How I Lost 20 Pounds

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Month four of my resolution not to drink alcohol has come to an end.  I’m both surprised and proud to report that I have lost 20 pounds and have returned to what I consider to be my “ideal weight.”

Image (My weight loss is most obvious in my face. Above, at 155 pounds. Below, at 138 pounds.)

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More often than not over the past 12 years, my New Year’s resolution was to lose 20 pounds. In all those times, I didn’t even come close, not even during the years when I tried really, really hard. As I mentioned in my blog last week, we all know that trying is not enough on its own. In this blog post, I try my best to answer the inevitable question of “How did I Do It?”

I attribute my successful weight loss this year to these four things:

  1. Quitting drinking
  2. Telling the world about it
  3. Approaching it like a marathon
  4. Using an app to track everything

Quitting Drinking

Not drinking is the single-most important factor in my weight loss.  As I’ve said before, the first 8 pounds I lost was solely due to not drinking. Everyone knows that alcohol has calories. When I was drinking two glasses of wine a night, I was adding approximately 350 calories to my daily calorie intake. This online article has a wealth of information about wine and calories.  It’s hard to stick to a diet of 1,200 calories-a-day if you consume 29% in the form of a liquid with no nutritional value. Studies have also shown that you eat 20% more when you are drinking while you are eating. This recent article talks about that and many more negative effectives of alcohol on weight. In addition to these reasons above, I am now also able to exercise at night, something I never could have done after drinking wine at dinner.

Telling the World

As I mentioned in my inaugural blog post in late December, I improved my chances of sticking to my resolution because I told other people about it and wrote it down. That’s the point of this blog – I’ve made myself accountable not only to my close friends and family, but also to anyone who stumbles across this blog. As of this writing, I have 132 followers and that number increases every week. I don’t think I would have been able to stick to my resolution to quit drinking without the blog. Also, having the blog forces me to think through many issues and ideas associated with drinking, dieting, and exercising. All of this keeps me trying harder and staying more focused. After all, I have to report something interesting back to the blogosphere.

Marathon Approach

I’m aware that it’s a cliché to say that something “is a marathon and not a sprint.” However, since I actually run marathons, I think it’s okay for me to use this phrase.  Also, it’s true. I am approaching my weight loss and fitness goals like I approach a marathon, both literally and figuratively. Literally, I am actually training for a marathon, and that means I exercise six days every single week, culminating in both a strenuous race pace run every Saturday and a long run every Sunday. Figuratively, I have chunked out my goals into smaller goals and am taking a long view.  I am not following a fad diet or eating different things than I normally would in order to lose weight quickly. With the one exception of cutting out alcohol, I am eating pretty much as I did before. However, when I realize I need to change my diet in order to be more successful at losing weight, I change one thing at a time, so that the change is gradual.

To me, a marathon approach also means that it’s okay to screw up. During a marathon, you’re going to have slow miles and fast miles. The slow miles are not bits of failure, they are just a part of the process. The goal for the marathon runner is the average pace run over the full distance. There can be many points of exhaustion along the way, so even walking is okay. A successful diet is much the same.

Using A Fitness App

Once the easy weight from quitting drinking was gone, it was all about my commitment to use the app. I have a daily goal of 1,200 calories that I track using a free fitness Web application called MyFitnessPal. I lost between 1-1.5 pounds per week without fail by inputting everything I ate into the app. When I exercised, I also input that into that app and earned more calories for that day. If I ate too much, I exercised more.  It was that simple; but it was not magic.  It takes focus and commitment to leverage this tool in order to lose weight.

The thread that pulls through all of these contributors to my success in losing 20 pounds — quitting drinking, telling the world, having a marathon approach, and using a fitness app – is commitment. In the end, that’s the most important thing.

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Boston Strong

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It was almost exactly a year ago that I heard the first live reports of the Boston Marathon bombing on the radio, while I was driving to a business meeting. Tears immediately welled up in my eyes, when I thought of marathon runners so close to the finish line being cut down in their tracks, unable to finish. And, in watching the televised coverage, I remember relating to the 78 year-old runner who was helped across the finish line right after the bomb went off. I think any runner would say that finishing the race would be a higher personal priority at that moment than worrying about your own injuries. Within 24 hours of the bombing, I knew that I was going to try my best to make it to Boston this year. 

Unfortunately, Plan A of trying to qualify for Boston — or “BQ” as we runners call it — based on my marathon running time didn’t pan out. Although I ran several half marathons and trained quite heavily, it was pretty apparent by late summer that I simply wasn’t capable of running a marathon in less than three hours and 55 minutes. Although I continued training, I also put a lot of effort into Plan B, which was to get to the Boston Marathon with a charity racing team. 

