Three Years Learning to Love My Body
UPDATE: Read the 4-year reflection when I reached 600 trips to the gym.
I’ll turn 40 this July. My goal is to be in the best shape of my life, inside and out. Even more important than my overall wellness as a snapshot is my attitude to keep it going for life. This means making choices in each moment to love me and not to avoid me. You see, Lead From Love starts with learning to love myself so I can share my love with the world. This love keeps me in the best condition to live my purpose and lead by example to motivate others. It’s been a long journey and it’s only just begun.
Our society has deeply rooted conditioning that equates thinness with attractiveness and good health. I’ve spent years untangling myself from this programming with some success. I know people who are thin or built, but have some of the worst eating habits I’ve ever seen. I know people who are large or curvy who do yoga every day and are incredibly healthy eaters. While I do realize women suffer more from society’s pressure to be thin, I’m here to say that plenty of that seeps in for big guys too. I believe that confidence is the ultimate beacon of attraction, and developing a better body after years of hard work is one way to build true confidence.
Three years ago today, on Saturday, April 11, 2015 at 7am, I stepped onto the mat for my orientation day at Farrell’s in Logan Square, Chicago. My best friend and I were both single and decided to get in shape in advance of the summer. I’d heard rave reviews of this 10-week intensive program that mixes strength training, cardio kickboxing and nutrition guidelines for six days per week. Rather than the typical sole emphasis on weight loss, Farrell’s also works well for people trying to put on muscle and bulk up.
I’ve now been to Farrell’s 481 times and, perhaps even more importantly, I’ve gone at least once per week for 83 weeks in a row. I measure this by checking in on app called Swarm, which is part of Foursquare, as you can see in this screenshot:
The reward for winning the Farrell’s 10-week challenge was either $1,000 or a two-year membership, the latter of which I believe is no longer offered. Winning means that you’ve improved the most across a comprehensive set of measurements including weight, body fat percentage (measured by machine, not BMI), inches in multiple places, sit-and-reach for flexibility, performance (one-mile run, one minute of push-ups and one minute of sit-ups) and a subjective measurement of front and side photos. Farrell’s emphasizes that this program is not about “weight loss,” but about body transformation, which I appreciate.
I had only missed three classes in the ten weeks, two of which were due to traveling for work. There really is something powerful about the combination of a clear goal with some friendly competition to keep me focused. I decided to take the two-year membership in a supreme expression of self love (both physical and fiscal since that was worth more than $1,000), even though I’m pretty sure I didn’t call it that back then.
Six years prior to joining Farrell’s, in early 2009, I had started working with a personal strength coach (trainer) to get in shape before my brother’s wedding. This would mark the first time in my life that I started thinking seriously about the value of physical fitness in my life. Back in 2003 after a breakup, I had lost 50 pounds in one summer biking 12 miles per day for six days each week, but I didn’t stick with it over time.
Notice a pattern? Each bout of exercise was motivated by a specific event or goal, which made it highly transactional in my mind, even leading me to believe that I wouldn’t need to do it forever. What I needed was to develop a truly loving relationship with my body.
Learning to Move
I grew up more in my head than my body. I was a smart geeky kid. I played piano and drums. I loved to eat and people loved to have me clean plates, so I was a bit chubby. My parents were loving and incredibly open-minded. They believed that I should be exposed to lots of things and then decide what I loved to do. I’m grateful for this.
I explored my small town in Missouri on foot and I LOVED riding my bike around. I tried a few sports. Soccer and tennis stand out. I think I even got a tennis trophy at some point. I was so bad at tee-ball that I never progressed to baseball (seriously, how can you miss the ball on a tee?). So I didn’t stick with sports. The way that we’re socialized in gym class is very unfortunate. The way I saw it, you are either an athlete or you aren’t. Thankfully I wasn’t really picked on for not being an athlete, but I also missed an opportunity to learn about the value of movement.
