What I’ve learned from my 3 year health journey. Holiday reflections 100lbs later
~Distilled weight loss lessons near the end~
So I’m sitting down to a wonderful Christmas eve meal at our house last week, surrounded by family, and I know that when I wake up tomorrow, chances are very high I will be 2–3 pounds heavier. As much as my stomach allows these days I gorged myself on ham with honey-maple mustard sauce, macaroni and cheese, a mashed potato and cheese casserole, curry chicken, crispy apple salad, cranberry sauce, with Korean dumplings and pancakes for appetizers and pumpkin pie for dessert. It turned out that I gained a very happy 4 pounds — a record for me in one day, and after another wonderful meal on Christmas day, I was 6 pounds up. This was neither unexpected, nor a failure on my part, nor the beginning of a weight loss crisis of potential long term gain for me. It was just a really good way to spend Christmas.
One Meal Really Does Make Me Fat!
Even nearly a year and half after losing 100 pounds in a healthy and sustained way, when I eat decent quantities of a salty-sweety-fatty meal (which the above meal certainly qualifies) my body still soaks up water like a sponge. I don’t know if this is a remnic from previously being diabetic, but this dynamic has been constant for me since I started losing weight in earnest. My most “impressive” example of this was going from 203 to 218 in 5 days after the death of a relative. With this personal health issue, I am absolutely positive that if I still had craving and binging issues (largely caused by dieting — if you’re goal is to become morbidly obese over the course of a decade or so, this is the best way to accomplish that) or considered of any real weight gain as a failure as many do, I would have ballooned up back to where I started well before ever losing 100 pounds. This is just how my body works now and I’m OK with that.
If you’ve read my previous articles, you’ll know I’ve chosen the glutinous path towards weight loss. It's really important to me that I enjoy what I eat. I don’t do food constraints and don’t have, nor do I desire supernatural willpower. I can eat anything I want, when I want, in whatever quantities I want. If I want something, I eat it. This includes hamburgers dripping in BBQ sauce, spaghetti with mushrooms, lots and lots of chocolate and other yummies — but the consumption now occurs on my timescale. My unhealthy eating is no longer opportunistic as is the case when you blow your diet. For that reason, I’m probably not skinny as a rail — my goal is to be happy and healthy. For most of the past year, I’ve been sitting about 10 pounds heavier than my article weight (197) in the low 200s, usually 203–207, but ballooned up to 213 on the 26th. Now on December 30th, I’m already back down to 210 but may bounce up again tomorrow evening. Again, this has happened countless times, and is a regular to my pattern of living.
Everyone’s body is unique. I’ve spent a long time gaining awareness about how mine functions. As healthy as I am (my last BP was something like 104/72), I still see myself as a recovering 300 pound person. I am different from someone who never got that big. This has actually a source of inspiration for me. It meant I could figure out how to get healthy by slowly gaining awareness to what’s happening internally — I don’t need to take crazy medicines or shitty health advice (calorie counting or weight loss goals for instance) that I don’t understand how to integrate into my life and no longer believe is helpful. I see obesity as a systemic failing in society far more than a personal shortcoming. It turns out enduring long term problems may just take enduring, long term approaches, which is the antithesis of our our society approaches problems — “solve it now or your fired” is how we usually problem solve.
Eliminating Chronic Pain
How often do you hear someone with long term chronic back pain tell you it's largely eliminated — who does that? Most of my ambient “health time” for the past year and a half has been about eliminating any lingering chronic pain in my ankles and lower back. At this point I can say its been largely gone, without the help of the medical establishment other than my chiropractor, who unfortunately just moved to Washington. The key in my case (I believe this is probably applicable to most) has been modifying my walking posture — the main way chronic pain forms over time — and my fascia, where chronic pain is stored. I am in the process of writing a series of articles and doing videos on both of these, but unfortunately these may be delayed due to job loss.
Bottom line though is I have yet to meet anyone in the medical establishment who cares about addressing chronic pain in the neck, back, hips, knees, ankles or feet with either either experimenting with walking posture or massaging the fascia layer which is holding the pain in place (although others have, particularly with some physical therapists and fascia). In my experience, many in the medical field are doing the equivalent of “looking under the lamp post at night” for the solution . If you go to see the doctor for knee pain, s/he’s rarely examining the overall movement operations of the living system known as “you,” an output of which as resulted in increasing chronic pain in your knee, but instead just examines at your knee. My overall strategy with eliminating chronic pain is more inclusive, and has been near identical to my approach with weight loss — gradual but deliberate experimentation on the living system known as “me” to find lots of small ways for improving health while reducing pain and increasing movement and flexibility.
