How I Learned to Lose Weight and Love Exercise (again)

Back in my youth I was an avid gym-goer, badminton and basketball player, utility cyclist and swimmer. I did all this because I enjoyed it / life necessitated it, and I never once thought about my weight or fitness levels - though I did care about how I looked. Everything stopped when I moved to a new town and made new friends; I took up music as a hobby and sport fell by the wayside. Lugging 250lb of bass gear up and down 3 flights of stairs every week felt like enough to me - alas, the lack of exercise over a period of about 10 years (combined with my love of all forms of food and drink) resulted in me gaining a considerable amount of weight without me really noticing it.

About a year and a half ago, I did notice it. I started hating pictures of myself, I was struggling to live everyday life without sweating constantly and getting out of breath doing menial tasks. Walking 2 miles into town was a huge amount of effort, and even sleeping was difficult (for both myself and my wife) due to my snoring. I decided to do something about it - inspired by a few friends who recently lost a ton of weight, and my wife who was already on her own weight loss journey, I set my mind on shedding the pounds and getting fit again.

I jumped on the scales for the first time in years... 298lb! That's just over 21 stone, to my UK brethren. I didn't think much of it at first as I've always been a "big lad"; in my twenties I was 16 stone with around 10% body fat - but I was at the gym 4 hours a night and took part in many different sporting activities. Looking back, I was very, very fit, without really knowing it.

Not pictured; modesty
That day I had a bacon butty for breakfast, followed by a mid-morning can of coke and a Mars bar. For lunch, I would have had a massive butty from a shop in whatever city I was working in at the time, a bag of crisps, a cake, another can of coke, followed by a massive afternoon tea of frozen beige food (regularly I'd have a chicken kiev, chicken nuggets, breaded fish AND oven chips in one meal), or even a takeaway. I'd have takeaways at least 2 times a week.

I was bought up on a truly awful diet (even worse than the above), and knew literally nothing about nutrition. Looking back, I'm not in the slightest surprised about my weight gain - but it just goes to show that it really can creep up on you if you don't treat your health and fitness as a priority.

This was back in March 2016. It took me a few weeks to really start taking my weight loss seriously - on 7th April I got on my old mountain bike and did a 2 mile loop of my local park with an average speed of 10.9mph.

I was absolutely exhausted, but I knew I needed to do exercise as part of my new regime. That's all I knew, though - my diet remained the same (i.e. I ate anything I wanted)... if anything, it got worse because I thought I needed more food to compensate for the pitiful amount of exercise I was doing.

A few weeks later I'd improved marginally, but was doing the same route every morning. I started varying things up, adding a mile here and there. I distinctly remember going from my 2 - 4 mile morning ride to attempting a 10 mile ride. Off I went, breaking a number of "personal bests" in the process. Halfway up a "hill" I just couldn't go any further, so I turned back and only managed 8.9 miles.

I bought a new bike in early June 2016 - a BMC hybrid, which I loved to bits. It was light(er), and was much nicer to ride than my old two-ton MTB.

I used this to do my first "big" ride on 16th June, about 20 miles around the local lanes.

Then Pokemon Go came out. My rides suddenly became less about speed, distance and effort, and more about Catching 'em All. Thankfully that didn't last too long, and shortly after I decided to try riding my bike in a group - I tagged along with Blackpool Clarion Cycling Club (BCCC) for a few rides before joining the club properly a few weeks later.

My ability improved and I eventually splashed out on a mid-range (though still rather expensive) Giant Defy Advanced Pro.

I love two things in this picture
However, the weekend I ordered it I managed to come off my BMC hybrid during a club ride and break my right elbow!

This set my weight loss and exercise regime back a little bit, but luckily it didn't destroy my motivation. In fact, I was so into biking at this point that I just couldn't wait to get back on the bike, and bought a second hand turbo trainer to try and keep my fitness up. Turns out turbos aren't for me, but at least it kept me going for a few weeks. I recovered pretty well, though I still have issues with it today.

