Without wanting to sound overly melodramatic, three years ago today (12th October 2018) I made a life-changing decision.
At the time, I didn’t realise quite how big it was. Or how fundamentally it would change my life. But, outside of Hollywood movies, big life decisions often start small, unaccompanied by a swirling musical score and a crash-zoom to capture the protagonist’s reaction.
Instead, it started with a simple decision to lose some weight.
The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.Lao-Tzu
I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in March 2010. In the eight years following, I veered constantly between determination and denial. I’d diet for a couple of weeks, then revert to eating all the food. I’d start Couch to 5K but find an excuse to give up. As the years passed, I remained obese and unfit, letting my increasing medication take the strain.
Diabetes is a cumulative disease. Damage cannot be reversed, only mitigated. It’s like rusting metal. You can stop it from eating away at you, but you can’t reverse it. You can’t turn rust back into steel: it’s gone forever.
So, as a diabetic, you manage the disease through your own choices and actions. Looking after yourself reduces risk. Not doing so increases your risk of a variety of unpleasant and potentially fatal events, reduces your life expectancy and increases your dependence on medication. After a certain point, even medical science can’t help you any more.
That was me for eight years. Knowing that my own actions were putting me at increasing risk, both now and in later life. But at the same time, burying my head in the sand because there were no tangible effects today.
And then one day everything changed.
The trigger for my personal Road to Damascus moment came from a conversation with Heather. It wasn’t the first time she’d tried to nudge me in the right direction. But this time it worked.
A local friend had been on a six-week course that spurred her into action and delivered good results. Why didn’t I give it a go too?
So I did. I got a referral from my GP and, on 11th October 2018, attended my first session.
I remember that evening well. As an ‘experienced’ diabetic, I had heard all the advice before. But being in a room of 20 fellow diabetics and listening to their experiences and fears resonated in a way that countless lectures from GPs and nurses hadn’t previously. There was one man who had already lost three stone in two months since his diagnosis. Others were struggling to come to terms with the basics of what they needed to do.
A penny dropped. When I woke up the following morning, I decided to make a few significant and immediate changes.
Some of this was diet-based – although it helped hugely that I mentally framed it less as a ‘diet’ (short-term) and more as a ‘lifestyle change’ (long-term). I decided to eliminate all snacking. I started recording everything I ate, with the aim of reducing my net calorie intake (food calories minus exercise calories) to 1,600 per day and more than halving my daily carbohydrate intake.
At the same time, I pledged to do more exercise. I was horribly unfit, so I started small. A 30-minute walk most lunchtimes instead of staying at my desk. Aim for 10,000 steps every day. That sort of thing.
Finally, I set some big goals. Lose a stone by Christmas. Reduce my HbA1c – the key measure of an individual’s glucose levels over an 8-10 week period – from high to low-risk.
I lost a stone within three weeks. By Christmas, my weight loss had passed the 2½-stone mark and my HbA1c, which had been 79 (“are you really trying to kill yourself?”) was down to 48 (below the threshold for ‘low risk’).
A small decision. A few changes. Huge impact.
18 months after starting, I’d set and reset my goals three or four times. But this point – midway between when I started and today – was a particularly significant milestone, because this was the point where I accepted that I had achieved a steady state I was happy with.
I had shed nearly 30% – over four stone – of my starting body-weight. I’d significantly reduced my medication. Despite that, my HbA1c was stable at 35, lower than many non-diabetics. The tone of the conversation at my annual check-ups had shifted from “your HbA1c is way too high – you need to do something now” to “be careful that your glucose levels don’t get too low”.
I felt so much better for it, both physically and mentally.
My initial strict regime had evolved into sustainable lifestyle choices – a ‘new normal’. Calorie and carbohydrate intake back to normal healthy levels. One treat day a week; not something to feel guilty about, just part of my overall plan.
The one thing that remained significantly different – not necessary, but a personal choice – was my exercise routine. After years despising running, I had just cracked the 30-minute barrier for 5km. And exercise had become a daily part of my routine, rather than a chore. Since the start of my programme, I had failed to record 10,000 steps on just two days – and was averaging just shy of 20,000 daily.
And that brings me to today. Three years on.
As proud as I am of my weight loss over the first 18 months, I’m even more proud that I’ve maintained my weight in the 18 months since. I could still stand to lose a few pounds, but I no longer look like the Michelin man’s fatter brother. I’m healthy and happy.
Okay, I’m currently a lapsed runner and have lost some of my fitness that enabled me to complete a Tough Mudder in late 2019. But that’s okay. I’m fit enough. Where I used to lag behind everyone else on summer holiday treks in the Alps, I now bound uphill like a mountain goat. (Okay, maybe not quite like that.)
So far this year, I’m averaging nearly 22,000 steps a day. I’m still working from home, so instead of commuting I walk for an hour every morning. Rain or shine. Weekdays and weekends. Even when we’re on holiday. Most days I’ll also go out for a second walk, or hit the treadmill. It’s not even a conscious decision. It’s automatic; just what I do.
Being mindful about what I eat is now firmly ingrained in me. I’m still prone to the occasional binge, but I don’t feel guilty about it. And I now snack regularly again – I’m a sucker for crisps and peanut M&Ms – but that’s my choice, and one my high-exercise lifestyle can support. Life is there to be lived, right?
It’s a balance; my balance. Exercising two hours a day and guilt-free snacking isn’t what I’d recommend for everyone. But it works for me.
It was never about how big or difficult the change was. It was just about being in the right head-space. I didn’t do anything different to what I’d tried before. But it was something I wanted, rather than feeling obligated. And with that combination of the right mindset and focussing on changing just a few key things rather than everything at once, I kept at it for long enough to see the results that spurred me on to keep going. And when ‘changes’ became ‘habit’ after a few months, I knew I’d won the battle.
Hopefully, I will still keep winning. This is my lifestyle now. I like it – and I like me. I don’t want that to change.
So if you’ve been unsuccessful trying something similar in the past, don’t be disheartened. You don’t have to be defined by past failures. It can be done. I’m living proof of that. You just have to find whatever unique key makes it work for you.
It took me a long time to get there. But I did it eventually. You can too.