STORY: How Traveling Convinced Me To Get Fit
It was just past 4 A.M. in the Shota Rustaveli International Airport on the outskirts of Tbilisi, Georgia, and I was exhausted. I've never been known to be a morning person but I'm also not one to turn down a good price on an plane ticket, so there I sat in a hard plastic chair at the wrong side of dawn waiting for my flight to Kiev to start boarding. In an abundance of caution I had arrived two hours prior to departure, but the airport's small size meant I was left with a solid hour and a half to sitting around and while away the time. Better safe than sorry I suppose.
In Los Angeles in July of 2016.
Like most people, I waste time by hopping through various social media apps. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. Articles about the election, selfies at the beach, and dozens of hashtags streamed past my eyes but little held my interest. I was half way across the globe from most of my network which meant there was precious little going on. With not much else to do, I decided to open up my Snapchat app and watch my own posts from the previous day. I was heading out of Tbilisi and wanted to relive a bit of the fun and beauty I had experienced over the past few days.
Little did I know what a profound impact that decision would have on me.
A selfie in Tbilisi, Georgia. June 2016.
As I watched the ten second blurbs of film click past my eyes, I kept getting distracted by an unidentifiable noise coming through the headphones. Through the cacaphony of cars honking and people chattering on the snaps was the constant, rhythmic sound that reminded me of a dog panting for air. Perplexed, I turned the volume up on my phone and re-watched the videos. Slowly, as the source of the sound became clearer, the discomfort and embarrassment began to rise in my soul.
The panting was me. It was my body's struggle for oxygen as I wandered the city and filmed my exploits. I knew over the past eight years I had slowly let my fitness fall to the wayside but I had continued to believe things weren't too bad. Sure, I had to get rid of clothes and buy new ones on several occasions. And sure, when I lost top tier airline status and first class seats were no longer given to me for free I found it a bit uncomfortable to fit in the ever-shrinking economy class seats that were now my home. I was still able to convince myself that things weren't out of control. The videos on my Snapchat seemed to be indicating otherwise.
Denial started to set in. "Tbilisi is a hilly, mountainous city. Of course you're short of breath!" I told myself. Committed to continuing the charade, I pulled up some snaps that I had saved from other trips. And yet there it was, like a ghost stalking my adventures across the globe. Puffing in Paris. Huffing in Hong Kong. Gasping in Goa. The evidence was there and I couldn't look away - I was out of shape and my health was being impacted. Suddenly being tired took a backseat to the dejection and frustration taking over my mind.
My commitment to a healthy weight and solid fitness level has always been a huge personal struggle. Even as a child I would swing between periods of being active and fit to others were I was docile and chubby. While I can likely attribute a bit of my childhood swings to simple growing pains, as I entered my teens years and adulthood the scenario changed a bit. As time ticked away I noticed that my fitness and health was intricately tied to my love life. If I was single and looking to mingle, I was at my peak level of health. If I was in a relationship and looking to binge Netflix with my love, I was at the nadir of fitness. In a sense, I only cared about myself when I wanted to attract someone to care about me. That wasn't a healthy way to view my fitness and I knew it, but I didn't do anything to fix it.
Fast forward to 2016 and that choice to ignore the problem had come to a head. I was approaching my eight year anniversary with my boyfriend and it was abundantly clear that I'd likely be spending the rest of my life with him. He's a keeper. While that is a blessing in and of itself, it also posed a bit of a conundrum for me - if I had finally found someone who would love me to the end of time, what incentive would I ever had to take care of my health?
None. Zero. Zilch.
My outlook on personal fitness meant that I would never have a motivating need to make sure I was taking care of my body because, to be frank, I didn't need anyone to think I was attractive. I had my boyfriend, we would be together forever, and it didn't matter if I was out of shape and wheezing. I could lay on the couch and eat enough take out Chinese food for three people with abandon.
Clearly that wasn't a great way to go about life. First - my outlook on fitness and health shouldn't in any way, shape, or form be tied to whether anyone was attracted to me. Second - if I retained that outlook on health, I wouldn't ever have an incentive to be healthy as long as I was in a relationship.
Something needed to change.
THE FITNESS REGIMENT
It wasn't like I needed to start from scratch - there have been a few times in my life when I was quite thin and fit. The knowledge was there, but it needed an update. My life circumstances had changed quite a bit since the last time I had been so focused on my health, so my typical tactics weren't going to cut it.