Suffice to say, I am now regularly doing 40 - 100 mile bike rides on my own, with BCCC and various other cycling groups and friends I've made along the way. The "hills" that I was initially struggling on don't even register on my radar any longer, though there are of course still some very difficult undulations out there. I now seek out steep hills, as most cyclists of-a-certain-level-of-fitness do.

This posts isn't meant to be about cycling, it's just become a real passion of mine over the last year. Exercise is important for your cardiovascular system and as part of a weight loss routine, but you can lose a significant amount of weight without it. I've come to really enjoy exercise again - I now try to do something every day, whether it's 30 minutes of interval training in the pool, a high speed / intensity Time Trial, or a 5 hour leisurely bike ride.

In June 2016 I started writing my weight down in a notebook. Weigh-ins were sporadic and
infrequent, and I wasn't really making that much progress (especially considering what I know now).
Wed, 1 Jun 2016 - 290.1 Pounds
Sun, 12 Jun 2016 - 287.0 Pounds
Sat, 9 Jul 2016 - 282.8 Pounds
Sat, 30 Jul 2016 - 283.2 Pounds
My notebook entries continued until 2nd Jan 2017, when I started to use an app called "My Fitness Pal" (MFP) to log my weight instead. The choice of app was largely due to its integration with my new Garmin 820 bike computer, but logging weight was still a manual process. At the same time I also started logging my food and drink intake via MFP... and I logged everything; from a single gram of added salt, to the nuts and seeds I sprinkled on my breakfast on a morning. This lead me to buy some new kitchen scales accurate to 0.1 of a gram, and on March 8th I bought some Garmin scales which (after writing some rather dissatisfied emails to both Garmin and UnderArmor (the company behind MFP)) automatically synchronised my weight and other biometric data (bone mass, body water, body fat, BMI etc) to my Garmin Connect account, and subsequently MFP. This made the laborious task of logging my progress in all my apps a thing of the past.

I was already recording my exercise activity and seeing some mild gains, but this is when my weight loss journey got serious. The beauty of these kind of apps is that they have a huge database of user-managed consumables listing calories and micro-nutrients; you can use your smart phone to scan product barcodes to make logging food easier. It's not 100% accurate - and at first I entered everything manually as I didn't trust the database - but as I learned more about the foods I was eating, the less important it was to log my exact calorie intake; I used it as more of a general guide to make sure that I wasn't over-eating for my lifestyle. I work at home and am quite sedentary most of the day, so my calorie intake should be less than that of a plumber or roofer who's active all day - and it's worth noting that your calorie intake needs to be regularly reviewed based on your current weight, lifestyle and exercise regime in order to keep losing weight whilst remaining healthy. I started on 1,800 calories a day, but reduced it to 1,500 once I hit a plateau and stopped losing weight. MFP helps with this, but you can override all settings with custom values if you so wish.

I'm more familiar with this screen than I am with CSS3
This might all seem a bit too much for some of you. I am a detail oriented person - if I do something, I do it fully and completely to the very best of my abilities - a principal I apply to both my personal and professional lives. You might not need to log as much detail as I have, but it helped me greatly and my weight loss improved massively once I started doing it. I've been using MFP now constantly for 212 days straight... I'm not sure how to stop at this point!

Once I figured out that diet is much, much more important than exercise when it comes to weight loss (and maintaining weight), I started making some significant progress - I cut out refined carbs such as white rice, white bread and white pasta (replacing with brown equivalents), almost entirely excluded carbonated drinks and fruit juices, cut down on added sugar and salt significantly, and stopped snacking (I still occasionally have a cheeky chocolate bar, though). Some people need to make sure they don't have any temptations in the house; we still have a sweetie cupboard, but we also have the willpower to only treat ourselves when we deserve it (after a week of decent weight loss, on a birthday or other special occasion, or on cheat day). Learning about nutrition and how food is processed by my body is the number one offence and defense I have against obesity - and I really can't see me back-sliding now.

