I Lost 86 Pounds and Learned a Few Things

Eighteen months ago, I got an assignment from a magazine editor: Check out those “sitting is the new smoking” articles and see if there’s anything there. So I read the studies, interviewed some doctors, and dug into the science. As I read all this material about obesity and sitting and cancer and death, it occurred to me that I weighed 293 pounds, and my job entailed sitting all day, typing. It “occurred” like a pile of bricks on my chest, in the way that imminent suffocation might. I had to do something.

So I did what I had done several times before. I joined a gym. But this time I asked to hire a personal trainer. When Izzy Barth Fromm sat across from me that first day, she asked what my goals were. When I gave her “weight loss” and “to feel better,” those weren’t specific enough. She asked, “What’s a specific thing you want to feel better about?” So I said, “I want to fit into an airplane seat.” I hated airplane seats. I hated spilling over. I hated rubbing elbows with my neighbors, trying to make myself small, clenching. She nodded and we got to work. At first, it was really hard. Later, it was fun.

I had been morbidly obese since middle school. The first time I felt like I actually fit into an airplane seat was about six months after I started working out (in other words, late in 2015). Now I’m down 86 pounds. I’m narrower, too: 15 inches around my waist, 12 inches around my chest, 11 inches around my hips. Airplane seats are still garbage, but they don’t make me feel awful anymore. That’s pretty great.

So I thought I’d write up a few notes about what I learned over the past year. I hope this helps somebody.

I had to hire somebody to keep me accountable.

Izzy is my personal trainer. She teaches me how to do things in the gym, what a “plank” is (seriously, I didn’t know that a year ago), and how to lift weights without hurting myself. She also gives me nutrition advice. But one of the most important roles she plays is keeping me honest, and making me show up. I am extremely deadline-driven — if somebody gives me a deadline and they expect me to do something, I will prioritize that thing. It took me decades to realize that I had to treat my health the same way I treat my work. I had to hire somebody who would expect me to show up and deliver on my health promises. I didn’t realize that this deadline thing applied to my health in the same way it applied my career until last year. I’m glad I finally did.

I didn’t talk about this online for a year and a half. That’s hard.

I make my living as a writer, mostly writing online and for magazines. But for the past 18 months, literally until this article right here, I haven’t talked about what’s really going on in my life. The biggest banner headline here is that I’ve been working out all the time, eating decent food, and prioritizing my health over my work. The whole time, I avoided appearing in photos that I thought could be posted online, and I didn’t talk about the gym. I was worried I would jinx it. I told myself to give it a year and then I could talk about it. (Then I added six months.) So here I am. (I started writing this months ago, then wimped out, hence the year+.)

During weight loss, I couldn’t tell that I looked different. I’m still not entirely sure that anything has changed.

After losing the first 40 pounds, I ran out of wearable clothes. My normal clothes fell off.

I had kept a variety of “skinny clothes” (aka “less fat clothes”) in plastic tubs in the basement, with the optimistic hope that one day I’d fit into them again. Well. I took them out of storage, wore them, and then they started falling off too. The hard fact was that, while I knew intellectually that my body was changing, I honestly did not “see it” in the mirror. It wasn’t until 12 months into this thing that I saw myself in a mirror and thought, “Huh, I guess I’ve lost some weight?”

I am still not sure what I look like. I think it takes my brain a long time to catch up to where my body is. Call it body dysmorphia or whatever you will, but here’s the truth: I cannot reliably gauge what I look like. I can tell you that I’ve had to buy five new belts in the past year (and bought a hole-punch thing to add holes to my “final” belt). Month to month, even year to year, I cannot visually appraise what has changed. This is why scales and tape measures matter. Other people are better at telling me how I’m doing than I am. All I can do is set numerical targets and keep hitting them.

When you lose a lot of weight, people assume weird stuff.

