October 12th came and went without me even noticing. And yet the date marked the one-year anniversary of a decision that has fundamentally changed my lifestyle, more than I could ever have imagined.
Over eight years after I was first diagnosed as a type 2 diabetic, October 12th 2018 was the day I decided to take my health seriously. And all I had to do was to make a few simple changes to my approach to nutrition and exercise – and one big change to my mindset.
Pausing for once to look back over the past 12 months, I’ve only now really begun to appreciate how far I’ve come. Here’s the story of my year of positive change.
This was the first and most obvious change. Doing just a few key things differently made a sudden and dramatic impact.
I’m a data-driven person, so I started by recording everything I ate using the MyFitnessPal app. For six months, I stopped snacking almost completely in pursuit of two major targets. Firstly, I lowered my carbohydrate intake to 120 grams per day. (I estimated it had been about 300, so this represented a 60% reduction.) And secondly, I aimed to keep my net calorie intake (i.e. food minus exercise) below 1,650 per day on average.
My primary aim here was to reduce my blood glucose levels – but in the knowledge that this would inevitably lead to weight loss too.
I lost ten pounds in the first two weeks – much of that was water weight rather than fat – but I consistently shed 1-2 pounds a week thereafter. By Easter – six months in – I had lost over three stone. More importantly, my blood glucose level had halved and I was able to dramatically cut back on my diabetes medication.
Over the second half of the year, I’ve eased into a more sustainable state. My daily net calorie average is around 2,200, I consume 180-200 grams of carbs most days. And my weight has held steady at around 13 stone – this pleasingly equates to a loss of exactly 50 pounds – for the past four months. That for me is just as big an achievement as the initial weight loss. In many respects, losing the weight was the easy bit; keeping it off is the hard part.
A lot of people would be surprised if I told them what I eat on an average day. Breakfast: bacon and eggs. Lunch (on work days) is generally a chicken salad and a packet of crisps. We eat normal dinners, but with smaller portions of rice, pasta and potatoes. The flip-side of this is that treats such as chocolate, cheese and nuts are part of my daily diet – in moderation.
Once a week or so, I’ll have a ‘big’ day. Curry and beers. A Sunday roast. A barbecue. On days like these, I can easily consume an extra 1,500-2,000 calories. But I don’t feel guilty about it because, with one eye on the bigger picture, I know that I’m on track overall. Life is there for living, not for religiously counting numbers on a spreadsheet. (Although I do love a good spreadsheet!)
And that’s been my secret, such as it is. I’ve never really felt like I’m on a diet. I just manage a balance between healthy eating and enjoying eating. My treats are a reward, not a reason to beat myself up.
If you’re surprised by the extent to which I eat bacon and chocolate, you may be wondering how that tallies with a focus on weight loss/maintenance.
The answer lies in the numbers. What matters is not how many calories I consume in total but my net calorie intake. Food minus exercise. So the equation is simple: the more I exercise, the more I can eat.
For me, the key to success has been treating this as a long-term project. For the first couple of months, I just focussed on walking. Take every opportunity. Walk a bit further. Walk a bit faster. Don’t use wet or cold weather as an excuse.
At work, I started going out for a 30-minute lunchtime walk at least four days a week. Then 30 minutes became 45-50. And I even started getting in to the office earlier so I could squeeze in a morning walk to help me wake up properly. All of this helped me establish a base level of fitness.
By the time I started the Couch to 5K programme after New Year, I was already in half-decent shape. Three months later, I ran every metre of my first Parkrun, albeit slowly. Since then, I’ve lowered my personal best by 5½ minutes.
After Easter, I started going to the gym. One of the side-effects of my dramatic weight loss was that I lost some muscle as well as fat. My flabby arms had turned into bingo wings. Now, six months later, there’s definitely muscle definition emerging. I still have excess flab here and there – most notably around my midriff – but the improvement is obvious.
Where previously I had become a proper couch potato, I now burn at least 400 calories most days just walking or on the cross-trainer at home. Add in two or three gym sessions or runs a week at an additional 600-700 calories each, and that adds up to a lot of chocolate! (And because your body needs them after a workout to replenish glycogen reserves and rebuild muscle tissue, they’re guilt-free carbs. Bonus.)
Having a fitness programme keeps me motivated too. I’ve set regular milestones throughout 2019 and varied my training to match. Over the course of the year, my focus has shifted between endurance, explosiveness, strength and speed. It hasn’t been a relentless grind doing the same thing over and over again; it’s been more a series of sprints.
Daily exercise is now part of my routine. Which means I do it even when I don’t really feel like it. I go out of my way to make the time to exercise, just as I make time to eat or watch a favourite TV show. It’s just something I do now – and when something is routine, it requires much less motivation and willpower.
None of the above would have been possible without the right mindset.
It’s taken long enough. I’d been half-heartedly starting post-Christmas diets for more years than I can count, never with more than fleeting success. In truth, my heart wasn’t in it. All I needed was to hit the first stumbling block and I would immediately give up.
But this time, something just clicked. It didn’t require a Road to Damascus moment. I didn’t suddenly find a magic new diet plan. All it took was a firm decision to focus on making a few simple changes. And, combined with a subtle shift in mentality – treating this as a long-term lifestyle change rather than a short-term diet or detox – it has helped me to break old habits and replace them with new ones, hopefully permanently.
I think for me the idea of ‘dieting’ was too much about negatives and self-denial. But when I started thinking in terms of ‘lifestyle changes’, I started to make more positive trade-offs and associations. Going for a 25-minute walk meant I could have a G&T at the end of it. Incentive over denial.
I used to think of reaching 10,000 steps in a day as a big achievement. Now it’s the bare minimum. Over the past 100 days, I’ve exceeded 15,000 steps 78 times and passed 20,000 on 42 occasions. Without doing it consciously, I’ve raised the bar massively. Now that I’ve achieved so much, it has made me realise I can do so much more. It’s a virtuous circle.
And there have been other benefits too. All of a sudden I’ve dropped two sizes and I can enjoy wearing better fitting clothes rather than hiding under loose ones. There are lots of little visual and mental cues that constantly remind me of all the benefits I’ve accrued over the past year that I don’t want to let slip away by reverting back to bad habits.
I’m already making plans for the next 12 months that revolve around consolidating my gains and setting new fitness goals. If I can achieve this much in a year, I wonder how much I can achieve in two …
Let’s find out, shall we?