It is hard to reach personal wellness goals. You have to find the right levers to pull.

I’ve had a long, twisting road on my journey of weight loss and personal wellness. I gradually gained weight throughout grade school and high school; I was obese at the beginning of sophomore year (237 lbs) in 2003. It wasn’t necessarily due to inactivity – I played baseball, basketball, and volleyball in grade school, but I already had bad knees. I’m not sure how much I got out of that activity. In October of that year, my mother saw an ad for a metabolism testing program near our house, and we decided to give it a shot. That led to my first personal wellness revelation – I actually had really fast metabolism.

We discovered that my body digested fat quite easily, but my body quickly converted carbohydrates and sugar into stored fat. My blood was highly acidic. I was pre-diabetic. Without changing my habits, I would have been diabetic in just a few years. Therefore, as a result of the testing program, I was put on a “healthier” version of the Atkins diet. I could eat lots of protein and fat, but I was limited on carbs, especially wheat and gluten. It wasn’t 100% Atkins, though. I was allowed roughly 100g of carbs per day, of which I had no concept.

I think I dealt with it fairly well. I just basically went cold turkey. My normal lunch purchased at school became a cashew butter sandwich. We discovered Spelt bread. Soda was gone. Pasta was gone (a big sacrifice in my family). Pizza was gone. I ate high-protein, low-carb oatmeal and a banana for breakfast every day for the rest of the school year. My parents were 100% supportive and kind of went on this journey with me.

I lost 80 pounds over the course of that school year (down to 157 lbs).

I re-gained some weight (20 lbs – up to 177) near the end of high school because 157 was too far on the other side of the scale for my height. But, I maintained those dietary habits until college. I didn’t eat a single slice of pizza from October 2003 through October 2006, my freshman year of college. Over the course of college, those eating habits started to erode, which wasn’t entirely all for worse. The goal was not to be on the Atkins diet forever, though I did gain the “freshman 15” in the summer after freshman year while working in a restaurant (up to 192 lbs). The goal was to re-balance my blood sugar and acidity through ingesting fat and protein and letting my metabolism do the rest. At some point, things balanced out.

You may have noticed that physical activity hasn’t been mentioned since grade school. During my high school weight loss journey, I didn’t play sports. I sporadically worked out at the YMCA, but not enough to make a difference. That changed in college; I joined the rowing team, which led to my second personal wellness revelation. Rowing saved my knees while at the same time challenging me to the brink of my physical capacity, and I loved it. I was in the BSOML (best shape of my life for non-baseball fans) freshman year. I worked out three times in a day once. I had a fast metabolism, I was young, and I was eating relatively healthy, I thought.

I basically maintained my post-freshman-15 weight through the rest of college (196 lbs around graduation time). After college, however, it started to go downhill again. It does for many. That led to my third personal wellness revelation – my fast metabolism wasn’t going to be fast forever, and it was slowing down faster than I would like to have admitted.

Post-college, I worked out sporadically, but not consistently enough to make a difference (sound familiar?). Without the team atmosphere, I simply wasn’t as motivated. When I started my career, which involved sitting for long periods of time, I slowly gained weight. My metabolism was slowing down, but I was still eating like it wasn’t. I was up to 212 pounds when two things happened at roughly similar times. My wife and I joined Weight Watchers, and my employer hosted a company-wide team weight loss challenge.

On Weight Watchers (WW), I had to control my portions. This somewhat helped me register that I needed to eat less food in my mid-20s as compared to my late teens. There was community and accountability since we attended meetings. On top of that, my weight loss team was comprised of co-workers, so there was accountability there too. Through WW and the company challenge, I went back down to 196 lbs and thought I had a good handle on my personal nutrition, so we left WW (also to save money).

Over the next two to three years, my wife and I worked out inconsistently at Title Boxing and attempted to continue the habits we learned while on WW. Gradually, we gained weight. That led to my fourth personal wellness revelation – without accountability and community, we were having a difficult time exercising consistently and eating appropriately.

We tried controlling our diets more, but it just wasn’t working. We had stopped going to Title Boxing due to scheduling conflicts and my bum knee. We were heading down a bad path. As we were getting into our later 20s, we didn’t have a good handle on our nutrition, we lacked accountability and community, and we weren’t exercising much. These factors, naturally, did not mesh well with further slowing metabolism.

Over the past year and a half, however, we started turning things around. Our schedules were still in conflict with Title Boxing, so we were searching for gym alternatives. One night while walking to a nearby restaurant to pick up dinner, we stopped in at a place called Health House in the same set of storefronts. I had thought it was some sort of Pilates gym or something like that. We were just curious, really. Well, I was quite wrong.

It was a rowing gym. Cue brain explosion.

Two months later, I participated in a discounted month of classes. Another month or so after that ended, I was a full member. I haven’t had an exercise community like what is at Health House since college. I attend 6am classes regularly, which is bonkers compared to literally my entire life up to that point. I hate waking up early. What I found there was community and accountability (I actually need to sign up for classes rather than just showing up). I re-kindled something I loved, and I have exercised there consistently a year and a half later. My wife found something similar when she discovered Barre classes near us. Finally, we felt like we had a handle on our exercise.

The consistency we showed with attending our gyms helped us make gradual changes in our diets. We purchased more vegetables and fruits to incorporate into our diet. We stayed almost completely away from the aisles of the grocery store, where most of the processed/unhealthy foods live. We weren’t going there much to begin with, but we were going there even less.

It wasn’t enough. In January of this year, I was up to 217 pounds. We re-joined WW to try to get a handle on our diets, and it worked. We started losing weight again. We had accountability and community for both our exercise and nutrition regimens.

