Health & Fitness

Take 2

Nine years ago, I stepped on the scale after the Christmas holidays and discovered that I weighed more than I had ever expected to: I was 255 pounds. That was a wake-up call. And in that moment, I decided that by the time I turned 40 later that year, I would get to a healthy weight. I figured I’d aim for 210 pounds. I even started this blog to chronicle that effort and you can read the blog posts about that program—which I called “Hot by 40”—here, here, and here.

Five days before I turned 40, I actually hit 205, beyond the ambitious 45 pound loss I’d been aiming for. Eventually, I would get down to 200, then 195, and then 190. I even flirted with the high 180’s. But it was not to last.

After a year or so hovering between 190 and 200, I crossed the 200 pound threshold, never to return for longer than a couple of days. I would go up and down, sometimes getting close to 200, and then bounce back up to 220 or higher. Two years ago I even managed to get down to 195 but it didn’t last—within a month, I was back over 200 and on my way higher.

Because I’m something of a nerd, I love using spreadsheets to track things. I’d been using one to track my exercise for years, and looking at my weight history, the data were conclusive: my body wanted to be around 220 pounds. Even with the dramatic 65 pound loss of 2008, the subsequent years made it clear when it came to my average weight:

The brutal truth of numbers
Mark Schaefer holding a cheeseboard in the shape of the Starship Enterprise
Me, Christmas 2016. Weight: 221 lbs. Right where the math said it would be.

And this was my great error of the previous go around. I had assumed that once I’d gotten down to the weight I’d wanted, then life could go back to normal and I would hover around the new weight. But as I would discover, that’s not the way it works. I had put all my effort into the weight loss, but thought little of the maintenance aspect of it. And once I felt I had made all the sacrifices necessary to get where I wanted to go, I eased up and before I knew it, the weight had come back. Not all of it, but just enough to get me to that range I would spend the next 8 years in.

Throughout this time period, I’d continue to try to lose weight. I made use of the excellent food tracker LoseIt! to count my calories, but I had a habit of skipping the days when I knew I’d blown it. But even when I was tracking my calories and making sure to get my exercise, I was not paying sufficient attention to what those calories were. I paid little attention to the nutrients I was putting in my body.

All that changed this past summer when I got my annual physical. I got the whole spate of blood tests done and set up an appointment with my doctor for the actual physical. But just prior to that appointment, I received a notice from the doctor’s office. My cholesterol was high, higher than normal, and my hemoglobin A1c blood sugar was “pre-diabetic.” Those are words that will get your attention.

When I went to my doctor’s appointment, she told me that I would need to get the blood sugar and cholesterol under control. She gave me three months. It would involve changes to diet—and not just calorie counting. She also put me in an insurance sponsored program that would provide me with a weekly consultation from a nurse who’d help me get things together.

And so at the end of July, I was feeling really down. All that work I’d done years ago was lost, and now here I was, not too far from my 49th birthday and was in worse health. It was another step-on-the-scale-after-Christmas moment. I had to do this—and this time, I had to make it stick.

Photo of Mark Schaefer in Evian, France
On my Swiss vacation: me on a side trip to Evian, holding a bottle of Evian.

And so after a week-long vacation to Switzerland (the land of cheese and chocolate), followed by a week-long visit home to Upstate New York (the land of Stewart’s milkshakes and Freihofer’s cookies), I began my health improvement project in earnest.

I stayed within my calorie targets and I began tracking my carbohydrates. On the advice of the nurse, I aimed to eat no more than 150 grams of carbs a day and I cut out the simple carbs almost entirely: no white bread, only whole wheat or multigrain, brown rice instead of white, etc. Using LoseIt! I set goals not only for carbs but for fats, protein, and fiber as well. I started paying a lot more attention to the grams of sugar in store-bought foods. I started looking for the fiber count in those same foods.

