Excerpt from The Athlete Inside, Chapter 3
I had lots of experience with the path I seemed to be on: lose lots of weight, then gain it all back. After losing 66 pounds, I’d had high hopes that this time would be different, but it seemed like it wasn’t. I’d stop on the way home from work at my favorite bakery, purchase a dozen huge cookies, and then consume them on the drive home; go to restaurants that had large dessert buffets; and just happen to stroll past Blu Boy Chocolate Store where I’d stop in to purchase chocolates and macarons. Within nine months, I regained almost half of the 66 pounds I had lost, and my weight climbed back to 304 pounds.
I started feeling hopeless again. Dieting obviously wasn’t working for me. It seemed the only route to weight loss for someone like me was surgery, but I didn’t feel that was the right option for me. Once again, I started believing that I would just be heavy all my life. At the same time, however, my new why kept nagging at me. I couldn’t stop thinking about all the things I couldn’t do because of my size and about my goal to run, rather than walk, in a 5K event. I seemed to be stuck between two loves: eating sweets and doing all the things I wanted to do but couldn’t because of my size.
Then a friend invited me to join a three-month exercise program she had been doing in a small fitness studio in our town. The program’s website showed before-and-after photos of people who had lost over a hundred pounds. Those photos gave me hope and made me wonder if I should enroll in the program, but signing up for the class would mean admitting I couldn’t do it on my own. Finally, I told myself that after multiple attempts over many years, I had not been successful at losing weight on my own. I needed help. I needed community. I swallowed my pride and signed up for the program.
I literally cringed when I learned the name of the program: Meltdown Bootcamp. That sounded intimidating. I pictured myself doing push-ups with a trainer in my face, screaming at me to do one more. Maybe I was crazy to even think about doing that program. I questioned my friend repeatedly. I wanted to make sure that someone weighing more than three hundred pounds could survive a boot camp. My friend assured me that other obese people would be part of the program. She added that most of the instructors had been my size at one point in their lives. I wasn’t so sure, but I agreed to go.
My friend and I planned to go together to the first class, but as I drove into the parking lot, I received a text from her saying she would not be able to come. I felt panic-stricken. I had never been to a gym before. I didn’t know anyone there. I thought about turning the car around and driving home. But instead, I pulled into a parking spot and stopped, debating what to do. All my life, I had chosen to let my actions be controlled by fear or pride instead of by my desire to be healthy. I was twenty feet from the front door. All I had to do was walk through that door. I got out of the car and walked up to the building.
The front door was glass, and I could see inside. Mats lay on the floor in what appeared to be a circle with dumbbells and balls sitting next to them. People were standing around and chatting. I stopped abruptly in front of the door, terrified and unsure of what to do next. Then I did something I’ve repeated often throughout my journey. I held my hands in front of me palms up, like two trays on a balance scale. In my left hand, I imagined my fear and pride—the things that made me want to make a poor choice. In the other hand, I imagined all the things I wanted to be able to do—sit in a restaurant booth, use a regular-size restroom stall, run in a 5K. Then I rocked my hands up and down slightly, the way people do when they are trying to make a decision. A second later, I said out loud with firmness, “Go away, pride! Go away, fear!” Then I made myself walk through the door.
Once inside, I just stood. I had no idea what to do. Thankfully, a woman came up and asked if I wanted to be her partner for the class. I felt so grateful for her kindness, without which I might have run back out the door. The class involved rotating from mat to mat. A card at each mat told you what to do. When the instructor yelled, “Go!” you’d begin the exercise. A little while later, she’d yell, “Stop!” and you’d rotate to the next station.
My first problem was that, at 304 pounds, I couldn’t do any of the things that were written on the cards. I couldn’t do a push-up. I’d never heard of a mountain climber. Luckily, my friend had explained that if I couldn’t do something, I should raise my hand and ask for an alternative exercise. The first station was push-ups. I raised my hand. The instructor, Maria, was wonderful. She quickly came and told me to do push-ups against the wall instead of the floor. That was still challenging for a person my size, but it was doable. At the second station, I raised my hand, and again at the third and fourth stations. Finally, Maria just started coming over to me with each rotation to give me an alternative.
My second problem was that I couldn’t get up from the floor quickly enough to move to the next station before Maria shouted, “Go!” Getting off the floor meant I had to get on my hands and knees, then progress to hands and feet, and then hopefully struggle to a stand. It just took too long, so I ended up crawling on my hands and knees from station to station, with my pride screaming at me to run out the door. As I crawled, I said to myself over and over, Go away, pride. Go away, pride. Go away, pride!
