Notice that I said weight loss, not “a healthy lifestyle.” By the end of this particular step in my health journey, I was the closest I’ve ever been to that “magic weight” I mentioned earlier. This experience still heavily influences my feelings about setting a goal weight, because it was such an important part of those six months. By the end, I was “skinny” but food was my enemy, I was completely exhausted & miserable all the time (so I was a real peach to be around), and I was having frequent mental breakdowns.
I work at a large company and they frequently offer a variety of benefits, programs and even bring in speakers about topics relating to work life balance and personal health for free or at a discounted cost to the employee population. Apparently the company had a WeightWatchers group for years but I rarely, if ever, heard anyone talk about it & most of the people who participated were still overweight. But then they brought something new: a local company run by a guy who’s family of 8 had lost over 500 lbs in a year together. My company would pay for the $25 monthly fee if your BMI was over 25. They launched new groups every four weeks. After the first four weeks of hearing a lot of positive buzz about the program. My coworker from my volleyball team & fellow P90X-er and I decided to sign up for the program. My BMI was 25 so I had to pay for my own monthly fees, but that was OK with me because it wasn’t all that expensive (less than $1 a day).
So the basics of the program were as follows:
- You pick your goal weight
- They give you a food calorie range (likely based on your gender, height & current level of activity) for your daily target
- You log your daily food & water intake
- You do some form of exercise everyday for a minimum of 30 minutes
- “If you know the numbers (i.e. the calories), you can eat it.”
- You had a minimum amount of fiber you had to consume everyday (to keep you feeling full)
- You turn in your food log numbers & exercise information every single day
- You weigh in weekly at work (or one of their local locations)
- Once you hit your goal weight, they teach you about “maintenance”
Pretty simple & straightforward, right? Built-in daily accountability which was what I felt like I had been missing. And for a few weeks (the first 4-6) things were really good. I quickly dropped close to 10 lbs. There were all sorts of great things going on with the program:
- Camaraderie: There were so many people at work who were part of the program & they were all so excited & supportive of each other. You heard people talking about the number of calories in whatever they were eating. The “food days” became less frequent but when they did happen the proportion of healthy options was significantly higher and people made a habit of bringing in the nutrition information for whatever they had made. Which was just SO COOL. Plus, people were asking each other to go on walks together.
- Accountability: Not only did you have the daily expectation to send in your numbers (via text, email, web form, even leaving a voicemail), people in the program were also holding each other accountable as they saw each other day to day.
- Knowledge & Awareness: Since everyone had to log their calories and hit their fiber targets, we all learned and, over time, memorized the basic nutrition information for the foods we ate most often. And eventually, assuming you ate similar things most days, you knew if you were on target or not without needing to check your log.
But, there were also some frustrating downsides to the program too:
- Food Log: The only “acceptable” food log was a written log in their approved DietMinder book. We weren’t allowed to use an app or an online tool if we wanted to be in the program. The leader firmly believed that you had to write out the nutritional information or you wouldn’t remember it later. I found myself entering the information into Excel (because at least Excel would do the addition for me) and then hand copying it over every night. The writing alone would take me 15 minutes some days. What a colossal waste of time & energy.
- Exercise: Weight training / resistance training was a big no-no. And in your exercise log, you had to “measurably improve” every single day. And the leader wasn’t a fan (i.e. didn’t allow) “those stupid at home workouts like P90X” because he didn’t know a single person who actually finished the entire calendar so he was convinced they didn’t work. This pretty much limited workouts to things that could be measured in time and/or distance. On occasion, I found myself doing a TurboFire workout followed by a run but only my run “counted.”
But then, after my initial excitement & success, things started to get ugly. My weight started bouncing around even though I was regularly eating within my calorie range and doing ridiculously long workouts. Although I insisted I was consistent, the leader was convinced I was lying about it (clearly that was the only explanation). And then I started to learn about the special little (unhealthy) nuances that came with those seemingly clear expectations.
- Goal weight: Selecting a goal weight was up to us. We weren’t given any guidance around it. I picked 125 (because it’s a weight I remember being in high school & that’s when I remembered feeling my best). I didn’t factor in a number of other things I should have because I simply didn’t have the knowledge. Well, once you pick your goal weight, you weren’t allowed to change it. Ever. It didn’t matter that the weight I picked simply wasn’t realistic and I had essentially set myself up for failure. I either hit that weight or I “gave up on my goal” and quit the program. And you weren’t allowed to learn about “maintenance” until you hit & maintained your goal weight for a full week (i.e. you weighed in at your goal weight for the first time & you were still at it or below it the next week). It was that “magic number” you just had to make it to.
- Food calorie range: We never really knew how the program decided on our calorie ranges. If I had to guess, I’m assuming they just used one of the really basic online calculators. The calorie range I was given was 1000-1250. But, I was already fairly active (working out 4-5 days a week) when I joined the program. So while I saw quick, short-term success.