Around the same time, I had been seeing a health coach at my employer. We were tracking weight and talking about other personal wellness habit changes I was making. It seemed to be going well. But then we noticed a troubling trend. I was in fact losing weight, but I was gaining body fat %. By this point, I felt like my diet was fairly well under control. I was measuring out my breakfast, my lunch was a robust, healthy salad with lots of different types of vegetables, and we consistently had a protein, a carb (like potato or pasta), and a vegetable at dinner. I worked in fruit during the day.

So my health coach and I dove deeper into the nutrition of my diet, and this led to my fifth and most important personal wellness revelation – even though I felt like we were doing everything right, we still weren’t. It’s incredibly hard to eat truly healthy in America today.

In the deeper analysis of my diet, we found that I wasn’t getting much protein overall. We set up an appointment with a dietician at my employer, and we really went into the details of calculating my existing macronutrient mix vs. age- and exercise-adjusted targets. Accounting for my consistent, intense exercise at Health House, my protein intake at the time was about 33% of what my body needed. My body was basically in starvation mode, preserving body fat due to a lack of protein to support the amount of energy I was burning while working out at Health House.

This was the catalyst for what I believe will be lasting change.

Naturally, since I’m here to do cool things with data, I decided to start tracking my macronutrient mix (which my health coach had been encouraging before, but I was too lazy to do). Using the data from the WW app, I record the protein, fiber, carb, and fat amounts of everything I eat in a Google Sheet. In addition, because I work (roughly) in software development, I essentially wanted to automate my nutrition. This led me to create a meal/snack plan that’s modular and makes it easier to reach my macronutrient goals every day. The plan goes like this.

Breakfast: Two slices of toast with 2 tbsp of peanut butter, a banana, 1/2 cup cottage cheese, and 1/2 cup Shatto skim milk. 31g protein, 10g fiber, 65g carbs, and 19g fat. 12 WW points.

Morning Snack: Nonfat Greek yogurt (Oikos Triple Zero for the past few days) with 1 tbsp flax seed. 17g protein, 8g fiber, 18g carbs, 3g fat. 5 WW points.

Lunch: Salad with chicken, crispy toppings, and dressing. 32g protein, 6g fiber, 26g carbs, 18g fat. 8 WW points.

Afternoon Snack: Tuna packet with pretzels. 19g protein, 1g fiber, 24g carbs, 1g fat. 3 WW points.

Dinner: A protein, a carb, and a vegetable. Varies.

Dessert: Only if necessary to hit WW point minimum or macro goals. Fruit with peanut butter or something else. Varies.

As long as we have a protein at dinner, I can easily hit my daily protein goal of 120 grams. As long as I make sure to have fruit (usually an apple, berries, and/or grapes) at some point during the day, I can usually hit my fiber and carb targets (38g and 226g, respectively). As long as dinner isn’t too high in fat, I’m right around my daily fat goal (67g).

I’ve included a screenshot below of the Tableau dashboard I use to monitor this information (as of May 25th). You can view the full, interactive dashboard here, though there’s not much interaction. It’s a monitoring dashboard, not really exploratory.

Health Tracking

I have some work to do on fiber, carbs, and fat, but I’m getting closer. Notice that the language around fat is a little different; I don’t mind exceeding targets on the other three, but exceeding my fat target consistently is bad. There’s a long downward slope in the middle because of a vacation. I wasn’t about to interrupt a vacation with meticulous tracking. I did OK anyway.

Now, in order for this to work, I actually have an advantage that many people don’t – I don’t require much variety in my food. I do not get sick of eating the same things every day, so my “automation” thought process works for me. I’m lucky here. For someone who needs more variety, it would probably take coming up with 2-3 options for each meal and then mixing and matching.

For when I say “modular”, I’ll give an example. Recently, I knew I’d be going out to dinner at a Mexican restaurant with family. Naturally, that’s high in WW points, high in carbs, high in fat, etc. So what I did to save points while still keeping my macros within reach was not eat the flax seed in my morning snack, not eat the crispies and dressing in my lunch salad, and not eat the pretzels in my afternoon snack. That saved 11 WW points, which combined with my already-remaining WW points left me easily enough WW points to have a full plate at the restaurant. I still hit my daily goals as well.

At the time of this writing, my most recent WW weigh-in showed 200.4 lbs; I’ve lost 17 pounds since starting WW in January. At the same time, my body fat % is down by three percentage points, from 28.4% to 25.4%. My goal is to hit 18% body fat by the end of the year. I’ve noticed that I have more stamina during workouts at Health House, and I recover much faster. My knees don’t feel so bum. My hamstrings feel better. Clothes fit better. I know I’ve gotten stronger.

With the help of a stunning fitness community at Health House, the encouragement and advice from my health coach and nutritionist, and my wife, who is kind of doing this with me and for herself at the same time, we feel like we’re finally on the right path to personal wellness. We have community and accountability for both our exercise and nutrition, and we’ve supplemented it with the advice of health care professionals.

That ties back to my fifth personal wellness revelation – look how F***ING difficult it was and how long it took to get here! When I lost weight in high school, I just had to eat different food. Working out and tracking were non-existent. To lose weight now, I needed an intense workout regimen, strict daily nutrition intake goals, the advice of two health care professionals, and the support/companionship of my wife to get to this point. Losing metabolism during adulthood stinks.

I’ve learned a lot about my body, nutrition, and motivation since that day in October 2003. Almost 14 years. The most important thing I’ve learned is that I need to scrutinize my own personal wellness habits. I can’t always assume that what I’m doing is the right thing. I have a lot of small levers to pull to get the right combination of things that will motivate me. Community. Accountability. Intensity. Data. I need all these things to keep me engaged in my personal wellness. It’s a discovery process to find your levers. Hopefully it won’t take 14 years.

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