I do have a love for the outdoors since my family went camping and hiking quite a bit, especially my eighth grade year when we lived in Salt Lake City for dad’s sabbatical as a philosophy professor. And then I got into high school when some level of movement was applied to music in the form of marching band. I carried the quad drums for two years, then led the drumline playing snare. The snare actually felt like a luxury since it was lighter. Marching around a football field at 7am carrying drums was pretty good exercise in retrospect, but it was highly seasonal.
The basic reality is that I just didn’t love physical movement if it didn’t involve something like drumming or being in nature. It took decades to realize how important exercise is to daily attitude, energy, discipline and longevity. And yet I think I’ve succeeded in moving from disliking exercise to feeling like it’s just something to do in life, like a form of hygiene. I’m not sure I’ll ever “love” the activity, but I know that it’s a form of loving myself. Even now I often don’t want to go to the gym, but I’m always glad I did!
The Comfort of Community
Hiring a personal strength coach was a tremendous luxury that was incredibly beneficial even though hard to sustain financially. Nicole Krakora (now a Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine) taught me so much about proper form, technique, nutrition and the hierarchy of what my body really needs. This was also a safe environment to get used to the very act of going to the gym, which I always found intimidating or even embarrassing since I hadn’t played a lot of sports. This includes the simplest things like making time in my life, locker room etiquette and hanging around with “athletes.”
Benefit 1: Motivation and FUN
I find it much easier to get myself into a fitness practice if I make friends. Farrell’s is a class environment, which was different than the one-on-one attention of a personal strength coach. The instructors walk around and also there is a coach for each class time that gives more personal attention to people. I love knowing people in the gym and often hang out afterward. There is also a Facebook group where we share things, and even heart-tracking technology that has a social component to it.
Farrell’s keeps it fun! From DJ’ed kickboxing nights (thanks, Vic!) to Halloween costume contests, I love the space made for personal expressions.
One of my favorite aspects of the culture of Farrell’s is its incredible diversity. When we’re sweating together, we’re just people working toward our goals, no matter our origin. I work out alongside kick-ass women every day!
While community and consistency are the best motivators, I have to admit I love getting stickers in the various challenges that we do. They are hard to earn, typically only given for a perfect week of attending six days in a row. Or like the challenge in the photo below, where there was a special challenge each day that we had to complete for a sticker. And yes, they are all posted on the wall like Kindergarten. It’s awesome.
Benefit 2: Stress Management
When I joined Farrell’s in 2015, I experienced a profound period of stress. I owned a digital agency named Astek and one of our primary web servers was hacked, which impacted about a hundred websites for a couple weeks, 24 hours per day. There were days when my nerves were so wrecked that I just felt numb all over.
Yet I knew there was one place I could go every morning that I could be all to myself, and do something completely FOR myself. It didn’t magically fix everything, but it was one thing I could count on, which was enough to get me through that time when I felt like the whole world was screaming at me.
Benefit 3: Conditioning
I find that my creative flow state is more about practice than following rigid rules. Most people enjoy a sense of measurable fulfillment, which is not always offered in short-term doses in the context of body transformation. To me, the idea of following a formal structure is a short-term way of developing a new normal for myself. Longer-term, it’s less about developing a rigid rule-based diet or exercise program that feels like a cage I have to live in for the rest of my life.
Whether fitness, meditation or something else, my definition of transformation is the day it feels stranger for me NOT to do an activity than to do it. In other words, the role of conditioning is to practice long enough to get used to something. It’s an amazing feeling to get to that first Sunday off after working six days in a row and have it feel strange not to work out. It has a way of expanding time.
There is also a not-so-obvious benefit to this kind of conditioning through practice. Once you feel and see how it impacts your life, you can apply it to all kinds of other things that you want to change, learn or try. It just takes a bit of trust to get through the days when you are tired, bored or just not seeing results. I first learned the art of practice with 10 years of piano lessons in my youth.
One of the habits I struggle with the most is being late. Farrell’s has a way of emphasizing this because it’s painfully obvious when I show up late to a class, especially strength training where I have to gather all my gear before starting. While I still often cut it close, I will say that I’ve improved significantly.