I didn’t deny myself anything, because I knew how that cycle of fasting and binging can go. And so, while I might grab a bag of chips or Cheez-Its at lunch, I would no longer bring those foods into my home. (Normally, on a given evening, while watching TV, I could sit and eat a whole box of Cheez-Its or Cheese Nips. Mmmmmm…. Cheese Nips…). I turned to healthier snacks: nuts and veggies. I discovered that broccoli dipped in a little olive oil and then dipped in some za’atar makes a wonderfully delicious snack. At some point it dawned on me that if my kid self could see me foregoing crackers to eat broccoli as a snack, he’d think I’d lost my mind. And even my most favorite of snacks: really sharp Cabot cheddar on crackers, had to be avoided. At least in the quantities that I’d been inclined to eat it.

I also made an appointment with our campus nutritionist. In addition to answering some questions about nutrients, the most helpful thing she did was show me what a healthy plate looked like. My generation grew up with the food pyramid. But a pyramid is useless in seeing what the proportion of food on your plate should look like. She did that. She showed me a plate that was half vegetables, a quarter protein, and a quarter grains. That was immensely helpful. It meant that I could eat at buffets, which many conference and meeting lunches often are, and fashion a meal that would be healthy, and I’d know it by looking at it.

My mini step-machine

The weekly check-ins with the nurse continued. I kept up with the tracking and never missed a meal, let alone a day. I exercised as much as I could. But knowing that I get bored of exercise that I don’t enjoy, I knew that once the warm weather was gone and biking regularly no longer an option, I’d need to find something else. And so I bought a mini step-machine. I can use it in my apartment after work while watching TV. In 30 minutes, I can burn 350-450 calories and get my heart rate up. I would continue to bike as much as I could and would take long rides on the weekends—in one case biking 75 miles down to Southern Maryland and back the next day—but on the days I couldn’t ride my bike to work or when the weather made it unpleasant to do so, the step machine was there to pitch in.

chart showing weight dropping from 212 to 182
My weight from September to December

And with all this, something wonderful started happening. The pounds started falling off. By the time the fall semester began, I was down from 217 to around 214. A week and a half later I was at 210. By the end of September, I was under 205; by mid-October, 200. By the end of October, I was at 195 and was in the enviable position of revising my weight target downward to 190, a target I met in the second week of November.

When I went for my follow up exam on November 9, I weighed in at 189 pounds, a weight I had not seen in years. When my doctor came into the exam room, her first words were, “Well, I guess you took our last conversation seriously!” My cholesterol had improved—it still needs more improvement—and my blood sugar levels were back down to normal. I looked better, I felt better, and I was healthier. And I’d need to go and buy some new clothes.

This morning, December 4, 2017, I stepped on the scale and it read: 184.8


digital scale reading 184.8 pounds

I had not been under 185 pounds since college. This was truly uncharted territory for me. But as I said, I’d been down this road before, albeit not quite this far. I don’t want to have to go through this all again. I don’t want a third wake-up call. I need to stay awake and on top of things.

Once I crossed the 185 pound threshold, my LoseIt! app switched from weight loss mode to maintenance mode. It upped my daily calories and settled into a new protocol. And I tracked everything I would eat that day. Because I know that this is what works: holding myself accountable.

It’s the reason I’m writing this blog post. Not to brag. Not to show off my new svelte self (standing at right with another glass of water, as my more zaftig self is doing in the Evian picture, above). But for accountability.

My doctor always says to me, “Don’t lose the weight for me.” But the reality is, knowing that I will see her again makes me want to lose the weight. Having to check in with the nurse every week kept me on track. Entering in every meal I ate, every cracker, every handful of nuts, helped me to stay focused on the bigger nutritional picture. When I bought a Fitbit, it was yet another accountability device, reminding me to get up and go for walks, keeping track of my water intake. Holding me accountable. I’m hoping that being public about this is an aspect of that accountability. And I’m hoping you’ll help keep me accountable.

And so, here I am: Weight Loss, Take 2. Let’s hope I get it right on this take.