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Adventures in Weight Loss: Coach Dean's Story

140 Pounds Gone Forever
  -- By Dean Anderson, Fitness & Behavior Expert
If you had told me six years ago that I’d be working for SparkPeople today as a fitness and weight loss coach, I’d have told you to see a psychiatrist and get some medication to help control those delusions of yours.

At that point, my weight was the highest it had ever been—somewhere over 370 (the max my doctor’s scale could register)—and my first complete physical exam in 10 years had just confirmed that I had type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, arthritis, peripheral neuropathy, and compression fractures in my spine related to my excess weight. My problems with major depression and anxiety were already bad enough to put me on disability, and this news about my physical health didn’t exactly cheer me up. Honestly, my first reaction was to think: “It doesn’t really matter…I’ll probably be dead in a couple of years, and that’s OK with me.”

I was tired of dealing with my weight and all the physical limitations it caused. I was worn out from putting so much energy into hating myself and my life. Even though I had already quit smoking three packs a day and beat my 12-beers-a-day drinking habit, I was very sure that nothing would change my compulsive eating. I’d lost weight many times before with exercise and diet, only to see it all come back—and more. Now I could barely walk, much less do the exercise the physical therapist kept talking about. Now that my kids were grown and out on their own, it seemed that eating was often the only thing that could get me through the day. Take away my daily trip to the bagel shop downstairs for chocolate-dipped peanut butter cookies and a large soda, and I might not get out of bed at all!

Well, things have changed a lot for me since then. I’m about 140 pounds lighter and I’m keeping the weight off. My blood sugar, cholesterol, and blood pressure are under control without medication, and most importantly, I’m feeling pretty good about myself and my life. Here's how it all happened…

One Step at a Time
When I started my journey, I hadn’t heard of SparkPeople or "fast break" goals, but that's exactly how I started, by focusing on two things. Diet-wise, I decided to limit my saturated fat intake to less than 15 grams per day. My normal diet included a lot of high-fat items: pizza, sausage, bacon double cheeseburgers, cookies and candy bars—you name it. Reducing my saturated fat intake meant finding substitutes for most of what I had been eating. As it turned out, this solved quite a few other problems with my diet too, including my total calorie intake.

The other thing I focused on right away was walking. I set a goal of walking one mile each day, to the grocery store and back. To make sure I stuck with it, I never bought more than one package of whatever I needed, so I’d have to get back to the store within a day or two at most.

This small amount of walking was very difficult at first. My excess weight made it painful and very slow going. But after a few weeks, my muscles loosened up, I experienced less pain, and it started getting easier.

It took over two months for my weight to register under the maximum on the scale (370 pounds). So early on I developed the habit of looking for other signs of progress—my walking, my eating habits, my moods. For the first time, I started thinking that maybe I wasn’t doomed to be the way I was for the rest of my life, and that change really was possible.

Good News from the Doctor
The next stage in my weight loss began when my doctor said that all my lab results had improved so much (in just three months) that he held off prescribing medication to see if things continued to improve with diet and exercise.

Over the next several months, I worked with a certified diabetes educator to get my diet on the right track. I also spent some time in physical therapy, strengthening my ankles and legs. By the end of month six, my weight was down to 330 pounds, my lab results were still improving, and I was using the stairs to reach my third floor apartment several times per day. I had also found some healthy foods that I actually liked—berries and yogurt, oatmeal with strawberries, apple slices with just a bit of peanut butter and stir-fried veggies.

My First Plateau
For the next two months, I lost only five pounds. I had been steadily increasing my exercise—using a stationary bike for 15-20 minutes most days, walking and climbing the stairs—and I was sticking to my low-saturated fat diet. But the weight loss had just stopped, and it was really starting to get to me.

Up to this point, I estimated my calorie intake in my head, without actually counting or writing it down. After a few days of honest tracking, I saw that I was still eating almost 3000 calories each day, about 800 of which came from soda…and the extra spoonfuls of peanut butter I ate from the jar while making snacks. So, I traded in the regular soda for diet soda and water, and stopped dipping into the peanut butter jar.

This got the weight loss rolling again over the next six months—65 pounds down (now at 265). It wasn’t a very smooth ride, though. Many weeks, I didn’t lose any weight and I'd even gain a few pounds. Other weeks I'd lose five or more pounds. None of it made much sense to me, since I was doing pretty much the same things all the time.

