times during the day, and I make sure the portion size is small.

I am amazed how easy it is to control yourself when you are not starving from some extreme diet.


I started running using a couch to 5k running program that has you running a 5k (3.1 mi) in 9 weeks.  I used an app for my Android phone to get started.

Since I completed the program, I now run 3 times a week for 3.1 miles.  To be honest this is probably the hardest part of my routine, but it is pretty important to get a good cardio workout and 3 times a week isn’t all that bad. It is something that I will try to continue to do for the rest of my life.  It is a good habit and doesn’t take up much time.


I am just hitting the gym at the clubhouse in my subdivision 3 times a week and only lifting for about 20 minutes.  I used to do prolonged workout sessions for several hours a day, but I have found that 20 minutes is enough time to maintain the muscle that I have.  If I were trying to put on mass I would probably boost that up a bit, but what I am doing now I know that I could continue to do even after losing the weight.

Goals and philosophy

I set a goal that every two weeks I will need to be 5 lbs lighter.  I check my weight every day when I get up in the morning in order to keep myself on track.  Having a short goal like that and knowing exactly what makes it a success makes it easier to see if I am on track or not.

If I am not losing weight fast enough, I cut back a bit and increase some cardio to make sure I make it.  If I am losing weight too fast, I relax a bit.

Each small goal keeps me in check and propels me forward.  I also said that if I was over my weight for every 1/3 a lb over I would have to walk an extra mile each day until I made the weight, but so far I’ve never been over.

The basic idea when I started this program was to make lifestyle changes that would allow me to maintain this kind of a routine even when I am not trying to lose weight.  I know exactly what I need to do each day and it really isn’t that hard.  I don’t feel like I am on a diet program, I feel like I am just living my life and being healthy.

Oh, and I never eat fast food anymore.  Never.  It just isn’t worth it.

About the author

John Sonmez

John Sonmez is the founder of Simple Programmer and a life coach for software developers. He is the best selling author of the book "Soft Skills: The Software Developer's Life Manual."