Shedding the excess pounds
I’ve been asked to produce a consolidated version of my recent series of posts on losing weight, so here it is in one mega post.
It’s been a while since I’ve updated this blog and one of my New Year Resolutions is to keep it more up to date. Each year I also promise myself to lose weight and get fit following the eating and drinking excesses of Christmas. And you know what? In 2013, I actually did. This was not however the result of a resolution made in January, but a decision made in the middle of October following a lecture from my doctor. For once, I decided to listen and actually do something about it and by Christmas morning, I was 16 lbs lighter. Many people have asked me how I did it, and since it is that time of year when interest in diets and fitness programmes hits a seasonal peak, I thought I’d write a blog post or two on the subject.
The first question people have is usually “which diet plan did you follow?”. And there are many fashionable options. 5:2, Atkins, Paleo and so on. But the truth is, I didn’t follow any of them. I went with the “eat less, drink less, exercise more” plan. Simple really. But of course if it was that simple, we wouldn’t have the boom that we do in obesity and related health problems. So over the course of a few posts, I’m going to set out what worked for me and why. Today I’ll cover the first three steps.
Step 1: Make a decision and mean it
This was probably the most important step of all for me. On many previous occasions, I have “decided” to drink less, to lose weight and to get fit. I’d bought the cross-trainer and even used it from time to time. But in truth, what I’d decided to do was to try to do these things. The difference this time was that I decided to do it, not just try.
Step 2: Set a target
This is the easy bit, but no less important for that. In my case it was to lose 15 lbs by Christmas Day, which would get me to the lower bound of the “overweight” category of BMI. This would mean losing about 1½ lbs a week, which my web research said was a reasonable target. This was to be an interim step along the way to getting to the middle of the “normal range” of BMI before my 50th birthday. So a total of 22 lbs before September 2014. After a couple of weeks and some more internet research, I decided that it was also important to target a “fat %” figure to make sure that any weight loss was the “right kind of weight”.
Step 3: Track both inputs and outputs
Having decided to treat the task as a project with clear goals, regular tracking of progress was clearly going to be key. But as well as tracking output measures like weight, it is also key to target and track input measures – calories consumed and burned. Weight gain or loss is actually pretty simple. Calories in < calories out = weight loss. Set targets and track progress on all three parts. Fortunately, technology has made it easy to do just that and I'll cover that next.
[caption id="attachment_937" align="alignleft" width="950"] Withing Scale[/caption]
Step 4: Leverage technology
There are many reasons to tool up with technology to help you succeed in your mission to lose weight.
Firstly, keeping regular track of the progress you are making is essential for motivation and knowing how you are doing, so that if things aren’t working you can adapt. My weapon of choice here is the Withings Scale. This connects to your WIFI and automatically uploads your weight and fat % measurements to the web (by default to a private account if you don’t want to broadcast your vital statistics to the world). It is easy to use and the iPhone and iPad apps provide a wealth of charting and tracking data. Nowadays of course, they’ve “gamified” the experience and whilst the “congratulations, you are now 50% of the way towards your weekly weight loss goal” messages are a bit banal, they do actually help to keep you motivated and interested.
Secondly, the technology takes the grind out of properly tracking the input side – what you eat, drink and how many calories you’ve burned through exercise. It really does help to be able to link your input actions to the resulting outputs of weight, fat percentage and body measurements. Whilst the correlation between inputs and outputs is far from perfect on a daily basis, measured over a few days it really is very strong. And it is the input side that you control. After a while, knowing that each glass of wine means another 20 minutes on the cross-trainer to burn it off really does start to drive behaviour. When you know you are behind against your weekly calorie target, that second helping doesn’t seem so attractive.
In terms of apps, I’m using Runkeeper to track cross-trainer sessions, walks, cycle rides and runs and MyFitnessPal to track calories. Both of these integrate with the Withings app and so you can view all your information on an integrated dashboard. The Withings Pulse activity and sleep tracker is also good.
So technology can be a big plus for motivation and help you stay on target in terms of keeping to your daily and weekly net calorie budgets. For me, as a technology enthusiast, it has also helped to keep me interested in “the project”. But for anyone wanting to follow “the Boyle weight loss plan”, I’m afraid that this is the end of the easy part. The next step in the journey will require you to get up from the sofa and out from behind your desk and start burning the calories. I’ll now cover how I have found the time and motivation to average 50 minutes of exercise a day.