The station I feared the most was Jacob’s ladder. It was a ladder with rungs that moved downward as you climbed. For safety reasons, you put on a belt that is tethered to the ladder. If you fall, the rotating rungs stop moving. My heart stopped when I saw the belt. I was sure it wouldn’t fit around my wide belly. So embarrassing! Go away, pride. I was doubly sure I would fall off the moving ladder. Go away, fear. As I moved around the stations, closer and closer to Jacob’s ladder, my dread grew. Finally, I was standing in front of the ladder. As I put on the belt, I wondered who the heck Jacob was. I decided he was a sick sadist who took great joy in seeing others suffer as they tried to climb the ladder’s rungs. Thankfully, the belt fit—a huge relief. I started up the ladder—one step, then another. The rungs started to move downward under my feet as I climbed. I was doing it. Maria had been watching. She yelled loudly across the room in front of everyone, “Good job, Sue!” I felt like a little kid just bursting with pride.
After class, I sat in the parking lot and cried—partly from exhaustion, but mainly happy tears full of joy. I did it! I survived the class, and I had climbed Jacob’s ladder! I was soaking wet with perspiration. For the first time in decades, it wasn’t perspiration from the heat. It was sweat from exertion. I loved every drop, savoring the sensation of accomplishment.
The Bootcamp program included exercise classes twice a week, but I couldn’t handle that in the beginning. I’d go to class on Mondays and then be tired for the next four days. After the first few weeks, it became easier, and I started going to class on Mondays and Thursdays. I always tried to go to class when Maria was teaching. Her attention and kind words inspired me.
After each exercise class and any other time I exercised on my own, I logged my exercise on a form provided by the Meltdown Bootcamp. At the end of the week, I sent the log to Bill, the exercise coach assigned to me. Each week, he’d assign a letter grade to my effort, based on how many hours I logged. I quickly learned to log my hours a week in advance and then follow the plan I’d created to earn an A. I liked having a weekly plan to follow, and I liked seeing the As that appeared on my record. In addition to reviewing our logs, Bill sometimes attended the exercise classes. He got in front of people like a drill sergeant and yelled, “One more rep! Give me one more rep!” Luckily, he never did that to me. I suspect he tailored his coaching style for each individual person. He knew that instead of inspiring me, that approach would crush me.
In addition to the exercise program, Meltdown Bootcamp also had a nutrition program. They described it as a whole-foods, low-sugar program with carb cycling. Each day, I ate five assigned meals of proteins, healthy carbs, fats, and vegetables. I was given a list of foods that were approved for each food group, along with the quantity that made up a serving. Carbs had to be healthy carbs, like oatmeal and brown rice, not the sweet carbs (like cookies and candy) that I enjoyed eating. At the beginning of the week, we received instructions about which food groups to eat for each meal. On some days, we ate no carbs, while other days were heavy carbs. While not all agree, some nutrition consultants believe that this type of carb rotation contributes to weight loss. Meals had to be at least three hours apart, and every two weeks, the plan changed slightly. I also had to drink 120 ounces of water every day. It seemed like I was putting food or water into my mouth every minute. Instead of telling myself not to eat, I had to remind myself to eat. I was surprised that my stomach never felt hungry—not even once. And the balance provided by this meal plan made a huge difference for me: rather than eating all my points in sweets early in the day, I now had a plan geared toward nutrition throughout the day.
Like the exercise program, Bootcamp also had an accountability system for my eating. Every evening, I’d send my nutrition coach, Barb, an email that listed the foods I had eaten that day and quantities. A short while later, she’d send a return email to say, “Good job!” or let me know where I had messed up. After a while, Barb and I started sharing little bits about how our days went. She was like a pen pal.
Barb always looked for the positive. When I ate a half gallon of chocolate-dusted almonds in one sitting, Barb complimented me for throwing the remaining half away. That accountability and support had been missing in my failed diets. I’d like to think I could have lost weight without this level of accountability, but the reality is that I was not successful on my own. I needed support and community.
My exercise and nutrition coaches monitored the degree to which I implemented Bootcamp’s process, but the founder and director of Bootcamp, Adam, monitored the outcome. At the start of Bootcamp, we each had to stand privately on a scale before Adam while he recorded our weight on a spreadsheet. When it was my turn, I set my resolve. Go away, pride. The scale read 304. I waited for Adam to say something about my massive weight, but he just told me how happy he was that I was there. Then, every two weeks, we each stood before Adam again as he updated our weight.