- Daily exercise improvement: The expectation was that you were going further, going faster, or burning more calories every single day. There was no concept of hitting a max. And that’s not to say that I believe you shouldn’t seek to improve everyday. But I couldn’t measure “my back was straighter on this exercise.” It had to be numbers based. I remember one weekend when I worked out so long both days that I literally burned more calories in my workout (like 1400) than I ate that day (remember, my max was 1200). And then I GAINED weight.
- If you know the numbers, you can eat it: This one was so simple. And yet too simple. You had to have affirmative calorie information. You were not allowed to use an online database & “guestimate” the calories. This literally ruled out ever eating anywhere small or local who wasn’t required to provide calorie information. You could kiss vacation food goodbye unless you wanted to eat at chain restaurants. And you were in trouble if you tried to do that and they would point to that if you weren’t losing weight.
- Weekly weigh-ins: Again, this was something I should have thought about. But, when you did your weigh-ins they were at work. And that meant you were in your work clothes. Granted, I typically took off my belt, but weighing in wearing a full set of clothes (often in the winter this meant two full layers for me) is not the same as weighing in light workout clothes or first thing in the morning when you can stand on the scale naked if you want. Then, as an added bonus, if your weight went up, you were expected to stay after while they scrutinized you (often accusing you of cheating) as others came into the room for their weigh-in too (talk about humiliation).
- Daily “accountability”: I use that term accountability loosely. They called it accountability. And, if I’m honest, some of it was truly accountability in the best sense of the word. You’d hear from them if you didn’t turn in your numbers. And they would send encouraging things & success stories out. But intermixed with the positive accountability were other things like one of my coworkers who lost her husband and this leader called her up (knowing her husband had just died a few days ago) and berated her for “giving up on herself” and “not being willing to stick with it” and telling her she was weak.
One of my last correspondences with him was as follows:
I’m tired of feeling exhausted ALL the time. I tried cutting out weight lifting completely and it hasn’t helped. I’m seeing a nutritionist tomorrow and my doctor next week. I’ve done some research I don’t think I’m getting enough calories. I’m constantly getting headaches, I never feel like I’ve slept enough, even when I’ve had 9 or 10 hours. Based on what I’ve found, I shouldn’t be eating less than my basal metabolic rate. According to every calculation I can find, the lowest calculation shows my BMR at around 1300 calories. Most of them say that my BMR is around 1400 calories, and that’s not even with the 1.2 multiplier for a sedentary lifestyle. I’m getting my lean muscle mass measured tomorrow along with my BMI, body fat percentage, and BMR. I’m pretty much to the point where I’d rather stop feeling like crap and stay at my current weight than try to push and get to my goal if I’m going to feel like this all the time.
And his response:
You are stressed and not getting enough sleep. You are going to be tired at 2000 calories.
And there I had it. Notice that I mentioned I was sleeping 9-10 hours on some nights. But yet, he’s convinced I’m just not sleeping enough. There was just no way the issue was my very low calorie intake. He knew one method of weight loss and he wasn’t willing (or capable) to consider that there was information he didn’t know or maybe there was more to weight loss & a healthy lifestyle than simple calories alone.
So why tell this story?
Well, as I’ve mentioned before (and will likely continue to mention), I firmly believe that everything is connected. This experience still heavily influences my perspective & beliefs about physical health. While it was an overall negative experience, I did learn some very important things:
- Positive accountability makes a huge difference in my life overall (not just with weight loss) so I needed to find a better source for that
- You can’t change what you don’t measure: It really was a good lesson in documenting what I was eating & what I was doing
- It’s OK to change your approach: The leader of this group called it “quitting” (which is seriously one of the harshest words someone can use to describe my behavior — it may as well be equivalent with calling me a failure or a disappointment). Looking back, really what I needed to do was change my approach and that approach needed to not include paying for written & verbal abuse.
- Just because someone calls themselves an expert doesn’t necessarily make them one: My first clue should have been the fact that when I signed up for the program, I was already at a lower body fat percentage (and possibly lower BMI) than the guy leading the program. He clearly had some basics that worked, but that didn’t mean it would work for everyone.
- It’s my responsibility to differentiate between facts & opinions: They are not even remotely the same and while much of the program was based on fact, much of it was also based on opinion as well.
- Weight loss and physical health in general is much more complex than just calories in / calories out: It has to do with the quality of food you eat, the frequency, the quantity, the type & variety of exercise you’re doing. When you hit a plateau, it’s often because you need a change somewhere in the large number of variables contributing to your overall physical health.
And with that, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite “nuggets” from Inside Out:
Wishing you an All+SUM LIFE,
– SUM Sarah