Saturday, July 6, 2013

"That's great, but a little overwhelming. I'm just getting started. Give me some simple stuff!" (8 Tips To Help Get Started)

First off, I want to say that I am very appreciative for and humbled by the overwhelming response to my first post in this blog. I am very grateful for the positive feedback I've received. I also heard from several people looking for "just want to get the ball rolling" information that found it all a bit overwhelming. I agree. To be clear, I wasn't doing anywhere near the level of tracking, measuring, and exercising that I have since I got the momentum rolling a couple of months or so into it. I briefly mentioned in that first post that I wish I'd started chronicling all of this from day 1, and that's a big reason. Yes, the heavy level of fastidiousness that is detailed in the first post is a big part of my story now, but that was not the case a few months back. This post is an attempt to be more helpful to the person just wanting to get off the couch.

A word of acknowledgement/caution here: I don't remotely claim to be an "expert" at any of this. I'm just a relatively smart guy who has done some reading, applied it, and experienced some very positive results. I don't presume to be viewed as any sort of health, fitness, or exercise guru. To some degree I'm hesitant to post anything to be construed as "advice," but on the other, I've been asked a fair bit to do just that. Please take the words I'm sharing here in the spirit of one beggar telling another where to find some (healthy) food.

So how did I get started, and what would I say to someone who is in a situation similar to where I was in 2012 and early 2013? Here's my best shot:

(Note: Over time, I intend to flesh out each of these tips as its own blog post. Click on the header to any of the tips for a more detailed post about it.)

1. It's OK to start small. 
If you can start big, that's GREAT, but starting small is better than not starting at all. I wasn't tracking anything before a friend invited me to a Facebook group centered around using the LoseIt app to lose weight and I joined on January 7th, 2013, but my best estimate is that the first week I used LoseIt, I ate around 1,000 calories per day less than I had been. I also went to the gym 5 days that week. I lost 4.5 pounds that week, and I was instantly hooked and off and running. I started big, but please hear me loudly and clearly: you don't need to drop 1,000 calories per day or hit the gym five days in your first week. If you're not a "dive right in" person, get started by focusing on little things: stop drinking fruit juice and soft drinks at meals and start drinking water. Go for a 30-minute walk 3 times per week. Substitute sweet potatoes for white potatoes or brown rice for white rice at your meals. Eat unsweetened fruit instead of apple pie for dessert. Park as far away from the store as is possible to force yourself to walk. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Every little bit helps.

2. Body fat reduction begins in the kitchen, not the gym or track.
Though I'd recommend a mindset of "trying to be healthy and fit" rather than "trying to lose weight," I realize that the focus of many at the outset (as was the case with me) is weight loss. And both what we eat and how much we eat are the primary determinants of weight management. There are well-educated experts in the field of weight loss, nutrition, and fitness who disagree vehemently on the best way to approach all of this, (and I'll likely discuss some of my frustrations with that in another post soon,) but there seems to be near-universal agreement that eating more vegetables, less processed foods, more lean protein, less refined sugars, and more nuts and healthy oils is basically the way to go. The excerpt below from this article is one of many great places to start.
Eating clean involves not only choosing the right foods to eat but also avoiding all of the junk foods and processed foods that are so readily available. The keys to good health and proper nutrition are in the following principles:
  • Eat whole foods: Whole foods are foods that haven’t been tampered with, in the lab or the manufacturing plant. The foods you eat on this plan are straight from the farm: whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains, grass-fed and free-range meats, low fat dairy products, unsalted nuts, and seeds.
  • Avoid processed foods: Processed foods are any food that has a label. A label means that more than one ingredient was used to make that food. You don’t have to eliminate all processed foods (like whole grain pasta or natural cheeses), but if you can’t pronounce an ingredient on a label, don’t put that food in your shopping basket.
  • Eliminate refined sugar. Refined sugar provides nothing but calories. Other sweeteners can be used, but with all the good foods you add to your diet, refined sugar really has very little place in the eating clean plan.
  • Eat five or six small meals a day. By eating smaller meals throughout the day you can help rev up your metabolism and reduce the chance that you’ll eat some Funyuns rather than that whole grain cracker with nut butter and strawberries. You never get so hungry on this plan that you’ll feel deprived or feel the need to cheat. (Ben Note: I haven't been doing this, but I'd agree that if you have an issue with willpower, eating smaller meals throughout the day is a great way to stay satiated.)
  • Cook your own meals. Instead of buying meals in a box, cook meals from scratch. That’s not as hard as it sounds! Clean, whole foods need little preparation beyond chopping and sautéing to make satisfying, delicious meals your family will love.
  • Combine protein with carbs. When you do snack or eat a meal, make sure that meal is balanced. For the most satisfaction from your diet, and so you’ll be less tempted to eat junk food, combine protein with carbs or carbs and fat. This simple act will fuel your body and quash hunger pangs.
As for my own diet, I just checked my data at LoseIt: I weighed 241.5 on April 6th and 202.7--38.8 pounds less--this morning, exactly three months later. Here are the foods I've eaten the most in that three-month period:

