Updated: Feb 5, 2021
New Year's is Right Around the Corner
Nearly twenty years ago two work buddies and I created a bet that taught all of us how to sustain our desired changes. Ironically, the loser later became a winner because of his experience with the process.
It was nearly a week after the devastation wrought by September 11, 2001. On that day, we all watched the horror of the moment in a rec room, outfitted with television monitors on the 6th floor of our newly renovated Service Center in downtown Indianapolis. The center housed over three hundred associates. A large group of people were stunned into silence after witnessing the events. The day cast an expected pall over everything we were doing.
I’m trying to find a connection between the two events, there are none. But the date marks the start of an interesting journey we all took. Perhaps, we reminded ourselves that life is indeed short or that the holidays would soon be upon us and we would need a plan to shed all the holiday revelry. No matter, three thousand lives had been tragically lost in early September and we were thinking about our own mortality.
During lunch one day, we met and talked about our own classic dissatisfaction with our ballooning waist lines. None of us were way out of control, except in contrast, perhaps, to how we imagined ourselves to be. I wanted to lose at least twenty-five pounds and my cohorts wanted to lose an amount in the same neighborhood.
We wrestled with what would be best to measure: absolute amount of weight, percentage of our body weight or physical objectives. Why the difference? We were smart enough to know that getting to a goal weight and getting to a desired physique means two different things. I wanted to get to a waistline goal while maintaining muscle mass. My coworkers, both named Mark, had different objectives, meaning they wanted to shed pounds.
In the end, we chose absolute weight loss, knowing that we each carried about the same amount of weight and hitting our targets would mean we all won the bet, even if someone lost the most absolute weight.
Incidentally, each of us knew that we desired not only the weight loss, but improved appearance, energy and the expected, but not articulated, health benefits, like lowered cholesterol and blood pressure. The reality in front of us at the time, meant that none of us yet suffered from either affliction. None of us were prediabetic. All these terms I’m more familiar with today because at my advancing age (smile), I do worry about them. At the time, we intuitively understood that the right dietary approach would help with virtually anything.
I really believe the ingeniousness of the bet revolved around how we constructed it. We agreed we wanted to create patterns, habits and sustained weight loss. So, we planned a longer-range time horizon, meaning our bet commenced on October 1st and ended six months later on March 31st, 2002. Naturally, that meant we had to create a strategy and action steps, stick to the plan, and sustain our momentum.
Of course, the length of the time frame meant you could either get off to a fast start and fizzle out or wait until after the holidays and turn on your efforts. Interestingly, that dynamic only applied to one of the contestants.
We built monthly weigh ins into the timeline. Like boxers ahead of a bout, we set a time each month to check our weight and keep us seemingly on track. We had one of those doctor’s office scales in the men’s bathroom. The monthly weigh ins were designed as an added layer of accountability.
The Reward. We simplified it, each of us ponied up $100, so the winner took home $200.
Now, I mean this, the money served as a worthwhile incentive, but the real motivation came from the knowledge of reaching our goals and beating the other two. I’m intensely competitive. However, yes, I knew the real reward would come in the form of improved health, increased energy and a better appearance.
Our Strategies. We each deployed a different strategy. Mark One planned to increase his exercise and reduce his caloric intake by primarily eliminating dessert at dinner and lowering his sugar intake. He also employed some other simple modifications like eating only half a sandwich or swapping mustard for mayonnaise.
Again, his principal strategy involved eating less by eliminating dessert at one meal a day, plus the exercise. Mark came in second. But, over the six-month period, he adhered diligently to his plan and lost right around twenty pounds. His discipline reflected his personality: methodical, diligent, practical and consistent. Those qualities nearly won the race.
Mark Two employed a strategy, but I’m having a hard time remembering it. He seemed to get out of the gate swiftly, but by the Holidays, he had thrown in the towel. After the New Year, we did not see him at a monthly weigh in until the March finale where he refused to get on a scale and simply handed the winner a C note. Now, while Mark Two reflected the pattern of many a New Years Goal achiever, quick out of the gate and then fading once resistance shows up, he learned from this experience.
My strategy resembled Mark One closely, but with much more detail. True to my personality, I wanted to research options in detail. I had been running diligently for the past few years, including periods of long mileage leading up to marathons and half marathons. But I found myself getting into poor habits. Because my running partner and I logged so many miles while preparing for various races, my body became a furnace and devoured whatever I consumed. That happens when you run 5–8 miles a day with a long run on the weekends.