JTX Smart Stride 23
Step 5: Daily exercise
So we now need to move on from the easy initial steps of setting your goals and loading up with tracking technology. The next easiest bit for me was to do more exercise. I think this is an essential part of any weight loss programme as it gives you multiple benefits. As well as the direct impact it gives from burning calories, it can also stimulate the metabolism and of course has significant health benefits over and above those from losing weight. Whilst I won’t pretend that it can be a complete solution – you do need to take steps to control your eating and drinking too, I found that it made the scale of adjustment needed much more manageable.
Once you’ve got yourself into the mindset that meeting the net calorie budget over time is “non-negotiable”, exercise becomes the safety valve for any weakness of resolve on the consumption side. A night out planned and don’t fancy drinking water all evening? Better get some extra exercise in to compensate in advance.
Although I’ve done the odd bit of running and cycling, far and away the main contribution has been from walking and time on the cross-trainer. Both of these are low impact and so don’t come with the risk of your programme being put out of action by an injury. And for me at least, I’ve found them the easiest to fit into my daily routine with the least adjustment. That is not to say with no adjustment and the real challenge to significantly increasing your exercise is making the time. I use the term “making” rather than “finding” as none of us have a spare 50 minutes a day that they can easily repurpose. So how have I managed it?
For me, cross-trainer time is a first thing in the morning activity and is something to be done every day if at all possible. Having the equipment at home makes all the difference in terms of minimising the “time overhead”. Compared to exercising at home first thing in the morning, a middle of the day gym trip means an extra shower and (unless you can walk or cycle to the gym), wasted travelling time. You are also most in control at that time too. Time can always be made as long as you get up early enough. I’ve found that squeezing in 30-40 minutes a day most days and a bit longer at the weekend is feasible. The rest of the day is more unpredictable and subject to the demands of other people.
The other great advantage of the cross-trainer is that you can do other things whilst you exercise. An iPad on a stand gives you a world of entertainment and information to keep you from getting bored. My favourite diversion is watching training videos from Lynda.com. So as well as losing weight and getting fit, I’ve been learning lots at the same time.
Walking is the other calorie burning activity that has made a significant contribution. Listening to audiobooks at the same time helps make it an activity that you look forward to rather than get bored doing. I’ve found that, weather permitting, fitting in a 30-40 minute walk during the day is possible on many days. Difficult, but possible. We are all supposed to get time off for lunch after all. And that doubly virtuous “mobile lunch” of fruit eaten on the move gives lots of points. Points which can be cashed in at the weekend in an extra glass of wine or two without busting the calorie budget.
Which is a perfect segue to the next step, dealing with the demon drink.
Probably better to store your wine out of sight, I’ll admit.
Step 6: Drink less
So we are now up to step 6 – cutting down on the booze. I did tell you that steps 1-5 were the easy bits didn’t I?
The strategy starts with cutting out alcohol on weekdays. By which I mean Monday to Thursday. Trying not to drink on Friday nights would be inviting failure. The heart of my approach to losing weight (and not just trying to do it) was to set goals that I would be able to meet and make lifestyle changes that I would be able to sustain. Not drinking on weekdays is a rule which I’ve not tried to achieve 100% of the time. Again, I think this would be unrealistic for me. There are too many work dinners on weekdays. Too many overseas trips. Too many social situations where not drinking would be problematic. But in practice I’ve been managing between two and four alcohol free days a week.
Now for those of you who don’t drink much, this might sound undemanding. The good news for you is that perhaps this part of my weight loss formula will in fact be another easy part. The bad news is that if you already don’t drink much and still have a weight problem, I can only assume you have another high calorie habit, like taking sugar in your tea/coffee, snacking on biscuits or cakes, eating puddings etc, none of which were problem areas for me. If they are for you, you’ll have to substitute no pudding days for no alcohol days.
With a daily net calorie budget of 1,200 and a glass of wine coming in at 120 calories, it is not difficult to see why cutting down on alcohol had to be a central part of my weight loss plan. It was also something I needed to do in any event for the good of my liver. But I was under no illusions that I would need to deploy every possible strategy and tactic if I was to succeed.
