Weight Loss and Handstands

My friend James died ten days ago. He was 29, on vacation, riding in the back of a cab after a Friday night in Puerta Vallarta with his girlfriend, when a passing car hit their taxi. Then it was over.

James was a well-known netizen and there have been many beautiful posts written about him. I don’t think I can add to them significantly and I definitely don’t need to. But I would like to share something James did that continues to inspire me, in hopes that it might inspire you as well, and also to understand how a lighthearted piece of gymnastics — the handstand — has become a symbol of his life.


Truth be told, James could come off as a bit cocky when you first met him. He had strong taste and opinions and wasn’t afraid to share them. He also had a healthy disregard for his own limitations. He was a person who believed in “I can” much more than “I can’t”.

These traits could lead to a brash first impression, but they are also common among exceptionally successful people in all walks of life, from Steve Jobs to Obama to Jay-Z. It enables them to strive for goals that other people consider impossible.

James’ self-confidence took him to the the top of his field in software before age 30, despite no formal computer science education. He probably thought he didn’t need it. It turns out he was right. It also propelled him to make a massively difficult change to his body and lifestyle in his early twenties. His career accomplishments have been widely acknowledged, but curiously the fitness ones haven’t. Maybe because weight issues are taboo or people prefer not to talk about it because they would rather remember healthy James. Yet, to me, his physical reinvention is right at the top of his list of achievements. I think it’s why handstands gave him so much pride, and in turn, why they have become a perfect symbol of his life.

James struggled with weight issues growing up, reaching obesity by his twenties. In his own words:

I’ve struggled with my weight for nearly my entire life. I went from being chubby in elementary school to overweight in high school to obese in university. At my biggest, I was almost 280 pounds (I’m 5'6")

Having only known James post-metamorphosis, I thought he was stretching with “obese”. He wasn’t. I ran the numbers.

Body Mass Index (BMI) is the most widely used metric to classify healthy weight for a given height. Here are the categories:

Underweight = <18.5

Normal weight = 18.5–24.9

Overweight = 25–29.9

Obesity = 30–40

Obese class III (Morbid Obesity) = 40+

sources: http://apps.who.int/bmi/index.jsp?introPage=intro_3.html and http://www.urmc.rochester.edu/highland/Bariatric-Surgery-Center/Questions/morbid-obesity.aspx

Here’s BMI distribution for the US population (which skews high versus the global population):

BMI distribution. From http://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/assessing/bmi/adult_bmi/index.html

As a 5’6 male weighing 280lbs, James had a BMI of 45.2. I’ll let that hang for minute.

The “before shot” James used in his weight loss article.

At age 22, he decided to change that. Over years of dedicated effort, he not only reached a healthy weight but became fit enough to hold unsupported handstands.

James advocated that weight loss is a war fought in the mind more than the body.

Like a lot of other kids from my generation, I grew up overweight. When you can’t remember a time when you weren’t, being fat is a part of your identity. So, silly as it sounds, I think there was a part of me that believed that weight loss was impossible on some level — or at least that the amount of weight I needed to lose was insurmountable.

While a belief that weight loss is impossible may have sounded silly to him, it is nearly universally believed. I found message boards filled with heavy people claiming that permanent weight loss is impossible, and articles in the New York Times and in the CBC backing them up. James’ silly belief is, more often than not, held as gospel.

Finally I found a link to a study in The International Journal of Obesity (2010) that was more helpful. Among 14,306 participants who were overweight or obese and undertook serious weight loss programs,

36.6% of those who lost at least 5% of initial body weight kept it off
17.3% of those who lost at least 10% of initial body weight kept it off
8.5% of those who lost at least 15% of initial body weight kept it off
4.4% of those who lost at least 20% of initial body weight kept it off

James lost, and kept off, over 40% of his initial body weight. The chart doesn’t go that far.

Handstands

In the past few years, after he accomplished the lion’s share of his weight loss, James got into yoga. It was in yoga class that he found the handstand.

Can you do a handstand? If you have a soft surface to fall on, go ahead and try. I suspect you can’t. Handstands are hard. They require serious core and shoulder strength and, above all, balance. You have to be fit. I’ve been athletic my whole life and have been taking CrossFit (where they teach handstands) for the past 9 months. I can barely hold a headstand, nevermind a handstand.

I’m not sure what is the lower, the percentage of people who successfully lose significant weight and keep it off or the percentage of people who can successfully hold an unsupported handstand. Suffice it to say, they are both low. And for one person to accomplish both is exceedingly rare. But not impossible, despite what the media and the masses of naysayers citing studies, anecdotes, or common wisdom may claim.

To be exceptional, you have to be an exception.

I remember James working at it. He started with headstands. When he nailed those he started posting photos of himself holding them on Facebook. Pretty soon, James could hold a full handstand on a park bench:

Winning

How much pride would you feel going from clinically obese to bench-handstanding? I know I would want to tell the world about it. Yet beyond the weight-loss article on his blog, James didn’t talk about it all that much. He preferred the handstand pics. I believe that this personal victory may have been in his own pick for his greatest accomplishment. In the words he used to close his blog article (emphasis mine),

But, it’ll be a sacrifice worth making. The best thing you’ve ever done.

The handstand is more than James’ favorite yoga pose. It’s certainly more than a young man being showy. Doing them made him proud, and he damn well had the right to be. For me, James’ handstands symbolize the dedication and focus and motivation it takes to go from an overweight kid to a highly accomplished professional who can do handstands anywhere he pleases. It’s a reminder that it is possible to accomplish the seemingly impossible. James proved it. And he wants to help you prove it too.

Be like James. Go find your handstand.

Thanks to Jordan Menashy, Joe Gaudet, and Susan Desbarats for reading drafts of this.

This post is also available via prlambert.com

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