At some point I set an initial weight goal of 200lb - that would take me down to around 14 stone, which is right at the top end of the "healthy" part of my BMI scale. You shouldn't fuss too much about BMI though, as it doesn't take into consideration people who are muscular, have particularly dense bones, or have extremely low body fat such as elite athletes. It's still a good guide, and unfortunately the NHS and health insurance companies rely on this metric quite heavily for determining your health status.

So this brings us to the present day. The reason for this blog post is that as of 15th August 2017 I finally hit my goal! I woke up to my fancy Garmin scales showing this:

And whilst that's still a rather large number, be aware that I'm 6' 3" and I have particularly long limbs, big hands and feet, and of course a weighty ego to match. The last 2 months have been the most difficult - I was 210lb on Jun 22nd 2017 and have been struggling to lose that last 10lb since then. Here's my weight loss graph from Garmin Connect:

I've now upped my calorie intake to 1,900 calories a day so I can continue to lose weight, but at a slower rate - I'm aiming for 1 lb per week, but it already looks like I'm exceeding that.

Here are my weight loss stats. They're not 100% accurate as I didn't really log anything at the start, but they give you a good idea:
  • Weight started at 298lb between April - June 2016. I'm now 198lb (21.3 -> 14.3 stone). Total loss is 100lb or 7 stone in ~471 days.
  • Body fat is down to 19.9%. First recording was 31.6% when I was 252lb on March 8th 2017, the day I got my Garmin scales. I would imagine that I was closer to 40% when I started. That's about 20% body fat lost.
  • BMI started at 37.3 (critically obese), now 25 (healthy weight)
  • Waist started at 48", now 37" (11" loss)
  • Chest started at 55", now 42" (14" loss)
  • Bicep started at 16", now 13" (3" loss)
BMI Before

BMI After
Some of this loss will be muscle - I've not really done much exercise other than cycling, so my legs are like tree-trunks but my torso is pretty weak in comparison to what it used to be back in my weight training days. I'm trying to mitigate that at the moment by eating lots of protein, doing more intense swimming, and I'm planning to do some light weight / resistance training - though I will never become a gym bunny again - those days are well behind me.

Here are some before and after pics (apologies if this puts you off your food ;)):