On the second weigh-in, the pressure was on. I had followed the exercise program and nutrition perfectly, and my scale at home indicated a weight loss, but I had no idea what Adam’s scale would say. When the digital numbers popped on the scale, Adam simply said, “Niiiiice!” I learned to love that one-syllable word and hoped I would hear it every two weeks when I weighed in. Even after Bootcamp ended and I was down to 235 pounds, I continued to weigh in with Adam every two weeks for years. Meltdown Bootcamp, with its encouragement and accountability, was my lifeline.
One of the biggest lessons I learned from Bootcamp was to be coachable. At the start of Bootcamp, I questioned everything. Why didn’t we have carbs on some days? Why weren’t we allowed to have dairy products? Why couldn’t we drink diet pop? Finally, Adam told me firmly to let him do the thinking and to just do what he told me to do. End of discussion.
To be honest, that made me a little mad. I didn’t like being told to not think. Childishly, I decided to prove that Adam’s program didn’t work. My plan was to do exactly what he said, and then at the end of Bootcamp, my lack of weight loss would make it obvious that his program was flawed. I followed his plan to the letter every day. At the end of three months, I had lost thirty pounds. His program worked.
I was pleased with far more than the weight loss. I had learned so much about exercise, nutrition, and accountability. I learned to let go of control and put myself into the hands of a trusted coach. Most of all, I had confidence that I had the knowledge and strength to continue my weight loss journey on my own after the three-month Bootcamp ended.
My first step after Bootcamp was to find a means to continue logging my food that included food types and quantities, rather than points. I found an easy-to-use free app called My Fitness Pal, which not only allowed me to log my food and weight each day, but also provided a nice daily report about the food groups I had eaten that day. I started developing my own food plans, using what I had learned in Bootcamp. I entered my food plans into My Fitness Pal ahead of time, instead of logging my foods after I ate them. Then during the day, I simply followed the plan I had created by eating the foods that were already in my log. That helped me stay on track.
Each evening before going to bed, I reviewed My Fitness Pal. On days that I followed my plan perfectly, I’d tell myself, Good job! Then each morning, I’d weigh myself and enter my weight into My Fitness Pal. Every time I dropped an additional five pounds, I’d say, Woohoo! when I saw the weight on the scale. After years of failed attempts at losing weight, I finally found a system that was highly sustainable for me. I’ve been logging my food and taking my weight daily, with a few lapses, ever since.
I discovered mental strategies that worked for me, too. For example, I told myself I needed to set boundaries with food, just as I set boundaries with people. Boundaries with people keep me from engaging in unhealthy relationships. Boundaries with food keep me from engaging in unhealthy eating. At times, I even talked to my food. When facing cookies and candy, I’d say firmly, “You are not going to hurt me. I have boundaries.” Then I’d turn away.
Another mental strategy was to observe the behavior of healthy people and then imitate those behaviors. This is a strategy I’ve used often in my life to help me develop the traits of people I admire. In this case, I was not yet at a healthy body weight, but there was no reason why I couldn’t act like a healthy person. The healthiest person I knew was my daughter-in-law Laura. She was fit and worked hard to take care of her physical well-being. When we were together, I watched what she ate. In restaurants, I tried to order after she did. When it was my turn, I asked for whatever Laura had ordered. I did the same thing with exercise, except in that case, I went to the YMCA, observed fit people, and tried to copy their routines.
One of my favorite mental strategies was to pretend that healthy foods were fun foods. I cut my apples into thin slices and pretended they were potato chips. I loved the sense of munching as one slice after another went into my mouth. I added extracts and sweetener to plain Greek yogurt and imagined it was lemon meringue pie or an orange Creamsicle. A tablespoon of almond butter mixed with sweetener became a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup.
I also learned to control my environment. I went to the grocery store frequently so there wouldn’t be a lot of food in the house. I volunteered to bring a dish to parties to ensure there was something healthy I could eat. After family get-togethers, I sent food home with people, so I wouldn’t eat it all as soon as they left. People often tell me that I must have a lot of willpower to have lost two hundred pounds. I don’t think that’s the case. I just became pretty good at controlling my environment to eliminate the temptation.
Slowly, the pounds continued to come off at a healthy 1 to 2 pounds per week. After being on my own for six months following Bootcamp, I crossed the 100-pounds-lost line. On the morning the scale read 235 pounds, I couldn’t believe it. After so many failed diets, I never imagined I would lose 100 pounds. I shared the news with my husband and then sent a text to my sons. My heart swelled as they all told me how proud they were of me. And I felt excited about the future. I knew I had a sustainable plan that would take me through the next 100 pounds, as well as the strength to stick with it. I couldn’t wait to move forward and start running again.
To learn more about The Athlete Inside, click here.