Six Months of Fitness

by J.D. Roth

On January 1st, I set just one goal for 2010. (I don’t do resolutions.) I vowed to lose 50 pounds by the end of the year. To that end, I dubbed 2010 The Year of Fitness.

Losing fifty pounds in 52 weeks is ambitious but doable. Nutrition and fitness experts suggest that losing a pound a week is a sustainable weight-loss goal. (Some even say that two pounds a week can work.)

In 1997, I dropped from 200 pounds on May 6th to 160 pounds on Halloween, so I know I have the mental toughness to do this. And make no mistake — losing weight like this takes a lot of hard work, yes, but it’s mostly about psychological strength. It’s about dedication.

I’m now six months into The Year of Fitness. How has it gone? Let’s review.

Starting weight: 213.0#, monthly average: 209.4#.
Starting BMI: 31.7, body fat: 35.0%, muscle: 31.2%.
Chest: 44 inches, waist: 42-1/2 inches, hip: 41 inches.

I started the year at the heaviest weight of my life: On New Year’s Day, the bathroom scale read 213, and it wasn’t lying. The day after I walked the Portland Marathon in early October, I weighed 193 pounds, but over the course of three months of writing Your Money: The Missing Manual, I packed on twenty pounds. (This is easier than it sounds. All it takes is 80 hours a week in front of a computer combined with a steady diet of junk food and alcohol from the convenience store next door. I’m now on first-name terms with the owner!)

As I started The Year of Fitness, I didn’t actually have a plan. I just wanted to lose fifty pounds. I didn’t know how.

So, I spent January floundering. I did lose weight over the first couple of weeks because I was curbing my convenience-store diet. But by the end of the month, I was running a calorie surplus every day. I was eating about 3000 calories, and most days I was burning less than 2500.

FAQ: How do I know how many calories I burned? Because I was wearing my “body bug”. The body bug is a small sensor that straps onto my left bicep. I wear it constantly. It tracks my motion (in much the same way the Nintendo Wii remotes track motion), and has sensors that measure body temperature, perspiration, and other indicators of exertion. I connect the body bug to my computer every morning, and it uploads data to the company’s website. Throughout the day, I enter the food I’ve eaten so that I can compare that to the calories I’ve burned.

I also ordered an expensive scale to help track my progress. The scale uses tiny pulses of electricity to measure my body composition, and it stores data for a long time. (Months? Years?) It’s because of this scale that I have measurements for body fat and muscle percentage.

By the end of January, I’d lost a few pounds, but I’m willing to wager that most of that was the initial water weight that all dieters lose when they go on a fitness regimen. None of it was from any real change in habits.

Starting weight: 207.4#, monthly average: 208.4#.
Starting BMI: 30.9, body fat: 32.7%, muscle: 31.5%.

Despite my poor efforts, my body composition did improve in January. Slightly. But February brought even more stress. During the first three weeks of the month, I was rushing to make final edits on the book. I wasn’t exercising. And I was stress-eating.

At the end of the month, Kris and I took a one-week trip to Belize, and I was finally able to relax. I didn’t get a lot of exercise on the trip, but I was certainly more active than I’d been in a long time. It felt good.

It also felt good to eat healthy food. Because our lodge was up in the jungle, we didn’t have access to junk food. (Well, we could drink all the alcohol we wanted, but I was practicing moderation.) And the lodge prepared reasonable meals with Real Food (as Michael Pollan would call it). I loved it! At the end of the month, I’d dropped a couple of pounds, but still hadn’t managed to get anything to click.

Starting weight: 205.4#, monthly average: 206.0.
Starting BMI: 30.6, body fat: 34.0%, muscle: 30.6%.

After returning from Belize, one of my mantras became, “Would I eat this in Belize?” By this I forced myself to ask whether the portion sizes and the content of my meals would have been served at the lodge. This helped for a while, but I could tell I was going to need outside help if this really was going to be The Year of Fitness for me. I called in the calvary.

Lauren Muney is my wellness coach. Over the past couple of years, I’ve used her a few times (for a month or two each time) to help try to get my head screwed on straight. It usually works for a while, but then I slip into my old habits when she’s not there to goad me to make good choices.

I called Lauren again and asked her to work with me. She said she would if I promised to actually follow through on our plans. I said that sounded good, but that I needed her to be more prescriptive than reflective. (Her natural style is to ask me what I want instead of telling me what to do; I needed somebody to tell me what to do.)

I worked with Lauren throughout March and April, and I made an effort to actually listen to what she was saying, and to implement her suggestions. I made small changes. Most of our conversations revolved around reducing stress. Stress makes me eat, and it prevents me from exercising. It makes me depressed. It leads me to fight with Kris. Stress sucks, and I know it, but I have a hard time avoiding it. Lauren and I explored ways to reduce stress, and I think it helped.

