When I was a teenager, I often heard that till I’m 30 I can relax and rely on my fast metabolism to take care of all the food I ate. Well, as it turns out – it was a lie. I realized that when I was 23 and just gained 16 kilograms (35 pounds) of fat. Fat that wouldn’t go away despite me going to the gym and trying to eat healthily.
Classic how did I end up here moment, eh?
How I tricked myself into gaining weight
Well, it all started when I was 18. I was a semi-professional high jumper at the time. And when you’re a high jumper, you need to stay as lean as you possibly can. After all, you’re fighting gravity to climb over that bar. And it’s easier to fight gravity when you’re light on your feet. In my competing shape, I could weigh 75 kilos (165 pounds) being 194cm (6,3 feet) tall.
I did track and field for 6 years and I loved every day of it. But when an athlete is 18, you can tell with a high degree of certainty if they are going to win an Olympic medal. And it was clear that I wasn’t going to. In addition, since I had to study, I couldn’t keep up with my teammates who fully concentrated on sport. So I switched high jump for regular gym workouts.
All the good stories start with a goal. And so did the story of me uncontrollably gaining 35 pounds.
When I was 18, I looked in the mirror and thought that I definitely need to gain some muscle if I want to be popular when I enter the workforce. I often hear arguments about today’s unrealistic body standards for women. And rightfully so. But young men also have a very specific image in mind when they want to be handsome and popular.
A simple example is the iconic womanizer 50 years ago and now:
The exact process that got me to gain 35 pounds
So I was one of many boys who think that they need to have a ton of muscles to be handsome. That was a starting point for me gaining 35 pounds. But I didn’t put on all that weight in an instant. In retrospective, I see that I felt and looked best when I weighed 86 kilos (189 pounds). From there I started putting on weight up until the scales showed 102kg (224 pounds).
Here’s what I did to put on this weight:
Burning out at work
For me, the main catalyst for gaining weight and for other health problems is the problem of priorities. As soon as the work I didn’t like got more important to me than health and personal interests, I became very unhappy. But I forced myself to keep doing the things that drained me. Just for the sake of being a high achiever.
After a while, I became typically burned out. This led to me eating and drinking everything I wanted at any time. In addition, very often I wouldn’t have the energy to go to the gym after work. At least I thought so.
Even though I knew for a fact that this new lifestyle isn’t healthy, I kept on lying to myself that the majority of the weight I gain is muscle mass. Which certainly wasn’t the case.
For 3 or 4 years I felt chronically tired and unhappy. I thought I’ll get over it and it’ll all be okay at some point. But the only thing that really helped me was taking a month off work. At that time I have already accumulated some minor health problems due to my lifestyle, so I used this time to take care of myself. Other than visiting doctors, I just walked in parks, talked to the close ones and did my best to let go of all the bullshit I deemed so important.
I can’t say that when I came back to the office in 5 weeks, I was a changed, happy man. But this break certainly started the healing processes I needed. I got a chance to catch a breath, look around, evaluate my decisions. From there I started the slow recovery process that would take who knows how much more time. But one of the first things I started to want after this break was to work out regularly again.
I got my first office job at 19. And the first thing in my life that took a hit because of that transition to adulthood was the amount of physical activity. I still went to the gym regularly, but I didn’t put in all the effort I should have. As I gained weight, I got tired quicker, joints started to bother me and I wasn’t able to do as many rounds and repeats in any of exercises.
As you know, there are mirrors everywhere in gyms. So my workouts became just another reason for stress and unhappiness. I wasn’t satisfied with how I looked and I didn’t have the energy to change that. Overall, I wasn’t the version of myself I could be even remotely proud of.
No arguing that cardio is a crucial part of any training process. But for as long as I remember myself, I wasn’t a fan. I got tired quickly and got bored even quicker. So when I was gaining weight, I had no willpower to do cardio whatsoever. So the very limited stamina I had left from my track and field days was fading away as well.
Fried food and snacks
As you know, eating, especially eating rubbish, often makes you feel better. So when I felt that I couldn’t keep annoying my close ones with repetitive whining, I turned to food for comfort. And once you get into it, feels like you really need all those calories to keep you on the same level of happiness/energy. When I look back, I understand that for several years I was really out of control in terms of eating.
I can go on and on about everything that was wrong with my eating habits. But to cut a long story short, I ate too much. And the majority of that food was something fried or some kind of a snack. Unfortunately, by snacks I don’t mean dried meat and mini carrots, I mean hardcore chips and sweets.
What I did to stop gaining weight and get back in shape
Fixing mental state (20%)
I’ve been postponing the month-long break I mentioned before for several years. I thought that it was something a weak person would do, something I should be ashamed of, something I can’t afford, etc. And all those excuses were bullshit that I shouldn’t have believed.
Now I see that I should have taken this pause a long time ago, saving myself quite a few breakdowns and mistakes. I shouldn’t have been so high-minded, because in reality, I AM weak, taking a break is NOTHING to be ashamed of and I CAN afford not to pretend to be stronger than I am.