But, in this case, after running a difficult Marathon in Xenia, OH in April of 2001 (we chose this marathon because of the anticipated temperature in early spring, and the running gods chose to crank up the heat to 80 plus), I fell into a funk, stopped running for a while, but maintained my torrid eating pace, including several daily Cokes. The idea to pursue better nutrition had been percolating in my mind for a while.
So, I knew I would combine exercise and a more structured diet. At the time, I had seen other people in the office use Atkins successfully. A coworker lent me a copy of his book, which I read from cover to cover quickly. And, then I checked out a similar book, Protein Power, by Michael Eades and Mary Dan Eades. I really enjoyed this work because of its nod to history, discussing diets of different ancient civilizations like Egypt where scientists discovered a link between the agrarian diet, laden with bread and the existence of heart disease.
For whatever reason, I knew from the beginning, that I planned to alternate my diet plans. The first six weeks, I pursued essentially the Atkins diet, eliminating all bread, rice, potatoes and focusing almost solely on meat and vegetables. As expected, during the first two weeks (the induction phase), I entered ketosis and lost weight swiftly. When I woke up the next morning after the very first day of eating fatty meats and chicken wings, I felt like I had discovered the secret to life. I felt lighter immediately, although I was not wholly aware at the time, much of that was likely attributed to water weight. Still, the feeling encouraged me.
At the fourth or fifth week of strictly following the plan, I hit a plateau. By this time, I discovered Barry Sears’ The Anti-Aging Zone, which was later retitled, The Age Free Zone. I loved the book for all its science, the metaphor of how our endocrine system resembles the internet, the in-depth discussion on hyperinsulinism, chronic inflammation and eicosanoids. I was really taken in by the notion of either reversing or slowing down the aging process by treating food like a drug. When I read the sentence about how food should be treated like a substance that will either cause you to accelerate your aging or turn it back, my attention was fully engaged.
Intuitively, the Zone seemed to simply make more sense to me. The meals came with a balance between lean proteins (30% of the meal), the right kind of carbohydrates (40% — low GI) and good fats (30%.) I discovered the pure joy (and danger) of cashews! The meal timing also appealed to me: eating within thirty minutes of waking up, three primary meals and two modest snacks. And the book came with detailed recipes to explain exactly what you could eat and when.
The switch from the Atkins to the Zone turbocharged my efforts. Interestingly, at the time, I resumed running, but included weight training, knowing full well that increased muscle size would complicate the weight loss because muscle weighs more than fat. Once I switched to the Zone plan, my weight started dropping again swiftly. In any event, there was no reason to really be worried about increased muscle size at this point. I had more than enough fat to lose!
I remember going on a longer run with my running partner, Greg, in March just ahead of the eventual weigh in on March 29th and feeling incredibly lighter. In fact, it was one of the few times I pulled away from Greg during a run. He was much faster than me, it was not close. But, in that moment, the dieting had really thinned me out.
While I know empirically that the best combination for weight loss involves both exercise and diet, it seems truly clear to me that diet played well over 80% of the success. There is no science to the 80%, it just seems right. I have exercised fanatically over the years and its not close. If my diet is terrible, it does not matter how much I exercise, especially as I have aged!
We weighed ourselves on Friday, March 29th. As I said, Mark Two had shown up to hand over his money. He might have gained weight! Mark One stuck to his plan, lost a ton of weight and came in at right around twenty pounds of weight loss. He had done a great job.
I remember during the initial weigh in thinking I had made a mistake. My home scale registered my mass at 216 pounds, but the scale at work revealed a different, albeit not by much, number of 214 pounds. Instead of packing on the weight ahead of our initial weigh in, I had already started to adjust my habits. I worried that the two pounds would make a difference. It didn’t. In any event, the scales were probably simply calibrated differently.
On March 29th, in the men’s bathroom at the Service Center in Indianapolis I weighed in at 187 pounds representing a loss of twenty-seven pounds. I won the bet. But I really won three things in the process:
First, I had learned about the science of weight loss and the impact your hormones play, not only on health and wellbeing, but chronic inflammation and aging.
Two, I had learned how to adopt new habits.
And three, the biggest win was the understanding of how to sustain a change over time.
The Irony of all of this relates to a story I’ll tell next about Mark Two, who may have ended up the biggest winner, er, loser of all.