Anyone who knows me would tell you I’ve always been somewhat into health and fitness. It wasn’t until about two years ago, however, I came to realize I wasn’t as healthy and fit as I thought I was. Since then, I’ve learned a ton of new information I feel could benefit anyone wanting to make positive changes for the betterment of their health. With that being said, let me start from the beginning of my journey with my first “epiphany”…
Epiphany #1: Measure What Matters
At the beginning of my journey, I was creeping up to the most I had ever weighed at about 210 pounds. This development made me curious about my actual fitness level and prompted me to measure what my body fat percentage was. Much to my chagrin, I soon discovered my increase in weight wasn’t simply an increase in muscle but also a substantial increase in fat as my body fat percentage was at about 21% (average level for my age bracket per the chart below).
Upon this discovery, I quickly decided it was time to make some changes. The first change? I needed to start tracking my progress through what really mattered–my body fat percentage (which takes into account weight in fat, muscle, and water) rather than just overall weight.
The best way I can explain this importance is through a real life example: There’s a young lady I know who began working out for a period of time, worked extremely hard, but ended up gaining two pounds. For someone measuring their progress through a simple scale, this type of discovery could have been devastating. However, because this individual measured what mattered, she was thrilled to discover that though she had gained weight, she had actually lost 3 pounds of fat and gained 5 pounds of muscle! Making a positive net of 8 pounds when it comes to body fat percentage. Rather than being demoralized due to the small gain in weight, she became more motivated having discovered the numbers that mattered and is still consistently working out and improving her fitness to this day…
So that leads us to the question, how does one measure body fat percentage? There’s a plethora of ways to do this, and unfortunately it’s not quite as simple as a basic scale. However, I’ve found the most accurate way (without completely spending a fortune) is by purchasing an inBody scale. This scale is amazing in that it not only tracks body fat percentage, but also gives you your weight in overall fat as well as muscle and allows you to see your progress through charts and other tools. I cannot recommend this scale enough!
Ever since I began measuring my body fat percentage through an inBody scale, I’ve made significant progress as it allowed me to not only see improvements but also realize when I began to plateau and needed to make new adjustments to my lifestyle.
Epiphany #2: Strength Train Regularly
(Fitness Level at the Start: 210 pounds, 21% body fat)
The next step I took after deciding I’d primarily concern myself with my body fat percentage was to begin strength training regularly. Strength training would be most beneficial because it’d allow me to increase my muscle mass, which would have several benefits:
- Obviously being stronger and looking more muscular are common goals achieved through strength training
- Strength training burns a lot of calories through the workout itself
- Strength training also ignites the metabolism, allowing you to burn more fat throughout the day (muscle mass requires more caloric expenditure at rest)
- More muscle mass means more percentage of my weight will be muscle, making less percentage fat
As a school administrator and coach, I knew it’d be challenging to make myself strength train consistently, so to help motivate myself I joined a local CrossFit gym and attended every Saturday. Additionally, I purchased a weight rack and installed it in my garage–allowing me to strength train at home semi-regularly as well.
Getting into the habit of exercising regularly was a huge benefit and allowed me to see progress almost immediately as I quickly dropped from 21% body fat, down to about 17% body fat in a matter of 3-4 months. It was after those few months, however, that I met a plateau. It was now time to look into other ways to improve my fitness…
Epiphany #3: Limit Take Out
(Fitness Level: 195 pounds, 17% body fat)
For the longest time, I’d always believed as long as you worked out regularly, you could pretty much eat whatever you wanted as long as you didn’t go “overboard” and as long as you avoided the “unhealthy” fast food joints such as McDonalds, Taco Bell, etc. Besides, my body would just use any excess calories to build more muscle as long as I was strength training regularly…or so I thought.
This philosophy worked fine to get where I was at, but if I really wanted to see more progress, I needed to start paying attention to what I was eating. The first step for me was I had to start limiting my takeout. Now this step may seem obvious but as a high school athletic director, I often found myself on the road supervising events multiple times throughout the week. This made it convenient to simply get takeout on the regular.
In fact, through this process I quickly discovered it was no longer simply a convenience but a habit I’d developed as the temptation to pick up “take out” was crossing my mind almost any time I drove home from work. So, to see if I could take the next steps in my progress, I decided to limit myself to only eating out twice a week.
Eating out twice a week might sound easy to a lot of folks, but for me this was groundbreaking. And the results were also groundbreaking as I quickly dropped down within a matter of weeks to 16% (I’d struggled to get under 17% for a long period of time). Not only could I see the number change on my inBody scale, but my workout partners at CrossFit actually began recognizing the changes, which was even more encouraging and motivating for me to keep with it!
Epiphany #4: Intermittent Fasting
(Fitness Level: 190 pounds, 16% body fat)
Now, as anyone in fitness will tell you, the higher your fitness level becomes, the harder it becomes to see improvements. Once I got to 16% body fat, I was really struggling to get much lower. It was then one day, my brother Daniel haphazardly mentioned that he began intermittent fasting and no longer ate breakfast. He found it had allowed him to meet some fitness goals of his own and recommended it.