TIP on scheduling: Since I planned on going the same time every day for six days per week, I just put it in my calendar as a repeating event. That worked well enough when I was committed to going every day. However, when I’m not in a challenge and not strict about going every day, this actually had the opposite effect of just fading into a monotonous calendar item with no intention behind it. So I deleted the repeating event and now every week I think through when I’m going to go, and put each time on my calendar. This intention has an enormous impact on me actually honoring that promise to myself to go at that time on that day.
Five Aspects of Health
There is so much information out there about health and nutrition. My intention is simply to share some things I’ve learned that work for me. You can find things to try from experts and life hackers alike. But don’t ever feel like you have to do it exactly the way they do it. The key is to find what works for you, and you’ll need to learn to listen to your body rather than the “experts.”
For me, the simplified hierarchy of bodily needs is:
Our bodies are 55-60% water. Drinking water seems so natural, and we live in an age where many of us have basically unlimited access to clean drinking water. And we also live in a world where millions of people don’t have access to drinking water, which is one of the most important humanitarian problems for us to solve, since water is so fundamental to our being.
If I could make one simple recommendation to everyone, it would be to bring a reusable water bottle everywhere you go. Some of the benefits to this simple action include:
- Increasing your hydration #learntolove
- Developing a new habit through non-judgmental self-awareness #learntolearn
- Decreasing your pollution in the world #learntolearn
- Increasing your awareness of your consumption of water and plastic #learntolearn
- Eating less. Often we interpret our body’s signal for needing water as needing food. If you drink first and wait 20 minutes, you might not feel hungry anymore. Eventually you’ll learn to tell the difference between the sensations. #learntolearn
TIP on daily water consumption: drink ounces of water equal to your bodyweight (in pounds) divided by 3. (from wholelifechallenge.com, which I’m starting on April 14) After several weeks of practice, you will learn to listen to your body, which will tell you when it’s thirsty so the guidelines won’t matter anymore.
I’ve heard strong opinions that cold or iced water is not good for us. And perhaps even that drinking water while we eat dilutes our stomach acid. I’m experimenting with both. We do love our ice in America.
If you have a body type like mine and your primary goal is dropping fat for health and attraction, then nutrition is the most important factor. Farrell’s taught me early on that “you can’t outrun a bad diet.” This was in line with what I’d learned from Nicole and other nutrition programs over the years. What you eat is important, but simply reducing the quantity of food you eat can have a significant impact without doing anything else. It all begins with awareness.
As a kickboxing gym, Farrell’s focuses mostly on strength training and cardio. There is support for nutrition, but it’s not a strict requirement (unless you want to win!). Much like sleep, the reality is that if I am working out six days per week, I can’t really eat like crap every day and still have the full scale impact of the workout. Or it will just emphasize how bad I feel after eating like that. Somewhere in my late 30s it became quite clear how important vegetables are for my well-being. This undoubtedly coincided with my mindfulness practice and increased awareness as I can feel when my body needs them. I studied mindfulness a few months after I started at Farrell’s, taking Q4 Consulting’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) class with Dr. Chris Johnson.
Don’t get the wrong idea, I LOVE the taste and emotional pacification of “bad” food like pizza, ice cream, etc. All the carbs! Farrell’s accommodates the idea of a “fun day” (not “cheat day,” since it’s part of the program!), which means I can eat whatever I want once per week. This has psychological benefits of not having so many cravings for Ben & Jerry’s the rest of the week, and even some nutritional benefits since somewhere in all that “bad” food are amino acids and other things that I believe my body needs.
Farrell’s introduced me to a program of eating smaller portions six times per day, every 2-3 hours or so. Metabolically the idea is that my body avoids going into starvation/storage mode, so it’s operating more efficiently and consistently. As someone who spent most of my life overeating to curb anxiety and other uncomfortable emotions, this pattern of eating also has the psychological benefit of reducing the chances of overeating, since I know I’ll eat again soon. It’s also helpful to stop eating BEFORE you are full, since it takes about 20 minutes for the stomach to send a signal to the brain that it doesn’t need any more food right now.
