Fantastic Friday: Losing Fifty

It’s midway through the year, late enough that the novelty of “weight loss” and “fitness” resolutions has worn off. For those of you who stuck to it—great! And keep it up!

For those of you who didn’t, I’m writing this post to hope to encourage you to get back on the fitness wagon. I want to share my ongoing fitness journey as a way to inspire others. In September 2014, my husband and I decided to lose weight (and I decided to get back in shape). We started with the goal of losing a collective 100 pounds, assuming it would take the bulk of a year to do so. So far, we’ve lost 96 pounds collectively, and we are close to our goal.

I feel a million times better—more energetic, more confident, and more powerful—than I have for years. I wish I could share the feeling with everyone.

So many people have asked me “what’s the secret?” For those wondering how we are doing it, it’s simple, but it’s not easy. In short, it’s a lifestyle change.

First, a bit of my history.

In middle school, I was chunky. My doctor told my mother to “watch it.” Whatever my genetics are, my metabolism is “efficient,” meaning I can basically take a jelly bean and turn it into a pound of fat. Great for cavemen scrounging around for food. Bad for people who live in a society such as ours—privileged to be surrounded by food almost all the time.

In high school, I took to running track (distance) and cross country. I lost weight (lots of weight), broke several schools records, earned several medals, and ran the mile in five and a half minutes. I could eat Taco Bell on the way home from practice and still be hungry enough to eat two helpings at dinner. Here is a picture of me from prom. Very toothpicky:

val-promThings were okay through college and even grad school. Though I stopped running freshman year, I kept in shape. I ran frequently, loved to rollerblade, and maintained a healthy weight. Sure, I no longer looked like the toothpick I was in high school, but I was healthy.

Then, rushing down the stairs at the start of an Easter holiday, I slid down the last three steps laden with a suitcase, a duffel bag, and a box. The carpet on those stairs was slightly loose, and I was going too fast. I tried to stop myself by jamming my leg straight out, catching my weight—and the weight of all the luggage I carried. The good news: I stopped myself from falling down the stairs. The terrible news: I seriously damaged my knee.

I thought it was just a sprain, but when the injury kept getting better-worse-better-worse, I finally went in for an MRI. I had a partial tear of the ACL. By that time, I hadn’t been able to do enough exercise to get my heart rate up—for about 7 months. During physical therapy (it was suggested I do physical therapy, not surgery, as it was only a partial tear), it was a challenge for me to walk on the treadmill backwards and at an incline. I tried to run after the physical therapy, but it felt like someone had slashed the back of my knee with a knife. I biked, but I didn’t have enough roads to safely ride as fast and far as was required to get enough exercise.

The years added up, and so did the pounds. My knee went through the better-worse-better-worse pattern for several years, and it kept me from exercising to the extent I needed to. But my eating habits stayed the same.

The pounds added up.

The pounds added up.

Making a Decision

This takes me back to September of last year, when my husband and I decided to get back in shape. I needed to lose 50 pounds to get back to the relatively healthy weight I had been before tearing my ACL. And being honest with myself, I could probably lose up to 70 and still look and feel healthy. But I set my first goal at 50 and decided to re-evaluate when I got there.

We didn’t use any fancy weight plans or anything like that. We went with a straight calorie deficit plan, using MyFitnessPal, a free app and a website that helps keep track of daily calories and goals. As I said, simple but not easy. I’m not a fitness expert, so I’m not endorsing anything. I’m just sharing what worked for me. MyFitnessPal calculates the number of calories each individual needs to lose, maintain, or gain weight based on the details each user inputs, such as weight, height, activity level, and goal.

The first two weeks were the worst. We were shocked at the number of calories in things we ate every day—especially things that were low fat but heavy in calories. We assumed pizza was unhealthy because of all the cheese—but it turns out, the carbs are the big calorie culprit there. So we reevaluated our eating habits, made some changes, learned what filled us and what left us hungry. In short, we upped lean proteins and cut carbohydrates. We ate fats moderately (the calories contained in fats act like a police force anyway, insuring we don’t eat too much fat) and limited sugars. For the first two weeks, I literally felt hunger pains. But when my stomach got used to the amount of food we should have actually been eating, it became easier.

Eating and Cooking

For “go-to” meals, we grilled chicken breast every Monday so we’d have them for lunches or dinners when we needed something quick, lean, and full of protein. Each Sunday night, I boiled eggs so we had them for breakfast—a grab-and-go protein with reasonable calories. We made sure to have ripe bananas and apples around for when we got hungry. We planned lunches, starting with a protein and building a filling but low-calorie salad around them. For desserts (which we didn’t eat but a few times a week), we bought packages of pre-shaped cookie dough. We carefully counted how many calories we had left at the end of each day, and if we had any available, we baked only that number of cookies to insure we didn’t over-eat. Allowing us a few cookies here and there helped to prevent cravings. We learned that things like tea or hot chocolate were better than a few scoops of ice cream. We bought packages of those “steamer” vegetables—the ones already mixed that you just pop in the microwave. We learned which pre-packaged chicken or fish meals were healthy and which were high in sodium. In short, we made sure our refrigerator was much more convenient than running out for fast food.

celebrating losing 40 earlier this year with... 40 pounds of potatoes!

