Weight Loss for Creatures of Habit

I’ve never seriously considered losing weight, even though over the years my weight slowly increased by a pound a year and my waist size was up 2 inches from where it used to be. At 5’10” with 213 lbs at age 42, I thought I was okay. Hey, I exercised 5 days a week (including intense martial arts, running and tennis), ate decently and was overall pretty healthy. So my weight was probably due to muscles, right?

Beginning the Journey

Whatever it was, in January of 2013 I read something about fitness apps and tracking exercise and calories. On a whim, I downloaded MyFitnessPal and put in my data. I set my target for 200 lbs, which resulted in a daily calorie limit of about 1,800 calories or so. Then I started tracking everything I ate as well as my exercise. Being anal and a little OCD, I quickly became obsessed with making sure all my information was entered properly at all times, including a daily weigh-in. It didn’t take long to realize that 1,800 calories a day isn’t a whole lot. I figured out a number of changes I had to make as far as my diet:

 

  • Cut out the morning OJ to reduce sugar/carbs.
  • No more Gatorade after my workouts – I found a sugar-free substitute (Sqwincher Qik Stiks).
  • Generally reduce the carbs, even whole wheat variants
  • Watch portion size even more than I already had.
  • Switch to a uber-healthy and low-calorie 9 PM snacks

 

When I worked out hard, it gave me “calorie credit”, which allowed me to eat a little bit more. So as an admitted creature of habit, I decided to bump up my routine and exercise 7 days a week, even if that meant getting up at 5:30 on Fridays to go running before work (I usually work out at night). 7 days a week sounds harder than it is and with the right routine is quite doable. I thought my body needed rest days, but it adjusted quite well to working out every day. Tracking everything with MyFitnessPal was immensely helpful and educational. It helped me fine-tune what I was doing and identify little mistakes and areas of improvement. With this app-induced awareness, I was able to start dropping pounds quite consistently.

Getting on Auto-Pilot

Routine – in my case – is the key. I tend to follow the same routines and patterns and they become second nature. In order to really be effective and put my diet on auto pilot, I came to the realization that if I just changed my old routine and established a new one, I could get into a mode of sustained weight loss without having to fight too hard for it. Sticking with it is easiest for me if I don’t have to think about it too much, just follow the established routine.
Example: I used to eat at Quizno’s most weekdays. Even their turkey bacon guacamole sandwich had 700-800 calories. This seemed to be okay before, but thanks for MyFitnessPal, I learned that this wasn’t all that great, I So I changed my routine and started going to Subway almost every day, where a ham sandwich with healthy ingredients and no mayo was in the 400-calorie range. I had read the book Change Everything earlier and two key elements helped me:
  • Identify critical moments where I am most likely to go off track and figure out how to avoid falling off the wagon. In my case that was free food catered for meetings at work. So I learned to either walk away (not always easy, especially with free pizza in the lunch room) or reduce the portion size and fill up mostly with salad and just have a little bit of the “bad stuff”.
  • Visit your “default future”, which means envisioning myself and what I would look and feel like if I didn’t do anything about my weight. Not always a pleasant thought. Reversely, I started liking to envision myself “ripped” and with a noticeable 6-pack.

 

After about 2 months I had fine-tuned my understanding of the foods I ate and the exercise I did on my calorie budget. With my new habits, I stopped tracking food and exercise, but still held on to the daily weigh-in. Due to the heightened overall awareness and knowledge I had built, this didn’t negatively affect my weight trajectory.
As the months were coming and going and my weight was consistently dropping, I kept reaching and surpassing my goals. 213 lbs became 200, my original target. I kept going and reached 190. Nice! How does 185 sound? Doable. But at 185, I figured 180 is a nice round number. At 180 I was stoked. I recalled being at 175 lbs when I was in my late 20’s with a 32” waist. So I kept going and made it to 175! And I still kept going. Since everything happened so automatically and without much effort, it was almost easiest to stick to my routing and the weight would drop by itself.
At this time it’s pretty easy to just keep going and I’ve managed to drop to 173 lbs, which means I dropped 40 lbs (19% of my original weight) in about 18 months, which far exceeds all goals I’ve ever set. I am happy to now have the six-pack and noticeable muscle definition in my core I always wanted. And my waist is down to 31”, even less than in my 20’s.
It’s annoying to have to buy new pants and smaller shirts, but it is rewarding when people come and ask whether I lost weight or comment that I look good or thin.
How long will I keep going? I haven’t figured it out yet, but in the mean-time it’s easiest doing what I’ve been doing and seeing where these new habits lead me.