I’ve changed my walking posture three times over the past two years. I used to walk with my weight balanced on my joints — in my case the stress was in the upper neck leading to spiking pains, lower back with numbness shooting down my legs, and my ankles. After losing the better part of 100 pounds (what everyone says you need to do), I experienced very little decrease in pain. I rarely if ever started a step with my heel touching first— this is now my norm.
My normal way of walking for the past two decades was essentially to balance my excess weight on my joints and “fall forward” with my neck bent slightly forward, my back looping forward as well, with the bend at the lower back, which, over time has created to immense pressure, pain, and tightness on the balls of my feet and toes. Look around and you’ll notice this similar style of walking on roughly 30–40% of morbidly obese men if not more. I’m willing to bet most have developed chronic pain on their joints over the course of a few decades. It took me about 2–3 months of constant practice to lock in a new way of walking. I’ve done this three times, in each case making further adjustments to my method of walking based on subjective feedback.
The doctors tell you the chronic pain is due to the weight — they’re obscuring the truth if not outright lying. Its due to your walking posture, which codifies and stores stress in your fascia in chronic pain locations not unlike a river flood plane which overflows regularly with cast off refuse. You might have had a fine walking posture before the weight gain (or not), but over time, your body adjusts as best it can to changes in weight or other health issues — often it does so poorly. Had I known then at 300 pounds what I know now, I could have started addressing my chronic pain issues at once.
My ankles were in near constant pain and discomfort for most of the past decade, same with my lower back, but no longer are. I’ve had surgeries proposed to solve my issues, but I know know they would be an expensive and debilitating version of a band-aid. The problem with my ankles was not my ankles, it was where I put my weight when moving. Said another way, if you have chronic hip problems, leading to a hip replacement surgery and don’t change your walking posture, be ready for more procedures in the future. If your knee has crumbled, the solution is to change what in your movement is causing the long term stress and pain — a new knee won’t solve that. It's the end result of the way you are walking that leads for stresses to form in certain parts of your body. Your muscle covering — your fascia—tightens in response to protect the ligaments and joints. Over time this becomes largely permanent, leading to loss of movement, calcification, arthritis and all the rest.
If you ask me, an untrained health professional who’s done the equivalent of staying in a Holiday Inn Express while ending up one hundred pounds lighter, the solution to these life destroying, debilitating problems is largely in your hands. Yes, I’m sure there are people who can point you in the right direction for experimentation, but the hard work comes in the small things — daily practice, thinking and experimentation. Gradually and deliberately it is possible to reverse the effects of 30 years of chronic pain and weight gain. Stop looking for a miracle pill or fantasy cure. Nor is this about willpower. Just small, deliberate experimentations toward a healthier you.
My current walking posture engages my core
I don’t know how applicable my current walking posture is for others, but its been transformative for me. Now when I walk, I largely keep my core engaged, meaning my muscles are taught, with my legs slightly bent. In an earlier version (about the time of my health journey article), I ended up putting too much of the weight on my upper legs, which led to stress on my IT band over time— by keeping my core more fully engaged, I better distribute the weight, and almost feel like I’m floating when I walk. I take far less of a step forward, and now push off backward with the balls of my feet. I’ve practiced this daily walking my dog with long “power walks” up and down hills in our neighborhood on average 4–5 days a week (I actually enjoy this now — really!). If you see me walking down the street, chances are high (north of 30%) that I’m probably thinking about/experiencing walking. I love the feel of my muscles engaging from my feet up through my lats to pectoral muscles, which happens when you push off in this way.
Significant increases in core strength has led to one of the many simple but great joys I now experience every day — I can lift myself up from a sitting position without having to bend forward or push off with my arms! This probably sounds mundane and really basic (and is really just the back half of a squat exercise), but I’ve never been able to do that as an adult. I’ve never imagined being this healthy, even though I rarely do any traditional gym exercises. A few weeks back, after doing an hour long power walk, I was able to rattle off 50 sit-ups on a bench, without touching the bench (I attempt as many sit ups as possible on average once every 2 months or so, but never count — my wife did for me in this case). Because my daily method of walking also supports my back and strengthens my core with every step, I’ve literally integrated exercise into my normal movement. Aside from this, my main type of movement is meditative stretches and modified meditative plank exercises.
I’ve gained a small amount of weight but haven’t really put on fat since my article — I still have lost 100 pounds or more of fat — the 10 pounds since the article are largely if not completely muscle weight. I still do have probably 10–20 pounds of fat left, and am still intend to eliminate that, but most likely this will continue at a slow pace. I still do have looseness in my skin in both my stomach and legs, but this has slowly improved to the point I think returning to normal is more a function of time, as long as I keep the skin flexible. I’ve used both straight warmed cocoa butter, or this salt and coconut oil mixture, both to decent effect.