I’ve tried numerous variations of high protein/low carb diets. They all have a similar short-term success in helping me drop weight, in particular fat. But it never lasts. Farrell’s is a high lean protein diet. One tweak with Farrell’s that I liked was integrating “good” carbs, such as fruits and grains like quinoa, again in small portions throughout the day. If I’m working out six days per week, I’ll eat more carbs. If I’m working out less, I’ll eat fewer. Vegetables are recommended three times in the day. Mapped out, it looks like this:
Meal #1 – 1 protein / 1 carb
Meal #2 – 1 protein / 1 carb
Meal #3 – 1 protein / 1 carb / veggies
Meal #4 – 1 protein / veggies
Meal #5 – 1 protein / 1 carb / veggies
Meal #6 – 1 protein / 1 carb
My first 10-week program really helped to dial in a rhythm around grocery shopping and meal planning. I keep things simple and consistent at first, even though the body does tend to like variety. Once I got used to it, I’d bring in a few more items to mix it up. For me, building slowly is always the key to forming a new habit.
My biggest to-do item in the category of nutrition is to eat less meat. It’s impossible to deny that the mass consumption of industrialized meat is one of the most harmful aspects of our society, whether your perspective is nutrition, environmental (animals, polluted water supply, deforestation) or moral (animal rights). On a high protein diet, I find it challenging to think about swapping out lean meats for plant-based protein, but that’s an excuse. It’s also an excuse to think of this topic in an all-or-nothing ego binary kind of way. “Well if I’m not an all-out vegan, then I might as well eat steak every night…” If everyone reduced their meat consumption by even 20%, the world would be better for it.
TIP on food logging: One of the best tools I use to monitor my food is MyFitnessPal, which my brother turned me on to a couple months before I joined Farrell’s, leading to an initial loss of more than ten pounds. It has a huge database of food, and an easy interface to look things up. You can even find some close equivalent to most homemade dishes. While I don’t really buy into the idea of calories being the most important thing to track, it IS helpful for me to have some empirical measurement of what I’m putting in my body. I track everything I eat and drink other than water, and also my weight. Quantity and quality both matter and you need to listen to your body.
This is an incredible way to practice. Once you get into the habit, you will hardly notice the few seconds it takes to log a meal. If you are in a hurry, take a photo of your meal and do it later. Don’t listen to the haters that think you are a hipster Millennial for taking a photo of your food. This is about you! Or you could do it the old fashioned way with a paper journal.
Typically when I’m in a focused mode to get fit, I concentrate almost entirely on nutrition and strength/cardio, so sleep is often the most neglected. I feel that much of this is cultural in America as we tend to revere the work hard/play hard dynamic, which often leaves people ragged because they sacrifice this essential need of sleep. So while I do believe that it is a priority above exercise, I personally find it challenging to embrace fully.
Thankfully, sleep seems to come more naturally when I’m working out six days per week, and is even more powerful if I’m doing so on a regular basis. When I started at Farrell’s in 2015, I was in the 7am program. I’ve since drifted to an afternoon schedule, typically at 5:30pm, which seems to agree more with my metabolism.
There is some pretty exciting technology being developed that might help with sleep. It seems strange in a way, much like meditation apps, that the technology that distracts us so much might be what ends up balancing us out.
Before I did the Farrell’s program, I used a simple strength training program designed by Nicole before we stopped working together. It’s amazing how much progress can be made with a few dumbbells, your own weight and 20-30 minutes per day. I highly suggest finding a playlist that gets you going and can help you with pacing.
One of the main reasons people go into assisted living as they age is they can’t stand up on their own. I believe that strength training is one key to changing our limiting beliefs about aging, the idea that one day we’ll just be old and decrepit and there’s just nothing we can do about it. Hogwash!
Years ago I had some knee pain. My instinct was to start limping to lighten the impact on the knee. I was still working with my strength coach, Nicole, who decided that I’d be better off building the muscles around the knee. She was right! The pain was gone a few weeks later and never came back. I injured my knee during this winter’s challenge and applied a similar approach to bringing it back with adjusted strength training.
Farrell’s Chicago classes brings a lot of creativity to the strength training process by combining bands, body weight exercises, core, dumbbells and even the kickboxing bags. It’s different every time, which has the benefit of keeping things interesting. They’ve also brought in yoga, which especially helps with core strength. I’m oddly good at planking, having held one for 4:23 without any side planks.
