I used to be heavy. Not obese, but big. I was in my third year of college; I was “working out,” and by that I mean going on the elliptical once in a while and working up a sweat; I was eating and sleeping like garbage; I was also stressed and miserable and treating everyone around me poorly. Of all those things, I thought my weight was the one thing over which I had the most control. It’s been a roller coaster ride – a lot of ups and downs – since then, but overall I’ve dropped 30lbs and almost 15% body fat. I’m still a work in progress, but I’m happy with how far I’ve come!
Disclaimer: I’m not a nutritionist, coach, or doctor. I can’t tell you what to do and what not to do. I’m just someone who likes to eat healthy and lift some weights. But I see so many people in whom I see the person I was when I first got started – nervous, insecure, motivated, just in need of a little direction, guidance, and support – and I want to share my story with you in the hopes that you find it helpful in working toward your own goals. All I know is what I did and what worked for me. I think it’ll work for you, too, if you try (and try, and try, and try).
This is four years (!) of work, making mistakes, and learning. So, if you get anything at all out of this post at all, please be patient with yourself and look at things in a larger perspective. You didn’t gain the weight overnight, and you’re not going to lose it overnight, either. Nothing worthwhile happens immediately or without a struggle. A few positive decisions every day is what makes big changes in the long run!
GET REAL WITH YOURSELF
Before you start your weight-loss journey, here are some things to think about: Have I tried this before? How did I succeed? What was challenging for me? What can I do differently this time? At what points did I get discouraged and want to give up?
Be honest about what you’re good at and what you have trouble with. For example, if you know you struggle with motivation to exercise, get a gym buddy or sign up for a class. Make yourself accountable, socially or financially. If you struggle with eating well, plan out your foods in advance and stick to the plan throughout the day. Keep at it until it becomes a habit. Try to anticipate the obstacles you’ll face and think of ways in advance to overcome them. It’ll cause you much less stress when you actually have to make a difficult decision.
Here are some other bits of realness (from a self-love perspective):
ACCEPT YOUR BODY FOR WHAT IT IS, EXACTLY HOW IT IS, RIGHT NOW
It’s the only body you’ve got. You live in it, you care for it, you experience the world through it; it is wholly yours and, in many ways, it is you. You’re going to be so much more successful if you approach weight loss from a place of love and compassion instead of a place of disgust and rejection. Love yourself enough to think you’re worth the challenges and difficulties. You are! If it was easy, everyone would do it. Everyone would be fit and lean. The difference between everyone else and you is that you’re committing to making a positive, healthy change in your life. It won’t be without struggles, but, once you get the hang of it, you won’t regret anything, even your mistakes. And, in time, your body will be a physical reflection of the health, love, and care you’ve invested in it.
STOP MAKING EXCUSES
If you tell yourself you can’t do something, you’re not going to work very hard to prove yourself wrong. If you tell yourself you can do something, you stand a good chance of being right. I heard this once in the commentary for a weight-lifting event: so much of the lifter’s success depends on whether or not she simply believes she can perform the lift. Many times, you could predetermine her success just by the confidence of her body language.
Anything can seem impossible until you actually do it. So stop telling yourself that you can’t lose weight, or that nothing works for you, or that you have some sort of disorder or problem. Take into account what you’re good at and get the most out of it. At the same time, acknowledge what you struggle with and be mindful of it every time you have to make a difficult decision. Here’s a personal example: I have no problem going to the gym every day. I like working out and it makes me feel good. Eating, however… that’s a challenge. I want to be full all the time and I love sweets and snacks. I get away with eating a little more than others because I know my body and I know I can do a bit of repair work through physical activity, which I enjoy anyway. Once you start making small changes to your lifestyle and figure out what works for you and what doesn’t, you’ll understand your body on a whole different level. It takes time to get to know yourself. So tell yourself that you can, and, with time and effort, you will.