If your feet are cold, massage your fascia!
Fascia massage is an ongoing, daily habit for me. Very regularly, you’ll find me almost without thinking massaging the fascia around my thumbs, neck or even ankles in the presence of friends. This is a really good video for describing what this fascia thing is all about, although my massage approach is dramatically different from this therapist (videos coming at some point, I promise!). I barely use any pressure, but go back and forth quickly and repeatedly over an area, versus the slower, more muscle focused approach that massage therapist advocates. I most often am working on my knees through my feet to maintain improved blood flow (my body regularly breaks bad in this way, leading to cold feet), but also massage my face, head, hands, and neck. I trained my chiropractor to do this wonderfully on my back, but unfortunately he moved to Seattle (he’s amazing if you’re in the area).
If you find tight skin on your body somewhere, chances are extremely high that the fascia below is tight as well, which means so too is the muscle the fascia is encasing. That muscle is part of an interconnected network of muscles, and tightness in one place, leads to problems throughout the network known as “you”. Over time, these problems can lead to negative emergent cascading consequences in the same way (in my case) that weight gain leads to diabetes, high blood pressure and sleep apnea. The terms are different but I’m sure you’ll recognize them. For instance, if you have a chronic condition like arthritis, as I started to develop in my ankles and feet, you’ve most likely had fascia issues for a really long time.
Said another way, reflecting back three years later, I believe the main cause of my foot and lower back pain over the past decade has been my neck posture, which cascaded to pressure in my lower back, which led to a horrific decade-long, increasingly ossified yin-yang tension between my feet and lower back, along with all the second order side effects this dynamic created. Fixing this level of complex interaction is not solved with a single visit to anyone, nor is it solved by weight loss. Instead it takes gradual, long term and sustained effort, mostly on your part, to correct this. As an example of this, I still have little fascia balls — lots smaller than before — underneath my joints in my toes — this is after a year of working on them. As I loosen them, flexibility returns, but tensions in my body inevitably tighten them again, and so on.
If you’ve read my health article you’ll know I see internal awareness as the my key to doing the constant small experiments needed to get healthy. I shared my awareness of internal energy levels (anybody can do this), internal sugar levels in real-time (necessary for getting off of diabetes), and that I care about my metabolism level more than anything else, and can generally tell whether I’m gaining or losing weight. Over time, these have become more subconscious but are still there, especially when a sugar rush starts.
My main focus now is gaining better awareness of my fascia. Becoming aware of changes in tensions in your fascia gives you very reliable signals that something in your body is breaking bad. As your nerve endings physically reside within your fascia, it actually is your body’s early warning signal — the more relaxed the fascia is, the more aware you are of changes to it, and the earlier you will notice problems occurring when walking or sitting. In my case it's usually a signal letting me know something is misaligning in my neck or back — or already has if I start feeling tightness in my feet.
I’ve learned a variety of stretches and massages to address structural issues with my body that always seem to emerge. I can usually re-align my neck if I catch it early by slightly nudging the vertebrae over a minute or two in the direction the needs to go — once it starts moving into its natural place, its just a matter of massaging the surrounding muscle fascia to stop the tightness that caused the misalignment. I also have learned an amazing way of aligning my lower back (this is needed nearly every morning — not practical for a chiro visit) by swaying back and forth in a natural turn with my feet planted slightly wider than my shoulders and my shoulders, back and neck bent slightly backward — I start the sway from each side pushing off from the inside of the balls of my feet before, eventually turning my shoulders forcing a fuller turn in the same direction (video “soon come” as they say in Jamaican).
Regarding weight awareness issues, my steady state diet is usually at or slightly below even weight, but I have these bursts of weight gain I mention above, most often initiated by living a normal life. In terms of awareness, I can actually feel when my body is ballooning, but haven’t come up with any remedies to this in the moment other than the glaringly obvious — significant energy exertion and directed breathing shortly after eating — not something I felt like doing on Christmas eve. Did I mention I had lots of alcohol? The next best thing for me is significant energy exertion and directed breathing before eating anything of significance the next day — this really does restart the metabolism while halting the ballooning, but again, was not something I felt like doing on Christmas day. I have been experimenting with various meditative stretches and breathing approaches, but really haven’t made progress there yet. I do however know to get my body in the the condition it needs to be for fat cells to release the excess water gained. Through movement and breathing, I can prompt my fat cells to start releasing the water, and can feel when is occurring. So from a weight standpoint, this is really just a steady state issue for me.
