This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
About a year ago, somebody took a picture at a party. It was a candid shot, myself and a couple of friends hauled up around a bar. The photo wasn’t particularly unflattering. The lighting was fine and the angles were okay, but when it was posted online I felt kind of embarrassed. I was fatter than I wanted to be. For most of my life I‘ve juggled between the same five to ten pounds, and unbeknownst to me, I guess I was on the heavier side again. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, I saw myself on the daily, but it’s amazing what you’re able to ignore until, you know, you can’t.
I can’t say if the photo was the instigating moment for what would eventually become the great abs experiment of my lifetime. I don’t really remember. More likely it was a ton of little moments added up altogether, a bunch of things all pointing toward a bigger idea. I wanted to see if I could take care of the weight all at once. If I gave everything to fitness could I finally push past the status quo? It seemed like decent fodder for a personal essay and enough external motivation to actually get things done.
The result of the experiment was a VICE piece called I spent 80 Days Trying to Get Abs and It Ruined My Life. The article was a success in a lot of ways and a failure in others. I lost seven percent of my body fat but didn’t end up with a six-pack. It was the most read article I’ve ever written but put a serious strain on my personal life. The piece also brought up a lot of old ghosts I wasn’t entirely ready to deal with.
People’s reactions to the article were divisive. For every person complimenting the writing or the transformation, there were another 20 people calling me a bitch. One lady even said that I had blood on my hands. She told me people would read the piece and decide not to get in shape. When they were dead that was on me.
But amongst all the big reactions there was something I didn’t expect. There were a handful of direct messages asking how I’d done it. People had read about how miserable I was during the time frame, how my experience was decidedly the wrong way to lose weight, and they still wanted my exact diet and workout regime. The letters were long and emotional, with people explaining how their bodies felt like burdens. At the time, I didn’t really know what to write back. I wasn’t an expert on the subject, and barely removed from the abs project I wasn’t entirely sure I wouldn’t just yo-yo directly back to my old habits.
It’s been a minute (or ten months) since the abs piece came out and with some lifestyle changes and some gentle guidance from Geoff Girvitz, the owner of Toronto’s Bang Fitness and the person who oversaw abs the experiment, I’ve managed to keep the weight off and lose a bit more. Getting things done has been decidedly less extreme than the condensed eighty-day experience and while I’m still nowhere near a fitness expert on the subject, I do feel like I’ve learned a bit. Enough that I’m willing to talk about it, anyways. Below—with the help from Geoff—I’ve listed some of the big and boring truths I’ve learned about losing weight and keeping it off.
1. There is probably a difference between what you think is eating well and actually eating well.
When I began the abs experiment I honestly believed I was eating healthy. My snacking was minimal. Booze was limited to once or twice a week. I actually ate vegetables. But one of the first things I was asked to do during the project was keep a food diary of everything I stuffed into my face. The process was illuminating.
‘A lot of the time when we ask people to write down what they’re eating, even if they’re not showing the diaries to other people, they end up eating better,” said Girvitz. “Actually writing down what you consume—everything you’re taking in—allows you to take an honest look at where you’re at.”
Little things, when stretched out over the course of the week, added up. Sauces added up. I was drinking more than I thought. There were a lot of sandwiches and my fulfillment of late night cravings were often as many calories as a full meal. The diary outlined the gap between how I was eating and how I needed to be eating to reach my fitness goals. But even with the information in front of me breaking from my routine was harder than I thought. It took a while to find strategies that were effective.
I didn’t find the binary of good food/bad food helpful. Instead, I tried to think about whether what I was consuming was further away or closer to my goal, and modify within reason. Each time I ate I asked myself if I have the ability to make a slightly better choice. On a surface level, it was pretty simple: balsamic dressing, not caesar. Black coffee as opposed to a latte. Whole foods instead of processed. That basic question, combined with a precise record of what I was actually eating, allowed me to narrow in on what I wanted to do.
2. Consistency is more important than hard work.
One of the reasons I was so miserable during the initial eighty-day regime was because drastic changes were happening quickly. I went from hitting the gym twice a week to hitting the gym twice a day. Using food for comfort was no longer an option and I needed more sleep than I ever had before. All of this in tandem took a lot of mental energy.
