Friday, March 29, 2013

Fat-shaming: "Repulsive," And it's "Gotta Stop..."

I was teased for being fat when I was a kid. Both by family and peers. I wouldn't say I was teased when I got fat again as an adult, but it was frequently painfully clear to me that others noticed my size. Any teasing seemed good-natured and any other comments were couched as "concern."

My wife was thin when I met her and had been all her life. Through her I discovered she'd received the same sort of treatment for being slender. We're both still bruised from these things.

Since I began working on my own weight I've thought a lot about the way society treats anyone who deviates from what is really just an arbitrary norm based in cultural stereotypes and sometimes grounded in questionable science. I realized that shaming me, either my inner voice doing it or others trying, was never, ever going to get me to lose weight. I wondered if that was just me being contrary. Perhaps it is. I just know at some point it became something I did for my own reasons, and those reasons were for the most part positive (some of my reasons are pretty neurotic, hence me saying, 'for the most part'). That kind of motivation tends to keep reinforcing itself.

Blogger Lucy's Football wrote a powerful post about fat-shaming (and thin-shaming) that everyone should read, particularly anyone into fitness and diet, because I don't think a lot of people, especially those who have never had to truly struggle with weight (losing 15 pounds of holiday weight doesn't count, sorry) really understand just how nasty western society in particular is toward The Fat, and how it really feels to be on the receiving end of this kind of thing.

I'm going to quote part of her post because it's concise and gives you a feel for the whole thing. She also says many things better than I could. Why? Because women bear much more of the brunt of this kind of bullshit:
I will leave you with some bullet points. Because, who doesn’t like bullet points, am I right?
  • Other people’s bodies are none of your business. Keep your words off them. Unless you’re telling them they’re beautiful. Everyone likes that shit. Even if they pretend they don’t.
  • Pretending you’re “worried about someone’s health” is not an excuse for commenting on someone’s weight, whether they’re heavy or thin. Again, see the first bullet point. Even if they’re naked with you, their size is none of your business. Whose business is it then, Amy? THEIRS. No one’s but theirs.
  • Making fat jokes is a., not funny, and b., lazy. There are actual funny things in the world to point out. Like misspellings. Who doesn’t like a good misplaced apostrophe or missing comma? The answer to that is NO ONE.
  • To reiterate what we learned in the first bullet point: before making a comment about someone’s weight, please think the following quietly to yourself: “What is my least-favorite attribute. Now, would I like someone to loudly mention it and say it is ugly and/or unhealthy for me to have, and publicly shame me about it?” The answer to that question is always no. ALWAYS.
  • Also: if you think you are too fat, and everyone’s judging you, and you’re ugly, and OMG I CANNOT LEAVE THE HOUSE, guess what. No, seriously, guess. Hardly anyone even notices. The only people that do are assholes. And who cares what assholes think? I hope you don’t.
  • Finally: I’m going to tell you something I’ve learned in my old age. Ready? Shh, don’t share this one around, it’s kind of radical. WE ARE ALL BEAUTIFUL. I know! Every single last one of us. Fat. Thin. Tall. Short. We’re a lovely bunch of coconuts. Except – there is one thing that makes you ugly. Guess what that is? Hatefulness. Being hateful. You can’t be beautiful with hate in your mind, soul, or mouth. So get rid of that, and guess what? You’re gorgeous again. And everyone will see it. I can see it right now! Whoa, babe, dial that back, you’re blinding me with it.
We’ve become a culture of shaming. We’re rape-shaming and we’re slut-shaming and we’re thin-shaming and we’re fat-shaming. It’s repulsive and this shit’s gotta stop. Like, immediately.
I couldn't agree more.

I would add this--for many people who do want to lose weight, for whatever reason, fat-shaming has another side-effect. It turns every effort to make a change into something that feels a hell of a lot like punishment. It sets up a psychological construct in which taking a run around the block feels like penance. Going to the gym feels like swallowing bitter medicine. Taking care of your health feels like sheer drudgery and you begin to resent everyone who ever said anything about it. You hate how it's represented in pop culture, even in what some people blithely assume are positive ways (ask me sometime about my burning, irrational hatred of Biggest Loser). People with great senses of humor start losing the ability to keep that sense of humor about fat jokes. Put simply, it seems to me that fat-shaming is one of the worst things you can do if you actually believe physical fitness is a really good thing

As I've noted before, you can't be a lifelong depressive like me and ever refer to yourself as a positive person. On the whole, I am not. But I've maintained the changes I made by working against feelings of shame and self-disgust regarding my body image. At first they were integral to what I was doing. Morning runs did feel like terrible slogs. I did feel like I was brutalizing myself. I was angry a lot.

Then--and I think this began to turn around on one lone wintry run through the Georgia woods--joy crept in. Running, working out, they became things I needed to do. My body and my brain wanted to.

If I could give others one thing out of what I've done, it would be that sense of joy. Body-shaming will never bring someone to that place.

If nothing else, fat-shamers should remember that sometimes heavy people lose weight and get in shape. Some of us have long memories and can move pretty fast. And WE MIGHT COME FOR YOU.