One of my greatest challenges is flexibility, which seems to get worse the more I focus on strength. This is a fairly typical problem for men, who are socialized to be strong. While I stretch a bit before classes and there is a two-minute active stretch during kickboxing class, I intend to build a more intentional flexibility practice outside of the gym. I’m starting the Whole Life Challenge on April 14, which includes a daily mobility component to build this habit.
The main attraction at Farrell’s is cardio kickboxing with bags. There is also a ton of running and other cardio. In some classes you never stop moving. Whenever there is a new 10-week session, things slow down a bit. This is one of things I love most about the 10-week cycle. I mindfully slow down with them to focus on my form and apply beginner’s mind. Even though I’ve been here hundreds of times, there is always something new to learn. My form directly impacts the effectiveness of my time, which I’m spending anyway, so why not get the most out of it?
Kickboxing is actually a brilliant way to practice mindfulness. Some days I’m distracted or agitated and find it very hard to stay focused. I’ll watching the clock, wanting to be on to the next thing in my day. But if I pay attention and breathe, the time actually goes faster and my workouts are more effective. The extreme environment of pounding bags is an incredible way to practice breath control and listening to different combos being called out forces me to practice connecting my mind and body, especially when I’m worn out at the end of the 45-minute workout.
One of the central tenets at Farrell’s is, “Be coachable.” Everyone helps everyone learn, which is requires being conscious of the resistance one might feel to having someone point out a way to improve form. I’ve felt this myself and from other people. But we only get better if we can see our limitations and improve them without letting pride get in the way.
I’m outlining a pretty intense workout program here. I do well with that personally, and yet for most of my life I would have been intimidated to read about this, which would shut me down from trying it. So here’s what I think is most important: just find some way to move every day. Go for a 20-minute walk if you’re able.
Cardio often seems like the most important thing because it’s active and people look like they are “burning calories,” which is actually one of the least important factors in reducing body fat. “You can’t outrun a bad diet” is one of my favorite phrases I’ve learned at Farrell’s. And building muscles actually has more of an impact on fat reduction.
That said, cardio is important as a way to exercise the most important parts of your body, your heart and lungs, which you simply cannot live without. Cardio can also help you improve your endurance. And cardio exercises do tend to be more fun, so they can help with motivation and consistency.
I’d like to share some of the measurements I’ve collected over these three years. Perhaps the most dramatic gain during my initial 10 weeks was my one-mile run. I haven’t run much in my life. My initial mile was 11:20 and my final was 7:57. Most runners I mention that to are pretty astonished. I have an advantage of height (6′ 2″) and long legs, and I’m not sure how long I could keep that up, but I’m thrilled with those gains.
After I won the initial 10-week challenge, I treated myself to an Apple Watch, which I’ve used to measure my workouts ever since. I don’t do a whole lot with these, but it is helpful to check my heart rate in real-time and a nice little extrinsic dopamine hit to have my watch checking off those those colored rings throughout the day.
Using MyFitnessPal, I track my weight most consistently. Generally, I actually don’t think that weight is the best measurement. Mostly this is because muscle is more dense and a pound of muscle takes up less space in your body than a pound of fat, so you look more trim. When you are building muscle and losing fat, you might weigh the same or even gain weight! If you decide to track your weight, you need to be in a mindset of pure data collection without judgment. Don’t be discouraged. Trust that you are getting healthier and hotter. Just keep going. I hit weight plateaus that lasted for several weeks as my body acclimated to this new “set point.” And then eventually if I kept at it, I’d start trending down again as my body recalibrated.
That said, weight is the simplest measurement to take consistently at home, so it’s the most consistent chart I have. And there is certainly a correlation between these weight trends and my overall health. You can see my ups and downs below:
Here are some trends I notice looking back at this weight chart:
- Vacations and holidays mark sharp upswings in weight
- 2015 was a general trend down
- 2016 was a slow progression back up, which makes sense as I got busier with multiple stressful projects that year, including selling my digital agency and interviewing 175 companies about purpose
- In 2017 I decided to take a more gradual, sustainable approach, which worked well until the holidays.