Weight Loss: Boiling Down What I’ve Learned
Given that the new diet season begins in January, many of you reading this will soon be inundated with numerous ads from Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, Lifetime Fitness and all the rest. Hopefully you’ll decide to give this these points a go instead. They’ll cost you nothing other than time and energy. Here is a distilled version of what I’ve learned about losing weight, or in diet industry terms, here are the 7 easy steps to sustained weight loss:
- Gradual Change through deliberate experimentation to positively affect health on food, movement and lifestyle issues works. Choose one — food, movement or lifestyle issue — experiment with locking it into your daily routine (if you’re not changing that, you’re not changing). Once its locked in, which might take a few weeks or more, then choose another.
- Internal Awareness is critical to improving health, and is knowable. The following things improve awareness: stretching, chewing food, relaxed fascia, and meditation. The following things reduce awareness: processed foods, chemicals, stress, and lack of sleep.
- Long Term Focus: Clear direction, but no clear, measurable end point in time transforms your weight loss narrative from one of pass or fail (which in practice is always “fail” in the end) to one of a personal health journey — one which requires learning and growth in a low stress, inquisitive manner. Learning what works for you requires the ditching of personal success or failure as a mindset.
- Change Your Wants: Withholding and dieting does not work. Instead, eat what you want, whenever you want in whatever quantities you want, but slowly, deliberately change your wants. Diets engage your body an an unstable short term state that might drive you to lose 200 pounds, but if it didn’t come off in a sustained way, keep your clothes, because the weight is coming back. Diets as concept literally force short term gratification (through misery and withholding until you reach a goal), which destroys good food choices. A good food choice in my terms is one I enjoy before, during and after I eat it. If my stomach is going to feel bad an hour later, I really don’t want to eat it right now.
- Happy Food Replacement Only: Yes, you need to eat healthier. Don’t settle for health shit you hate, or can only tolerate. This is not a sustained change. Find things you like that are slightly healthier instead. Keep doing that and over time you’ll find your tastes change from godiva to dark chocolates. Sometimes something healthy you like (cinnamon for blood sugar or cacao in my case) ends up being great for your health — if so gorge on it.
- Gamify your Weight Loss: Weight loss goals involve withholding for a period of time. Losing weight in this way isn’t stable — dieting is not unlike training for a marathon in that you are doing a bunch of unnatural things that gets your body in a short term, controlled state toward an endpoint — only you aren’t running a marathon, you’re hitting a goal. When the goal is reached, you revert to daily steady state, and your weight gain follows accordingly. Gamify weight loss instead (details in my health journey article)
- Movement — Optimize your enjoyment, not your time: Set exercise routines don’t work for me, but I have heavily integrated movement into most facets of my life. Movement is absolutely necessary for your metabolism if nothing else, but in truth, it turns out to be great fun. Choose fun before function. Use what you have — there is no reason to buy anything until you know what you like on a sustained basis. Forget optimizing your time — optimize your enjoyment instead.
My health outlook three years later
I spent 30 years developing my failing health profile, it made sense to give myself significant time — many years perhaps — to get healthy…I decided to dedicate three years to this path toward gradually becoming healthy. I didn’t imagine I’d be healthy or even normal weight by then, but thought it was long enough that I wouldn’t stress about meeting short term weight loss targets.
Three years ago, when I started my health journey I was very worried about fixating on progress goals. I thought anything shorter than three years would lead me to worry about short term results. Now, three years later, I think three years is far too short a time frame to get healthy. I’ve gotten my life back and have been transformed over the course of my journey, but in some ways I feel like I’ve just started. My health journey certainly hasn’t ended — it's become a lifetime pursuit.
I constantly find myself talking to people about weight loss and getting healthy. I’ve even dipped my foot into health life coaching, but have no idea how I would monetize that yet. I tend to give my knowledge away, be it pumpkin carving templates, open source efforts or in this case, weight loss and health concerns. In any event, I believe I’ve happened upon some powerful but simple insights that have the potential to be transformative for a lot of people on this earth. I will definitely continue to look for ways to share this knowledge moving forward. And if these ideas of touched you, and you want to write about your journey, I’d love to add your article to the mix!
PSA — This may be obvious but wanted to clarify that the retention of water I mention above has little correlation with how much water I consume or not. My sense is my water needs are more a function of my metabolism and movement levels. Think of water retention in the body as stock or holding bin — really its a series of stocks for water in the blood stream, fat cells, brain, muscles, and so on, and the water you drink and excrete as a flow. In truth I drink massive quantities of water, far more than most around me. I probably take as many drinks of water as I do bites of chocolate! Its air first, chocolate or water second, and the other third.
One last thing…
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