MFP-screenshot-cropped​My weight over time

Fine-Tuning

There are a number of things I’ve been tweaking and experimenting with throughout my journey and I’m still tinkering with them.
Here are some of the changes and learnings:
  • Fill up with low-calorie vegetables and salads with vinaigrette dressing before hitting the main course. It’s easier to control portion size of “dangerous” items when you almost feel full already.
  • I try to “skip” one meal a day by replacing it with a liquid meal (e.g. avocado/soy milk shake or Glucerna drink) augmented with carrots, hummus etc. for extra volume and satiation. Something in these nutritional / meal-replacement drinks miraculously keeps you full longer too.
  • Not having a steaming meal waiting for me when I come home from work helps. An empty table is far less tempting and helps just reach for a shake and carrots/fruits.
  • Fruits are good, but know they do contain a decent amount of sugar, so don’t overdo it.
  • I don’t skip breakfast and usually have a light lunch. Instead I tend to “skip” dinner and go with a very light 9 PM snack. The body burns calories earlier in the day and not having much for dinner prevents calories turning into fat over-night. On the contrary, going to bed slightly hungry isn’t fun, but you don’t know you’re hungry when you’re sleeping.
  • After a light breakfast, I found out that mixing some whey protein powder into a glass of soy milk keeps me feeling full longer.
  • I snack on unsalted peanuts during the day. I eat way less if they’re unsalted and don’t have to drink as much. I also like Corazonas bars. Snacking on good stuff helps me not feel hungry throughout the day.
  • If you fill up with plenty of liquids, including water, you will feel less hungry.
  • Eating protein in the morning, e.g. egg whites, keep you full longer than carbs or insoluble fiber.
  • My family and I eat out on Friday and Saturday night and I drink lots of Diet Pepsi. I learned that it’s okay if my weight seems to go up over the weekend. Come Monday, I’ll be okay again and continue my slide down.
  • Since we go out for dinner Friday and Saturday night, I switch things on these days and try to skip lunch on those days (read shake). A grande, unsweetened Starbucks iced coffee with soy milk will help me feel full after lunch (and it’s a little reward).
  • I weigh myself at the same time every day to compare “apples to apples”, i.e. right before going to bed.
  • If you want to skip lunch, leave the office and go somewhere, walk around etc. It’ll distract you from the fact that you’re not eating.
  • Nuts and seats are your friend. As a matter of fact, you can turn chia seeds with a few oat flakes, raisins and soy milk into a cereal/snack.
  • Cheese sticks and turkey jerky make good filler snacks. Did I mention carrots yet?
  • Hummus is full of good stuff and low in calories.
  • (Greek) yoghurt is good for you, but watch the sugar.
  • Skip the rice, pasta and other starchy sides and just go for lean meat and vegetables.
  • Watch for rich sauces and dressings or mayo.
  • A little dark chocolate is good for you.
  • When watching TV, I started doing push-ups, sit-ups, crunches, planks, leg lifts, etc. Your body weight is sufficient to build strengths for most of your body – no fancy equipment is needed. (Only exception: biceps. Haven’t figured that part out yet.)
  • I just got a set of resistant bands and am experimenting with different arm and shoulder exercises – also while watching TV. A massage roller can also be a good way to change things up.
  • The more weight I lost, the easier the strength training goes and the longer I can run, which in turn helps burn more calories. This is a self-enforcing cycle in a way.
  • Running in the morning right after getting out of bed is tough on your body. Have a shake or yoghurt before you head out and start slow. My joints tend to ache a little until I stop to stretch 5 minutes into the run. After I start to feel better and my body has finally figured out that the warm bed is now history.
  • I’ve always had knee issues since I was a teenager, but switching to a mid-foot strike instead of heel strike running style paired with light, more minimalist shoes (<= 4 mm heel-to-toe drop, e.g. Brooks PureConnect or Altra “The One”) have helped me run longer and pretty much eliminated my knee issues.
  • Do different workouts and mix it up, so no one part of your body get consistently fatigued. While one part is recovering/rebuilding, the other is getting a workout. I do martials arts, run and play tennis every week. Where possible, I add hiking and swimming. Don’t slack off when you’re traveling.
  • I’d love to use a fitness tracker (Nike FuelBand, Jawbone Up, etc.), but since I can’t wear it during Tae Kwon Do, I’d always be missing out on my main workouts. For running, I like my iPod nano since running with music is more fun and it tracks time and distance. (I tried a heart rate monitor too, but hated the chest strap.)
  • Your weight will fluctuate based on meals, times of eating, how much liquid you’ve had post workout, and other factors. Expect little ups and downs of up to 1 lbs a day even if you “do everything right”. Week over week is a better for comparison purposes and gauging success than day over day.
  • This isn’t a sprint (despite early successes). This is a lifestyle change.
  • Read about working out and nutrition.
  • Get rid of clothes that are now too loose and baggy. It can be fun to get a new wardrobe and you’ll never need those big clothes again, right? If you toss them, you’ve mentally eliminating the “way back”. This should be a one-way street.
These are just my learnings. Your mileage will vary. Key is to figure out what works for you and stick with it. Be open to try new stuff.