Nah, just kidding about that part. Or am I?

[Lucy’s Football]

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A Thing I Posted on Facebook Which I Will Post Again Here

Left: Salem, MA, July 2010 Right: Today
I wrote most of this post to accompany this new comparison between obese 2010 me on the left (age 43) and me today (like, this morning) on Facebook. The following is what I posted there with some edits. I didn't originally post it here because I will never not feel weird about posting a shirtless pic. Basically reblogging the Facebook post because I'm feeling lazy about writing at the moment.

I got down to the zone I wanted to be in, weight-wise, so I decided to do another before and after partly just to remind myself I'm still really doing it and note the fact I've begun a new tack--seeing how far I can go with strength and endurance.

 There's another reason--while I am not now nor will I ever be the most rah-rah sort of positive guy (it's not in my DNA; I even created LIFECOACHERS on Twitter just to make fun of that shiny-happy crazy way of thinking and living), something I've become aware of as people noted what I've done so far is how many other people in my age range (40 to 50), regardless of gender, seem to feel defeated by being somewhere near the place I was when that "before" pic was made.

The me from 2010 is 43. He's unhappy with his weight, his health, his outlook. Today, I still get depressed. I still eat wrong. I still have a drink and I filch cookies. But I'm in a groove and I like it--exercise, building up is a habit. I can't see stopping. So I won't.

It takes time. It can mean basic, permanent changes in what you do with yourself. But those can be done. I'm sure of it.

My point is I'm not special in any way. My outlook I can be terribly blinkered, limited. So I'm saying if a dipshit like me can do this, I am dead certain a lot of the people who have asked me about making these changes can do it too. I'm not trying to teach anyone anything and I suck at the whole "POSITIVITY ALL THE TIME" line of happy-crappy, but I can at least say "I did it, and I'm an idiot, so no problem for you, pal."

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Being Human is Stupid

As a kid, my favorite superhero was Superman. As I grew older and learned that the positive side of my genetic makeup (there is one!) included a "strong build" and ease adding muscle, I had all that Superman imagery in my head as I tried to develop my body. I'd never leap tall buildings or stop bullets or be able to see through clothing--stuff teen boys would really, really like to do--but even a semi-sane understanding of my all-too-human physical limits didn't stop me from feeling disappointed when I was too damned pooped to pop.

After getting fat and going through a series of career choices that usually had me parked on my ass in front of some kind of screen before returning to exercise again I was initially patient with myself. I recognized, in a ruthless way, that I was starting from less than zero. If I pushed myself too hard, too soon, I would either quit or die of a massive cardiac event, collapsing in a pile of sweaty drool by the road somewhere. 

Once I was below 200 pounds and my waist between 31 and 32 inches, I started pushing it. The kid inside, who stood in line to see the first Christopher Reeve Superman and did the same with all the sequels (before the wretched fourth film destroyed all that was good in cinema) stirred to life and began to have a voice in what I was doing. That's when I began adding kettlebells to my workouts, in addition to more bodyweight exercise and dumbbell work.

Sometimes, that inner wannabe superhero (he alternates days with Sgt. Hammerhead Lockjaw when it comes to 'get Steve to brutalize himself' duty) is a good thing. Sometimes, he is not my friend. He's an asshole. 

I am too cynical to be a rah-rah "YOU CAN DO IT" sort of guy about much of anything, so I can only give what church folks down south call "witness" about one positive benefit from regular exercise. At this point it's clear to me that my immune system is in much better shape than it was 2 or 3 years ago. I still get sick, but less often. When I do get sick, I frequently shrug it off some 3 to 5 days earlier than I once did. 

Last weekend, I was feeling a little low. On Saturday I ran 2 miles then walked 2. Saturday evening I'd planned on a kettlebell workout but I wasn't up to it. My internal superhero wannabe and Sgt. Hammerhead Lockjaw gave each other sad looks and shrugged, but I thought, "screw you guys" and drank a shot of vodka. At first I wondered if I had just overdone it earlier in the week, but by Sunday it was clear I had some kind of low-grade virus, with a mild fever and a little congestion.

I had all these plans, man. I was going to start upping my running mileage. Sure, I live in the snowiest goddamned city in the damned country (seriously) and on March 26 it's still mid-winter cold out with snow piled everywhere, but spring has to come sometime so I want to hit the nice spring days to come piling on the miles. I was also going to do more two-a-day workouts, where I did cardio in the morning and strength at night. I'm on more than one mission, here, see. Sure, I want to be a fit old dude, hopefully tack on a few years I might not have had otherwise, but I also recently decided that now I'm in a stable place weight-wise and at a certain level of fitness, I want to see how far I can go. I will likely write about that another time, but what I'm getting at is HAVING A DAMNED COLD WAS GOING TO RUIN EVERYTHING. 

That's what I was hearing in my head, anyway.

Inwardly, I sighed, nodded and stayed on the damned couch drinking fluids and resting. I did what you're supposed to do. 