- 2018 mirrors 2015 and I intend to stay on this course
One of my explanations for putting weight on (other than gorging around my family) is that energetically I’ve unconsciously been using fat as a protective layer, particularly around my stomach. As I’ve done a ton of deep internal work in the past year, I feel that I’ve found ways to release the wounds that needed protecting or found other ways to protect them. So this time, I don’t expect the need to put the fat back on for that reason.
I’ve also gone in for the full array of measurements a few times, usually correlated with challenges or new 10-week cohorts coming in. Writing this piece motivated me to assemble all that information into a table, which is helpful for me to take full accountability for the gains and losses I’ve made, while also realizing what events in my life might have led to those swings.
|Date||Weight||Body Fat %||Muscle %||Sit & reach (in)||Chest (in)||Waist (in)||Arm (in)||Thigh (in)||Hips (in)||Push-ups (1 min)||Sit-ups (1 min)||1-mile run|
We recently ended the 2018 10-week Recommit to FIT winter challenge, again at the six days per week cadence. I had started it each year before but not followed through. This was the most serious commitment I’ve made to win it.
I didn’t win.
While disappointed, I really gave it my all and had huge gains, only missing four classes due to being sick. I even built a new practice of walking to the gym when my car was in the shop in the dead of zero-degree Chicago winter. It felt like the intensity of my first commitment to the 10-week program three years ago, and you can see the same sharp decline in weight. My scale broke right afterward the challenge, so I decided to take a break from weight tracking to see how I can do without it. I remembered my real goal this year of getting in better shape by my birthday in July and my broader goal of developing better lifelong health habits.
While I don’t always for the for the “work hard / play hard” trope, Farrell’s kids know how to throw down. We have a huge celebration party at the end of each 10-week period to get to know each other outside of our sweaty clothes, award the winners and get our grub on.
Conclusions and Beginnings
Farrell’s has become such an integral pillar of my health that it even influenced my next home location. While I know that I could rebuild this relationship with myself at another gym, that’s just not where I want to focus my energy right now. I have a consistent practice that works for me, and that’s so incredibly valuable. It is so much easier to maintain momentum through practice than to rebuild it once it’s lost, which consumes a huge amount of energy and focus.
I’ve come to think of fat gain as a symptom of other things in my life, such as overeating due to anxiety or stress, which only makes me less capable of handling it leading to an unhealthy cycle. Along with all the body work I’ve described above, I’ve done a significant amount of emotional work including developing a mindfulness/meditation practice.
The most effective methods I’ve learned to address the emotional root causes of my health slumps are incorporated into my purpose and leadership coaching. This includes learning and living my purpose, which helps me stay focused on the bigger picture. I also focus a lot on “parts work,” where I can create a dialogue with voices, body parts and even feelings or beliefs. These dialogues reveal incredibly rich truths about myself from a place of compassionate curiosity rather than judgment.
This inside-out approach is at the heart of Lead From Love, and these have become lifelong practices for me, rather than transactions motivated by being lonely or whatever I think society wants from me. Intrinsic motivation from self love is more powerful and lasting than extrinsic motivators (yes, love is even more motivating than stickers).
I believe that being in good health is especially important for changemakers who need consistent energy and resilience to face the world’s toughest challenges and most stubborn bureaucracies. One benefit of living on purpose is to gain the perspective to see far enough out that your current activity changes from drudgery into a stepping stone to your greatest and most fulfilling contribution in the world.
While I’d love to see my abs by my 40th birthday, I’ll also be okay if that doesn’t actually happen. The biggest transformation for me wasn’t my body, but my attitude going from the transaction of a one-time goal to a lifelong loving relationship with my body. It’s not a question of getting to a certain point of fitness to start loving my body. I already do, exactly how it is. And that’s what motivates me to take care of it.
I hope my journey inspires you to make a choice to move more in your own life, however small to start. If you have any questions about any of it, please reach out.
UPDATE: Read the 4-year reflection when I reached 600 trips to the gym.