The first few times the scale stopped moving, I was frustrated and panicky. Thinking, “What’s the use, I’ll always be fat,” led to more emotional eating. But several people (I guess they were being kind) pointed out that my reaction was just a rationalization for overeating. They were right. And overall, I was doing very well. I had lost over 100 pounds in about 15 months. That, along with good lab results and the fact that I was actually feeling better, persuaded me to stay focused on what was going well instead of on the occasional bad numbers on the scale.

But then things really started to get difficult…

My Second Plateau
For the next 6 months, I gained and lost the same five pounds over and over again. For a while, I started a new "diet" every week in a desperate attempt to get the scale moving again. I tried no sugar, low carb, high carb, high protein, food groupings, vegetarian, and even fasting one day per week. I lowered my calorie intake to 1500 and raised it to 2500. I even took diet pills for a couple of weeks. Nothing worked, and I started to feel depressed all over again.

After a little research, I came across the “set-point” theory—the idea that your body has a narrow weight range that it is most comfortable within, and will go to great lengths to stay there. For most of my adult life, I maintained a weight near 265, so maybe that was my set-point. I really didn’t want to stay at that weight though. After more research, I learned that increasing your exercise and daily activity was one way to potentially lower your set-point.

This wasn’t exactly good news. I was doing well with the low to moderate intensity exercise I had been doing, but I still had significant physical limitations and pain that ruled out high-impact activities like running. Plus, I wasn’t a big fan of getting all out of breath and sweaty.

But I was even less a fan of weighing 265 pounds, so I joined a gym and started going every day to do cardio. I hated it at first. I felt like a whale in a pool of minnows, and I thought that whoever came up with the idea of putting mirrors all over the place ought to be shot. But most of the other members were very friendly, and there were even a few my age and in about the same shape as me. I got over the self-consciousness pretty quickly, and it didn’t take long to start seeing some results for my efforts.

My weight started dropping again—not as fast as before (only about one pound per week on average)—but at least it was moving down. A few weeks later, I noticed big improvements in my ability to handle the higher intensity exercise. In two months, I went from walking 30 minutes at 3 miles per hour with no elevation to walking 4 mph at 6% incline for an hour. I was even able to do 10-15 minutes on the elliptical and stair climber machines.

Too Much of a Good Thing
After a while, I had replaced my compulsive eating with compulsive exercise. I became obsessed with going faster and farther, and burning more calories during every exercise session. I started lifting weights, pushing myself to lift more and heavier amounts. It got to the point that I was spending two to three hours in the gym almost every day, another 90 minutes walking there and back, and the rest of my time being sore from overdoing it. I told myself it was the “good” kind of soreness.

This was great for my weight loss. Nine months later I was down to 195 pounds—less than I weighed in high school when I was in really great shape. Unfortunately, I didn’t look at all like I did in high school. My face, arms and legs looked almost skeletal, but I still had a spare tire around the middle—mostly loose skin that was hanging down, and some very stubborn love handles that apparently weren’t about to go away. People kept asking me if I was sick. I was fatigued and sore all the time.

It occurred to me that this might be a good time to start using some of the knowledge I had acquired from studying psychology on myself. It didn’t take long to figure out that I was using the compulsive exercise to push away a lot of worries I was having about not being fat anymore. The weight had been my excuse for a lot of things—not working full-time, not being involved in any intimate relationships, not trying very hard to figure out what I wanted to do and going for it. Now I had to figure out who and what I really wanted to be—pretty scary stuff for a guy who was already 55-years-old.

Achieving Balance
I decided to cut way back on the crazy exercise, calorie counting, and weight loss for awhile. I went back to school, thinking about becoming a dietitian, but decided that all that science was a bit much for me. I took some courses in exercise physiology and decided to get certified as a personal trainer and weight management consultant.

While I was doing all this, I regained about 35 pounds, but I’m not worried about it anymore. My exercise routine and eating habits are healthy and I can maintain my current weight without depriving myself, wearing myself out, or worrying about it all the time. I’ve been steady at this weight for over a year now. And all those old health problems are still well under control without medications.

Every now and then I still have fantasies about trading in my droopy belly and love handles for washboard abs, but then I remind myself that’s probably not in the cards. And really, what would be the point? I’m about as healthy as I can be, capable of doing everything I need to do, and happy. What else really matters?