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 any truth to them. 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 that 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 told her “weight loss” and “to feel better,” she suggested those goals 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 really 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 (late in 2015). Now I’ve lost 86 pounds. I’m narrower, too: I lost 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, in the hope it might help somebody, I thought I’d write up a few notes about what I learned over the past year.
I had to hire somebody to keep me accountable
Izzy is my personal trainer. She teaches me how to use the equipment 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 an extremely deadline-driven person — if somebody gives me a deadline by which 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. Until last year, I didn’t realize that this commitment to deadlines could apply to my health in the same way it applies to my career. I’m glad I finally did.
I didn’t talk about my health online for a year and a half
I make my living as a writer, mostly writing online and for magazines. But for the past 18 months, literally until this article you’re reading now, 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. During those months, I avoided appearing in photos that I thought might 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 before talking about it — then I added six months. So here I am. (In fact, I started writing this months ago, then wimped out, hence the extra time.)
Until last year, I didn’t realize that this commitment to deadlines could apply to my health in the same way it applies to my career. I’m glad I finally did.
During weight loss, I couldn’t tell that I looked different, and 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 were falling off my body.
I had held onto a variety of “skinny clothes” (a.k.a. “less-fat clothes”), from when I was younger, 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 new lifestyle 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’s taking 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), but 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 at seeing it myself. All I can do is set numerical targets and keep hitting them.
When you lose a lot of weight, people assume weird stuff
A few months back, a lady came up to me at the gym 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 emphasize 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 kind of proud of my incredible skill at preparing and consuming freezer pizzas, although I haven’t touched one since 2014.)
All I can do is set numerical targets and keep hitting them.
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 the appraisal from others of my physique more than I trust my own self-examination. Understanding this glitch in self-awareness 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 — especially if you used to do both of those activities, a lot
It turns out that many of the social activities I used to partake in 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 in which 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 while those around me are indulging.) This means it’s easier to stay at home than go to happy hour with a friend. Perhaps less socializing is part of the price I pay. 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 part. 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.
I am still not sure what I look like. I think it’s taking my brain a long time to catch up to where my body is.
At this point, though, 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 thirties) 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 with a big grin, holding out my “fat pants.” 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.
(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?)