Because I'm 45, not 15. When I was 15 and doing a show at a community theater on the Vanderbilt campus, this kid named Bobby and I would climb the roof over the green room and jump off and roll in the grass. It was probably a ten foot drop. I would break all over the place if I did that now, regardless of how much I've improved my overall level of fitness, because delusional as I can be, I am fully aware that even if I'm fitter and stronger at 45 than I was at 15, I damn sure am less elastic, less "springy." 

And there's not a damn thing wrong with occasionally recognizing, once you reach this age, that it's okay take a breather, sometimes. Not only am I the opposite of superhuman, I spent most of my 30s being somewhere between 90 and 110 pounds overweight. I don't know all the long-term consequences of that period of sedentary, overweight living but I dread them and don't want to rush them now that I've done something about the issue by being idiotically gung-ho. 

Today I woke feeling better. I've run 2 miles at a decent pace and I followed that up with 8 minutes of high-intensity kettlebells. Tonight I may do a slower-paced, more thorough workout. I might do two workouts again tomorrow, just to see if I can. After making it a point to rest for two solid days, I've got some sniffles but otherwise fine. 

I'll keep it up, too, until my body reminds me sometimes I have to stop and admit my limits. At this age, I sometimes simply don't have a choice. 

All things being equal, I still think being a human is stupid. But it's all we've got. 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Wondrous World of Physical Culture!

As I've researched exercise and nutrition for myself I've gravitated toward the history of both and encountered the endlessly amusing and sometimes damned educational subject, "Physical Culture."

"A striking example of muscular power"
"Physical Culture" was how writers and star athletes who had books ghostwritten for them referred to fitness and nutrition. The cultivation, as it were, of the body. The term had its strongest vogue between 1890 and 1910 or so, based on the wealth of published books with that phrase in the title from that period.

I'll explore how and what people used to write about Physical Culture in other posts. To give a sense of what it was like to try and learn about diet and exercise from books 100 years ago I've embedded a magazine published in 1899 by Bernarr Adolphus MacFadden titled Physical Culture. It's a hell of a document--the first page I opened while looking at it on contained the illustration at the top of the post, which you really have to click on to get the full effect. Here's a choice chunk of prose from the page facing the illustration:
AWAKE NOW! Do not be satisfied with the average doped mind and weakened body that we find everywhere at the present time. Insist on getting all there is out of life. DON'T BE A TOBACCO-DOPE, a WHISKEY-SOAK or a BEER-GUZZLER.
Bernarr (and the other writers published in this volume) was clearly a real treat. To read more inveighing against the WHISKEY-SOAKS and BEER-GUZZLERS, look below, TOBACCO-DOPE.

No, but this is fun. All these people are dead now, so ultimately, what did they know, right?

One of My Horrible Workouts You Should Not Do

Above: my little-known twin brother Tito and I doing kettlebell work.

My posts about diet and exercise have felt irritatingly non-specific at times so I figured I'd change things up and give just one example of what I do.

Caveat: if you are just starting up, you should not copy this workout. I started out using 17-20 pound kettlebells over a year ago and I've worked up to this. Hell, you shouldn't copy it anyway--while everything I do for myself is backed by what may be a surprising amount of research (I'm actually a little embarrassed by the amount of time I devote to this sometimes), I'm way more qualified to teach classical voice or give an overview of the history of violent crime than I am to try and teach a reader about fitness. I do think taking the weight off and maintaining is an accomplishment, but I am always, on some level, making this up as I go along. These posts are part of a process, and I do them hoping they are useful somehow. Also to have a record for myself, one I will probably view with grim irony when I am old and feeble.

I'll explain some of these exercises as I go along then at the bottom of the post you can watch the Fitness Blender routine upon which this is based. I like Fitness Blender because their workouts make you sweat, they appear well-done, the videos are professional and Daniel and Kelli don't seem like insane, humorless meatheads (I'll get around to my dumb rant about the bizarre humorlessness of fitness "personalities" eventually).