Net/Net

Admittedly not everyone is like me. But in my case, building self awareness and creating new habits that become second nature were key to my success. Other people may not be as routine-oriented, but nonetheless, a lot of the things I’ve learned will be transferrable. I feel good (and hopefully look better), am healthy, have good energy, and am happy with the new me. I plan on keeping at it. After all, it’s hard to break with my habits.
Was this helpful? Please leave a comment, I’d like to hear from you…

Hike to Santiago Peak

Inspired by Arash Sayadi’s recent blog about his experience hiking up to Santiago Peak, my friends Jason, Tony and I made plans in December of last year to follow suit and attempt the same hike. After all, I have to stare at that mountain every day on my way to work and I had been wondering what’s it’s like to make the trek to the peak.

Our planning, apart from selecting a date that would work for all of us, revolved around what to pack and wear, navigation and how much water we should bring. After bugging Arash with some additional questions and utilizing his day hike pack list, we had most of the information we needed. I used an Osprey Stratos day pack with 34 l capacity which had enough room to store food, water, clothing and various supplies and emergency equipment. Water was probably the most important factor. Based on the 0.75 quarts per hour formula, I concluded that we had to bring close to 6 l of water each. The pack was able to hold a 3 l bladder and so I added 2 plastic bottles with water separately, with the total being 5.5 l. Quite a weight to carry!
Tony found a web site with current weather conditions at the peak, which was very helpful in planning what to be prepared for. When we started watching the site a few days before the hike, it had just snowed at the peak and temperatures were in the 30s with plenty of wind. So we knew we had to be ready for cold temperatures and hence brought several layers that could be shed in case it wasn’t as cold. Fortunately, as our target date approached, we saw that the temperature started to go up during the day as things warmed up.
Being concerned about navigation, I opted to buy a Garmin eTex (Vista HCx) GPS as well as 24k topographical maps for the unit. I didn’t want to rely on my iPhone and its MotionX GPS app because I had seen the GPS drain a full iPhone battery in about 7 hrs before and the phone was not going to do well in potentially low temperatures and/or moisture/rain. Not a cheap addition to my equipment, but the peace of mind of having a reliable GPS (and a sale at REI) helped.
On the day of the hike (February 18), we left Irvine around 5:40 AM since we wanted to start early and get going while it’s still cool. The weather forecast fortunately promised clear, sunny conditions and little wind. As advised, we took a high-clearance SUV and were able to get to the parking lot by 6:30, despite the “road” being quite bumpy and full of challenges a sedan would’ve found tough to maneuver.
IMG_6278We were the second car in the parking lot and started our hike around 6:40 AM. It was lousy cold with temperatures in the 30s and I was happy I had gloves and an ear band to wear. After crossing a creek a few times, we worked our way up to higher elevations and as we got out of the shady areas, it quickly warmed up and we dressed down to shorts and t-shirt within an hour of starting.
Since the water added quite a bit of weight to our packs, we – as planned – dropped 1l bottles after about 1.5 hours into the hike in the bushes next to the trail and marked the position on the GPS.
IMG_6297Once we transitioned from the Holy Jim trail to the Main Divide Road, we soon started encountering patches of snow and slush. As we got higher up, those patches become more frequent and the temperature dropped, especially in areas where the sun didn’t reach the ground. So towards the end we found ourselves wading though half a foot of snow or slush, which made walking difficult and sometimes slippery and wet.
The least two miles of our ascent were probably the most strenuous. All the while we could see the huge antennas and they seemed so close and within reach, but the road kept twisting and turning and it took much longer than expected to make it all the way to the top. When we reached the peak, we had excellent conditions with lots of sun, little wind, and a great view all around. So we spent about an hour up there and refueled with plenty of water, energy bars, cheese and salami.
 IMG_6332
As we descended the Main Divide road back down, we didn’t take it all the way back, but decided to use a smaller side trail instead, which we thouIMG_1239ght we had seen marked as Upper Holy Jim earlier. This trail was narrow and much steeper as it quickly serpentined down the hill. It definitely seemed to be a shortcut going back down. Due the steeper angle, it would definitely not have been a good idea to take this trail up, but going down was quite feasible. When this side trail finally connected back to the main road, we used the GPS to determine which way to go to return to the Holy Jim trail.
The rest of the descent was uneventful and for the most part seemed easier than going up the mountain. We definitely had enough of going uphill and our legs started feeling fatigued at this point. More than ever, I appreciated having hiking poles. Not only were they useful during the ascent and in the snow, they now took a lot of stress off my knees as we came back down.
With the help of the GPS, we located the spot where we had dropped off the water earlier (fortunately, it was still there!) and put the bottles back in our packs.
As we reached the point towards the end of the trail where we could’ve taken a little detour to Holy Jim Falls, we decided that we were too tired and continued back down to where we had left the car. As we reached the parking lot, we saw that it was now completely packed and had filled up with cars throughout the day. When we started off, the location had felt quite remote and desolate, but now it was more like the parking lot of Disneyland with plenty of people making it up the lower part of the trail (few of which – I surmise – would make it very far up the mountain).
In total, the hike took us around 7:45 hours, around 6 of which for hiking the 16.3 miles. So apart from the break on the peak, we must’ve taken around 45 mins of short breaks here and there. I consumed only a total of 3.75 l of water despite my load of 5.5 l. On a hot day though, I would’ve drunk more, if not all, for sure. I didn’t use all layers of clothing I had brought either, but as with water, you’ll want to be prepared for the less favorable scenarios and you never know exactly what conditions you’ll encounter.
Did it pay off to have a “real” GPS instead of just using the iPhone? I think the answer is yes. With its resistance to tougher conditions (temperatures and moisture), battery life of over 20 hours and independence of 3G/data connectivity, it’s definitely a better “fit” for outdoor adventures. Its GPS chip set is also providing more precise location tracking, so it came in handy when locating the water bottles we had dropped.
Driving back from the trail towards Irvine, we stopped at the renowned Cook’s Corner for a beer. I’m sure us three slightly limping, sweaty, and exhausted-looking guys in dusty hiking clothes fit right in with all the hardcore bikers and their leather jackets.
Looking back, hiking to Santiago Peak was definitely a worthwhile and rewarding experience and accomplishment. While I’m personally not inclined to strive for even more challenging hikes like Mt. Whitney, I’m hoping to explore more of the OC mountain trails in the future.
 map and stats