In the past I had more free time. As you get older you seem to accumulate responsibilities and activities. As a younger man I only had work and free time, but the man I am today is devoted to a career, working on a long term relationship, a very active social life, and even a regular sports schedule for my two volleyball teams. Scheduling was the most visible hurdle to fitness sitting before me.
In 2007 wearing an XL shirt - from the children's section. Seriously.
Perhaps a bit fortuitously, my office begin offering staff the option to work from home three days per week. My office had offered working from home one or two days per week in the past but I had opted to not exercise that option because I'm a big fan of keeping my home and work life separate. I didn't want my house to be someplace I associated with the stress of my daily grind. But the option for three days working at home seemed like an opportunity to me. As I noted above, one of the excuses I always made for myself to not go to the gym was that I was too busy. Commuting to the office, putting in extra hours almost every day to keep up with the grind, commuting back home, etc...
With the way my schedule worked out, I often wouldn't get home till 8PM. This left me with precious little time to make dinner and walk my dogs before gyms were closed for the day. I suppose I could have looked at waking up earlier to get a work out in, but the truth of the matter is that I have never in my life been a morning person (even when I was fit), and I knew that just wasn't going to work out. I know myself and my limitations. Waking up early is right behind heights in the list of things that can stop me in my tracks with terror.
With that in mind, I took the option for three days at home. I figured that I get an hour lunch break every day and there is a very nice gym literally across the street from my house. I could walk there, do an hour of exercise, and get back home in the blink of an eye. While working from home I could simply eat while doing various projects as opposed to taking time away to purchase a meal and sit with coworkers to chit chat like I did in the office. So I made a meeting with my boss, signed the paperwork, and signed up for the gym.
Again, knowing myself and knowing my limits, I wanted to start slow and work my way up to a more rigorous regime. I initially committed to going to the gym three times per week and simply walking for sixty minutes on a treadmill. No intense fitness schedule. No hardcore cardio regiments. Just a simple pattern that would acclimate my body to the routine of going to the gym on a regular basis.
I've read over the years that in order to build a habit, you need to so something consistently for three weeks. After three weeks, I found my behavior changing a bit. Instead of fighting my desire to keep sitting on the couch with my laptop, I found myself laying out gym clothes on my dining room table. Instead of shopping for cute shoes online, I went to a local shop to buy better gym shoes. Overtime, it was just something I did. Fitness was becoming habitual.
It was a refreshing change.
In 2009, one year into the relationship in Athens, Greece.
I started this in mid-August and have slowly worked my way into a more intense workout routine. I've stuck with the one hour time commitment (can't really do much else since it's all dependent on my lunch hour!) but have increased the intensity of my workout and even added one weekend day to the routine. I no longer walk but instead have a pretty aggressive cardio program. I don't see myself going much further beyond this going forward. Four days per week is as much as I want to commit, particularly since I generally play 6-10 hours worth of volleyball per week.
In April of this year (2016) with my sister in Orlando, FL.
But of course, a gym routine is only part of any fitness plan. If I wanted to really see change, I needed to change the way I was eating as well.
This was the hard part. And I still struggle with it quite a bit.
If you know me at all, you know that I love indulgent food and eschew many tidbits that are considered healthy.
Fried chicken? It's my religion.
Fresh fruit? Won't touch the stuff.
Enjoying some food over the years - Patti LaBelle's sweet potato pie, BBQ in Llano, TX, and cereal milk ice cream in NYC.
Even in my days of being a skinny-minny my diet often consisted of serious periods of restricting my caloric intake followed by a few days of full on binge eating. Not a particularly healthy way to approach food, I admit. But in those days my goal was to be skinny, not necessarily to be healthy. As a man in his mid-thirties (Lord does it kill me to say that....), I wanted to make sure I was shaping my body into a better vessel but also focusing on my overall health. I'm at the age when things start to creak and crack, blood pressure can rise, and cholesterol is an issue. Health is no longer an aspect of life that's relegated entirely to vanity.
After about a month of going to the gym, I made the decision to slowly start incorporating healthier food choices into my diet. First - I cut ordering food from GrubHub down to once a week. That might not seem like a big deal but you probably didn't order 3-5 meals per week like I did. A weekly diet that included pad thai, crab rangoon, fried chicken, pizza, and lamb vindaloo was delicious, but enormously fattening. Hence, all the fat encasing my body.