“So often people start with this idea of how hard can I make it—what can I endure. That’s a pretty grim perspective,” said Girvitz. “Fitness, ostensibly, is supposed to be for your happiness. So why would you approach it with the expectation it’s going to break you? Instead, why not think about how much you can do regularly. It’s less sexy than the all or nothing approach but it’s how you set yourself up to succeed.”
What I was doing wasn’t sustainable. Without the framework/pressure of the article, I would have quit pretty quickly. When starting a new regime there is always the inclination to go HAM, but if you are the type of person who gets lightheaded when they stand up too fast maybe it’s best to ease in. What can you realistically manage with your schedule? How do you make that a priority? Right now, I’ve committed to four days of exercise a week. Ideally, those sessions are performed in a gym, but if I miss out for whatever reason, I’ve got a kettlebell at home. Sometimes I even jog.
3. By itself, exercise isn’t enough to make dramatic changes in physique.
How much a person can eat and still stay lean varies. But ultimately—barring some kind of extreme medical issue—fat loss comes down to burning off more calories than you’re taking in. That’s it. As a whole, we tend to overestimate just how many calories we lose during a workout. It can lead to stunting things, even when people are working hard.
“I learned pretty quickly that not only were you not adhering to the nutrition regime, but you weren’t really in a place to start making changes—or even listen. You were too stressed,” said Girvitz. “It wasn’t until about midway through that you really started to get it.”
If you want changes in your body composition you're going to have to eat differently. That doesn't necessarily mean that you'll have to eat less. I eat more now than before the project started, but the type of food that's changed. It takes a ton of salad to make me feel as full as a piece of bread. It takes a lot more chicken breast to achieve the same caloric content as a burger.
My meals are all some variation on lean(ish) protein and vegetables. For snacks? A piece of fruit. Some nuts. Again consistency is key: Crash diets might get you where you want to go, but without making an overall change in habits they won't keep you there.
4. Have a goal. Have a plan. Keep track of what you’re doing. It’s boring.
Before and after photos can be scary. Numbers on a scale can be a pain. Writing down how long/what you did during work out is annoying. Same with tracking your food. But without all of that info, you don't really know what you've been doing or whether or not the changes you've made are working.
“You can't enjoy professional-caliber progress with amateur-level planning,” explains Girvitz.
Having a quantifiable goal—something more specific than looking better naked—is also helpful. Maybe that's dropping X amount of pounds. Maybe it's a percentage of fat loss. Whatever. It’s not that numbers are the be-all and end-all, but they're measurable in a way that other things aren't. Information is feedback. 200 pounds is 200 pounds.
If you’re not sure where to start and can afford it, do some research and find an expert (trainers or nutritionists) to get you on your way. If you can’t, there are plenty of great free resources online.
5. Maintaining fitness goals is a lifestyle.
The difference between the first and second photo at the top of this article is 13 months and 31 pounds. If we are getting specific my posture, my tan, and the lighting are also better in the second photo... but there was no cut or dehydration. It was a regular day. When I began the abs experiment, I was naive. I had assumed that achieving a superhero body was something that was—I don't know—ten or 15 pounds away? When I lost those first ten pounds, I was surprised and disappointed to find that I was only a slightly better-looking version of myself. Same thing when I got to the 20-pound mark. It was only in retrospect and checking in with photos, that I realized how drastic those changes actually were.
After the experiment, there was a decision to make. I could go back to how I was eating/exercising before, which would have undone the work I had put in. I could try and keep going with the experiment and make a push for a short-term six-pack, though what I had been doing during the eight-day challenge had lead to shitting myself twice. Or I could try and find some maintenance level—a new normal that fit with the other things I wanted in my life. Happily, I’m in better shape now than I was when I finished the ab project, though admittedly still not the svelte figure I had imagined. The difference is that the fundamentals of what I’m doing are now leaps and bounds above where I was, so much so that nailing the basics doesn’t take much effort. If I decide to make another attempt at a body transformation I’ve got better baselines to start from.
“There are a lot of ways up the mountain. But what I’d suggest is taking a look at what takes the least amount of work for you to implement mentally,” said Girvitz. “You shouldn’t need to perform mental calisthenics. If it’s simple, it’s probably a good fit for you. If you use a plan that fits in your pre-existing structure of your life then you’re more likely to actually do it. Once that plan is a part of your life, you can always adjust from there.”