Right now, I’m in pretty good shape. I have the confidence to say this because I’ve worked very hard over the last 18 months to get to this point. I’m not a muscular person, like what you might see in a designer underwear advert…and this was never my personal goal, but I certainly don’t feel embarrassed anymore when I take my shirt off. I’ve discovered a few very simple patterns for losing weight, gaining muscle (at a slow rate) and generally feeling better about myself. This has been such a big success for me, that I felt it only right to share with you.
I talk about myself a lot in this post, and I apologize for that, but it’s hard not to. I believe that if you follow this advice and these tips, you can achieve the same results as me.
Poor diet, smoker, drinker, allergic to exercise guy
Growing up as a teenager in North-West England, UK, in the early 2000’s, I was skinny. I had an extremely poor diet and frankly was “allergic” (not literally, just mentally) to vegetables and healthy food in general. I flat out refused to eat vegetables because I simply didn’t like them. For tea I would have “chips and something”, usually chicken, beef, pork, typically skins on and deep fried.
My diet only got worse as I got older. I worked for a fast food chain for a while, and would regularly eat 3 meals on site up to 5 days a week (this particular fast food restaurant classifies you as a “heavy user” if you consume their food once a week).
When I became independent, i.e. I moved out of my parents house and got my own place, the trend continued for years.
As a software developer, a crazy obsessive one at that, I would spend all my time programming or playing on the games console (PS2/3, or XBox 360). Going outside wasn’t something I would do in a typical month. For a long time, I worked from home and would rarely venture outdoors. Basically I was very inactive, other than to empty the bin or to pick up the post (thank goodness for the elevator in our apartment block!).
At the time, I also smoked and drank alcohol heavily. My favourite tobacco was Golden Virginia (or Amber Leaf if money was a bit tight) and I was an avid whiskey drinker. Every Saturday night I would get so drunk that I would often end up being sick and doing much worse things than I care to share with you!
Any of this sound familiar?
The eureka moment
I think I’m relatively unique in that I didn’t have a eureka moment as such. Over a period of a few months I came to dislike my appearance. I would look at myself in the mirror, typically after a shower or when getting dressed, and I didn’t like what I saw. I wanted to do something about it, but I never made a serious commitment to actually do anything.
I had a couple of fads. I bought myself a press-up bar. Basically it was a small piece of equipment that helped you do push ups, and also doubled up as a pull-up bar that could easily be attached to a door, with no screws required. I would have a go a couple of times a week…hell I might even do 1 or 2 push-ups and a couple of pull-ups. But to be honest, I never once even broke a sweat.
For the last few years, I’ve been waking up early in the morning at the weekend. This is because my body behaves the opposite to most people. When I drink a lot of alcohol, my body temperature increases dramatically and as a result I can’t sleep. I get too hot for sleep, so I go downstairs and do something useful. I might write a blog post, watch a PluralSight course, write some code, or do something. As its typically around 3-4am, the place is very quite and I typically get a lot done, which is great, so this works well for me.
One day, I switched on the TV and one of those sucky TV shopping channels was on. I immediately reached for the remote control, but in the 2.5 seconds it took me to grab the it, I was instantly captivated on what they were advertising.
Insanity is an exercise program for regular people, thin people, fat people, tall people, short people, men, women, fit people, people looking to lose weight or gain muscle or all of the above. This was a training programme for me that would get me on the road to good health and fitness. Insanity is a 9 week (60 day) workout program that requires no equipment, and can be done at home.
You work out 6 days a week, for a varying amount of time between 38 minutes and 60 minutes. The first week hurts like hell. After that, you get used to it but it never gets easier. In fact, the harder you push yourself, the more rewarding it becomes. Insanity is great for toning your body, improving your general health and fitness, and it gets you active.
The best part of Insanity? Its all you. No gym, no equipment, no public shame, no awkward showers. You do the workout in the comfort of your own home, and at a time that suits you.
Educating myself about food
Insanity had captured my interest and I instantly knew that I wanted to do it. Over the years I have gone from being the sort of person who makes snap decisions, takes risks, and generally doesn’t engage the brain before speaking, to a deep methodical thinker less inclined to take risks, but whom favours calculated risks.
If this was going to work, I had to give it 100% commitment. No excuses, no BS, no slip ups..for 9 solid weeks. I immediately set about educating myself about food.
I had heard the term, like most people, “calories”. I knew that food contained calories. Healthier food contains less calories and unhealthy food contains more calories. Strictly speaking, this is not always true, but that is the basic idea. My body is a power station, and calories are its fuel. Understanding how many calories my body needs was the first challenge.