One approach to drinking less is to promise yourself to stop drinking after a certain point. “I’ll just have the one”, or “we won’t open the second bottle”. But my first fairly obvious tip is that your sober self is much better at self denial than the person you become after a drink or two. So put your sober self in charge and don’t base any of your plans on your post drinking self sticking to any of the rules.
It is much easier to delay gratification than to deny it. So rather than walking in the door and cracking open a bottle of wine (as I used to do), make a rule that you have to drink a pint of water first. After a pint of water, you drink more slowly. Tell yourself “I can wait half an hour” and go and do something else first. Any delay to starting the first drink means you’ll drink less over the course of the evening. Once the cork is out (or the screw cap removed), keep a glass of water next to you and try and alternate. I reckon it’s possible to cut down your intake on drinking days by up to half through little tricks like this.
One more observation. If you’ve had to get up extra early in the morning to fit in your daily exercise, you may be running short on sleep. If you are using something like the Withings Pulse I mentioned in an earlier post to track your sleep, it will probably be nagging you that you aren’t getting enough. So go to bed a bit earlier. There will be fewer hours in which to resist temptation on non-drinking evenings, and you’ll have less time to clock up the calories on drinking days.
Meet your new best friend
Step 7: Eat less
The final step in my seven point plan for losing weight is to eat less. I’ve left this one till last, which might seem surprising as cutting back on what you eat seems to be the most obvious part of “going on a diet”. For me, this bit of the plan has been important, but probably the least significant part of the “eat less, drink less, exercise more” formula. It was probably this mismatch between what I actually did to lose weight and the questions I got about what diet I was following that prompted me to write this series of blog posts.
My wife Amanda has always cooked healthy food at home and we’ve never really eaten dessert on a regular basis. So for me, the key things to address on the food front were lunch and weekday work dinners. I’ve already mentioned the potential of the “mobile lunch” (an apple and/or banana eaten on the move whilst walking off the calories) to help balance out your weekly net calorie statistics. I’ve also found that it is pretty hard to hit the weekly goals if you have more than 2-3 “high calorie” meals a week (Sunday roast, restaurant meal out, anything with chips etc). So if you have a job like mine, controlling the number of weekday invitations you accept is important and one of the things I did was to ask my PA to help me impose a “maximum one meal out a week” constraint.
As I’ve already said, I didn’t have a big problem with snacking. But saying no is still important. People in the office are very friendly and sociable and there is a tradition of bringing in cakes and other snacks on birthdays and after travel trips. If you are serious about controlling your weight, you have to learn to say no and not be worried about offending people.
Some final thoughts
There are a few things I want to mention that haven’t fitted in to my step by step guide and I want to cover these before I finally shut up.
Toning up. After a few weeks focusing on “cardio”, I decided to add some strength and toning exercises. You need to find another 10 minutes a day and I don’t really know whether this helped on the weight loss front. But for myself, I think it did and it is certainly something I’d recommend as part of a campaign to get healthy and feel better about yourself.
Feedback. There is huge value to making enough progress in the first few weeks that people start to notice and give you positive feedback. Being told things like “wow, you’ve lost lots of weight”, “you look great”, “you look younger” are all great for the motivation and give you the impetus to carry on. As an aside, people usually don’t tell you that you are looking fat, old or unhealthy (well, except perhaps your mother). Maybe if they did we wouldn’t let things get to the stage that a diet is necessary at all.
Support. Losing weight is easier as a team. In my case, having a supportive spouse willing to share my non-drinking days, help me eat more healthily and join me on weekend walks was invaluable. So make sure you enlist the help and support of colleagues, friends and family wherever you can. Some of the social features of today’s health apps can play a role here. Exercise classes such as those run by our friend Gilly Cook at GLF Fitness would I’m sure be a great solution if you can fit them into your schedule.
Sustaining it. Obviously this is something I can’t really speak about with the benefit of experience. After a pause over Christmas, I’m back on my target trajectory but still have another 9 pounds to go. But there are three things that give me confidence that I won’t be putting the weight back on:
- When I made my decision to lose weight, I decided to change my lifestyle permanently, not just “go on a diet”.
- As I’ve tried to explain, I designed the steps I took very carefully, with a full appreciation of my weaknesses and only including things I was confident I could sustain.
- Now I’ve written this blog and broadcast it to the world, it would be far too embarrassing to become a fat slob again.
If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading and I hope that at least one or two of these ideas may be things you can use to help you stick to your own New Year Resolutions. Good luck!