  • Grilled chicken breast
  • Wild-caught salmon
  • Flank Steak
  • Turkey
  • Black Beans
  • Grilled mixed veggies (zucchini, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, squash, roma tomatoes, baby portabellas, onions, carrots)
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Avocado or Homemade Guacamole (great recipe here)
  • Broccoli
  • Quinoa
  • Baby Spinach
  • Blueberries
  • Raspberries
  • Blackberries
  • Grapefruit
  • Apples
  • Steel-cut oatmeal
  • Short-grain brown rice
  • Nonfat Greek yogurt
  • Eggs
  • Walnuts
  • Almonds
  • Olive Oil
  • Safflower Seed Oil
One other quick plug: a friend of mine from high school days has a fantastic Pinterest Board that I'd highly recommend checking out. She has (as of today) roughly 100 "clean eating" recipes pinned. Check it out here.

3. Get moving. 
Set a goal (more on that below) to exercise 4 times per week for at least 30 minutes. What that looks like depends on your current level of fitness and what equipment you have available. If you're a long-term couch potato with no gym membership and no fitness equipment, try starting out by just going for 30-minute walks. Eventually those walks can turn into jog/walks (1 minute jogging, 2-4 minutes walking..repeat for 30 minutes,) and then jogs, then perhaps even runs. When I got moving back in December, I could barely jog for a minute without getting terribly winded, so I would walk three minutes, jog one minute. I'd do that 8 times for 32 minutes total, and call it a day. Yes, strength training helps. Yes, jogging and running will burn more calories than walking, but just getting out there walking for 30 minutes 4 times per week is meaningful and beneficial.

4. Just because you have started exercising doesn't mean you can now eat as much as you want and whatever you want. Consider counting calories for a while, if not permanently.
This is a bit of a corollary to #2 above. Numerous studies have linked increased exercise to weight *gain* because people too often feel that they can eat too much. You don't *have* to count calories to lose fat, but oftentimes it's a smart decision, at least temporarily. It can be tremendously eye-opening. For example, I had heard correct information over the years that walnuts are good for you. However, until I started counting and logging calories, I had no idea how calorie-filled those suckers are. For years, oftentimes when I was feeling a little hungry between meals or at night, I'd grab a small handful of walnuts. Now I know that I was probably eating a good 300-600 calories every time I did that. I still eat walnuts, usually several times in a week, but I weigh them first so that I don't overdo them. You may have a food like that in your common routine where educating yourself by counting calories would reveal a need for reduction in the amount you're consuming.

5. Set some long-term goals AND some short-term goals.
I like having goals that I can attempt to achieve in the next week or two, and goals that will take me months to realize. The long-term ones remind me that I'm in this for the long haul, while the short-term ones keep a sense of urgency in front of me to do it right today

One note of caution: I do NOT recommend setting short-term goals around weight. Your weight can fluctuate very much from day to day and even week to week despite doing everything right. More than a few experts in the field recommend avoiding the scale entirely, especially early on. You may start exercising and initially retain more water, causing you to *gain* weight, and become frustrated and give up too easily. 

Some good short-term goal examples might be:
  • "Exercise four times this week for at least 30 minutes."
  • "Advance my fitness to the point that I can run for x minutes without walking." (For me, when I was running one minute, walking three minutes. A natural early goal was "run 2 minutes, walk 3 minutes.")
  • "Increase my average walking speed from 2.5 mph to 2.8 mph." (You can track this sort of thing using any of several smartphone apps. See #6 below for some ideas.)
  • "I currently drink carbonated drinks approximately 10 times per week. Reduce it to 5 times this week." (With a long-term goal of "eliminate carbonated soft drinks from my diet entirely", of course. )
  • "Eat one more serving of vegetables per day than last week."
I particularly like short-term goals around exercise, because achieving them tends to make me want to achieve more. Once I got to the point where I could jog for 30-45 minutes without passing out, I started setting goals around speed. The first was to run for 3 miles at a 13-minute per mile pace. Once I achieved that, I wanted to do 12, then 11, then 10, and so on.

As for long-term goals, the sky is pretty much the limit, so long as you think LONG-term and make them realistic. If you're reading this in July and you're 50 pounds overweight, you're not going to have that bikini body you want by Labor Day, but you can have it by next summer.

