I know I usually write about games and tech, so forgive me: I’m going to write about something personal (with, maybe just a little about tech).
Over the past two years I’ve started taking my health more seriously and worked hard on losing some weight. Microsoft incentivizes employees to get yearly checkups. When I got my first checkup, I realized that my weight had climbed up over 200 lbs, and I was not happy about that. I don’t necessarily think that weight loss is vital for everyone’s health, but I wanted it for myself.
As of this writing I’ve lost about 50 pounds over the last two years. It’s been a gradual process. Last weekend I went out shopping, and bought some clothes that actually fit me. So this week, when I went out to see friends, the difference was more noticeable. People who haven’t seen me in a while always remark that I look very different. That’s a good feeling, but still a mixed feeling. I feel like I still have a long way to go. I will talk about my process and journey with enthusiasm to anyone who asks, so I figured I’d go ahead and put it in writing to get some of those feelings out in a more organized way.
When I first decided to lose weight my focus was mostly on diet. I can’t go on a purely plant-based diet because I have Thalassemia Minor. I have some symptoms, and would be constantly feeling tired and anemic if I gave up red meat altogether. So I needed to try a diet plan that would accommodate my body’s need for a steady heme iron source. We started the paleo diet, and it did seem to work pretty well at first. I know a lot of people dismiss paleo as a fad, but there are a lot of habits that it teaches that I think have been useful. We gave up bread except for on special occasions, and I must say I don’t really miss it.
Sticking with paleo a hundred percent wasn’t going to fit into my life, though. I go to a lot of events outside the house, and it can be tricky if I’m stuck with only the food that’s on offer. Hackathons in particular are really bad for this, being full of temptations like cookies, candy, and pizza. In some ways, I’ve compensated by going out less. Other times, I’ll be sure to eat something that fits into my diet before going out. Sometimes, I’ll just break down and eat pizza because it’s the only remaining option. So I’m now doing paleo on more of a part-time basis, and letting it slide when I go out.
For calorie counting, I use My Fitness Pal. About this time last year, I was trying to drop just five more pounds before going on a vacation, and I set MFP to the “recommended” calorie level of 1200 calories a day. I thought I was being honest with it in saying that I have a desk job… well, I sort of do, although evangelism involves a lot more moving around than a pure coding gig. The truth, though, is that I was miserable eating just 1200 calories a day. After two months of that, I felt like I was biting off the heads of everyone around me. When I get hungry, I go straight to “hangry” like a Snickers commercial. After getting back from vacation, I “lied” and told My Fitness Pal that I was active, which gives me 1600 calories a day. This is much more reasonable and realistic for me. These days, there are days when I don’t actually eat that much, but I try to force myself to because it’s important to keep my metabolism steady. I’ve set My Fitness Pal to ask for a higher protein goal (~160g daily), because calories from protein are also more filling than calories from other sources.
Since I was going to tell the device that I was active, I also needed to find a form of exercise that worked for me. In the past I’ve done mostly martial arts and really enjoyed it. Meanwhile, I absolutely hate running for fitness and refused to do it. You can keep your Couch to 5K or whatever; it’s not for me. For a while I did Xbox Fitness for cardio, but I wanted to give weight training a try. It seemed reasonable and realistic to think that, while maybe I would never be properly “skinny,” I could be strong. Fortunately, this has gotten to be a more popular approach and some people say strong is the new skinny.
What’s really worked well for me is using the Microsoft Band to do Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength program. I’m not shilling for a product or anything just because I work at Microsoft; I’m really just telling you what has worked well in my case. The Band is great because it has a wide variety of workout programs that can fit into almost any lifestyle. I felt like a lot of other fitness products only focus on runners. We bought equipment for home and do our workouts in the basement rather than going out to a separate gym. I’m not actually far from an LA Fitness location, but I think home workouts are superior. The added friction of having to change clothes to go to a gym, get in the car even if it’s cold or raining, change again when arriving, and then working out with a lot of strangers would probably cause me to break the habit. With my current setup, I can work out for 90 minutes, then go right upstairs to my own shower.