Yeah, I'm not perfect, but I'm certainly a lot happier than I was. I also learned a hell of a lot about food, nutrition and the human body in the process. I'm no nutritionist or personal trainer but here's some of the important points that will stay with me for the rest of my life:
  • Losing weight is easy; battling with your cravings and "hunger" is not. If you have low willpower then join a weight loss group or find some family members or friends that want to do it with you. Support is very important - I am a very strong willed person, but my wife losing weight at the same time as me made things so much easier.
  • I am never hungry. Westerners generally don't know hunger, especially those that can afford to buy food. Those pangs you get are just cravings - ignore them or fail.
  • A lot of patience is required. Unless you're 600lb your weight loss is going to be a gradual, drawn out process. It's a permanent lifestyle change that you must embrace rather than a quick fix / fad diet - which do absolutely nothing except line the pockets of the people that come up with them. There is no pill, no magic wand or words you can utter to make the process quicker. Don't be tempted to starve yourself, skip meals or do excessive amounts of exercise to lose weight faster. 2lb a week is enough, though if you do things right from the start you will lose much more than that initially. Always keep in mind that you are aiming to lose 2lb a week - any more is a bonus but it is not sustainable, and you're only going to be disappointed when you get to a point where you can no longer drop 8lb a week without much effort. Once you get your head around this lifestyle change, you'll never go back - there are many more benefits to weight loss than just looking better.
  • Learning about what you're eating is the single most important piece of advice I can give you. There are many things I learned during the process; a glass of orange juice contains just as much sugar as a can of coke, and consuming the same amount of sugar that's in a pint of orange juice in whole oranges would be extremely difficult, though it would still be better for you as the fibre in the whole orange helps with the digestion and absorption of the fruit's sugars. Knowing some general facts helps your food decision making process massively. Learn as much as you can about the foods you eat, and work to guidelines you set yourself.
  • Logging your calorie intake is frustrating, but invaluable. Once I figured out that diet was more important than exercise I logged every single thing that passed my lips using MFP - even water (though water serves a different purpose and is calorie free). A cup of tea with milk and two sugars comes in at around 70 calories. Without sugar it's about 55 calories (I weaned myself off sugar in my tea gradually and now I don't miss it). If you have 8 cups a day (like I used to) that's 560 calories - which is more than a third of your entire daily calorie limit.
  • Snacking is evil, especially unconscious snacking. I no longer snack during the day and limit my intake in the evening to one or two snacks at the most, after my evening meal.
  • It's OK to occasionally go over your calorie limit. However, doing it too much will undo all your hard work. Remember that your calorie intake during weight loss will depend directly on your sex, body type, job activity levels and the amount of exercise you do.
  • Sugar and refined carbs are the enemy, not fat. Regardless of what food manufacturers try to tell us. In fact some fats are good for you - but added sugar is very dangerous - it's just a shame it tastes awesome. Sugar comes in two main forms - fructose and glucose. Fructose is the stuff that tastes sweet and is unfortunately all but useless to our body. Glucose apparently has no taste and is our body's preferred energy source. Because of this, they are both processed differently by our bodies - if you don't need the sugar you're eating (or carbs, for that matter, as they are converted into sugar by your body) it'll be converted straight to fat. Manufacturers add sugars to things like ready meals and pasta sauces in order to make them "taste better" and appeal to us more - avoid these like the plague. When you want to make a pasta dish and you use an off-the-shelf sauce, it contains much more sugar (and salt) than you need. Do you and your family a favour - get some tinned or fresh tomatoes, some fresh herbs and garlic and make your own sauce. It takes no time and in my opinion tastes better anyway. Read more about sugar here.
  • Hydration, hydration, hydration. Try and drink 2.5 litres of water a day as standard. This not only keeps you hydrated, but helps to fill you up and reduce your cravings. When you're doing exercise drink a lot more water to replace what you lose through sweating - I don't measure my water intake any more, but I drink a lot more than I used to. Generally, if I'm thirsty, I'll get a pint of filtered water. Funnily enough the more water your drink (within limits - drinking too much water can be dangerous) the less water your body retains. Not 100% on how this works, but it's good to know.
  • Monitoring micro-nutrients can be helpful. If you have bowel issues (my IBS has all but disappeared now), or want to lower or increase your intake of a certain nutrient. Apps like MFP will help you do that - so long as you do your research and don't just rely on what other users have entered into the database. I've only really used this to reduce my salt and sugar intake (to reduce my risk of cardiovascular issues), but it's also good to know which foods are low or high in particular nutrients. I've been inadvertently exceeding my recommended salt intake for years just because I didn't realise that the processed meats I was adding to my salads are extremely high in it.