6. Take advantage of the information and technology available to you in today's world.
I'm an admitted technology/gadget geek, but it doesn't take a technology geek in today's world to download a few apps and subscribe to a few Twitter feeds that will help you with advice and motivation. I've listed quite a few resources here, but for the beginner, I'd probably recommend these three apps:
  • RunKeeper. RK tracks your walking and running distance and speed using your iPhone or Android's native GPS. It also has a free "Couch to 5K" plan designed to move someone from walking to running a 5K (3.1 miles). (Note: if you find week 2 to be too difficult, you can always keep redoing week 1 until you're ready for week 2.)
  • GAIN Fitness. I *love* the GAIN Fitness app. It creates custom strength training plans based on your fitness goals, level of fitness, and equipment available to you. It also has an input for the amount of weight and repetitions you completed, and times your rest periods in between sets. (Just remember to take your headphones to the gym!) And if you don't have a gym membership and have no equipment at home, it can even tailor a good strength training workout for that. I was visiting my home town less than a month ago, fairly well down the path to fitness, and used the GAIN app to build a workout for me to do in my brother's basement with no equipment. I worked up quite a sweat and experienced even a little soreness the next day due to working some muscles at some angles that I hadn't been working in the gym, evidently.
  • LoseIt. Calorie and nutrient tracker app that also has a great online community of people who have walked and are walking the same path as you, and will encourage and help you along the way.
7. With exercise, push yourself, but don't overdo it.
Make sure you're getting adequate rest/recovery days between exercising. For example, once I progressed to being able to jog for my entire exercise time, I would not jog on consecutive days for several weeks. I might jog on Monday, walk on Tuesday, jog on Wednesday, take Thursday off, jog on Friday, walk on Saturday, and take Sunday off. Also, make sure you're getting enough sleep.

8. Find a way to measure your progress besides merely weight.
Even better, find multiple ways. Take a photo of yourself once a month and notice how your body is changing. Measure your waistline every two weeks. Buy a heart rate monitor and notice how you can walk or run the same pace as last week, but with less effort. All of these are better measures of your progress than stepping on the scale every day.


  1. The information you have presented is very valuable. I've been trying to 'get started' for a long time. Your success is astounding and motivating!

    1. Thanks, Kyle. I'm very glad you found it useful!

  2. Thank You so much for sharing this. I've been trying for a very long time to get started and keep motivated and your posts have definitely inspired me to finally get moving. I especially appreciated the section about goals. I've been setting my goals based on weight alone and it really gets frustrating when you hit a plateau and nothing more is coming off that you can visibly see on a scale. Now I'll set more fitness goals and hopefully it'll work out for me better. Again thank you so much and keep up the good work.

    1. Thanks, Joyelle, for your very kinds words!

  3. Ben, you have provided a wealth of information! I just turned 50 last month and have been active all my life. I completed a half-marathon last year and work out consistently- at least 3-4 times a week. However, the good workout following bad food axiom was spot on. Your blog has forced me to take an honest assessment of my consumption and make modifications that will bring sustainable results. Bravo on your progress and I wish you continued success.

    1. That's really neat to hear! Thanks for sharing it.

  4. Ben,

    I am at around the same weight and age as you were to start with, and I live in SC too! Your posts may finally get me off my butt and back in shape. When I was just out of high school and in the Army, My "perfect PT" test weight was around 190. I hope to get back in that kind of shape by following your suggestions. Thanks for your story and insight. Best wishes to you and your family!

    1. Very cool! Keep me updated on your progress!

  5. Ben, thank you for being a real friend! Like so many others here who have been trying to get off the couch for years, I'm truly inspired and finally doing something to help my situation. I have tried so many diets and programs out there, only to have it back fire and going back to step one. I am not sure why your blog or posts appealed to me to me out of everyone else’s. It is also very nice and helpful that you are a real person, and genuinely trying to help others instead of helping themselves making money. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but your post hits the nail right on the head. Much appreciated and many alohas to you and your family. God bless you as you have blessed me!

    1. Wow. I'm very humbled by that response, and gratified to hear that this is helpful. Feel free to post more in the future and especially update on your progress!

  6. I just found your blog and think it is so helpful. Thanks!!! I'm starting today to lower my calorie intake and to take more walks. My walks are now just around the spartment building where I live, but I plan to increase them. I will keep reading your blog and thanks again for sharing very valuable info.

    1. That's wonderful to hear, Ann! I'm writing another "beginner tip" post right now and hope to get it up this afternoon. Good luck on your journey!