DON’T COMPARE YOURSELF TO OTHERS, POSITIVELY OR NEGATIVELY
Here’s what I mean: if you’re comparing yourself to someone else to feel good about yourself (“I’m thinner than she is,” or, “I can bench more than she can.”), that’s a projection of your own insecurity. How would you feel if you were in that person’s position, knowing that the girl you admire at the gym is looking down on you? Strong people lift others up. They don’t put them down, even in their own minds. If you’re comparing yourself to someone else to feel badly about yourself (“She is so much stronger than me,” or, “How come her butt looks like that and mine doesn’t?”), try to compare yourself to a past version of yourself instead. Or, if you’re just getting started, think about the person you’ll be in a month, or a year, or five years. It has to be you, though – not someone else. That’s apples and oranges.
So start practicing positive talk about yourself and others. If you want to be negative about someone else, think of something complimentary instead. “She has been putting in a lot of work at the gym lately,” for example. That’s complimentary toward her and totally apart from you. If you want to be negative about yourself, use the other person as an example to aspire to – “If I keep practicing, someday I’ll be able to run as fast as her” – but envision the version of yourself in which you’ve already met that goal.
BE CONSISTENT AND WAIT IT OUT
Results take time. Make a commitment to improving your health and stick it out, even when you’re not immediately gratified with results. You’re not going to drop five pounds or have a “bikini body” because you ate fruit and oatmeal for breakfast that morning or because you went on the elliptical three times that week. But those things are important and bring you one step closer to reaching your goals. They’re moving you in the right direction. You’re going to see improvements if you consistently keep up with those sorts of habits. So don’t give up! Every positive decision counts. They all add up to success.
You’re going to slip up and make mistakes sometimes. Something big might take away your focus for a while. But achieving and maintaining a healthy weight is a skill and, like any other new skill, you don’t wake up one morning and perform it effortlessly for the first time. You start small first. You learn the basics. With time and practice, you get better as you go along, as long as you stay committed to it. Discipline itself is a muscle; it gets stronger the more you use it.
YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT
What you eat easily has the most influence over what your body looks like. To lose weight, you have to consume fewer calories than you expend (diet-focused); alternatively, you have to expend more calories than you consume (exercise-focused). It’s not fun, it’s not glamorous, but it’s the way it is.
But just because you’re eating for weight loss doesn’t mean you have to feel starved. Here’s an example:
There are almost 900 calories in a single Cinnabon. Maybe you’re in a rush and you grab one for breakfast on the way to work. It’s a lot of calories but not very satiating. You’re probably going to be hungry again in a few hours.
On the other hand, to consume 900 calories, you can eat two hard-boiled eggs (150 cal each), cottage cheese with strawberries (200 cal), a banana with peanut butter – a lot of peanut butter (300 cal) – and coffee with sugar and cream (100 cal). These are rough estimates based on general portion sizes, but you get the idea.
Eating for weight loss isn’t about depriving yourself. It’s about being mindful about what you put into your body. It’s about eating strategically and purposefully. It’s about wanting to get the most out of what you eat, besides just the pleasure aspect (because Cinnabon does taste damn good). If you’re like me and you like feeling full and content after a meal, you want to find which foods are going to give you the most satiation and nutritional value while having the fewest calories. That way, you can eat a lot without actually overeating, from a caloric intake perspective.
With the Cinnabon meal, you’re getting 127g of carbs, 13g of protein, 36g of fat, and not a lot of satiation or nutritional value. With the second meal, you’re getting 55g carbs, 50g of protein, 53g of fat, a lot of nutritional value, and you’ll probably feel pretty full afterward. And see the balance in the macronutrients of the second meal?
To lose weight, eat smart, not less. Here is a visual example of what I described above.
Which would you pick as an entire day’s worth of food?
UNDERSTANDING BODY COMPOSITION
This is the part where I try to convince you to lift weights. Sort of.
