This is me riverwalking on the edge of the Amazon in Banos, Ecuador.

I turned 30 and fell out of shape. Here’s what I did about it

Not long after my 30th birthday early this year, I had what might be called a commonly American experience. I noticed I had suddenly gained a bunch weight —  going from weighing something like 190 lbs, where I had been for years, to 220 in what felt like just a couple months. I also just felt worse.

That puzzled me — my diet hadn’t changed much, I was still (somewhat?) active, with basketball and bicycle commuting and frequent walks. What went wrong? I had been a skinny kid my entire life: why would I gain weight? …This wasn’t entirely because I turned 30, right? (Oh my were my friends amused by this).

It took me more than two months to figure out the pretty straightforward answer and the rest of this year to do something about it.

So first, what actually changed?

  • My commute changed: I felt silly when this obvious point was pointed out to me. For more than three years, I commuted daily by bicycle (something like 200 days a year) 13 miles a day roundtrip. Then last fall that changed suddenly: my daily trip was more than halved to six miles roundtrip with our new offices. That was a dramatic change to the amount of regular cardio I had, without my necessarily noticing and certainly without me planning any other lifestyle changes.
  • I started drinking coffee: I had been adding two or three sugar packets to my coffee at that point after just starting to drink coffee in the last year. 
  • I am getting older: Though, no, suddenly turning 30 didn’t change my weight but indeed all of these other changes aren’t helped. Things simply get harder health-wise, as you get older.

These were real changes but my other habits didn’t — I never developed portion control (I grew up in a ‘finish what’s on your plate’ household), loved salty treats and seasonally my other exercise outlets would change (I play less basketball in the winter, for example).

All this resulted in a bad trend: there was no reason to believe my weight gaining had stopped. Things probably would have gotten worse had I not decided to do something about it. Fortunately I had started using a digital scale and recognized the problem. Still benefiting from looking fitter simply because in the last year I had begun to be choosier about my clothes, I wasn’t appearing particularly engorged. Yet,

But it was time to do something about it before I did. Here’s what I did about it:

  • I made a resolution. And I don’t mess around with my resolutions. I pledged to track my eating and start new health habits….so….
  • I began meeting with a nutritionist. I found out my company’s health insurance covered six annual meetings with a licensed nutritionist. I meet with her once every six weeks to set (realistic) goals and in between our meetings she emails me to ask for sample food journal entries. She keeps me honest and has majorly changed my habits.
  • I started working with a personal trainer. Here’s the deal: I know what habits I need but I can’t build them on my own. It helps me to pay as a forcing function. Yeah, I know, how very bourgeoise of me. And yet, I found for the cost of a nice dinner out (or less than $1,500 over the course of a year), I could build new, important habits and transform my relationship with exercise. It seems like an easy investment to me now. When I schedule my trainer: I am going to the gym and going to take on the challenges he gives me. I started in May and been going pretty regularly for the last six months.
  • I joined a gym for the first time. Aside from occasionally in high school and college, I had never gone to a gym, certainly never directly paid for one. That changed this year. I go 2-3 times a month with my trainer and aim to go one to two other times a week on my own to follow through with what my trainer has me doing.

In making those three changes, here’s what I learned or changed:

  • I know what my motivation is. My interest in getting fitter was to (a) build habits to live healthier for the rest of my life, (b) fulfill my self-interest in vanity and (c) add to my upper body strength for basketball and other sports I find fun.
  • I only build real habits. One of the primary reasons why I’ve so enjoyed the trainer and nutritionist I’ve worked with is they’re both pragmatic: they push me to set goals that I can truly meet. Similarly I put more thought into whether I can maintain any choice, rather than if its the grandest.
  • I’m focusing on weightlifting at the gym. I keep my cardio to bicycling and basketball. At the gym, I’ve been focused on getting stronger. I’ve seen the progress.
  • I’ve gotten stronger. During the last six months, I’ve happily seen lift gains.
  • I’ve lost weight. Though I’m not sure I’m going to get back to the weight I was less than two years ago, my weight now is with a bit more muscle. Still I could stand to lose more, which remains a goal.
  • I am more conscious of my water intake. I’ve focused on that more in recent years but I’ve pressed further on it. I try to have five cups of water from a 20-oz cup daily.
  • I am mindful of my sugar intake. I’m down to just one sugar in my coffee, and I try to limit the other sugary drinks I have. …I could do better with cookies.
  • I worked on my portion control. Oh man, I’m no good at this, but I’m working on setting aside food once I’m full. Similarly I’ve picked up delaying the larger portion until I really want it at home. If I’m hungry at night, I’ll try to wait until the morning, which works more often than I had expected.
  • Goodness, I bought protein. I know, it’s horrid isn’t it? But on the advice of both my trainer and nutritionist, I began adding protein to my diet, primarily through morning fruit smoothies. Generally I tried to add protein to my diet, preferring those with limited saturated fats.
  • I created a breakfast strategy. I’ve always been crummy at weekday breakfasts (I keep it pretty healthy on weekends). For years I wouldn’t eat breakfast at all during the week, which would set a course of unhealthy snacking. This year I got better at having an array of quick options prioritized by health: egg salad, peanut butter sandwiches, organic cereal, a Sunday-made quiche for the week and, when pressed as a last option, a frozen breakfast sandwich.
  • I updated my midday snack choices. I brought mixed nuts and raisins and other shelf-ready but healthy snacks to my office for when I do need a bit more.
  • I make more lunches. I prepare more of my lunches, often chicken salad or leftovers from dinner. I do have healthy lunch options around my office though.
  • I plan for every single dinner at the start of the week. My wife SACM has long had a dry-erase board to plan our after-work plans. We’re now building the habit of using that board each Sunday to plan for each night’s dinner, whether or not I have a work event. It’s helping me plan healthier choices.
  • I don’t buy potato chips anymore. I love salty snacks. I don’t keep chips at my house anymore, replacing them with popcorn and pretzels and limiting them too.
  • I replaced cold cuts with chicken salad. I still buy the deli sandwich for ease perhaps once a month (and I’ll have some chips then) but otherwise avoid them.

Here’s hoping I continue to build habits for the rest of my life.

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