March didn’t see much measurable progress with my fitness, but I didn’t mind. I felt like I was laying the mental groundwork for future progress.

Starting weight: 207.0#, monthly average: 203.0#.
Starting BMI: 30.8, body fat: 33.7%, muscle: 30.7%.

Also during March, Kris and I had dinner with blogging buddy Fraser Cain (who runs Universe Today). Fraser sung the praises of Crossfit, a training method that stresses developing skill in all areas of fitness.

Note: The introductory Crossfit literature sucks. If you read it and feel overwhelmed, I sympathize. It’s written in jargon, with lots of words and terms that make the average reader’s mind melt. Somebody needs to get in there and re-write some of this stuff with accessibility in mind.

In fact, the goal of Crossfit is to train people in:

Crossfit does this through an ever-changing variety of daily exercises (called the “Workout of the Day” or WOD). Workouts do repeat, but not often. One day you might be using Olympic weightlifting techniques to deadlift a barbell; the next you might be throwing a medicine ball 10 feet in the air, catching it, squatting, and then repeating — 150 times. (One memorable workout: Run 800 meters, then do as many push-ups as you can to failure. Repeat for thirty minutes.)

So, Crossfit uses short, intense workouts that are constantly changing to help participants improve a variety of aspects of overall fitness. It’s never boring.

As you can probably guess by that huge digression, Crossfit has become an important part of The Year of Fitness. After Fraser sung its praises, I discovered that Paul J. had just joined a Crossfit gym in Lake Oswego. (And I learned that some other folks, including Sally, were doing Crossfit in their cities.) Because I had no other plan, I spent a week visiting the Lake Oswego gym to get a feel for Crossfit.

My first morning was typical. With three other guys (all buff), I did lunges with a weight held over me head. I think they did 150 lunges with 45-pound plates. I did 75 lunges with a 25-pound plate. It sucked, but I was back in the gym early the next morning.

I liked Crossfit enough that I signed up. I spent three or four weeks in April taking the introductory class that taught how to do the essential Olympic lifts. (Though I confess I don’t remember the right form for anything but the squat and deadlift.)

Also during April, my stress finally went away. Though most of the month was spent doing PR for my book (which I hated), by the end of the month, my obligations had been reduced to almost nothing. And with the reduced obligations came reduced stress. It was awesome.

By the end of April, my 7-day average weight was 202.7 pounds. In four months, I’d only managed to lose 10.3 pounds. My body fat had declined by about two percent, but my muscle mass was the same as January 1st. I was way off my goal.

Starting weight: 201.4#, monthly average: 198.4#.
Starting BMI: 30.0, body fat: 32.8%, muscle: 31.3%.
Chest: 43 inches, waist: 40 inches, hip: 40 inches.

In May, I finally buckled down and got to work. I tracked my calories diligently. I rose at 5:30 every morning so I could be to Crossfit by 6:30. (Well, on Monday through Thursday, anyhow.) And I began to pay attention to my food consumption.

Many Crossfitters are fans of the paleolithic diet, which ostensibly mimics the food habits that humans ate before developing agriculture and animal husbandry. In practice, this means eating lots of protein (especially lean protein), lots of vegetables (especially leafy vegetables), and lots of seeds. A strict paleo diet includes only water to drink, and doesn’t include salt. (I’m leaving aside the questionable science and anthropology of this diet for now; I’m just describing the way it’s practiced.)

Before May began, Fraser suggested that he and I make a vow to each other: For the entire month, we’d go as paleo as possible. No added sugars. No alcohol. No dairy. No grains. And so on. Though I was skeptical of the diet, I agreed. I’m willing to try anything for a month.

So, for the month of May — except during my trip to Alaska, during which I had no control over my diet really — I ate a metric butt-load of meat. I also ate a lot of fruits and vegetables. (More than I normally do, anyhow.) I was not perfect on this diet, but I did my best.

The results? If you look at one-day weights, I lost 9.2 pounds during May. If you look at the seven-day average, I lost 8.2 pounds. If you look at the monthly average, I lost 4.6 pounds.

“Holy cats!” you’re saying to yourself. “That paleo stuff really works!” Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. I’m not convinced. I think most of the result comes from the severe calorie deficit I ran during the month of May, and because I effectively removed junk food from my life. I ate Real Food. Yes, I lost weight on the paleo diet, but I was miserable. I hated it. My philosophy is: Eat what your body craves. If your body craves complex carbs, then have a bowl of oatmeal. If it craves protein, have a steak. But it seems silly to limit yourself artificially, especially over dubious science and anthropology.