Celebrating losing 40 earlier this year with… 40 pounds of potatoes!

Exercise

My husband is not a big fan of exercise. He was able to lose a lot of weight without worrying about exercise—simply counting calories. Only recently—after the easy weight came off—has he started to exercise more regularly. He even admitted that exercise makes him feel healthier and younger. He has been sick rarely since losing weight.

Because of my fitness background, I missed being in shape. For me, this journey has been more about getting back in shape (and feeling strong!) than about the number on the scale. I am not officially endorsing any of the exercise programs I used; I am simply stating what worked for me.

I started with a DVD I found in our collection, Jillian Michael’s 30-Day Shred. I was astounded at how difficult the “level 1” workout was for me—doing jump rope and jumping jacks for a full two minutes killed my calves. It took me about three weeks of doing level 1 (a 20-minute workout) every day before I got in shape and started getting bored. I spent another 2-3 weeks on level 2 and then moved on to level 3. My 16-year-old self would have been ashamed at how far I’d allowed myself to go.

I saw changes in my body after the first few weeks. Definition seeped back in—slowly. After making it to level 3, I changed it up, alternating in Billy Blanks’ Tae Bo (I had done Tae Bo for years in college, and I have several DVDs) and finally stepping up my weight training to include Les Mill’s Pump. After losing about 20 pounds, I was thrilled to realize that my knee no longer hurt anymore—at all.

After all of those exercises became easy, I started Les Mills Combat, a series of intense mixed martial arts moved that helps my heart pump and my muscles build. When weather permitted, I ran. The weight loss helped, and strengthening the muscles did, too. Even though the numbers on the scale weren’t going down as quickly as they were those first few months, my clothes were fitting much more loosely. I went through boxes of clothes I had packed up years ago—and kept in hopes of being able to fit them again.

And I can!

It fits again. Like going back in time...

It fits again. Like going back in time…

The best feeling was on Thanksgiving of last year. I had forgotten my jacket, and several family members wanted to go on a short walk to visit some historical areas near the place we were eating. My parents each had brought two jackets—one winter-weight which they wore and one lighter-weight in the car. It was cold enough that I knew I’d have to layer each of their lighter jackets to stay warm. My father is very tall, and his jackets are huge on me, but my mother wears a medium. I had worn XL for years. I tried on her medium jacket and was thrilled when it fit! It even zipped up with some room to spare. I don’t know how many minutes the smile stayed on my face.

Feeling Great

But it’s not just about what fits or what doesn’t, or even how I look. For me, my fitness journey is about how I feel. I feel more energetic, even when I am tired. Getting up and doing physical work no longer feels like a chore. My posture has improved. Even though I am a writer, I honestly cannot put into words how great I feel now that I am getting back in shape. And feeling great communicates non-verbally to others, boosting self-confidence and others’ perception of you. Again, it’s not just about looks; it’s about an overall package. An energy.

If you are thinking about losing weight or getting back in shape (or getting in shape for the first time), I want to encourage you to do so. Start by taking a good look at what you eat. And there’s no such thing as getting away with cheating. If you eat an extra candy bar and don’t record it, you’re only cheating yourself. If you work out for 30 minutes but don’t put in any effort, you are the only one who isn’t going to see the results you want.

The point is not to deny yourself a candy bar once in a while, but the point is to be aware of what you are eating, and how many calories you should be eating. If you’re going out to eat, take a look at the nutrition information on the restaurant’s websites. Chances are, you’ll be shocked. Many meals contain more than a day’s worth of calories. More and more restaurants, though, are coming up with “healthy” menus that are fairly tasty and quite filling. Living in America, it’s not easy to eat healthy. The cheapest and most convenient options are loaded with calories (and usually pack little nutritional value), but eating healthy is possible. It might take a little extra planning, but healthy eating is possible.

The end? No... the beginning!

The end? No… the beginning!

And you don’t have to be good all the time. Once in a while, to keep my metabolism burning, I splurge, going above my max calorie count for the day. I usually don’t feel too great afterwards, a reminder to listen to my body.

But overall, I feel great most of the time now—even when I’m sick, I feel healthier than I felt when I was heavy. Give yourself the best gift you can: the gift of health. If you need encouragement, please send an email my way. I’ve been through frustrating weeks of hitting that “plateau” and wanting to quit, but I toughed it out, and you should, too. It’s a simple decision, but it isn’t easy. Stick to it, though. You’ll be glad you did.

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