  • Meal quality is critical. A full English breakfast is usually around 1,000 calories, but eating one means you can't eat much else for the rest of the day in order to continue to lose weight. Processed meats are also full of saturated fats and salt - too much of which are really bad for your cardiovascular system. A big bowl rammed full of fresh fruit, Greek yogurt, seeds and nuts usually comes in at around 400 calories, but fills you up just as much and is infinitely better for you. If you don't like fruits and vegetables then you need to STFU and deal with it ;) I also learned that apps like MFP don't distinguish between fruit sugar and added sugar - meaning these days MFP often warns me that I've exceed my sugar intake for the day just for breakfast. I generally ignore this because I know those sugars are being processed adequately by my body. I do still have a cooked breakfast once or twice a week, but tend to go for the smaller option at cafes, rather than the "landscaper's Breakfast" with 8 sausages and 46 black puddings.
  • Cheat. When you're on a 1,500 calorie diet for nearly a year and a half, you need a day off at least once a week. I generally also eat one or two "naughty snacks" a day but I've still cut down on bad foods considerably.
  • Exercise is not absolutely necessary to lose weight, 95% of the effort is your diet. Saying that, doing exercise is obviously good for you and increases the amount you can eat that day whilst still losing weight. Just be careful to not overeat on exercise days - I've been known to indulge a little more after an 80 mile bike ride that burned ~5,000 calories, only to have put weight on the day after.
  • Start to think of food as "fuel" for your body. Don't think that your body can deal with a 6 mile swim on just a Mars bar. No matter how much brand advertising and slogans make you think a product is good for you or full of good stuff, do your research before relying on a particular product regularly.
  • Healthy muscle retains a more water than body fat. I went from 50% body water when I was 250lb to 58% now.
  • Loose skin is weird. If you're going to be losing lots of weight be prepared to have some sag afterwards, especially if you've been fat for a long time and / or you're excessively overweight. If you're only losing a stone or two you'll be fine, or if you're young and your skin is still elastic. Unfortunately I missed the boat there, but here's to hoping my skin is just being a bit lazy and I can tone up a little bit in the next year or two. I'm still a lot happier than I was when I was fat and my lose skin is hardly noticeable at the moment.
  • Being skinny is unfathomably more comfortable than being fat. Life in general is easier, happier and less sweaty.
  • Gadgets are cool, but not necessary. The metrics you get from them can be a double-edged sword, but as long as you don't obsess over them too much they can be a great way to monitor your progress. I don't currently have a 24 hour activity tracker, but I'm planning on getting one to monitor my fitness improvement going forward.
  • BMI should only be used as a general guide. Definitely don't stress about it too much. Use a mirror and common sense instead.
  • Putting weight on during weight loss is not the end of the world. As long as its not a trend. If you plateau or start to put weight on and you're being 100% honest with yourself about what you're eating, then you need to do something about it. Also, unless you're doing some intense weight training don't fool yourself into the old "muscle weighs more than fat" bull - your aim is to lose weight, and light to moderate weight / resistance training is apparently one of the best ways to burn fat.
  • Weigh yourself consistently. Since I got my fancy Garmin scales I weigh myself every day. I do this first thing on a morning before any water / food, and after a poo. The scales automatically upload and sync with all my apps, which makes monitoring your process a lot less laborious. A lot of people prefer to weigh themselves weekly to see larger chunks come off at once, but I like to know that on a daily basis I've been doing things right the day before. This has allowed me to monitor trends in my consumption and make minor changes in my diet to lose weight quicker. I can pretty much predict how much I'll put on or lose each day now.
  • Weight loss will start quick, but slow down. Initially I was losing up to 8lb per week - that slowed down over time (doing the same stuff) until I plateaued.
  • You WILL plateau at some point. I thought I was safe from this - I lost well over 80lb before it happened to me. When it happens lower your calorie intake, do more regular / intense exercise, or take stock on the amount or type of foods that you're eating. I started doing interval training at the pool (as well as doing around 420 miles on the bike per month), and lowered my "sedentary" calorie intake from 1,800 to 1,500 calories - I started to lose 2lb+ per week again after I did that.
This is probably one of the biggest personal achievements of my life so far, and has been all-consuming for the best part of 2 years. The upshot is that I am now health-aware and have a much more active, healthy and happy lifestyle. Yes, eating all the food you want is awesome, but being fat is most definitely NOT awesome - and you can't have it both ways. I've considerably lowered my risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and numerous other potential issues, but the most noticeable thing has been that I no longer have constant aches and pains in my knees and other parts of my body. I sleep better, feel better and am generally more positive about life.

So, how did I celebrate this momentous occasion? I had the day off work, went out for a nice meal in the countryside with my wife, then chilled out all evening. Not particularly exciting to most, but it was ideal for me!

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