This is the workout I did today. It is different from the one I did yesterday. I may never precisely repeat it, it depends.
  • Note--I typically start with something to elevate my heart rate. Yesterday I did 30 seconds of burpees twice with 15 second breaks between, then the same with mountain climbers. Today I wanted to gauge how strong I felt, so instead of the more aerobically active stuff I started with...
  • 3 Turkish Get-ups, left and right side, with a 53 pound (24 kg) kettlebell. The video below is of kettlebell expert Steve Cotter, who is a master of correct kettlebell form, teaching TGUs. I maintain this is one of the most deceptive exercises ever, because it doesn't look all that hard.  It is, though. Benefit--all over body strength and coordination. I only did 3 on each side today because I've only just worked up to 53 lbs from 45. And Turkish Get-ups are just tough.  
  • I went from the TGUs into 10 "Around the worlds" on each side. That's what the Fitness Blender folks call them (you'll see in the video at the end of the post) but I've found terminology in kettlebell usage (as well as the history of kettlebell use, another story entirely) can be confusing and murky. Whatever the case, it's just passing the kb hand-to-hand around your body. 
  • I went with no pause into kettlebell figure 8s. You pass the 'bell in a figure 8 pattern, hand-to-hand, through and around your lower legs. I did 10, each side. Figure 8s work core strength and require attention to keeping your back straight. With a heavy kettlebell you'll really feel these. Do them with light weights at first because it's easy to get fumble-handed and bonk your shin. I've had me some shin-bonks.
  • Still with the 53 lb kb, I did 20 swings. The swing is one of the most fundamental kettlebell exercises and it's vital that it's done right. I have developed muscle tone in places I forgot I had muscles over the last year almost from swings alone. I suggest before you ever try these in particular maybe searching kettlebell swing form on Youtube, as it can be an easy exercise to get wrong.
  • Next I did a variation on the clean you'll see in the Fitness Blender Beginner Kettlebell video below, the clean and press, with 53 lbs. I did a different exercise with kbs yesterday that worked the hell out of my shoulders so I only did 6 cleans and presses. The clean and press is one of the most fundamental kb exercises and you can get a hell of a workout just doing a bunch of them alone. 
  • I followed this up with 10 kettlebell halos, alternating right and left. I won't go in depth about haloes, as I think they're the kind of exercise some people may want to skip for fear of busting their skull. I've never done that but it's definitely an exercise to practice with a very low weight if you even give it a shot. Like several kettlebell exercises, halos are a weird combo of funny and scary to watch, but they're great for the core muscles, shoulder mobility and arm and shoulder strength. You have to watch my favorite kettlebell sage/wizard/cult leader ZenKahuna demonstrate a halo variation here. (I love this dude, there's no one like him doing fitness videos on Youtube. But do the halo Kelli does below, not Zenkahuna's variation. If you do this.)
  • After halos I did 15 straight-leg deadlifts with the 53 lb bell. Straight-leg deadlifts are awesome for your hamstrings. 
  • Next I did 10 squats with two 45 lb kettlebells (broken up into two sets of 5 reps). Squat form is almost the same as regular weightlifting squats but the weight is in a different place. I've always been annoyed with my lack of leg development and these are definitely helping there. Running had bulked up my calves, but these alone are finally giving me quads (big chests and wide shoulders and chicken legs run in my family). Good basic demo of squats with one kb here. (Squats may be one of the most beneficial exercises ever, depending on who you ask.)
  • The Fitness Blender video demonstrates an exercise combining squats and curls, but here I split them and do curls separately with two 40 lb dumbbells. You can do curls just fine with kettlebells but I'm working up to doing those with my 45 lb kbs, still. My inner Sgt. Hammerhead Lockjaw isn't happy about that but I'd rather not blow my bicep out like deflated tire, thanks.
  • And I closed, as Kelli does in the video below, with 8 bent over rows on each side, using the 53 lb kettlebell.
  • Then I did it all again. The Fitness Blender routine actually repeats 3 times but once you're using heavy weights you have to start using exercise routines like that as templates, with the goal of perhaps matching the routine on the video, eventually. 
  • In addition to this work I've been practicing something called "greasing the groove" with pull-ups. After I'd lost plenty of weight and been working out enough to feel decently strong, I discovered that pull-ups, which had been a good exercise for me as a teen, were my worst thing, ever. I could do 30 push-ups but only 1 pull-up. So I set about changing that. When you tackle a weak exercise with "greasing the groove" (the name of the technique does make my inner 13-year-old snicker) you are basically practicing it at every odd moment possible. So far I've gone from 2 pull-ups up to 5 with good form, 6 with not-so-good form. My goal is 15. It'll be a while. 
Okay, so after all that rambling, I recommend watching the original kettlebell routine upon which I modeled this, if you're a kettlebell user. I'm happy with them and I like running still but I'm finding that while I do have these favorites, I'm not one of those people who latches onto a single approach to getting in shape and then obsessively works that as if I've found received wisdom from musclehead heaven. I also have basic workout structures that stay the same but will add and subtract as my body allows. Some days I just don't have the juice. 

My favorite thing about kettlebells isn't that they're good cardio and strength combined, though, it's that you can get a great workout without leaving the house. If you ever want to be the most ripped shut-in around, look into them.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

What to Eat? Hell, I Don't Know

Honestly, I have no idea, when it comes to eating right. Sometimes, when talking about fitness and nutrition, that's where I feel most at sea.

The reason is simple--in my late 20s I lost 60 or 70 pounds and the truth is, I did it the wrong way. I placed a much stronger emphasis on cutting calories than I did on exercise and I think the error in my ways showed in how I quickly shot back up over the 210 mark after briefly reaching an ideal weight of 175. I didn't make a lifestyle change, I just met a goal. When I realized what I'd done, I had to admit I might not be too smart about eating right.

Have I done better this time around? Yes, in that I've focused closely on exercise, made that the primary way to drop weight. Cardio and strength training combined set up a metabolic engine that burns more calories even at rest than merely eating less.

With nutrition I've played things by ear, sometimes to my detriment.