I'll admit there was a fairly steep withdrawal period that tested my will to live. Perhaps a little dramatic, but still ... the struggle is REAL people. Food is a huge part of my life, and I thrive on eating tasty delights as often as possible. It was a very difficult process to change my mindset and focus on what I was putting into my body from a health perspective instead of a taste perspective. There's a bit of overlap on those two things but not nearly enough to make the transition easy.
Eventually I adapted my Grubhub regiment to treating myself only once per week to a delivered meal, and over time that meal was narrowed further into a once weekly order from a local Middle Eastern restaurant that would bring me a whole grilled fish filet, some rice, and lentil soup. Doing good but tasting great!
With only one GrubHub delivery per week, that meant I needed to start making my own food. Even when I was thinner I almost never cooked for myself though. I snacked on a lot of pre-packaged low-calorie foods but never really had meals that I cooked. Clearly that needed to change going forward.
And it has.
I now cook dinner at home between 3-4 time per week. I still eat out with friends on average 1-2 times per week and with the amount I'm cooking at night I often have enough leftovers for dinner or lunch the next day. I've actually really enjoyed exploring cooking from a healthy perspective. By doing it myself I have the ability to explore flavors that I find interesting and create healthy foods that play to my interests.
I now eat breakfast almost every day. Breakfast was a myth to me in the past. Something I had heard about but had never really seen or believed in. As I mentioned several times above, I'm not much of a morning person. When given the choice of sleeping more or waking up for breakfast, I always chose to sleep more and then eat a large and unhealthy lunch. No longer. I make sure to start the day right with something filling and tasty.
My latest obsession - overnight oats and chia seed porridge. They're very easy to make (usually less than 2 minutes!) and are very flexible in terms of flavors and ingredients you can use. With a healthy base to work off of, you can get creative and throw in different healthy additional items to create fun flavor profiles. From the top left and going clockwise above I have pomegranate, carrot cheesecake, cranberry lemon, and honey & peanut butter breakfast porridges that I've experimented with.
I've also been working on making lunch and dinner healthy. I'm half-Japanese and my overall taste in food leans pretty heavily in the Asian direction. Since eating white rice is a cultural building block I'm never going to walk away from, I've really needed to focus on making sure the remainder of the food I make for meals is pretty low-calorie and high in nutrition. Like the spicy miso baked chicken with green onions and mushrooms above.
Overall, I've been very successful modifying the way that I eat and I've seen a lot of success sticking with a healthy mindset and fit-focused meals.
It's been about three months since I started my fitness journey and I've lost about 38 lbs to date.
Down 25 lbs in Berlin in mid-October of 2016 with friends, and then down 35 lbs at home in November 2016 with my dogs.
I've been very, very happy with my progress to date and I've noticed several real impacts on my daily life.
Clothes have stopped fitting me. I have had to purchase several new pairs of pants and shirts, and with the dropping temperatures I just discovered I will need to purchase new coats as well.
While doing a ten day trip through Europe walking through Berlin, Budapest, and Valletta (which is very hilly), I was able to walk around without gasping for breath or stopping to rest every thirty minutes. I was able to engage in constant physical activity comfortably.
Traveling is easier. Getting from gate to gate during a connection no longer leaves me winded. I am able to fit easier into standard economy class seats on domestic and international flights and I no longer feel self-conscious about fitting next to people on crowded flights.
When I take the train to and from work, I am much less likely to end up with an empty seat next to me for the entire trip. At 240+ lbs, I often would find that people choose to simply stand when the train was crowded rather than sit next to me. While I enjoy the extra room it has done wonders for my self-confidence to have people start sitting instead.
Sitting in the airport watching my own Snapchat feed seems like a pretty simple way tp pass some time but it ended up having a deep impact on my life. I had known for awhile that I needed to make a change in my life but hearing myself wheezing on film, struggling for air while exploring a beautiful new city was a wake up call. Travel is something that I love with all my heart and I want to enjoy it without a constant reminder that I've been neglecting my health for almost a decade.
I'm very happy with the progress I've made and plan to continue focusing on my health whether I am at home or on the road. Keep your eyes open for a future blog post discussing some of the difficulties of exercising and eating healthy while traveling!