In short, choose a diet that works for you

Starting weight: 192.2#, monthly average: 192.3#.
Starting BMI: 28.6, body fat: 30.1%, muscle: 32.8%.
Chest: 41-3/4 inches, waist: 38-1/2 inches, hip: 38-3/4 inches.

June was awesome. After escaping from the paleo prison, I was able to eat the foods my body needed. I had oatmeal for breakfast. I could enjoy a piece of cake for dessert now and then. During the month, I continued to focus on Real Food, especially fruit. In fact, I ate more fruit in June than I typically do in an entire year. And I loved it. I kept my protein consumption high, but not as obsessively high as I had in May.

Meanwhile, I continued my Crossfit workouts. It’s very humbling to get in a gym with a bunch of tough athletes (like Dan and Dana and Toby and Kellie) and not be able to do anything close to what they can do. I watch in awe as they kick out twenty pull-ups. I’m amazed at their deadlift weights. But rather than compare myself to them, I’ve simply been focusing on improving my own fitness. So what if I can’t do a pull-up? I’ll get there. Every week, I get closer. On the first day of Crossfit, I had to hop twice between swing when skipping rope, and even that was a challenge. Yesterday I churned out 120 consecutive regular jumps at high speed before messing up. And I can now do one double-under. (But only one.) Soon, I hope to be able to do many double-unders in a row…

Also during June, I began biking again. It’s been a while since I got on my bike. In fact, it’s been almost ten years. But since I’ve been injury-prone while running over the past couple of years, I’ve decided that 2010 is a biking year for me.

When biking for fitness, I really ought to use my touring bike, which is built for long distances at high speeds. Instead, I’m using my commuter bike, which I bought last year. This is silly, I know, as it reduces my speed and makes me work extra hard to get anywhere. But it’s that “extra hard” piece that I like.

When I lost so much weight in 1997, I did a lot of biking on my brother’s too-small mountain bike. Riding that thing sucked. But it also burned a lot of calories. So, this year I’ve been training on my commuter bike, which is 75% mountain bike. For the first four weeks of the month, I got in about 66 miles a week (almost exactly each time); this week, I already have 76, and I’ll probably do a 20-miler on Saturday.

I went for a massage yesterday (my aching muscles!), and the massage therapist said, “I don’t know how you do it, J.D. The weight just seems to be melting away for you.”

“It’s not melting away,” I said. “This is hard work! I get up at 5 or 5:30 most mornings, and then I exercise until 9 or 10. The weight is vanishing because I’m working hard. This isn’t effortless.”

But the results are, indeed, impressive so far.

July and beyond
Starting weight: 189.8#.
Starting BMI: 28.2, body fat: 26.8%, muscle: 34.8%.
Chest: 42 inches, waist: 37 inches, hip: 37-1/2 inches.

The starting weight I’ve listed for July is deceptive. I weighed in on June 30th at 187 pounds, but had a big meal at about 8pm last night, so this morning’s number is inflated. (Not sure why I have to justify that.) But forget about the day-to-day weight. Look at the rest of those numbers.

Since starting Crossfit in early April, my seven-day average weight has dropped 17.1 pounds. My seven-day average body fat has dropped from 32.6% to 27.7% (it was 34.9% on January 1st). And my seven-day average muscle composition has jumped from 31.5% to 34.2% (it was 30.3% on January 1st).

FAQ: Why do I look at averages instead of daily data points? Because all sorts of things make daily readings fluctuate. Maybe I drank a lot of water before bed or had a lot of salt with dinner. Or maybe I ate dinner at 8pm (as I did last night). Maybe I slept very late, so my weigh-in was at 9:30 instead of 5:30. Daily fluctuations mean very little, and too many people who are losing weight freak out when they get “stuck” on a number for days (or even weeks). Long-term averages are much more meaningful and motivating.

I can fit into size 34 pants for the first time in years, and size 32 aren’t far behind. It’s very possible I could wear size 30 for our trip to Europe later this year. I haven’t worn size 30 since the fall of 1997!

And, of course, I feel great, both physically and mentally. It’s true that some days — like today — I’m beat. I biked ten miles to Crossfit, spent an hour climbing and jumping and lifting, then rode twenty miles home. I then ate a pound of watermelon (half a kilo, actually) before falling asleep in the bathtub for an hour. But you know what? It’s a good tired.

For the rest of the year, I plan to keep with Crossfit. I’m also training to ride in Cycle Oregon. I feel like I could do it now, but maybe I’m deluding myself. We’ll see. Plus, I’m still working to improve my diet.

I’m not quite half way to my 50 pound goal — but I’m close. And if I keep going at this rate, I may reach it sooner than I think. I could certainly be at 170 (and a 40 pound lost) by the end of September.

Yay for the Year of Fitness!

Updated: 01 July 2010

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