A lady came up to me at the gym a few months back and asked me how I’d lost so much weight. My answer was really boring: “Diet and exercise.” She said, “Oh, a liquid diet?” This baffled me. “No, I just…you know, I eat food now, like salads and stuff. I used to eat a lot of freezer pizzas.” (The sad thing I didn’t tell her was that I wasn’t kidding; I used to eat A LOT OF FREEZER PIZZAS. I got really good at preparing and eating an entire freezer pizza as one meal. I used to be really proud of that. To be completely honest, I’m still kinda proud of my incredible skill at preparing and consuming freezer pizzas, although I haven’t touched one since 2014.)

A friend told me last week, “If I didn’t know you were doing this gym thing, I’d think you had some kind of disease.” As grim as that may sound, it’s one of the few compliments that really got through to me. It penetrated some “yeah, whatever” layer of my brain and made me realize that, just maybe, there is a perceptible change here.

At a primal level, I do not know how to process this kind of feedback. Maybe I never will. The point is, I seem to trust others’ appraisal of my physique more than my own. This may be useful to you if you engage in a program of diet or exercise. (And, let’s face it, it’s probably a huge part of why I failed in years past—I didn’t have a spouse to tell me how I was doing. More on that in a moment.)

Socializing is hard when you don’t eat crappy food and you’re not supposed to drink a lot of booze, because calories. (But you used to do both of those, a lot.)

It turns out that a lot of the social activities I used to do revolved around eating and drinking. I could elaborate on this, but I think you get it. Just face it: We (or I) live in a situation where socializing entails food and drink. I have (mostly) learned to adjust my eating and drinking to match socialization, but the sad truth is that it’s easier not to socialize than to adapt. (That’s because, I’ll admit, I’d rather eat and drink to excess than just have a fizzy water and smile.) This means it’s easier to stay at home than go to Happy Hour with a friend. As Vonnegut said, “So it goes.”

I couldn’t do any of this without my wife’s support.

When I joined the gym and hired Izzy, my wife Rochelle was away on a month-long work trip. When she returned, Ro accepted this life change with true equanimity. What’s more, she eventually decided to join the gym herself, and has now surpassed me in weight loss and various fitness goals. While this wasn’t my plan, it’s a welcome surprise. I don’t think I could’ve done this without the help of my spouse. I probably also couldn’t do it if I were unmarried, because there’d be nobody at home to keep me honest.

I have no idea how to talk about this with other people.

This is the hardest thing. I don’t know how to share this information with friends, family, or strangers without seeming like a jerk. How do I toot the “Look at me, I lost a bunch of weight” horn without showing off? Until this writing, I have avoided mentioning it at all online. Welcome to my new reality.

At this point, I feel a moral imperative to say something. I started this process because I was — no kidding — worried that I’d die because of my obesity. I’m now way less worried about that outcome, but I’m not sure how I can talk about it without bragging. My sincere hope is that somewhere, somebody who is like I was (a 5'10" guy weighing roughly 300 pounds in his late 30s) will realize that change is possible, achievable, and absolutely positive. The magic formula for me was extremely simple: a sensible diet and a consistent workout program (cardio and weights, no rocket science). Yes, I’ve watched reality TV shows about fitness. No, they didn’t help me lose weight. Showing up for my personal trainer helped me, and that’s the only thing that worked for me.

This post includes no photos, because weight loss photos now strike me as a kind of pornography. You don’t get to see me holding my “fat pants” out with a big grin. What you do get is the boring truth: I can shop for jeans in a regular store now, and I haven’t been able to do that since I was 12. If you can relate to that challenge, I promise you that change is possible. And even if massive weight loss is not something you can or will commit to, you are still valuable and loved. Let us meet our neighbors — ourselves — and greet one another with open arms.

-Love, Chris Higgins

(Note: My “profile pic” on Medium is several years, and many pounds, old. Maybe I’ll change it when I have a more recent photo. Or maybe not. Who cares, really?)

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