To make things brief I will volunteer a few key things I have learned in the last couple of years that do seem to work, figuring if this helps even one person it's worth the bother. At least these things have worked for me:

- Don't fast. To many people this seems like good sense, but to an equal number (I bet), fasting may seem crucial to dropping El Bees. I don't think so. Fasting seems to set up a cycle of want that eventually rebounds, causing binge eating. Yes, to lose weight you have to reduce your intake. There's no getting around that. Going without food entirely, however, will only work against your ultimate goal, as it can eventually put the body into emergency mode and lead to plateaus or if you exercise, weakness and worse, like severe blood sugar drops. Those are not fun, I do not recommend them.

- Don't self-torture with gross or bland food. Seriously, I don't know where I got the idea at some point that changing your eating habits meant you had to suffer terrible-tasting or tasteless food, but I sure had that in my head for years and one thing I did right this time was make a conscious decision to eat stuff I like, when I do eat. Luckily I do like some healthy foods a great deal, like yogurt, oatmeal, seafood and a well-made salad. Not all together. I also have a ferocious sweet tooth and deep and abiding love of starchy, grabby food, just like nearly every person I've ever met who struggled with their own weight. That leads to the next point.

- Pay some goddamned attention to labels. Nutrition labels tell you everything you need to know, especially for those beloved grabby foods. I feel like a tool counting out x number of sundried tomato wheat thins till I hit the 140 calorie count for a serving size, but once I've done it I've got my beloved wheat thins and had an appropriate-sized snack, too.

- Eat breakfast. There are, honestly, meals we need to skip, for various reasons. A ton of people skip breakfast. I think it's the worst meal of the day to skip. It fuels you up, gets your motor running, just makes you feel better. My breakfast habits are so consistent you'd think I have OCD but I really just eat what I like and never feel bad about it (Greek yogurt, something oatmeal-based, either oatmeal itself or any number of products made with it, coffee).

- Always recover with something after exercise. A shake, a bowl of ice cream, whatever. For a long time my treat after running more than 6 miles was a "retro" Mountain Dew (so-called because it was made with real sugar, not high fructose corn syrup). Mountain Dew NEVER tasted so good, believe me. There's a caveat here, though. A lot of people go to town after cardio and quickly put twice the calories they just burned right back in their body. Then they wonder why they're running and running and hardly losing weight at all. Recovery after exercise is crucial, good for your heart and helping your muscles heal and grow, but even then, it has to be moderated.

And maybe that's the only advice I could give, based on personal experience. It's just as trite as hell, but some things become cliches because they are true, people notice that and they feel compelled to repeat themselves.

Thing is, "everything in moderation" is so much easier to say than do.

I had to recognize that the root of my overeating was ultimately plain old compulsion. The same thing that drove one relative to do drugs, another to drink. No one can just quit eating cold turkey, though, so of the compulsive behaviors that cause so many people so much grief, eating is the one thing that can't one day be left behind.

That's perhaps the root of my lifestyle change; I admitted the problem and then just accepted that since quitting completely wasn't an option, maintaining full consciousness of what I was doing as much as possible was the best alternative.

To some degree, so far, this has worked for me. I still overeat sometimes. I do think of that as falling off the wagon. But after I do it, I admit it and I just get back up and start again. As much as feeling compelled to eat to make myself feel better is a lifelong, learned behavior, I've also made re-tracking and getting my eating habits back under control a newly learned behavior.

A disclaimer is probably a good idea here--I'm just an ADD-afflicted writer who got tired of being fat and feeling sick and old before my time and I buckled down and did something about it. What I did, what has worked for me, is peculiar to me. Sometimes, it might even be peculiar.

In blogging about it I'm trying to help by giving some idea of one guy's process. When it comes to eating habits, I still feel like a dumbass, making it up as I go along. I do basic things like counting calories and notching way back on sugar intake. I pay attention to what's almost universally accepted as good for you--oatmeal, protein, green salad, vegetables--and I try to concentrate on the good stuff. But I still buy sodas, I still eat Reese's Pieces sometimes and I can't ever leave a Friendly's without having blown the day's calorie count on some sort of peanut butter and ice-cream gut bomb.

When I do these things I just start over again, because the one thing I know I can't do is give up.

I might have begun my efforts to drop all that weight and improve my health feeling kind of self-destructive, but since then I've realized I keep doing these things because, well, I guess I may want to stick around for a while, after all.

Monday, March 18, 2013


Pathological, mental, addictive and unhealthy behaviors run in my family. I know, they run in a lot of families, but I can only speak with any authority about my own.

I'd give a litany of who has dealt with what but that might get into family business relatives would rather I not blog about. Suffice it to say, we're not a moderate bunch, given to sticking to the middle of the road approach to anything.

This is something I confront a lot. I flatter myself by noting that I've never become addicted to drugs or alcohol, then I have to admit that's because I likely transferred that kind of compulsiveness to food. Is there another explanation for nearing 300 lbs before I decided I didn't want to be fat anymore? Well, yeah, there are several--but let's keep this simple for now.

What I'm getting at is one of the issues I've always wrestled when it comes to exercise and nutrition (and by extension, appearance) is determining what is healthy and relatively normal and what is behaving in a pathological way.

Today I had to wonder if I was being wise or pathological. See, last night I spent a bit of time being disgusted that I didn't do any exercising at all. I'd excused this by telling mys elf, "hey, it's Sunday. CHILL OUT." But late on Sunday night I found myself feeling fat and gross and vowing to do a solid workout Monday morning.