Once upon a Time…

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far far away from here, I was a single guy and struggling, like everyone else, with dating. In the process of figuring out this dating thing, I started applying principles from business and science. And I started writing a book about it.

Then I got married and never got around to finishing the book. But I figured instead of letting this unfinished masterpiece never see the light of day, I rather put out on the web – for inspiration and entertaining.

So check it out: the Men’s Guide to Scientific Dating!

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Why Being a Creature of Habit Makes Sense

I have in the past been accused of being a creature of habit, a person governed by routines: I tend to frequent the same restaurants, visit the same neighborhoods and locations, usually eat from a number of favorite dishes, watch similar movies in the same theaters, etc. I like certain types of vacations in certain types of places. Once I’ve found certain products I like, I keep buying them and shop for them in the same places.

While I might be a more extreme example, I am sure that to some extent most people tend to stick to their patterns as well (maybe except for the most spontaneous of people). (Apparently there is even evidence that there are roots in human evolution that prevent children older than 2-3 years from trying new food.)

But what is so bad about trying something new, driving a different route to work, ordering untried menu items in new restaurants? What’s the harm in changing your patterns and doing something different than you’ve always used to do? While there is most of the time an obvious, actual cost associated with the choices we make, that monetary cost may not be overly significant or prohibitive. However, there are other, less obvious reasons, hidden costs, that make us stick with “the same”. So here’s my attempt to argue for “sticking with the known”… (Read More)

Time To Assimilate

The Borg – masters of assimilation

Have you ever thought about how much time you spend purchasing and assimilating things you acquired into your life? It goes about something like this (and I’m not even talking cars or houses here): You need to buy / replace an item. This could be anything from a book, a shirt, a kitchen utensil etc. In some cases you might do research prior to starting the hunt, so you might browse the web, read up on it in Consumer Reports, etc. Then you get in the car, drive to one or even multiple store(s), browse the selection, figure out what you want, buy it, haul it home. Then you unpack it, you might need to read the manual/instructions, dispose of the packaging materials and find a new permanent place for it at home. Basically I’m talking about anything from the initial identification of a need to assimilating an item into your life.