In the food guide that accompanied the Insanity workout programme was a useful formula for calculating your bodies calorie needs. The formula was based on the Harris Benedict equations. I typed up the formula into Microsoft Excel and added about 30%, as recommended by the guide based on the frequency of exercising I was planning on doing.
Using this very simple formula, I determined that I needed to consume about 3000 calories a day to lose weight and survive the workouts. To put that into perspective, the average male requires around 2500 calories a day to maintain their body-weight, and I would have to eat more than that!
I had already learnt my first lesson. It is possible to eat more food and still lose weight, as long as the food was fresh and healthy.. The first step was to throw away all the junk food in every cupboard in my kitchen. And that included sugar, soft drinks, and all the processed frozen food in my freezer.
After determining how many calories my body needs to function correctly, and withstand regular exercise, I now had to understand what foods contained what calories. If I was going to consume 3000 calories a day, which is not a small task, I would need a solid plan and schedule for eating, cooking, and cleaning (cooking generates a lot of dishes!).
The key to losing weight is to eat more food. As many as 5 meals a day. This may seem like bad advice. After all, if you want to lose weight, then you should surely eat less food, right? Well no. The idea is that the more food you eat, the more energy your body uses to digest and process said food. If you eat 5 times a day (breakfast, morning snack, lunch, afternoon snack, evening dinner) then your body is going to be continuously processing food, and burning calories in the process. If you’re eating good, healthy, nutritional food which is low in fat and high in protein (and moderate in carbohydrates), combined with very regular, high intensity training, then you end up in caloric deficit (you have less calories left over than your body needs to maintain weight, therefore you lose weight).
How do you eat healthily?
Pro tip 1 - Plan all meals in advance
Before you deep dive into buying every fruit and vegetable on sale at the supermarket, you should take a step back and plan what you’re doing to eat. This is an alien concept to a lot of people today, but you can actually think ahead of time, list all the ingredients that make up each of your meals, and buy all those ingredients in a single trip to the supermarket each week. Only going shopping once a week is not only going to save you money (no impulse buying) but it will save you time (handy, because you’re going to need that for exercising) and reduce temptation/chances of falling off the wagon.
Sit down and research all your meals, list all the ingredients on a Microsoft Word document, and gather together all the recipes you need.
Here are 3 different shopping lists I have put together that you can use as an example. Note that these lists are catered to my personal needs and tastes, and you may need to adjust accordingly. They’re also not 100% accurate.
- Current shopping list. This is the list I’m using right now (I’m doing daily fasting at the minute, which is why there are no breakfasts or snacks)
- Insanity shopping list. Based on the Insanity healthy eating plan, with several customizations for my own tastes.
- Focus T25 shopping list. Based on the Focus T25 healthy eating plan, again with my own twists and customizations.
As a very important note, you need some self discipline here. Whatever eating plan you use, you should stick to it 100% with no slip ups, snacks, nipples, nothing. Losing weight is a serious commitment and can easily be derailed by the odd treat.
On the other hand, I regularly schedule a treat meal for myself (perhaps once a week). This might be on a Friday night as a reward for the hard work done during the week, but it is always planned ahead of time and is never done on impulse.
Avoid all trans-fats (bad fats), cut all sugar out of your diet, excluding that found in fruit, and eat protein rich foods such as; chicken, beef and turkey. Nuts are super healthy and contain a lot of good fats that your body needs. My favourites include; walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, cashews and some dried fruits with a twist of salt.
Note, I recommend changing up your meal plan every 4 weeks. There are two reasons for this. First is that eating the same food over and over gets boring. Second is that your body certainly seems to get used to the food your body consumes, and your weight loss my plateau or stop altogether. Shaking things up stops this from happening. You will also want to revisit the Harris Benedict equation from time to time to make sure you are consuming the correct amount of calories (this figure will likely decrease as your body weight decreases).
Pro tip 2 - Always cook fresh
I mentioned earlier that you will save a lot of time not going to the supermarket every day, because you’ve bought all your fresh food in a single trip to the supermarket each week.
I highly recommend that you cook all your meals fresh and just-in-time. This can be time consuming, but here are some tips to make it work;
- Cook several meals at once. If you can, cook breakfast, lunch and dinner at the same time. I typically do this when cooking the dinner each evening. Stick breakfast and lunch in the fridge, and tuck in to dinner straight away.
- Recruit a significant other to chip in with the dishes. Ask your other half, girlfriend, wife, (mother?), to give you a hand with the dishes. Have one person washing and one person drying. This will speed up the task dramatically.