And I did--a medium pace 1.25 mile run immediately followed by a 25-minute kettlebell workout.

Then I thought, "is this normal?" Is it normal to kick myself so hard for skipping a day? To go from being pretty happy with my waist getting a little smaller and my muscles getting bigger to skipping exercise for a day and suddenly feeling flappy and flabby and horrible?

Yes, I think, and no. It wouldn't be normal if I only did it to assuage a gnawing dissatisfaction with my appearance, something I do still feel. However I didn't end the workout in pain or so exhausted I was throwing up. I still had something "in the tank," which is the optimal way (at least I think it is) to end any workout session. (I don't believe in working out to "failure," but many people do.)

So I guess my point is my efforts to get the weight off and keep it off have perhaps always been a blend of the healthy and normal and a touch of the crazy. The two sides fight each other daily and maybe some of that internal tension works itself out in a run or a kettlebell swing or a set of torso dips.

I don't know. Some people would say it's crazy to bother at all.

But I'm pretty sure I'm less crazy for the bothering. Considerably.


To make sure these posts aren't entirely pointless I've decided to include a video as often as possible. The video below is of one of my favorite strength-building kettlebell exercises (this guy uses a dumbbell), the Turkish Get Up. I don't know why kettlebell enthusiasts call it that. I do know I can totally buy the claim that if you get good at these alone you will have developed some halfway decent total body strength, because it works everything. I've worked up to doing just 3 on each side with a 53-lb kettlebell and want to push that up to 10 at least. Careful if you try these--to anyone unfamiliar with the form they look easier than they are.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

When To Work Out (Video! Not of Me, Though. Psych.)

I've learned a lot about exercise in the last couple of years. I didn't return to it completely naive, mind you--I was fit throughout my teens and lost a bit of weight again in my late 20s. But when you get as fat as I was then decide to do something about it, you kind of have to admit you aren't an expert and start from scratch.

Luckily, the Internet is here now and it wants to help. Actually, the Internet mostly wants to kill you with the vast stretches of stupid related to diet and exercise, but if you are patient and persistent, you will find there are fine threads of smart and healthy to pull out of the welter of stupid. How do you discern the smart and healthy from the stupid? That's for another post, I guess. I know one thing--don't trust anyone who promises a quick fix or magic trick. In my head I'm thinking, well, DUH, but honestly, a ton of people struggle mightily with weight issues and they often feel even more desperate than I was, and over a smaller amount of fat. They will be ready to grab for idiocy and quackery, for anything that gives them hope to look perfect now and hit the beach in an Elysian state of mind in your new perfect beach body tomorrow. Bless their hearts, as mama might say.

I digress. Anyway, one thing I fret about and have fretted about since I began doing this regularly was when the hell to do it. So far, advice, writing and thinking about when you should exercise is all over the place. Weightlifters may go by a Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule, with cardio on Tuesday and Thursday. Runners might do 5 to 6 runs a week, starting with low mileage and/or hill runs then working up to long, 10+ mile training runs on the weekends. Kettlebell devotees (if I had to slot myself, something I hate to do in general, I'd say I'm all about running and kettlebells--a hybrid, I guess), citing the combined cardio and strength benefits of slinging cannonballs with handles around, sometimes recommend 3 sessions a week, tops. Insane people with nothing better to do than flex seem to go to sleep cradling dumbbells and sucking on a protein shake/steroid drip. It's crazy.

In general, I've found more is better and for me, because I am so easily bored, variety is the spice.

At the moment I work out in some way 4 to 5 days a week, six if I'm feeling really good. I listen to my body. And the good and bad thing about my 45-year-old body compared to, say, my 18-year-old body, is my middle-aged self is totally ready to let me know when to not be an idiot and just chill. I recently tried to do two workouts a day for 4 days in a row. I ran in the mornings and then did kettlebells/weights/bodyweight exercises each night. This was good because it minimized the time-suck of one long workout session, a problem familiar to anyone who regularly runs long distances, but it was bad because by day 5 my body seemed to say "OMG WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING ARE YOU INSANE?"

That said, I ended up with noticeable results and felt a bit like I'd jumped off a brief plateau, knocking off a little winter holiday weight and adding a touch of muscle in the process. However, the week after I tried the two-a-days, I notched it back a little just to make sure my heart didn't ultimately say, "yeah, dude, I give. Screw you."

(Note: I have a very mild heart murmur that I was told would never be an issue and it mostly hasn't been, but I do have to stop and remind myself I have it sometimes, just for a reality check.)

If you started reading this thinking I'd answer the question as to when, I'm sorry, I only know what's worked for me, and the short answer is as much as is practically possible.

What's more important, I guess, is simply that I do it. Another benefit to being a little older (I frequently think of how I approached exercise as a teen and compare it to now) is seeing that sometimes it's just a matter of getting it done. The speed with which I run doesn't matter so much as the fact that I ran. Where I live now we get a lot of snow. It can be dangerous to run in the snow and ice, so if I want to get out I choose to take long walks instead. A macho shithead in my brain sometimes starts yelling, "A WALK BRO? WALKING IS WEAK BRO. YOU ARE WEAK," but he eventually wears out and starts enjoying whatever music I have playing on iTunes at the time.