Leigh Peele wrote a pretty famous article about body composition. I really recommend reading it. One of the most popularly misunderstood subjects that she brings to light, I think, is how body fat looks on a muscled body versus an unmuscled body.
This isn’t to say that one body is “bad” and one body is “good.” That depends entirely on your goals. However, some people drop a bunch of weight and are surprised that their body still looks more or less the same, just smaller. They thought dropping the fat would make them “toned.” But you have to have muscles in the first place for them to be revealed when you lose the fat. When people say “toning,” then, they actually mean losing fat and adding muscle.
“Losing weight,” however, is a pretty indiscriminate idea. You’re probably going to lose both fat and muscle when you shed pounds. If you just want the number on the scale to go down, then it’s okay to lose both fatty tissue and lean mass. But if you’re hoping to achieve a certain physique – one that is “toned” or, henceforth, muscular, because let’s call a spade a spade – you should consider adding weight training to your workout regimen.
Women in particular are scared of building muscle. Trust me, I get it. You want to be smaller, not bigger. You know that muscle adds mass. But think about it: men struggle to build muscle and they have a huge hormonal advantage over women. Yet men don’t go to the gym worrying that they’ll get “too big,” even though, comparatively, their bodies are more predisposed to doing so. It doesn’t make sense for women to fear getting “huge.” Our bodies make it really hard to do so naturally.
A “bulky” body has muscle and excess fat. An athletic body has muscle and little fat. A supermodel’s body has little muscle and little fat. Fat causes “bulk,” not muscle. If you’re looking for a more athletic look, consider adopting the idea of “losing fat” instead of “losing weight” indiscriminately. You’ll want muscle to show once you lose the fat.
Here is a final example of what I mean: in both of these photos, this woman has low body fat, but, in the photo on the right, she put on a good amount of muscle, which means she weighs more. So don’t fear getting strong or even heavier! A super swole woman – one who doesn’t train specifically for aesthetics – probably looks like this. It’s just as feminine as any other body type!
But, again, this is not an evaluation of which body type is better or more desirable. It’s your body. It’s totally up to you. No matter what your goal is, though, you probably won’t go wrong by lifting some weights.
Sorry – this part doesn’t have much advice. It’s a summary of the past four years for me. I’m often asked how I got started. Well, here it is.
It takes a little bit of courage to share my “before” picture. It’s easier now that it’s so far behind me, but I still feel the shame and fear the judgment of others. But that’s because I didn’t love myself at that point in my life. I probably would have hated my body no matter what it looked like. Learning and practicing self-love means looking at that photo now and thinking, yup, that’s me. I had chub around the midsection, but who cares, that’s not the worst thing in the world. There are more terrible things that could happen to me than being overweight.
In that first photo, though, I was not only overweight – 33% body fat – but I was also very unfit. I had no musculature at all. I couldn’t swim more than a few laps without having to stop and rest. I couldn’t run. I couldn’t lift or pull or jump or do anything remotely athletic. This didn’t bother me much until I began teaching water aerobics at the YMCA again. There were men and women in my classes who were more than three times as old as me and were in better shape than me. Who was I to be guiding them in exercise? In many ways, they were more youthful than me. More energy, more enthusiasm, more capable in a physical sense. I began to feel like I was doing my body a disservice by not keeping it healthy. Combined with insecurity about my weight, I embarked on my first weight loss journey.
Getting started was hard because I didn’t know anything about anything, especially about nutrition and strength training. Somehow, I came across bodybuilding.com and started reading articles about weight loss. There is a sub-forum just for women and I began lurking there. Many women were in the same position as me – overweight and out of shape – and they were all getting the same advice: keep track of your food, lift weights, and do cardio.
I bought The New Rules of Lifting for Women by overwhelming recommendation. It had everything I needed: a thorough examination and defense of the benefits of strength training for women, a workout regimen, and nutritional advice with recipes. And all of it is geared toward people who are approaching these things for the first time. This book seriously changed everything for me. It gave me all the tools I needed to get started. I signed up for a calorie-counting website, got a gym membership, and dove in.