On any given weekend, I may just buy 2 or so items that fit this bill, but I’m spending about 2 hrs doing so from leaving the house to coming back. Let’s say I spend another 20 mins or so unpacking and assimilating the items, so in total we’re looking at 1:10 hrs on average per item. That’s a LOT of time!

Now, follow me on this one: How many items do you own? Let’s break it down to an average of items per room, to make it easier. I’m not sure, but let’s say the average room contains 50-100 distinct items. In a 3 bedroom house with living room, family room, kitchen, garage, 2 baths, that makes 450-900 items, which equals approx. 525-1050 hrs (22-44 days!). So if you had to replace every article you own, you’d have to spend 1 month, 24 hrs a day selecting, buying and assimilating products!

I don’t know about you, but that’s quite a number. Don’t like my assumptions? Feel free to tweak the numbers and run through this exercise again and I bet you’ll still end up with quite an impressive amount of time.

Considering the sum of all the things we surround ourselves with is like a living organism which needs to replace all of its cells every so often, we are spending a lot of time maintaining and replacing our collective possessions on a permanent basis.

I guess, I wish I was Borg…

Irreversible Improvements

Everyone seeks to improve their life on a constant basis. Examples: We buy a bigger car, we move to a bigger house, we get more memory for our laptop, we get a faster printer, we accept a job with more pay and a shorter commute, and we go for the big screen TV (a completely random example). All these things add up to a significant improvement of our quality of life over time. But do you realize that this is pretty much a one-way street? Will you be okay with a smaller TV, less RAM, a longer commute, or less pay in future? Hell no! Once you’ve made the change and gotten used to it, you won’t want to go back to “how it used to be”. This makes all these improvements irreversible. You’ve set the bar higher, now get used to jumping higher too. Not that this is a terrible thing, as long as you realize that there is no going back, or at least not a painless way. This is the one-way street of progress…

Don’t believe me? You’re different? Well, my friend, why don’t you go back to dial-up and I’ll check back in with you in a few days…!?

Weekend Entropy

I’ve finally figured out where all my energy goes on the weekends: creating order from the chaos of the week. Come to think of it, this reminds me of what I recall from the theory about entropy. Any system’s natural tendency is chaos, i.e. disorder. The only way to create order in a system, is to expend energy, which increases the order in a system. Without energy applied, an equilibrium with higher entropy (read “chaos”) results. 

The more I think about it, the more I see the same thing happening in my house. During the week, I’m tired and expend less energy keeping things nice and neat around. Dirty laundry piles up, used dishes gather, things get dusty, the carpet starts needing vacuuming, unread mail lies around the kitchen table, etc. Once the weekend starts, I redirect my energy from the office towards my house: doing laundry, cleaning up, running the dishwasher, filing mail, etc. With this energy applied, the order increases and I feel better about the house. Then Monday comes around and the same cycle repeats.

The unfortunate thing is, if I were to go away for the weekend on a little getaway, the disorder would not decrease because I wouldn’t spend any energy on the house. The weekend afterwards would then be twice as tiring as I’d have to clean up twice as big a mess. That’s one reason why weekend getaways, apart from the cost, sometimes seem less attractive.

So I guess next time someone asks me what I’ve been up to during the weekend, the answer is: reducing entropy!

A Buck a Minute

A few years ago, I found myself going to various stores to find out where a specific item, say a DVD, cost the least. I was driving around from the first to the second store, from the second to the third store and then back to the first store to buy it there after all. And all this to save $3. Or I’d go to one store that I knew had the item I needed (e.g. after shave), but I wouldn’t buy it there. Instead I would drive to a second store for this item only to buy it there $2 cheaper. Been there, done that?

Then it hit me: This was my weekend! And I was spending it driving around, trying to save a few bucks here and there. Then I asked myself: “If someone wanted to hire me on the weekend to do some contract work, how much would I want him to pay me?” I figured that I would at least think about it at $50 an hour. With a little rounding, that comes out to a buck a minute, which is how much my precious weekend time is worth to me. 

This little rule-of-thumb has made a significant difference in my life. Whenever I consider starting another bargain hunt, I ask myself: “How much time will this take and how much will it actually save me?”. In many cases I reach the conclusion that the savings are not worth the time I would spend. So I don’t do it any more. This – over time – has helped me regain quite a bit of “me time”.  I’d rather use my weekend for something more enjoyable than to hunt down little bargains or I invest my time into making a real financial difference, e.g. by looking into refinancing my home or by reallocating my 401k. 

How much is a minute worth to you?