Two years ago (January, 2009), I was overweight and unhappy. I’ve been prone to weight gain my whole life and had been up around 200 lbs a few times before, but after a change at work left me at a desk for 12 hours a day, my weight had ballooned out of control. On January 8th, 2009 I weighed 220.8 lbs.
The reason I know my specific weight relates to my first recommendation: keep a daily weight log. If you haven’t done this before, you will find your weight can swing as much as five pounds during the week, even if you are checking your weight first thing every morning. If you are only checking your weight every week, it is tough to know your progress. I check my weight every day, and despite daily swings, my progress is evident by the trend of the graph. When I am making progress, I will usually see a new ‘lowest’ weight about once per week and a down trending graph.
I also used calorie counting to watch input and output. In 2009 I used a free iPhone application to track daily calories consumed and burned. If you have never done this before, and especially if you’re not already a ‘label reader’ when it comes to food, it will really help you get comfortable with how many calories are in various foods. It will also force you to look up calorie counts at restaurants and it can be very eye opening to find out how many calories can be found when you eat out! Most restaurants publish this information online, so be sure to chose your meal before you head out (or use your smartphone).
I used Lose It!’s BMR calculator (for sex, height, weight, and activity level) to determine daily Basal Metabolic Rate, although there are other calculators available online. For me this was about 2500 Calories per day to maintain my weight. I set Lose It! for 1.5 lbs per week of weight loss, which left me at about 1800 Calories per day, which is actually quite reasonable.
In theory, you can simply eat less than your BMR you will lose weight. One pound of fat is ~3500 Calories, so the theory of weight loss is pretty simple. The difficulty is finding a balance that will keep you sane, reasonably un-hungry, and losing weight fast enough to keep you motivated. The key to this puzzle is excercise. By adding excercise, you can burn more calories, keep your appetite suppressed (which exercise can do), and elevate your mood.
There is often discussion about which intensity of exercise is best, and I’d say it depends. If you have a lot of time available (which I did), lower intensity is best, because you burn a higher percentage of fat at lower intensities, and can workout longer. If less time is available, more intensity will burn more calories (and total fat) per hour.
When weight loss was my only goal, I worked out in some way for at least an hour per day. This was the minimum. 3-4 days per week would be long workouts, a three hour bike ride, or a 3-6 hour hike. I found that I could keep my hunger under control with 1800-2200 Calories of food, and 600-1800 Calories of exercise daily. This left me with a 5-10,000 Calorie deficit weekly, which mathematically left me with 2-3 lbs per week of weight loss.
Like I said, I had a lot of time. I hiked the entire Mesa Trail from Eldorado to Boulder and Back (13 miles). I walked to work for a meeting (about 5 miles each way). I rode ~50 mile, three hour rides a couple times a week. I would do a long workout (usually ride or walk/hike) 3-4 times per week. A frequent technique was to combine something I was already doing with exercise. I’d walk to the store instead of driving, or even instead of riding my bike, since it would take about an hour to walk the round trip.
Another technique I still use frequently is to combine exercise with a trip I am already taking. We have family in Littleton, and if we are taking the family down for an event, I’ll put my clothes in the car and ride my bike while my wife drives. I’ll take 2.5 hours, and she’ll drive for an hour, so it minimizes my time away from the family.
You may notice I didn’t mention anything about nutrition or food choice. When you’re counting calories you will naturally have to make reasonable food choices. Fruits and vegetables have fewer calories than most other foods, so if you want to feel like you are able to eat while losing weight, they should become a staple of your diet. Also realize that hunger is not your enemy. If you are losing weight you will be hungry; it is your body sending you signals that you aren’t eating enough. Learn to deal with hunger, but come to understand there are times when you have to listen to your body. If it is telling your that your are very hungry, then you should eat despite what your daily calorie count is. A 300-400 Calorie snack is usually OK to add on days when you are more hungry than normal.
A note on breakfast: Many diet guides recommend not skipping breakfast. For me, I have found this to be dependent of a few factors. I was working 7am-7pm. On days I would work, if I would eat breakfast it seemed I could not make it until lunchtime without more food, but if I skipped it, I could more easily wait until lunch for my first meal of the day. It seemed counter intuitive, and perhaps my metabolism was lower without food until lunch, but it worked for me so I stuck with it.
In summary, I found the most success by carefully tracking both my progress and my intake. By watching these carefully I was able to see what my body needed and learn about what I was eating. I also found high volume, low intensity exercise to be very effective at burning both calories and fat. I didn’t have an eye towards performance whatsoever, so I didn’t worry about daily/weekly training hours or overtraining, although I believe the risk of overtraining was lessened by the low intensity of my workouts.
I used these principles to reach my (at the time) race weight of 165 lbs in 9 months, which is 1.4 pounds per week of weight loss. This is a dramatic loss of weight, but at a reasonable pace to preserve overall health. Nine months may seem like a long commitment at the beginning, but in the grand scheme of things it is well within reach for most people. If anyone has any questions or would like further elaboration, please feel free to comment.