This isn’t to say it was easy. I had never really gone to a gym before. Even armed with a very detailed training plan – one which illustrated and explained each of the exercises – I still felt scared and unsure of myself. To make matters worse, when I worked out at my school, I often shared the weight room with the football team. Chubby little me was always too frightened to ask a huge linebacker if she could use the squat rack after him. I felt like such an outsider, but I told myself, “Fake it ’til you make it,” and kept my chin up. I began getting more comfortable when people started recognizing me from the gym. I still felt like I didn’t know what I was doing, but people began seeing me as a regular and that felt good, like they respected me, at the very least, for trying. It made me want to keep going.
With NROLFW and calorie-counting, I think I lost about 10lbs. It was rewarding to see the smaller number on the scale, but I was dissatisfied with my progress. I still felt flabby and unfit. I learned enough from NROLFW that lifting heavy stuff made me feel good and that I liked the way my muscles shaped my body, and I wanted more of that. The next level, for me, was Starting Strength, the Bible of barbell training. It breaks down, in exact scientific detail, the benefits of the basic and essential compound lifts: squat, bench, overhead press, deadlift, power clean. I ditched the machines and dumbbells for a long time and stopped counting calories. It was at this point that I started seeing the results in my body that I was looking for. My weight stayed more or less consistent but I started getting noticeable muscle shape and definition. My stomach got flatter, my arms and legs firmer, my butt perkier. And I was lifting some heavy stuff. I went from not being able to deadlift 135 to maxing out at 225; squatting 75 to 135; benching the bar to 75. People noticed me at the gym. I felt so empowered.
And then I joined the Navy.
I lost motivation when I first got to Pensacola. I became complacent and dependent on Navy PT and gained some weight back. I was also drinking way too much (take note, Navy ladies). I picked up Starting Strength again, kept a food log, and started running or swimming on my off days, and the fat just fell off. Seriously, I know it sounds unfair to say in a post like this, but it was effortless. I got down to my lowest weight ever – 139lbs – without feeling like I was even trying. That’s the beauty of strength training and building lean mass – it makes things easier in the long run. Your body and metabolism become accustomed to being lean just like they became accustomed to being overweight. Once you get to a certain point, it’s hard to go back; remember that when you get discouraged. It does get easier to manage your weight. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I was my leanest and strongest at the same time.
When I came to Japan, I was finally confident with my presence at the gym. It took me a long, long time, but I actually knew what I was doing and I had the physique to back it up. I started eating more and saw mass building on my body. Fat, too, but I wasn’t afraid of it this time. Between swimming and lifting, my arms, traps, and shoulders exploded. I’ve always been flat-chested, and now I have a more shapely upper body to balance out my hips and thighs. I’m beginning to see abdominal definition. But, most importantly of all, I’m lifting more than ever before, and I’m learning how to do Olympic lifts. Being able to throw more than 100lbs up over my head makes me feel like I can do anything. And I’m still a beginner!
As you can see, my goals went from being body-oriented (ie, wanting to look thinner) to being strength-oriented (ie, wanting to clean and jerk a plate). In fact, as long as I’m getting stronger, I don’t care much anymore about what I look like or what the scale says – within moderation. I’m happy at 139 or 149. Now I see my body weight in terms of weight classes. I want to be less heavy not to be attractive, but because it makes me stronger relative to other lifters pound-for-pound. It’s cool when a 185lb woman deadlifts three plates; it’s super cool when a 139lb woman does the same thing. So my goal right now is to get back down below 63kg and stay there for a while to get my body acclimated to that level of leanness. Maybe someday I’ll participate in a power-lifting competition!
And all of this started, four years ago, with me not knowing a damn thing and wanting to make a change. It took time, patience, messing up, and learning lessons, but hard work, patience, and consistency do pay off. They do. Who knows where I’ll be in another four years?
What about you? Where will you be in four years?