I’m like a lot of Americans.
For most of my adult life, I have been overweight. While I struggled to eat well, my weight slowly climbed until I was firmly entrenched in the realm of obesity. The numbers on the scale continued to creep up, until I found myself at a point where my health was becoming a concern.
Intrinsically, I knew the problem stemmed from probably-too-large portions and frequent diet sabotage due to my love of sweets.
Then there was the battle to get to the gym. Like many of us, I started to find reasons to skip the gym. I had injuries that were both the cause and the result of inactivity, and I let them keep me on the couch. Excuses such as, “I just need to rest my back today,” or “I’m not feeling up to it, but I’ll go tomorrow,” added up. Before I knew it, more than just a day of exercise had passed. More than just one extra snack was added to my day. More than just one excuse had formed.
I had created a lifestyle of unhealthy habits.
At the beginning of 2017, I knew this struggle was threatening to cost me my health. I was 5’8” and 244 pounds. There was no escaping the reality that I was obese. And unfortunately, I’m not alone. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 36.5 percent of adults in the U.S. are obese. In other words, I was a fairly typical case, and I had finally come to the end of this journey. I was ready to make real, permanent changes to my lifestyle, not just for a trimmer waistline, but for better overall health. With all of the chronic diseases and conditions associated with obesity, I knew I couldn’t continue like this. I wanted to feel better, enjoy life more and be there for my family.
But You’re a Health Editor, Right?
Right. And because of that, I do have one unique tool at my disposal: I have been a writer and editor working with the American Council on Exercise (ACE) since 1998. In my time with ACE I’ve written countless articles, including pieces on optimizing your environment for success, how to maximize motivation, and how to become a more intuitive eater. I’ve edited textbooks on behavior change, personal training and health coaching. During that time, I’ve worked closely with some of the nation’s leading experts on how to turn science and research into action. My writing relies on my ability to take the complex science they describe and reframe it so that it becomes usable for health and fitness professionals who are tasked with inspiring their clients each day.
I knew this struggle was threatening to cost me my health. I was 5’8” and 244 pounds. There was no escaping the reality that I was obese.
It took me far too long to realize that I had been squandering a tremendous opportunity – I had never taken that next step and inspired myself. I had every tool I needed to create a healthy life for myself. Why hadn’t I?
There were, of course, pockets of progress here and there. In the two years before I finally committed to true lifestyle change, I’d lost 25 pounds, gained 30 back and then lost 10 more. With two years of what I thought was consistent effort — as well as constant thought and nagging frustration — I’d netted a mere five-pound weight loss. Why? The changes I had been making were not sustainable to me, and so I kept going back to old habits.
Back to the Basics: Rediscovering the Guidelines
After brainstorming and soul searching in a world of endless health and fitness information, I came back to basics. I know that nearly every piece of research begins with a description of the obesity and physical inactivity epidemics, along with statistics on how few of us are meeting governmental guidelines. As described in the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, “The content of the Physical Activity Guidelines complements the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Together, the two documents provide guidance on the importance of being physically active and eating a healthy diet to promote good health and reduce the risk of chronic disease.”
The exercise and dietary guidelines are known as the blueprints for living a healthy life.
This is where my journey — what I’m calling The Lifestyle Project — began.
The idea of The Lifestyle Project is to adhere to these two sets of guidelines for a full year, with the close guidance of the American Council on Exercise and its team of experts. Perhaps I’ll find that adhering to the guidelines is next to impossible, and this will become an embarrassing journal of my failures and frustrations. Maybe I’ll struggle through the year only to find that the government guidelines don’t go far enough to substantially impact my health and fitness.
Or, just maybe, I’ll find that living by the rules isn’t so bad after all.
The Rules: My First Two Months
On Day 1 — which took place back on February 1, 2017 — I began adhering to the Physical Activity Guidelines:
- Perform at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity each week, with a goal of progressing to more vigorous exercise
- Perform muscle-strengthening activities that are moderate or high intensity and involve all major muscles groups on two or more days a week
The Dietary Guidelines are quite a bit more complicated. I decided to simplify things at first by focusing only on my total calories (2,500 daily calories) and my macronutrients. Because I’m a health editor, I had access to a senior exercise scientist who developed a personalized nutritional plan tailored to my goals. Since I was going to be doing a fair amount of strength training (in attempt to lose weight and gain muscle mass) I was given a high daily protein intake. Protein also leads to satiety, which is helpful when trying to control cravings. The idea was also for me to cut fat from my diet while keeping things within the appropriate ranges. Based on my age and profile, I established the following targets:
- Carbohydrate: 50% of total calories (1,250 calories, or 312 grams)
- Protein: 30% of total calories (750 calories, or 188 grams)
- Fat: 20% of total calories (500 calories, or 56 grams)
I came out of the gates really strong. Meeting the Physical Activity Guidelines wasn’t too much of a challenge, though it did mean that I had to stop letting my excuses get the best of me. Stated simply, meeting these guidelines involved getting one or two more workouts done each week than I’d been completing before changing my lifestyle.
Eating, of course, is much more complicated. What I thought was going to be a project centered on planning and crunching the numbers turned out to be more about flexibility and the ability to follow less-healthy days with healthier ones in order to bring my numbers into balance over time. For example, during Month 1, my meals included a Valentine’s Day dinner at an Italian restaurant, complete with pasta and a shared tiramisu dessert. My fat intake that day was off the charts, but I managed to balance it with better days and meet my overall goals. Over the course of the month, I averaged the following daily intake: 2325 calories, 278 g of carbohydrate, 58 g of fat, and 172 g of protein, which meant I was almost exactly in line with the goals outlined above. I learned that perfection is unattainable, but balance over time is certainly possible.
Moving forward, I began to adopt the remaining guidelines, including monitoring my intake of sodium and added sugars, varying the colors of the vegetables I consume and ensuring that at least half of my grains are whole grains. The goal was to adhere to all of the rules in both sets of guidelines by August 1, which is the midpoint of my one-year project, giving me six months of full compliance.
The Bigger Picture: Establishing — and Reaching — Goals
This project is about far more than weight loss. It’s about taking a holistic approach to my health and fitness. Many people get tripped up in their efforts because they set unrealistic long-term goals, which only serve to sabotage their motivation.
Instead of setting a long-term goal to get under 200 pounds, I started small. I set an initial goal of losing 5 percent of my body weight. There is a body of research establishing considerable health benefits associated with losing that amount of weight, including improving your metabolic health by enhancing insulin sensitivity, thereby reducing your risk for diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
I am thrilled to report that it took me only six weeks to hit that initial goal. On March 14, I weighed 231.2 pounds, which meant that I had lost 13.3 pounds more than 5 percent of my body weight.
What this proves is that you can do this! When I decided to start this challenge, I was an obese, lightly active 43-year-old man who was unknowingly eating a terribly high-fat diet. Sure, six weeks later I was still an obese 43-year-old man, but I had successfully made lifestyle changes that were driving concrete, measurable improvements to my health. I’m feeling more confident, I’m exercising with less pain and I’m losing weight without starving myself or adhering to some crazy fad diet.
You can do this.
My First Tip for You: Join Me
My struggles are not my struggles alone. My story is the story of every person who’s navigated the trials and tribulations to get to what we all want in the end: To live a healthy life.
I’m proud that NBC News BETTER invited me to share my journey with you through the completion of The Lifestyle Project and beyond, and now I want to hear from you.
Have questions about my journey? Ask me on Twitter!
Daniel J. Green, a writer and editor based in Asheville, NC, currently serves as Senior Editorial Consultant for the American Council on Exercise.