Motivated to Change

I used to be an overweight, unfit couch potato suffering from back pain and other health problems. None of that is true today. Now I’m planning a 12 day hiking trek at 16,000 feet of altitude in May. What happened? A lot of continued, hard work and help from numerous people! Driven by snowballing luck and motivation, recognising and taking advantage of it.

It’s April. That’s me on the left in the grey shirt with robot faces. I weigh 83.5 kg (184 lbs) with low muscle tone, and about 40% body fat. Lower back pain made it difficult to get any sleep last night. I’m late for a meeting, so I hurry and it takes me a couple minutes to catch my breath. When I get home, I slouch on my bed and watch TV on my laptop.

It’s now October. Spot me on the left! I weigh 62 kg (137 lbs), have gained muscle, and am at 20% body fat. My back hasn’t affected me in months. Last weekend, I hiked 30 miles with 7,000 feet elevation gain and yesterday I had to keep waiting for long-time regulars to catch up to me. Today I walked for 90 minutes instead of taking public transport. When I get home, I stretch, exercise and pick out my next trip.

So what actually happened? In a nutshell: the keto diet helped me lose the weight; physical therapy, massage therapists and my own hard work at home fixed my back and other problems; and snowballing motivation got me working out every weekday and hiking twice a weekend. They’re all largely interconnected and help feed into one another, leading me to feel better than ever. There wasn’t a conscious “I need to fix myself” decision, but rather a gradual shift, recognising the motivation driven by feeling so good, and capitalising on it.

It started with the diet in April. My then roommate, Brandon B, had just moved in and was doing the keto diet. I was limited in what I could eat after having my wisdom teeth removed, which lead me to lose a little weight. A colleague, R.J., asked why I removed the top of my burger’s roll (bun). These all nudged me towards eating less carbs, and eventually trying out the keto diet with weekly cheat days. Within a month I’d lost 5 kg (11 lbs) without trying hard. In hindsight, a lot of that was water weight, but it motivated me into taking it seriously. I started enjoying fats a lot more. I’d cook my eggs in bacon fat and make tasty low carb pizza. I found creative ways of getting enough of getting enough fat at work: slobbering butter, cheese and fatty sauces like mayo on my food. At first, ignoring that pasta or dessert was really challenging. Now I rarely think about it. The social aspect has been the hardest to adapt to. I rarely drink now, and finding suitable restaurants is a pain. Everything has flour, rice or sugar! I put in a lot of effort to deeply understand the diet to make sure I was eating healthily, given all the misleading information about fats being bad for you, etc. I understand so much about nutrition now to strip apart the bullshit. At peak I was losing about a kilo (2 lbs) a week, all while eating what most people believe makes you fat. It’s been a lot of fun, and I still enjoy what I eat. Being 21 kg lighter feels amazing! I also have so much mental clarity, have constant energy since I can feed off the large fuel source of body fat, and haven’t had a headache in months. I also want to thank Asana for providing health food and Chris Bair for making Keto Chow; both have made keto so much easier.

Around the same time, a colleague, Malcolm, referred me to a physical therapist, telling me of his personal success seeing him. I was struggling to sleep, the pain was so severe because my hips were severely out of alignment. Previously, several chiropractors would just solve the immediate problem, but it was always temporary. Richard got me into alignment, and taught me how to stay there: testing if I’m out, getting back in, and stretches and self-massage to retrain my muscles to hold me in the aligned posture. It’s helped correct my posture in so many ways that are making everyday things easier. Two massage therapists have also helped tremendously, but most of it has been self-discipline around the homework. I’ve also converted to a standing desk and ergonomic keyboard and mouse.

Late June, something small but impactful to this journey took place. I went camping with Brandon B and friends. I learnt a lot about myself and to stop caring so much about how others saw me, which has often held me back from change in the past.

I traveled around Europe in July. By this time I was about 72 kg (159 lbs); most people didn’t quite notice the difference unless they knew. I planned lots of short stops, traveling through 8 countries and 10 cities in 3 weeks. Two weeks of walking to work daily made me enjoy walking around Europe a little more. It gave me the exercise bug. The trip itself got me excited about travel again, after a multi-year break from travel exhaustion. I got getting excited about planning a 6 week sabbatical in Russia, and have been reading numerous history and fictional literature on the country. Traveling solo gave me the courage to enjoy myself without finding a friend to join, thus doing what I want when I want. I went off the diet for the trip, and while I had great food, I wasn’t as excited about the carbs as I had expected. When I returned, I visited my favourite Italian restaurant, and the amazing lasagna tasted just alright. I returned to the diet.