Before this break, I didn’t want anything. The days were filled with anxiety about missing out and messing up. I didn’t have the energy or motivation for work, relationship or sport. Miraculously, I kept on showing up to work, but each day was a struggle.
When I came back, I became more or less aware of what was going on with me. I felt like I started to wake up from being heavily sedated. I looked at myself and didn’t recognize the person I knew. Scary stuff. I wondered, how could I be so not in control of what I was doing to myself. And I couldn’t but be thankful that the worst thing that happened to me in this stasis was putting on some weight.
Running, swimming and lifting weights (30%)
The first thing that I started to fix in my life after getting out of that ugly burnout pit, were regular gym visits. At first, I had to force myself, but gradually, it became more fulfilling to be active physically, to work more intensely and go to the gym more often. I stuck to a regular 3-day split but aimed at stamina rather than muscle mass.
At the same time, I realized that I should add cardio to the equation. For motivation, we signed up for a half marathon 6 months from then. At first, I ran in short 5-minute intervals for half an hour. Step by step, I’ve reduced the walking times and improved running pace and time. To make things more fun, I added swimming workouts as often as I could and sauna for recovery every week.
As you can tell, that’s a lot. I’m sure that if I tried to make myself do all of that being burned out, I’d be miserable for a week and then quit. That’s why now I only add new things when I WANT it.
So I started to have 5-6 workouts per week. I felt much healthier and way more energetic. But you know what? The number on the scales didn’t change. That’s how I knew I got to make serious conscious dietary improvements.
Eating healthy (50%)
As you understand, I’m not a nutritionist. I love McFlurries and bacon. But I was challenged with a task: I needed to come up with a diet that would work for me in terms of weight loss, would give me enough energy and wouldn’t drive me crazy.
Just like you’d do, I started reading, listening to podcasts, researching and testing things. In the process, I’ve distilled several practices that worked for me:
- Drastic reduction of the carbs intake – first week or so was hard, but now the energy levels throughout the day are evenly high and overall, I feel much better. I still do eat “clean” things like vegetables.
- Intermittent fasting – I started with 14:10 for a week or so, then I went up to 16:8 and continued to gradually experiment with reducing eating windows.
- Eliminating unhealthy snacks and sugar in sweets and products like sauces.
If you asked me a year ago – I’d say that one should eat every 2-3 hours and never feel really hungry. After this whole experience, I can clearly see that this leads us to overeating.
I work in the office. There’s no way I burn 4-3 thousand calories a day. No wonder that the excess energy is stored somewhere in my body. And the way body will store it is in form of fat.
Another thing I believed religiously is that without carbs I will have no energy. Well, as it turns out, the body is smart enough to start using fat for energy. Otherwise, what would be the point of storing it?
I think that the three practices I list above play the biggest role in the process of weight loss for me. I highly recommend playing with them, but first, read up on each topic, be careful and always consult with your doctor.
Three months into my new lifestyle the results are as follows:
- I lost about 15 kilos (33 pounds)
- From certain angles, I appear to have abs again
- I feel much healthier and way more energetic
- It feels great to achieve a goal
How I deal with the body standards now
Sport, eating and fighting off depression led me to lose 35 pounds in 3 months. That’s a lot. I feel much better, but for the optimal form, I’ll need to go down a little bit more. And this means that by society’s definition, I’ll be rather skinny. But I am really happy with the progress I’m making. Putting together a system, sticking to it and seeing it work gave me the feeling of controlling something in my life again.
The thing that I learned and that changed my perspective on masculinity quite a bit was the realization, that my body is first and foremost a tool and a reflection of what’s going on inside me. And I want this tool to be lean, sharp, quick and agile. That’s exactly what 6 workouts a week and eating habits I described above do to a body.
In addition, I asked myself, why I wanted to be muscular. And the honest answer was that I wanted to be liked. I wanted to be respected and celebrated for the fine work I’ve done with my body. But the fact is that the people whose opinions matter will recognize a lean athlete and how much work it took. And the people who only look for bulging biceps aren’t really my audience.
What I learned from this whole story
- Losing weight is hard. Even at 23.
- Changing habits and resisting temptations is extremely hard.
- Fixing mental health issues is scary and hard as well. And this process seems to be about a lot more than just losing weight.
- If you want to get lean and stay lean, eating healthy and working out harder than ever is a new lifestyle, not a temporary thing to help you get in shape for summer.
You can’t just force yourself to do all of the things I wrote about if you’re not ready. You only stand a fighting chance of changing your lifestyle if you consciously understand why you’re doing what you’re doing. And you’ll have to start with the microscopic steps that don’t seem to work in short-term perspective.
It doesn’t matter if someone is ahead of you. It doesn’t matter if you’re much weaker than you thought you were. It doesn’t matter what people around you think. What matters is that you understood that you want to change, you showed up and you put in the work.