- Memorize each dish. You’ll get the cooking done much quicker if you know the timings, quantities and everything else without having to look at your chart/recipe list. However, be sure to have it on hand if needed.
Pro tip 3 - Eat or starve
If you are like how I used to be, i.e. “allergic” to any form of even remotely healthy food, you should use the Eat or starve technique. It’s pretty simple really, eat the food you have prepared, or go without. Don’t buy any “extras” from the supermarkets, and throw away or donate any unhealthy food you have lying around to somebody who needs it. After a couple of days, once your stomach is rumbling continuously, your taste buds will dull slightly and you’ll become more open to experimentation. Treating yourself when nobody is looking is going to do a lot more harm than good.
Another good tip, and I have done this myself several times, If you find it particularly difficult to eat a particular type of food (a salad for example) then go to a very public place and eat it there. Get together with a group of friends and order something healthy. You’re not going to embarrass yourself in front of your peers by not eating it, especially if everybody else is eating healthy too!
It’s also a good idea to take daily vitamin supplements, to be sure that your getting all the vitamins and minerals your body needs.
I’ve learnt a little secret that people generally don’t seem to know about. You don’t have to exercise to lose weight. In fact, if you are quite a bit overweight, I would recommend that you actually do no exercise at all for the first 2-3 weeks of your diet (or longer, if you’re quite a quite a bit overweight [not a typo!]). You’ll shed the pounds quickly to start off with, weather you exercise or not.
What is the purpose of exercising? Exercising is great for toning your body, building muscle, improving your core strength and generally helping you feel happier within your own skin. Exercise gives your body definition and shape.
Workout at home to start off with
Signing up for the gym is a huge commitment. Not only is it potentially expensive (the average gym membership fee is probably between £20-£50 a month), but it requires a lot of your time.
If you go to the gym, you have to;
- Drive or walk to the gym
- Say “Hi!” to the receptionist
- Negotiate several layers of security, using various levels of security cards or keys
- Find a safe corner in the locker room where you feel comfortable enough to change
- Pluck up the courage to work out in front of other people, and occasionally have to speak to people (!) when you cross their paths
- Negotiate the showers and the soap
- Get dressed
- Drive home, and sob about the whole experience.
As a beginner, this indeed can be a very trying and stressful process. And ideally, you would repeat this 3-4 or perhaps 5 times a week depending on your programme.
There is an alternative, my friend, workout at home;
- Drive home (you were going there anyway)
- Get changed in comfort of your own house
- Work out in total privacy
- Get showered, and dressed in private.
- You’re already home! Time to relax.
There are many home based workout programmes out there. My favourite’s are Insanity: The Ultimate Cardio Workout and Fitness DVD Programme and Shaun T’s FOCUS T25 DVD Workout Programme, both are very popular. If you don’t like the look at either of these programmes, have a browse around the web and find something similar that will work for you. Start with Amazon, I’m sure there are hundreds!
Measure, measure, measure.
If you are going to embark upon an exercise and workout programme, I highly recommend that you set realistic targets, and track your progress every single day.
So as a ritual, when you wake up in the morning, do the following;
- Go to the toilet, do all your business.
- Weigh yourself, write it down.
- Measure your chest, arms, belly, and thighs. Write it down.
This might seem obsessive at first, and perhaps it is a little, but measure your performance on a daily basis will help you maintain your focus (and actually becomes a little exciting after a while!).
- Buy Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard 100% Whey Double Rich Chocolate Protein Powder 2.27kg, and drink it directly after your workout. This will help your muscles recover directly after a workout by giving you a protein “hit” that is quickly absorbed by the body.
- Buy Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard 100% Casein Protein Powder Drink Mix Creamy Vanilla 1.82 kg, and drink it before you go to bed. This slow release protein will help your muscles recover whilst you sleep.
- Buy Optimum Nutrition 634 g Micronised Creatine Powder. This powder, typically used by weight lifters, helps your body retain more water. This increases the amount you sweat and also helps with muscular recovery.
To finish the story
At the peak, I was approaching 14st (196lb). As somebody who is of a slender frame, this was very scary to me and according to my BMI, I was well in the “Overweight” category.
Today, I am a very healthy 11st (154lb) and I feel great. I am still eating healthily and I am doing the intermittent fasting eating regime, as discussed by James Clear on his blog. I exercise every single day, and hit the gym regularly. I now have good respect for food and I enjoy eating and preparing it. Turning my life around has made me a happier person and a better, more focused developer. You can achieve the same too. The trick is, it starts today.
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Written by Jon Preece who lives and works in Manchester, North West England. You should follow him on Twitter.