Sunday, November 30, 2008

My Story: Healthy Weight Loss

I weigh the same today as I did 25 years ago. In between, though, I gained and lost 50 pounds. Losing that weight, I am sure, helped me beat the breast cancer I was diagnosed with in 2006. And research shows that the exercise plan and low fat diet I adopted can help keep my cancer from returning.

So, yea for me for losing the weight. Why, though, did it take me so long to get to it?

The weight began creeping up in my early 40s when I started teaching. I loved the work, but it was exhausting while not being much of a workout; I spent hours at a time sitting and grading papers. I went home too pooped to exercise, but eager for a glass of wine and some comfort food. I went from a size 10 to a 12, 14, then 16.

I tried to diet. I would lose a few pounds, then gain them right back. It took me two months once to lose ten pounds. I regained it in two weeks. Clearly losing weight was impossible.

Then came my wellness exam of 2005. It did not go well. My blood sugar was high enough to put me at risk for diabetes, My cholesterol had spiked. And my weight was at an all-time high. My body mass index was 29.5—just .5 short of obese. I was a hair’s breadth away from being plain old fat and it was affecting my health.

I was 50 pounds overweight. I was carrying the equivalent of a four-year-old child of extra fat.

Plus, I was getting urinary tract infections as much as four times a year. I did research and was sobered by the fact that these can be a sign of immune system problems and diabetes. An out-of-whack immune system, I am sure, was one cause of my cancer.

When I got the written report than follows up the exam, nearly all of the ten pages listed one health risk I faced: diabetes, heart attack, cancer, stroke, you name it. Each page had the same reminder: “This would be improved if you would lose weight.”

Never before had I been given that message so blatantly: Lose weight if your health matters to you.

I considered my options. I wanted to focus on exercise as much as I could. I had always been active and enjoyed the outdoors and I wanted to enjoy hikes in the mountains again without puffing. But I knew I needed to eat less as well. And I knew I needed a system to keep me in line, to keep me in track.

Several friends recommended a personal trainer. One had lost 100 pounds working with him and was now running marathons. That had appeal, but the cost was high--$1500 for twice-weekly sessions for five months.

A colleague, though, reminded me that $1500 wouldn’t even cover my deductible if I had a heart attack. That was the permission I needed.

Rather than a luxury, I considered Tim Ives, my trainer, an investment in my health. He helped me drop the pounds gradually and, more important, keep them off.

And he taught me to change my perception of what I could do.

I learned that losing weight is a process that simply takes time and commitment. I began to actually work out—lifting weights, jogging, and walking briskly at least four hours a week. And I dieted. I limited myself to 1200 calories a day and kept track of them religiously. I usually lost weight consistently, but occasionally I would step on the scale and be a pound or two over. I was thrown, but I didn’t give up. I kept at it and the pounds dropped off.

I was paying a trainer good money. I was determined to show a benefit. Plus, I made a big deal out of the fact that I was going to lose weight. I had made a commitment in front of friends, family, and colleagues. And research shows that I did two things right: I got help, rather than trying to go it alone. And I went public. Both made me accountable for my weight loss.

When I signed up, I told Tim I wanted to lose 20 pounds. When I hit that level, I kept going because I had simply changed the way I lived. I plateaud  at 50 pounds and stayed there. It feels like I am where I should be.

There are far cheaper ways to do much the same thing, such as group trainers, online supports like, and weight loss group like Weight Watchers. Tim was valuable, though, in educating me about how to benefit from exercise and how to keep from hurting myself. I had once tried a do-it-yourself exercise regimen and threw out my hip, sidelining me seriously for weeks and costing me a nice chunk of money for physical therapy.

Plus, Tim pushed me and didn’t let me slow down when things got tough. He showed me that I could do things I never thought possible. Bench press? Me? I was almost 60 and I had never lifted a weight in my life. High time, Tim said.

Tim weighed me every week and wrote down the results. With him watching and recording, I was embarrassed when I didn’t lose. More motivation.

The change in my diet was all my own.

On most days, I gave up butter, salad dressing, bread, dessert, fried foods, and cream sauces. I ate lots of vegetables and a good amount of fruit. I drank much water. Occasionally, though, I allowed myself a treat, because I could not stick to a diet that was too austere.

I never veered off the exercise, though. I took one day off a week, but adamantly laced up my running shoes on all other days.

I’ve lost that four-year-old child I used to carry everywhere and I’ve kept her off for nearly two years. As a result, exercise is easier and more fun. I hike quicker and easier, with far less puffing. This summer, I made it up the mountain by our Colorado cabin, my original goal when I began working with Tim. I was two years late, the cancer throwing me off a bit.

Exercise and eating right have become a new way of living, not a short-term change. I know I can never go back to my life of literally chewing the fat and spending my days in a desk chair. But feeling healthy and energetic and looking at myself in a size 10 is more important than the taste of any hot fudge sundae. Well, usually.

For details on how I did it, read My Story: Weight Loss Through Exercise and My Story: Weight Loss Through Diet Change.  

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