Due to the overwhelming response to the bombing from runners around the world, I wasn’t able to make it onto the charity team I selected either. It was devastating to get an email from the Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge that read: “We sincerely regret that we are not able to provide you a Boston ’14 marathon entry.  As much as we would like to accept every applicant, that is simply not possible due to truly overwhelming demand.  Thank you for your patience and understanding throughout this unprecedented situation.”

Why am I telling you this story? Because, I just revived my dream of running the Boston Marathon. Here’s how it happened.

Two months ago, I revealed my two tag-along New Year’s resolutions of losing 20 pounds and running my fastest marathon — called a “PR” for “personal record.” I decided to focus on my diet over the months of February and March, in hopes of losing 15 pounds by that time. The weight loss was expected to help me run faster, when I started by marathon training in April.

When I shared my Quarterly Report post earlier this week on Facebook, something in it caught the eye of my good friend, Lisa.  I should probably explain that Lisa is a REAL marathon runner. She’s in the midst of running her third set of marathons in all 50 states. What Lisa noticed is that I ran my first long-distance race of the season at a 9-minute per mile pace, which is a full minute and a half faster than my pace during my first race last year.  Since Lisa and I already had plans to run the Around the Lake Marathon on my birthday in late July, she suggested that I tweak my goal. Now, with Lisa’s encouragement, instead of just trying to PR at that race, we’re both going to try to BQ!

My best marathon time was at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in Phoenix, back in January, 2006. I ran that in just over four-and-a-half hours.  As I mentioned above, my BQ time is less than four hours. That means I have to cut a half hour off my best time to qualify for Boston.

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(My official race photo when I got my PR at the P.F. Chang’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in Phoenix, in January, 2006.)

I’ve started using the Hal Higdon Marathon Intermediate 2 Training Program which is an 18 week program that starts out with a 10-miler on the weekly Sunday long run. It also features three training runs of 20 miles prior to the marathon and strong Saturday runs to achieve a little fatigue during the weekly long runs.  This is more aggressive than the Hal Higdon training plans that I have used in the past. Looking at the races in my area, I adapted Hal’s plan by fitting in some competitive distance runs before my BQ try on July 25th.

It’s my hope that more serious training, combined with my weight loss and increase in overall fitness from not drinking, is going to make a real difference in my marathon performance. This is not going to be easy. But, I’m game to give it one heck of a try.

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(My modification of the “Hal Higdon Intermediate 2 Marathon Training Plan” with race schedule.)

Pushing Past the Plateau

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The connections between drinking or not drinking alcohol and gaining or losing weight are obvious and well-documented.  As I previously stated, one of my motivations in pledging to not drink for a solid year was to drop a few stubborn pounds.  Thus far, not drinking has helped me to lose eight pounds with relative ease. Yet, for the past month, I’ve been going up and down in a range of two-three pounds, at the same “weight plateau” that has irked me since before my 40th birthday.  Having given up so much this time, I am determined to break through and, once and for all, return to my goal weight. This raises two questions with me: Why am I at a plateau? And how do I push past it?

The Mayo Clinic does a great job of describing this plateau. It happens when your metabolism slows as your body gets used to the new level of reduced calorie intake, something they refer to as a “new equilibrium.”  Unfortunately, there’s really only one way to push past it, according to the Mayo folks: “To lose more weight, you need to increase activity or decrease the calories you eat. Using the same approach that worked initially may maintain your weight loss, but it won’t lead to more weight loss.” Translation: losing 12 more pounds is going to be hard work. 

Luckily, there is by far more helpful advice on this topic than for any other I have researched for this blog. Let’s check in with Jillian Michaels, weight loss and fitness guru, and the star of the “Biggest Loser.” She thinks the plateau is a myth, so I need to honestly ask myself a few questions. First, am I keeping track of my daily calories? Yes. I’ve been using MyFitnessPal to track everything I eat, as well as all of my exercise. Secondly, am I trying to lose vanity pounds? To answer this question, I need to understand how much of my body is actually fat.

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Previously, I calculated my Body Mass Index (BMI). For my height of five feet, seven inches, a “healthy” BMI is between 18.5 and 25. Checking my current BMI at my weight plateau of 150 pounds, I see I’m in that range, with a BMI of 23.5. However, after reading more about BMI, including this NPR article with 10 reasons why BMI is bogus, I understand that BMI was developed over 100 years ago and is a straight formula based only on height and weight.  It doesn’t really take into account anything important – such as gender, age, or musculature.

Sadly, this means I had to take out my tape measure so that I could estimate my actual body fat. I used this calculator from the U.S. Navy. I took three measurements: my waist at the narrowest point (29 inches), my hips at the widest point (39 inches), and my neck at the narrowest point (13 inches).  This estimates my body fat at 27%. I know that is too high. According to this chart, it’s in the middle of the “average” category for women. I don’t want to be average. I want to break into the top end of the “fitness” category, which is between 21% and 24%. Some of you will, no doubt, debate this. However, my answer to Jillian’s second question is, no, I am not trying to lose vanity pounds.