So I guess if you're a dude and you have an inner meathead slash drill sergeant like me, you have to realize that he's not always working in your best interests, and sometimes you just have to DO something, even if it's a little something, and pacify the beast with some chill tunes. (Christopher Cross singing "Sailing" often seems to do that for my personal internal Sgt. Hammerhead Lockjaw.)

Another thing married parent types have to confront is when you do your thing during the day. It's even harder if you have a job. Here I have to default again to something that seems simple and tried and true. Get it in when you can get it in, and above all be patient with yourself.

That's mostly what I've learned. This takes time. Listen to what the body says, give it time. Even if you go 5 straight days over Christmas without doing a damn thing but hammer curling mass amounts of Honeybaked ham into your face, find a point to start over again. I am certain of one thing--I've been able to keep it up and maintain this lifestyle change ("maintain" may be the most important word in this whole stupid post) simply by accepting the fact that I regularly fall off the wagon (go off the reservation, go rogue, whatever) and I have to sometimes mentally treat the whole endeavor as if I'm starting over again. Failure is a renewable resource, but luckily it also lets you act as if you've got a bottomless supply of do-overs. Accept all of it, and just do something.

Below is Fitness Blender's HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) kettlebell workout. The kettlebell part is just 16 minutes, but it is a goddamned beast. I did it yesterday with a 45-lb kettlebell for the clean & press and the figure-8 curls and a 53-lb kettlebell for the swings. It was all I needed for the day. I can't recommend Fitness Blender enough. The workouts are sensible, Daniel and Kelly are low-key and likable and above all their routines work.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

So, How'd You Do It?

On the left: close to 300 lbs, photo made while visiting Salem, MA in Summer, 2010. Right: after we moved to Worcester, MA in the summer of 2012.

Since 2011 I've lost about 100 pounds of fat and gained 15-20 lbs of muscle. When friends or new acquaintances learn this, they want to know what the hell I did. Drugs? Steroids? Jesus? Someone triggered my Manchurian Candidate secret agent and I'm getting in tip-top shape for spy shenanigans?

I'm 45 now, 6'0" with a large build to begin with ("big boned" as they say down home) and I've dropped from 285 lbs (probably higher, that was just a measured weight) down to 185-190 and shrunk from a 48" waist to a 32" (though I can fit in a 31") since I was 43. Those are all major physical changes. I would have asked me what the hell I did too.

I am not 100% sure how I did it.

I know it wasn't magic. There are no magic tricks. Not if you want the change to last. To count.

You are not about to learn some secret formula.

On a very hot day in the heart of a Georgia summer, I started walking.

If you've never lived in a sub-tropical/tropical climate, you may not truly understand heat and the immense weight of the air in the dead of summer. The way a great sea of wet air drowns everything and slow-boils anyone dumb enough to tip-toe out of air-conditioned safety and brave the furnace for a while. Far from breezes on seashores or lakesides, summer in the south is a brutal thing and if you are obese and gravely out of shape, you are borderline suicidal to mess with it.

As a pale redhead with lifelong weight problems who grew up there I have a keen understanding of that danger so I was probably borderline suicidal. Depression is, after all, an old family friend. I have had heavy bouts of clinical depression since my early 20s, though I am certain they truly began in elementary school. My brother David committed suicide in 2000 after battling bipolar disorder and substance abuse since his teens. Both of my sisters (one, Rhonda, also has multiple disabilities besides) have had therapy and taken medication for severe depression. Depression is as consistent in my family as red hair and high voices.

So I sometimes opt for the dark joke and say that when I took that first walk, I was hoping it might kill me. Like a lot of jokes, there is some truth hiding inside it.

At the end of the street where we lived was a path that led to a 7 mile circuit of trails criss-crossing the Chattahoochee Nature Reserve. Like the rest of Georgia from Atlanta northwards, it is all hills and hollows and to a boy from hilly Middle Tennessee, it felt familiar, like home. I was also keenly aware that on those trails, few people would see my wheezy ass schlepping by. That had been one thing that stopped earlier stabs at dropping the weight--a fundamental feeling of embarrassment at someone seeing you try. Humans are weird, see. We talk a good game about maintaining health and staying trim but then often when we see a big person obviously putting in an effort to make some sort of positive change, the most immature or assholeish among us want to make fun of that. I'm not even talking about dickhead teenagers yelling from cars as they pass you huffing and puffing down the street, but jokes in all sorts of comedy and satire about the fatty with the treadmill in the living room. Hey, I laugh too, but goddamn, at least people try, sometimes.

Anyway, by the time I took that first walk I had found excuses (all of them legitimate in my head) to not meet up with friends (usually from Twitter, so we'd never met in real life before) who were in Atlanta on several occasions. I was sick, or my car was in bad shape, or my wife had a thing and it's hard to find any old babysitter to watch two kids on the autism spectrum. I never made up the circumstances, but at the root of many of these cancellations there was a persistent subtext of me feeling fundamentally embarrassed about my size.

