Six Months and Eleven Kilograms Later

In July 2022, I finally decided to join a gym and hire a personal trainer and a nutrition coach. While I had used my prison-quality condo gym regularly for many years, and had held gym memberships while living in the US, I had never hired a personal trainer nor had I ever used a nutrition coach. I figured it was time to get serious and get in better shape.

The results? Six months along, I have dropped from about 105 kg (230 lbs) to 94 kg (207 lbs) and all indications are that my weight is continuing to drop. Likewise, my body fat percentage has dropped from 27% to just below 20%. I would argue that these measurements aren’t the most important results, though. Most important are three significant changes:

I’ve shifted my mindset. I’ve come to see that exercise is for building strength and diet is what affects weight. Both are necessary for good health. For the longest time, I tried to exercise myself to lower weight and every time the weight would come back once my exercise routine relaxed. At one point, I was running 5 km a day, five days a week. That isn’t sustainable on my knees! I’ve also revisited my relationship with food, which I would see as a reward or as a “cheat meal” that I would later feel guilty about. I now look at food as fuel. If I decide I want to have hamburger, pizza, or ice cream, I do so like a responsible adult rather than as a ravenous teenager. And while I still enjoy fine dining, I’ve stopped looking at food – especially prodigious quantities of it – as entertainment.

I’ve built new habits. I came to realize that I need to focus on building habits instead of worrying only about the number on the scale. Three days a week, I meet my trainer at 6:00 am. Every day, I walk at least 5,000 steps and achieve a weekly average of at least 8,000. And every meal, I work to create a balanced plate that is substantially lean proteins, lots of veggies, moderate starches, and minimal fats.

When I travel or have social events, I plan in advance and create a strategy to stay as close to my habits as I can. I use substitute workout activities if I cannot go to the gym. I load up on lean protein at breakfast if my source of lunch or dinner will be out of my control. And when going to a restaurant or social event, I approach the menu looking for appropriate fuel rather than using it to fulfill other needs.

I’ve taken a sustainable approach. I realize that I have a choice about my health and fitness; it isn’t an inevitable consequence of aging but rather something over which I have a lot of influence. As such, I am making choices with a long-term view: yes, two scoops of ice cream with all the toppings would taste good now but one small scoop will taste pretty much the same and eating less of it increases the odds I will be around and healthy enough to eat ice cream 50 years from now. Also, no fad diets or over-the-top exercise routines. My approach has to be something I will want to do consistently, year after year.

Why did I change? The biggest impetus for my change was my grandfather turning 102 this year. He still lives at home and while he is generally in good shape, I can see many ways where having a bit more strength, a bit less weight, and a bit better balance would increase his chances of remaining independent. Considering many aspects of my genetics – especially body shape and size – seem to trace back to him (my recently-departed grandmother, owing to her macular degeneration, regularly confused my grandfather and me if she viewed us from halfway across the room), putting myself on a healthier path now should increase my odds of living an active and independent life for many decades to come.

What am I doing? As mentioned, I have hired a trainer and I meet her at the gym three times a week. This has helped me in three ways: first, it creates tremendous accountability. In the past when I went to the gym by myself, I wasn’t pushing myself to my limits. Having someone else to show up for, ensures I show up. Having someone who sets expectations around repetitions and weight, ensures I reach those levels of performance. Second, having a trainer improves my form. I always had the sense that I didn’t really know what I was doing with most exercises and would often be sore or even injured afterwards. My trainer has really helped me understand how to exercise in a way that has the most benefit and minimizes the risk of injury. Finally, having a trainer keeps me from being bored. She mixes up the exercises and the areas of focus and keeps my workouts interesting.

Additionally, I hired a nutrition coach (Darren Liu of Breakthrough Body Blueprint) to help me with my approach to diet. He and his team were helpful in challenging the way I think about food. They had me start tracking my meals (MyFitnessPal is a great, easy-to-use app) which was a pain in the ass for the first two week and then easy. Most importantly, it was eye-opening. You really don’t understand the impact of what you are eating until you take the time to track it.

Darren and team set me up with calorie and macronutrient targets, significantly increasing the amount of protein that I consume. What I discovered is that protein helps me stay full longer, reducing the urge to snack. I also discovered that I can feel completely satisfied even as I only consume about 2,100 calories a day – my current target to ensure a slow but consistent loss of weight, about two kilograms a month.

I also started tracking my steps using my phone. There’s a lot of buzz about 10,000 steps a day – that felt a bit much as an average. But I have found that moving a minimum of 5,000 steps a day is very doable, with longer walks on days I don’t go to the gym or on the weekends. Last July, I averaged about 6,600 steps a day. By December, that was over 10,000 steps. Instead of riding the motorcycle from the station to my condo, I walk. I walk to the gym in the mornings, about ten minutes each way. I walk to a restaurant for lunch instead of ordering in. I stopped working from home and started going back to the office, since it automatically requires more walking from me. And the more I walk, the more I find walking doesn’t seem to be such a hassle.

What is the plan from here? So far, so good. But can I keep the weight off? Most people who lose significant weight tend to gain it back. And I shouldn’t stop here. While BMI isn’t the most nuanced measure, I’m still in the “overweight” category. The plan is to continue my habits around exercise and diet, to make them a consistent part of my life. Consistent habits should result in better overall health, better energy, better sleep, and a better sense of self. My target for 2023 is to reduce my body fat to 17% and my weight to under 90 kgs. But the numbers aren’t the real goal. It’s sustaining the mindset and the habits that lead to a long and healthy life.

Building New Habits and Returning to Old Ones

As we begin 2023, I’m aware that in the past year I have built some constructive new habits, especially around diet and exercise. I would also like to return to old habits such as writing regularly on this blog and making the time to cook and socialize more with friends.

This weekend, a day after returning from my first business trip of the year (to Taipei), I headed north to Chiang Mai. The nighttime weather here is refreshingly cool and while tourists have started to return, the city remains quieter than it was before COVID. It is a nice getaway, though, even if the temple across the street from my hotel room balcony wakens the monks at 4:45 every morning with a series of increasingly loud clangs of the bell.

The main event of this trip was a Saturday evening concert on a hilltop farm to the west of Chiang Mai, part of an arts series a friend has nurtured over the past three years. It was an intimate event, for about 50 people, and we were literally trucked in, sitting in the back of pickups as we bumped along a steep, narrow, and winding dirt path.

The destination was worth the journey, though. A sweeping view of the surrounding mountains and valleys, stretching dozens of miles west and across the border with Myanmar. The sun set and the successive ridges of the mountains turned to gradients of green, then blue, then purple. The musicians and vocalists performed a diverse selection of music from classical to popular music to showtunes. And we feasted on local foods, produced by farmers whom the friend has supported as they move to organic, sustainable practices. From tender asparagus spears to French-quality cheeses to robust beef stew, it was perfect as the temperatures quickly dropped.

What made the experience special, though, was not the setting, the arts, or the food. It was sharing it with friends who moved from Bangkok to Chiang Mai last year. Having the chance to spend time with them in a beautiful setting, was a meaningful way to start the year and reminds me that making the time for friends – carving it out from my busy work schedule – is a habit I need to prioritize in the second half of my life.