Given that, I need some solid strategies to lose 12 more pounds to get to my goal weight of 138. Among several other suggestions out there, WebMD has 10 tips for moving beyond the plateau, as do About.com and ActiveBeat.com. I don’t know about you, but 10 things seems like a lot to keep track of. The solution to this, as with all things, is to create a spreadsheet. I tracked the tips from these three sources and found they contained a total of 22 different tips. I was able to scratch off a bunch of these, because I am already doing nine of these things, and, frankly, another five of them just seemed lame.

My analysis left me with eight things to focus on, five of which are diet-related and three about exercise. On the food side, I need to beware of calorie creep, celebratory calories, and restaurant overeating, and try to manage my hunger with low-fat protein and by eating more fruits & veggies. This seems like solid dieting advice. At the same time, I need to add in more exercise, particularly by trying to be more active during the day and by adding strength training.

Like I said, this is going to be hard work. Wish me luck!

Laying the Foundation

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Now that I have breezed into February without incident and it seems clear that my drinking ban is going to stick, it’s time for me to start focusing on some of the reasons why I began this social experiment in the first place. This month, I want to lay the foundation for achieving two goals, both of which were top contenders for my New Year’s resolution originally and, in my mind, are part of the package.

My theory from the outset was that eliminating alcohol will enable me to finally achieve two important personal goals that I have been thinking about for a while. They are: losing 20 pounds and running a marathon in personal record (PR) time. In this post, I’ll give background on these goals, and in future articles, I will explain my plan for and progress toward achieving them. I have also already thought of several related and interesting research topics that I will explore, as well.

Let’s start with losing weight. No, I don’t think I’m fat. And, yes, if I were destined to remain at my current weight, I would have a happy, healthy, and productive life. However, I used to be much thinner and, with my continued commitment to exercise, I should have a shot at getting back to my “ideal” weight.

I’m not comfortable giving you the exact numbers. But, I will confess that on January 1, 2012, I stepped on the scale at a personal high weight which was 35 pounds higher than my lowest adult weight. The good news is that I’ve already made progress. After going down and then all the way back up again over the course of 2012, I managed to drop seven pounds in 2013. And, I already reported that I’ve lost another six pounds so far this year. For those of you who are having trouble with the math, this means I am down 13 pounds from my highest weight.

My first challenge is deciding on where to set the marker on counting down the 20 pounds. I plugged “what is my ideal weight” into Google and got the most amazingly helpful information from Self, a magazine to which I am often subscribed. The two questions asked by the trusty Ideal Weight Calculator were my gender and my height. I am female and I am 5-feet 7-inches tall. The results?

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Thanks, Self. I already weigh somewhere in this 40 pound range (whew!) and I still remember the one day in my life when I weighed 118 pounds. I was in 8th grade and it was the most dreaded day of the school year, when all the girls had to lineup in alphabetical order to file into the nurse’s office two at a time to get on the scale. I vividly recall the nurse writing what seemed like a very large number onto a little slip of paper that she handed to me: “118.” I assure you, this weight is not remotely plausible or desirable for me as an adult.

Since I’m too lazy to do any measurements to figure out my body mass index, I’m just going to pick the stretch goal of losing 20 pounds this year. It’s near the middle of the range, it’s a weight I would feel very accomplished to achieve again, and it’s about what I weighed in 1999, when I started training for my first marathon. I have 14 pounds to go.

Speaking of marathons, the first one I ran was the Vermont City Marathon in Burlington, in 2000, with my sister-in-law Moira. We crossed the finish line holding hands, with a time of four hours 41 minutes and 41 seconds. I swore I would never run another one. That feeling lasted about five years, and then, in 2006, I attempted Rock-n-Roll Phoenix. At that time, I was a very active member of the Arizona Road Racers, and I had recently achieved my PR half marathon time of one hour 55′ 55″. That’s fast for a recreational runner at my age and level. I was a bit disappointed with my subsequent marathon time of four hours 31′ 10″. Little did I know then that it would remain my PR today.

I’ve only run three marathons since: the Air Force Marathon in 2012, which I ran in about four hours and 45 minutes with a hip injury; Vermont City 2013, which I treated as a training run since it was so early in the season; and the 20th running of the Philadelphia Marathon this past November, which kicked my butt at about mile 18 and took me a few minutes longer than did Air Force the prior year.

I’m already signed up for the Around the Lake Marathon for my birthday and my goal is to do that in under four hours and 30 minutes — a PR! I am filling in my race calendar with a handful of other marathons and half marathons, kicking off my race season with the Run for the Border Half Marathon in late March. Speaking of which, it’s time for me to take advantage of the break in the cold weather and get in a training run right now.