Next Saturday marks my 60th birthday. It wasn’t necessarily for my birthday, but earlier this year I decided to give myself the gift of redefining what was possible and impossible in my life.
There’s a myth out there that it’s extremely difficult to lose weight when you get older. It’s not. I offer myself as evidence. At the left is how I looked last February on our trip to Antarctica: like a snowman.
I wasn’t expecting this to happen. But I’d been thinking about getting a personal trainer, with no particular goal in mind other than to stop having to buy more pants with progressively bigger waistlines. I’d tried other weight-loss and exercise efforts, without long-lasting effect. When my trainer at 24 Hour Fitness told me that I could lose 40 pounds, I thought he was crazy.
Turned out he wasn’t. My trainer Eric is 22 years old, doesn’t know who Bette Midler is (any more than I know who his favorite hip-hop singers are), but he’s guided me to somewhere I never expected to be.
The last really big change in my life took place about 35 years ago, when my life had become so disheartening that I decided to change my mental outlook. That required three things: seeing a therapist, going to 12-step meetings, and reading about recovery.
Interestingly, when I decided to change my physical outlook, that too also required three things: getting a trainer, using a smartphone app to track my calories, and being mindful about what I put in my mouth. Welcome to the 21st century.
I meet Eric at the gym for weight training three days a week; I do cardio exercise at home twice a week. There is no running involved. I’m not ruining my knees. But I’m both gaining muscle and losing fat at an astonishing rate. My percentage of body fat is down from 32% to 24% – and I’m aiming to get it down to 16%, because, frankly, I still jiggle in some places. But a lot fewer than before.
Eric set my smartphone app, MyFitnessPal, to 1,770 calories. You would be astonished at what’s possible to eat and still stay under 1,770 calories. I mean, you can’t have cheeseburgers and Reubens on a regular basis, but you can have them on occasion.
At one point early on, when I despaired after a weigh-in that I wasn’t dropping pounds fast enough, Eric suggested I spend a week limiting myself to two food groups: protein and vegetables. That meant a lot of eggs and fish and chicken and carrots and celery, but also steak if I wanted it. I refused to forego the milk in my morning coffee, but I limited my intake to two cups.
I lost five pounds that week.
I went back to my usual regimen of 1,770 calories the following week, and then back to protein and vegetables. I lost another five pounds. And so on.
A week of dietary limitations is not difficult. A life of dietary limitations is. That’s why they say diets don’t work.
MyFitnessPal, which I primarily use to track calories, was also an eye-opener. We drink extremely strong coffee – French Market from New Orleans – in large mugs. At first, I estimated that I put a half-cup of milk into my coffee in the morning. Then – here’s where the mindfulness comes in – I measured it to make sure. I was putting a full cup of milk into my coffee. One cup of 1% milk equals 130 calories. If I had four cups of coffee in the morning, not to mention another cup at lunch and another cup at dinner, that was 780 calories, almost half of my daily allotment.
They say the biggest part of maintaining weight loss is not returning to old habits. Believe me, I am not going back to drinking that much milk in one day ever. I drink more water now than I ever have.
I also discovered, thanks to the app, that one of my chocolate chip cookies equals 180 calories, while a piece of Frango’s chocolate is around 40 calories. So I let myself have one, instead of six. It’s amazing that one piece of candy or one cookie can be as satisfying as six, but it is.
I’m not sure where all this newfound discipline came from. If I’m honest, I have to say that it had a lot to do with my father’s passing earlier this year. It wasn’t just that I could now afford a trainer more easily, it was that I no longer had his hypercritical voice in my ear. But it was also the fact that, even after a lifetime of abusing his body with alcohol, he still lived to within a few weeks of his 95th birthday (his mother died just short of her 102nd). I figure if I have genes like that, I don’t want to be physically decrepit for the duration.
I won’t say there isn’t a downside. There is now a large box of pants in the attic that don’t fit me. I’ve had to buy new shorts, new pants, new swimsuits, and even new shirts. And Eric doesn’t come cheap – but he’s worth it. I wish I’d done this years ago.
But the upside is even greater. My wife the doctor insists she’s been telling me about the cumulative beneficial side effects of weight loss for years, but now they’re startlingly evident. These include:
No more snoring. I had actually been diagnosed with sleep apnea, but hated the idea of wearing the C-PAP device that had been prescribed for me. When the supplier never called me back, I said to heck with them. Avoiding that hideous sleeping mask wasn’t the motivation for losing weight, but it turns out that losing weight is a recommended treatment for apnea. All gone. My sleeping partner confirms this.
Cholesterol drop. I went from 208 mg/DL two years ago to 155 last month. My HDL went up and my LDL went down. I am now on a “Lipitor holiday” to see whether I still need to keep taking it.
Lung capacity. After my pulmonary embolism in 1999, my lung capacity sucked. I’d come to rely on everything from Advair to Proventil when it came to exercising. Haven’t used either one in weeks.
Here’s the takeaway, the one single important thing to note: this was not draconian. I don’t feel like I’ve been deprived of anything. (Well, perhaps there was that birthday cake at a party that took place on one of my protein-and-veggie weeks.) An ice cream sandwich and a glass of Riesling are only about 140 calories each. And because muscle burns calories more than fat, the closer I get to my weight goal, the easier it will be to keep it off.
If you’re thinking about getting rid of that paunch, you can. It’s not so much a question of losing weight as much as it is redefining the realm of the possible.