My friends are great people, I wasn't worried that they'd judge me; I judged myself.

The walk didn't kill me. I still remember hitting the last hill before home, a sidewalk that climbed up, up, up from the pretty river valley where the trails ended and stopping at a road sign and wondering if I was going to die, or at least vomit. I also remember being vaguely disappointed to make it home alive.

A few days later, I did it again.

And again.

At first there were days between walks.

Then there was only one day between each walk.

I began taking advantage of the way the trails were laid out--segments are rarely more than a mile in length before branching--and started running a stretch, here and there. I'd run, stop and double over feeling pukey at the next marker, then walk the next section.

Eventually, by the time a little chill had begun to creep into the air in mid-Autumn, I found myself running the entire trail. I'd yet to catch on to all the fitness apps available for smart phones but I later figured out that the route I took from my house to the trail exit was 2.2 miles.

It was a slow, shuffling run--I walk faster now--but whatever it was, it was working.

I definitely did (and still do) pay attention to diet, but only in the most practical, basic way. I started cutting way back on sugar and starch and knocked off snacking as much as possible. I would treat myself to the nastiest, sugariest soda imaginable after a big run--still kind of do that--but any runner will tell you that once you start topping 3-4 miles, that actually makes sense.

I didn't really track my weight loss for a long time other than noting how my pants, underwear and sweats began falling off me. The isolation of the trails was an aid there too, as I had one memorable 3 mile run that culminated in my old XXL running shorts sliding to my ankles as I paused on the covered bridge over the river to look down at the rushing water.

My sister once told me (I don't know how true this is) that if you can do anything for 6 weeks, it becomes a habit. So one part of my answer to the question, "how did you do this?" is pretty simple: Running became my habit. And tough as it was sometimes--it still is some days--I have come around from considering it a necessary torture on the road to reducing my weight, cholesterol and blood pressure (the latter was insanely high) to an essential joy in life, something I have to do.

(Side note: I realized how I felt about running when I started feeling mildly offended whenever some Twitter wit made jokes about runners. Running is becoming like having red hair for me--it's cool if I joke about it but everyone else needs to shut the hell up.)

To be clear, while I haven't tested my running chops in any 5k races or half-marathons, I've run a 13.1 mile training run and run between 5 and 10 k (3-6 miles) up to 3 times a week. I do want to test myself with a race or marathon, even a Mudder, but when I do I'll go in with a clear head; I am not cut out to be a great runner. I have short legs, a long torso and am better built to lift, push, pull and throw. My best mile yet was 8:43. I'm proud of that, but a friend who runs marathons regularly trains 9-15 miles at a time at 9 minute per mile pace.

After I'd been running steadily for almost a year I added bodyweight exercises (pushups and crunches with sets of dumbbell workouts now and then). A little later still I added kettlebells to the mix, and these all remain elements of what I do now.

I guess you could consider what I've written so far to be part of the answer to the question of how I did it.

Except the answer doesn't feel complete, to me.

See, I think the answer to the question of how anyone makes big, fundamental changes in their lifestyle--and more importantly, maintains those changes--isn't found in the what, but the why. In many respects, I'm very clear on the "why."

Vanity, for one thing. I just didn't like what I looked like in the mirror. But health, too. My blood pressure was dangerously high. Anything that might reduce it would by definition be a smart thing to do, considering extremely high blood pressure eventually led my father to a stroke when he was 60. (He recovered well.)

If writing about it is to be helpful to anyone and not simply me just journaling--something I consider pretty useless in a personal blog, better kept to a handwritten notebook--I think it makes sense for me to sometimes use this space to talk about the "how" as well. I won't label a blog that just has my name in the URL as a fitness (or crime, or history, or whatever) blog, but I may continue to post things here related to what I do to keep the change illustrated in the photo at the top in place.

I've never admitted before this post that I was partly motivated to avoid meeting people I genuinely like out of not wanting them to see how fat I was. Admittedly, that was a pretty negative way to look at myself and socializing in general. I don't feel good about any of that.

Still, I have to admit that feeling is most certainly gone. So if you come around or I'm in your town, let's hang out. Unless you're, like, weird. Weirder than me, I mean.


Friday, March 15, 2013


I'm not entirely sure why I opened this blog back up again. It's not like I've used it in a while. It's also not the most elegant interface... but that sort of shit is overrated and people natter on about it far too much. I sure have, in the past.

I've had trouble with seeing the point in what I do. This thing that became my career, whatever it is, around 7-8 years ago now. What's there to write about? Fiction is one thing. I have fiction ideas and I do write them out--sometimes completely. But I adamantly refuse to go whole hog and just publish fiction online, especially since the only writing I've ever been paid for is basically news writing.

What I'm considering is using this space to mostly talk about the usual blog stuff. Nothing explicitly personal; that bores me. But what I'm into now.

Hell, that seems so obvious I shouldn't even have to say it.

Anyway. Check back and see if I've bothered.

You're welcome (for the photo of my cat).