As you can see by the photo above, there was a marked change in my appearance between 2011 (age 51), and 2017 (age 57). In overview, I ended up 60 pounds lighter, dropped my body fat to a fraction of its previous amount, and built a substantial amount of muscle.
How I got there (and continue to stay there), is a story that may interest you. I don’t purport to be any kind of expert or to offer specific advice, but perhaps you can learn something from my experience.
A little background
I was a skinny kid, able to eat anything I wanted, and never gain a pound. This lasted until I turned 23, when my metabolism underwent a cataclysmic shift. I gained 30 pounds (of pure fat) within a few months. This shocked the hell out of me, I can tell you!
Two years later, at age 25, I decided to go on a diet. Similar to how I gained the weight, I lost it all within a few months, by severely restricting food intake, and exercising (mostly running) regularly. Here’s the rub, though: I thought I was “cured,” and could just go back to my old habits.
NOTE: I’m a serious sugarholic, with a love for cake, cookies, doughnuts, peanut m&ms, and a whole gamut of other sweet treats. Combined with that, my obsessive personality causes me to crave — and consume — enormous quantities of these goodies when I do eat them.
Lesson one: You won’t ever be young again
As I’m sure you can guess, I quickly learned that I would never again be able to eat with impunity. Two years from the time I lost it, I had gained all that weight back. Over the next two-and-a-half decades, I went through several cycles of weight gain and loss.
Along the way, I did begin to branch out into other types of exercise besides cardiovascular. Situps, pushups, bench press, flys, rows, and the like, began to creep into my routines. I would hire trainers for a session or two, to learn new methodology. A few times, I got into fairly good shape. But I never gave up eating dessert (or, more often, desserts, plural) every night. And I continued to “fall off the wagon” every few years.
The last straw
Finally, I wound up where you see me in the photo on the left above, on stage with my Santana Tribute band in 2011. Substantially overweight, not exercising, drinking a hefty amount (for the first time in my life), and just generally letting myself go to pot.
Actually, it was seeing that specific picture that finally turned the tide. A few days after I saw the photo, I was out with the band and some friends after a gig, in a restaurant. Everyone else ordered pie. And I thought: “I’m done.” That night I began what — I sincerely hope — was my last retreat from poor health.
One step at a time
For the first four months, I just cut down on food intake. Not as radically as I had in the past, but enough to make a difference. I hadn’t started exercising again, and I was still drinking a lot, but I did lose 30 pounds.
Next, I gradually began to introduce exercise. Not a great deal: just 2 days a week, 20 minutes a day, to start with. That eventually increased, but moderately. At the 6-month mark, I stopped drinking. That helped. But what really made the difference was when I committed to stop eating nightly desserts. For the first. Time. In. My. Life!
With even more weight lost and more time devoted to exercise (I joined a gym), I started to see a difference. And I wondered if I could achieve a life-long goal. Are you ready? It’s not very lofty, but I wanted a six-pack.
That’s right: Washboard abs.
The obsession begins
Consulting with a trainer/nutritionist with whom I happened to be in a business networking group, I posed this question to him: “At this age (52), can I even expect to get those abs?”
His answer? “Definitely. But it won’t be easy, and it won’t be fun.” He was right.
In essence, the prescription is straightforward: you need to get below 10% body fat, in order for those abs to be visible. So the goal is simple, though the way you achieve it is complex. Mostly, it comes down to diet. But you have to be careful.
Don’t cut enough, and you don’t see any results. Cut too much, and you shed muscle along with the fat: not what you want. You walk a fine line, and there’s lots more involved besides just calories. The types of food you eat, when you eat it, how much you consume at one time — all of these criteria factor in.
How I’ve done it (so far)
Sounds pretty restrictive, right? Luckily, following a structured plan comes naturally to me (remember the obsessive personality). For more than five years, I have used a spreadsheet (my own design) to plan everything I eat, every day. Each individual item I eat has values calculated for calories, protein, carbohydrates, and fat. And I total every category for each day.
As a general rule, I don’t eat anything that contains flour. That includes bread, pasta, crackers, pizza, chips, etc. And — as much as possible — I avoid sugar. Which means, among other things, that I drink my coffee black, and stay away from most processed foods (canned soups and anything else “packaged,” to name a few).
When I go out to eat, I check the menu ahead of time, plan what I’m going to order, and plug it into my spreadsheet, just like any other meal. I also pack food when I’m going to be away from the house. This can be a real hassle, but it keeps me on track.
My workout regimen is seven-days-a-week. I don’t do any dedicated “cardio.” But I do work out rigorously enough that I get my heart rate up pretty consistently. And I change up the workouts every day so I’m hitting every part of my body, with recovery time built in.
