How this man lost 50 pounds: Incorporating exercise into his work schedule cracked the code

Small bursts of exercise at work and focusing on food volume over calories helped one man finally hit his weight-loss goal.
Image: Mike Holbrook
Mike Holbrook lost 50 pounds in 7 months. Adrian Lam / NBC News
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By Julie Compton

When former US Rowing National Team member Mike Holbrook didn’t make the 2012 London Summer Olympics due to a back injury, he quickly put on weight.

“I was pretty disappointed, devastated, depressed,” Holbrook, 36, tells NBC News BETTER.

He quit sports, but says he still ate like an elite rower. Soon, the 6 foot 6 inch tall Holbrook was tipping the scale at over 300 pounds.

Over the next several years, Holbrook, who lives in Seattle, made multiple attempts to lose weight. He ran a few half-marathons, he says, and would shed some pounds only to gain them back.

Last January, after Holbrook’s then-girlfriend, Alyssa, accepted his marriage proposal, he knew he wanted to transform both his body and his outlook for good.

“I thought: ‘I have to do something now,’” he says.

Over 7 months, Holbrook lost 50 pounds — just in time to say “I do” to the woman he loves.

Here’s how the former national team athlete got back his edge.

He incorporated exercise into his daily work schedule

As a former rower who once trained up to 6 hours a day, Holbrook knew that too much exercise would increase his hunger, which he feared would hurt his weight-loss goal. He decided to burn calories instead by incorporating small amounts of exercise into his daily work routine.

A manager at a busy tech company, Holbrook made a rule for himself. Every day, he takes the elevator to and from the 32nd floor of the skyscraper where his workplace is located. He is only allowed to use the elevator twice a day: once in the morning when he arrives at work, and once in the evening when he leaves. On whatever floor the elevator happens to stop first, he has to get off and use the stairs the rest of the way. And if he needs to go to another floor for a meeting between those periods, he must use the stairs.

Climbing up and down stairs — often, in a rush to avoid being late — helps Holbrook burn calories throughout his busy day.

“For the first few weeks and months, I was kind of winded when I got to the meetings,” he says, “but yesterday I was late, and I got 10 floors in about two and a half minutes, which is doing two stairs at a time, and I recovered in about 30 seconds, and I was good to go.”

He focused on calorie density instead of calories

Holbrook downloaded the weight loss app Noom on his phone. The app calculated the amount of weight he wanted to lose, gave him a calorie budget for each day to reach his weight-loss goal, and provided a colored food grading system that showed him how calorie dense specific foods were.

“It’s the idea that the volume of food that you eat is more important than the actual calorie content,” he says.

Foods that are lower in calories are graded green or yellow, he says, whereas higher density foods are graded in red, which makes his budget easy to visualize.

For example, grapes are graded green, while raisins are red (a half cup of raisins has about 220 calories versus 50 in a half cup of grapes, according to Berkeley Wellness). So he could easily see that a bowl of grapes would be more filling and less caloric than a handful of raisins.

“I eat 40 grapes a day — it’s a huge, overflowing of the bowl that I eat them in — but if you had 40 raisins, it wouldn’t even look like a small handful,” he explains.

“It doesn’t feel restricted because you’re satiated,” he adds, “and you’re full because you continue to eat a fairly large volume of food.”

Holbrook says he still eats some “red” foods, like chocolate and potato chips, but is careful not to go outside his budget. Every night before bed, he enjoys a few caramel chocolates. His wife helps him by nibbling the corners, he says, so he isn’t eating the entire chocolate.

Still being able to enjoy some “red” foods helped him lose weight in the long term, he says. “I am at peace with allowing myself to enjoy a little bit of any food, I think that’s what made it sustainable,” says Holbrook.

Holbrook lost 50 pounds — just in time for his wedding in July. But there was a problem: the tux he ordered months before was too big, and he had to order a new one with a custom fit. But he says it was worth it.

“I just felt amazing standing up there and telling this woman that I love her, and crying a little bit,” he says.

Holbrook says he also sleeps better and no longer suffers from back pain, adding “every second of every day is better.”

“I feel really jazzed when I come into work every day,” he says.

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