In August, my friend and then roommate, Michiel, started talking about how many calories he was burning on the rowing machine. I nagged him to invite me along, and by the end of the month I started doing an hour of elliptical three times a week. I started listening to audiobooks while working out, which extended to walks, which made it less boring and motivated me to workout more. I got a Fitbit to motivate me further. While I first thought of it as a way to accelerate weight loss, that was nothing in comparison to the other effects. The first few times felt like death: it was too easy to get my heart rate into danger territory. Two months later, my resting heart rate is 55, I have to work hard to get it above 160, and then it drops to 80 within a couple minutes. It lead into the next thing.

In mid September, a new hire at work, Brandon H, posted in a Slack channel looking for a lifting buddy. At this point I had hit 63 kg (139 lbs), and was rather scrawny. I had lunch with him, and then started working on my chest, back and arms. In 6 weeks, I’ve come from struggling to bench the bar (45 lbs (20 kg)) to managing with 25 lbs (11 kg) in addition. I’m slightly better toned, and have a long way to go. More importantly, it’s helped correct my posture. It’s also quite enjoyable, especially doing it with a friend. Thanks Brandon, you’ve been awesome! I’ve recently started seeing a personal trainer who’s helping me fine tune form and optimise my workout to match my goals.

In early September, friends AlexD and Theo celebrated their birthday with an easy 6 mile walk/hike. On the hike, we talked about how I’d never been to Yosemite in 5 years of living 4 hours away. Three of us planned to go a month later. I purchased hiking boots for the trip, and realised I needed to wear them in. So I went on more hikes. I started moderate locally, and hiked more during an already planned trip to Portland. That, and ongoing cardio workouts, prepared me for Yosemite more than I expected. I easily covered the Mist Trail and more the first day, and followed it with the gruelling Upper Yosemite Falls the next day. I took almost a week to recover, but Yosemite was so beautiful and I was so excited with the progress that I carried on doing two hikes a weekend. I’ve met some amazing people; it’s been a great way to escape the tech scene and explore the gorgeous nature we have in California that I previously ignored. When I travel for work, I tack on hiking nearby, and I’m fine with doing it solo. Hiking has become my goal. I train to hike so that I can explore nature and meet people. I want to learn to camp, backpack, ice hike, altitude hike. I want to see it all! This, this, this, this, this…I could go on…and I will! It’s been super rewarding, and I further motivate myself by combining it with travel where possible, as well as being okay with spending money on equipment.

I’ve had long hair since at least as long as I moved to San Francisco 5 years ago, and it had grown almost down to my waist. It was getting in the way during workouts, and being more active got it more knotted. I’ve been maximising most of my time outside of work on all the above, and I was getting frustrated by the daily 10–20 minutes spent on looking after my hair. So I cut it. This is lead so many people to take note of all the change I’ve gone through, and suddenly everyone started talking to me about it. While I’ll admit there was a tiny it of frustration that the easiest thing triggered the most excitement. It was tremendously rewarding and motivating hearing how excited people have been to hear my story though. I hope it helps motivate others!

It’s been one heck of a journey. The best six months of my life. 2016 has been incredible. I’m still on the diet, and have continued to largely retain my net weight while gaining muscle. I intend to continue it as a lifestyle change. I workout at the gym 5 days a week, do yoga at work twice a week, hike twice a week on weekends, work on my core and self-massage at home, and see a massage therapist once a week. I’m so excited to share my story. It’s been so rewarding sharing it with everyone I have so far. I hope it motivates some of you reading this to take your life into your own hands. Skip that dessert; eat bacon instead. Thanks to everyone who’s helped me along the way, even if it’s been a motivating mention of how much I’ve changed.

I’ll sign off with a quote from a book I just finished that captures part of the feelings I have right now:

“Survivors know, whether they are conscious of it or not, that to live it all is to fly upside down. 640 people died in 1999 while choking on food. 320 drowned in the bathtub. You’re already flying upside down. You might as well turn on the smoke and have some fun. Then when a different sort of challenge presents itself, you can face it with the same equanimity. DH Lawrence wrote that every year you pass an anniversary unaware. The anniversary of your own death. I’ve seen it so many times before. As adventurers circle and circle the spot marked X where they meet their own death.” — Laurence Gonzales, Deep Survival
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