I measure my weight and body fat at the same time (first thing in the morning) every day. It helps keep me motivated.
“Cheat days?” Yup. And when I cheat, it’s almost always to binge on multiple desserts. Sigh. I’m like an alcoholic that is always “recovering!”
What I’ve learned
The two most difficult things (I think), are 1) push yourself to work out hard; harder than you would like to, and 2) vary your workouts. Most people tend to do the same thing over and over, which loses effectiveness pretty quickly.
Everybody’s body type is different. I have a slender frame, and don’t build muscle easily. I don’t recommend that other people skip cardio, but it works for me.
Exercise is definitely addictive. It’s been more than eight months since I took even one day off, and I felt strange on that day. Now matter how tired and out of sorts I feel in the beginning of the workout (and believe me, I sometimes have to force myself to start), I always feel better afterwards.
Control the overall amount you eat. Ironically this is the easiest part. Sure you’re hungry. But it’s not painful, just — at the worst — mildly uncomfortable. It takes no time at all NOT to eat the crap you know you shouldn’t, just willpower. You can do it!
Write it down. When they don’t, 99.9% of people will overeat. It’s human nature.
Sugar: bad. Fat: good. Exactly the opposite of what the “diet foods industry” has been telling us for the last 30 years.
Cheat days. I don’t know about you, but I need them. Luckily, I’ve figured out a few “tricks.” Like eating nothing but protein during the cheat day, then whatever I want for dinner (but only one plate). And everything I want for dessert. Yum! 🙂 The next day, I go really low calorie and low carb. As far as frequency, l’ve discovered that two per month is the maximum amount of cheat days I can allow myself.
This is the most interesting part. Again, I’m sure it’s highly individualized, but some facts are probably fairly universal.
Body fat effects. I knew intellectually that there is no such thing as “spot reduction.” So when I started to get down into the low teens of body fat percentage, I shouldn’t have been — but was — surprised by some of the “auxiliary” effects. Like more definition in my biceps, triceps, shoulders, and chest than I’d ever seen before. Dropping pants sizes (I went from a 38” to a 30” waist). And a much thinner face.
Sleep. I need more, not less. Working as hard as I do at the gym requires recovery time. Not to mention that lack of sleep trashes your body fat percentage (makes it go up).
Energy. Also counterintuitive. I feel great during the day, but am whipped by the evening. Even coffee only goes so far!
Food. Man, does fruit taste great! When not compared to pie and brownies, it’s very sweet! I would be lost without my daily breakfast: 2 cups of strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries, ⅛ cup raw steel cut oats, ⅓ of a banana, 1 cup unsweetened almond milk, and 1 scoop of chocolate-flavored whey protein powder. Delicious!
I’ve also gained an appreciation for other natural foods which, when not stacked up against breads, rich sauces, and sugary additives, really do provide some wonderful flavors.
General health. I rarely get sick. And by sick, I just mean a regular, garden-variety cold. When I do, it lasts a couple of days, not a week-and-a-half. My guess is this is due to dropping most of the sugar from my diet, but it may be the working out as well.
Confidence. As the only “rainmaker” for my company, I spend a good portion of my time in sales. I’m an introvert by nature, so sales is not an easy function for me. But being in such good shape has given me the presence to do well at it.
It’s the journey
This may well be the most important thing I have learned throughout the whole process: Having a goal, and working towards it, keeps me motivated and focused. Of course, the goal can be a moving target.
Originally, I aimed at 10% body fat. I did get there, but had to drop to 141 pounds in order to do it (I’m 6’1”, and in the picture in the right, I’m 153 pounds). When people who care about you start to tell you that you’re looking too thin, it’s time to take note.
Since then, I’ve been alternating between trying to gain muscle (which, naturally, comes at the expense of some extra body fat), and trying to drop body fat (which, conversely, comes along with some muscle loss). I think I’m making progress, albeit very slowly.
However, that’s the great thing. I like the process of doing this. Along the way are cheat days (and the recovery therefrom), diet tweaks, varying my existing workout routines, and testing things like Pilates (the latest addition to my exercise regimen).
My current long-term goal? Under 10, over 150. That’s less than 10% body fat, and at least 150 pounds. As of this morning, I was at 150.1 pounds, with 11.4% body fat. From here, if I dropped 2 pounds of just body fat and gained 2 pounds of muscle, I’d hit my goal. I know that’s not possible in a straight-line fashion, but with a couple more cycles of build and shed, I just might get there.
Author’s note: 2 years later, I currently measure at 150 pounds even, and 10.9% body fat. And I have been incorporating cardio on some days.