Now, this philosophy was completely at odds with what I’d spent years believing…
- You needed to eat multiple times (5-6 small meals) throughout the day to keep a strong metabolism
- You needed to do all you could to avoid hunger–being hungry means your body will go into “starvation mode” and begin storing fat. It’ll also cause you to overeat later
- Breakfast was of the utmost importance as it’d give you needed energy and limit your hunger the rest of the day
Upon further research, I found all these beliefs to be misleading and began doing intermittent fasting. Many of the great benefits of intermittent fasting are better explained in this article, but the most practical benefits I’ve personally experienced through the process are:
- Easy and simple way to limit calories
- Teaches you self-control and mindfulness especially when it comes to food
- Takes some getting used to but is actually not that difficult once you train your body and mind to do it effectively
- Saves loads of time and money!
Now there are several options when it comes to intermittent fasting but another great benefit is its flexibility in that you can tailor it to fit your needs/preferences.
For example, for me, I’m not a big morning person. I generally hit snooze a few times until the absolute last moment in which I have to force myself out of bed. I then get dressed, brush my teeth, and am out the door for work. Taking time to make breakfast (or even lunch for that matter) is not something I’m a big fan of.
Plus, as a school administrator, my time at work was often very busy and hectic so finding time to actually eat breakfast or lunch was often not even practical. Another thing about me is I enjoy eating at night–often with my family or relaxing in front of the television.
Thus, the best intermittent fasting schedule for me is the 16:8 option where I fast for 16 hours a day and am able to eat for 8. For my daily schedule that means I eat from 2 pm to 10 pm each day.
Now, if you’re someone interested in intermittent fasting, I’d recommend starting with an even smaller fasting period (i.e. 12:12 or 14:16). This will allow yourself to slowly work your way into it and then build your times up from there as needed.
Again, intermittent fasting has done wonders for me–not only in improving my fitness (I went down to 15%–which was the number I longed for when I started my journey) but also in money and time saved!
Epiphany #5: Tracking Macros
(Fitness Level: 185 pounds, 15% body fat)
Now that I’d started intermittent fasting, I was able to get to 15% almost immediately. 15% was my original goal, but now I wanted to find a way to get into the 13% range if possible. This would require a new step (I spent months trying to get below 15% at this point) that I’d heard about before but to be frank, I was simply too lazy to actually do the small amount of work it’d take to do it effectively–and that was tracking my macros (macronutrients–proteins, carbs, fats).
What drove me to finally sitting down and looking closely at the nutrition labels on my food was actually a school colleague of mine who told me that was what he did to get to the lower levels I desired.
Thus, I decided to sit down one day and actually measure and track out what I was eating consistently (at this point I was hardly eating takeout at all).
Upon further investigation into the numbers (see the chart I created below), I discovered the main food culprit of mine was actually something I’d eaten for years believing it was “healthy” and helping me to build muscle–peanut butter.
Peanut butter does have a good amount of protein but it also has a huge amount of calories and fat (albeit healthy fats) which was contributing to my inability to break under the 15% mark. Peanut butter sandwiches was a staple in my diet and was something I ate at least once a day. How could I ever give it up?
Well, thanks to my wife, we were able to find some good replacement foods that had much better nutritional value and were easy for a kitchen dummy like myself to cook. Now, I get over 200 grams of protein in my system every day, along with less than 60 grams of carbs and less than 80 grams of fat.
What are some of the new staples in my diet? Again, with any fitness/diet plan, you have to make it foods that work well for you, but for me I cook and eat the following just about every day:
- Turkey Bowl (ground turkey, shredded cheese, guacamole)
- Scrambled Eggs (with cheese)
- Greek Yogurt (Oikos to be specific)
- Fruit (generally apples or a fruit smoothie)
- String Cheese
- Dinner (made by my wife–generally a meat, vegetable, and carb)
These foods are simple and easy for me to make, tasty, and have outstanding nutritional content allowing me to continue progressing with my health and fitness goals.
Epiphany #6: Be Flexible
(Fitness Level: 180 pounds, 13.7% body fat)
As I write this, I’m at the lowest body fat percentage I’ve ever been in my adult life (13.7 percent!). And though my overall weight has never been a big concern of mine, I’ve actually lost about 30 pounds total (went from 210 to 180) and now weigh less than I did in high school!
This journey has been eye-opening, challenging, and to be honest, a lot of fun, but I also want to mention one last epiphany I’ve learned throughout this process: and that is to be flexible.
I still allow myself to eat out on occasion and even eat dessert about once every week or so (I love sweets!). Having an occasional “cheat meal” is something most all fitness experts recommend and is something I believe to be vital if anyone is to stick with any plan for the long-term.
Going on a “diet” for the short-term is not good enough if you want to see lasting change. It has to be something you stick with as a lifestyle change–and to be able to do that you have to be flexible and allow yourself some dietary treats on occasion. This is a crucial step if you want to be healthy and fit for much longer than a momentary phase where you happen to be motivated.
That being said, my concluding recommendations for anyone wanting to make some positive changes in regards to health & fitness would be:
- Measure your progress via body fat percentage (not overall weight!)
- Strength train 2-3 times per week for 30-45 minutes a session (doesn’t have to be super long!)
- Limit (but not fully restrict) take out and cheat meals
- Intermittent fast in a way that fits you
- Find a few consistent “go-to” meals you can eat everyday that have quality macro ratios
- Be flexible and easy on yourself!
I hope a piece (or pieces) of what I’ve shared through my journey can be useful for you in your own journey. Feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions or want more information. I’m by no means an expert but am happy to share what I’ve learned.