I drink a protein smoothie with fruit on workout days. Dinner at home usually consists of a lean protein source plus a vegetable. Chicken breasts or canned tuna are fine as a go-to, but my body needs red meat and I try to have it at least twice a week. We’ve switched to eating mostly grass-fed steak because it’s healthier. We’ve also cut back on alcohol and sweets a lot. I personally don’t like cutsey food substitutions and generally do not do them. We have almond or coconut milk in our smoothies and the occasional cauliflower “rice” but I don’t do things like make paleo pizza crust. My philosophy is that it’s better to have a small portion of a really good dessert on a rare occasion, than eat a bland fake “diet” dessert every night.
I have a lot of anxiety about dressing myself properly. When I was larger, I did most of my shopping online. Around Christmas, I bought myself a fashion consultation with Evoluer Consultants, and this was a great experience for me. I was afraid that a fashion consultation would be like “What Not to Wear” and that I would be shamed for my body and my previous choices, but it turned out to be fun and positive. It helped me to be more confident making bold choices about how I choose to dress, and to dress in a way that still reflects my personality. At heart I am mostly a jeans and T-shirt person. But if I am able to divorce my body from my ego a little bit, shopping for more feminine clothes can also be fun. It’s weird, but it sometimes helps to think of myself as a video game avatar that I am dressing, rather than as my self.
I also realized that I was probably comparing myself to other women in unfair and unfavorable ways. It’s unfortunately hard to break this habit, and I still do it a lot. A tame example is that I think I would like to wear high heels more, but it’s hard to wear them for too long without my feet hurting. I thought that heels always looked effortless on other women, but the more I talked to people, the more I realized: man, heels just hurt. When you’re wearing them, you have to walk more slowly, wear inserts, and accept that you’ll probably have to change out of them after a while. My high heeled boots look super cute, but if I wear them without inserts over just hose I’m going to regret it. Sometimes I tough it out. Other days, I just try to be realistic and make cute sneakers or flats work for me.
Now here is what’s difficult: I am getting a lot of compliments lately, but I feel mixed about them. My gut instinct is to dismiss them. This is because I know what my body looks like for real when I see it in the mirror, and when I see it in photographs. When I see it I still feel like I have a long way to go. I don’t know if this is considered dysmorphia, but I still very much see a fat person a lot of the time. I also know that the number on the scale still seems too high. I have tried to convince myself that I should worry more about my performance in weight training than the number the scale shows, but it can be hard when weight goes up and down. Monthly cycles, sleep, and even mood can affect it as well as slipping and having a bad food day, so then it goes back up a pound, and I have to remind myself that I’m not losing progress just because of a pound or two of flux. It’s also hard when my weight trackers still show warnings that my BMI is “overweight,” and I know for a fact that a “healthy” weight for my size would still be considered at least twenty pounds under what I weigh now. I know intellectually that I will be a little overweight because I am putting on muscle, but it’s hard to ignore all the subtle signals every day that put pressure on making that number smaller.
The internet age also makes it easy to constantly compare oneself to incredibly strong and fit and good looking people all the time. Sometimes this is inspiring, and sometimes it’s disheartening. So, I try to take compliments gracefully but sometimes they don’t really feel earned. I think this is something a lot of people struggle with as they lose weight! So, I appreciate people saying nice things, but I just don’t feel “done” with all this yet.
The truth is honestly that I probably will never be “done” anyway. Getting into better shape involves a long-term change in habit, and if I ever entirely stopped working out I know I’d lose the muscle gains that I have made over time. I kind of had to accept that if I wanted to look like a different person, I had to also in part become a different person.
If you made it this far, here’s the actual “Before/After” shot. I’ve been taking regular progress photos every ten pounds or so. The first picture was taken with a worse phone camera and is a bit compressed from re-saving, but you get the idea. To me, this is not really an “after” shot but a shot of a work that is still in progress and always will be.