Posted December 15, 2015
“So the problem you’re describing is acid reflux,” my doctor told me. I had developed the recurring burning sensation in my chest that made it feel like I was about to vomit almost two months ago. “And it’s likely a result of the weight gain.”
That was how he said it. “The weight gain.” As though he was referring to something so blatantly there that it needed no further explanation. He didn’t say, “Well, Mr. Krieger, I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but you’ve put on a couple pounds since your last visit, and it may be contributing to the problem.” Not, “well, it’s common at your age to gain 1-2 pounds a year, and this may be the result of that sort of sneaking up on you over time.” Nope, it was the weight gain.
His scale clocked me in at 218 which, at first, I was sure meant that his scale was broken. At 6’2”, this didn’t make me fat, but it did mean I had packed on a few pounds since the last time I weighed myself. I thought about the fact that some of my clothes had become too tight to wear over the last couple years, and I remembered the time one of my castmates had to staple my pants closed before I went onstage because the clasp had burst. Slowly it occurred to me that maybe these weren’t random, inexplicable events.
Thanks to a fast metabolism, I had managed to stay pretty slender for the first 29 years of my life, despite eating total garbage and working out sporadically. But now, my habits were catching up with me. And this was a problem. Because I was really bad at changing my habits.
I had tried eating healthy in the past, but each time, my efforts had cratered almost immediately. They would all start the same, with me proclaiming, “This is it! I’m gonna do it! I’m gonna eat healthy, work out, drop 30 pounds and look hot naked!” I would eat a super healthy breakfast, then lunch, then dinner. The next day I would have a healthy breakfast, then—oh fuck it I’ll just get pizza. And just like that, I was back off the wagon.
I once read a story about how Saddam Hussein, after being captured, went on a hunger strike that lasted exactly one meal before he caved, and I thought, “That’s me!” My healthy living attempts had never lasted more than four days.
Except this time. This time I did it. I started working out more and eating right. Over the next 365 days, I lost 25 pounds, added some muscle and KO’d my acid reflux problem. Most importantly, I stopped being tired. For the last 15 years or so, I have always been tired. Like, every single day. I would crash around lunch time and lose all ability to focus. I would be hanging out with my friends, it would be 8:00 at night, and all I would want to do was go home and go to sleep. It was like something was behind my eyeballs, clawing, trying to get me to just lay down and sleep. But even when I did lie down, sleep rarely came.
That feeling vanished.
So the purpose of this piece is to write about it. To share what I did differently this time around, for anyone reading this who may be struggling with the same problem. Because I know that when I was dealing with this, there weren’t a lot of websites giving the advice I needed.
Don’t get me wrong, there are millions of sites telling you how to lose that spare tire and get in shape. But they are all focused on a sort of superficial “how to.” What foods to eat. What exercises to do. They don’t talk about the deeper “how to.” How to get yourself to actually do the things you know you’re supposed to do.
For those of you who have tried to get healthy and failed, think about those failures. Did you struggle because you didn’t know what to eat? Or did you struggle because you knew exactly what you were supposed to eat, you just couldn’t make yourself actually do it for an extended period of time? Did you struggle because you didn’t realize exercise was valuable? Or did you struggle because you were fully aware of the health benefits, it’s just a total pain in the ass going to the gym several days a week?
My problem wasn’t figuring out what habits to form, it was figuring out how to form them. How do I stop drinking so much soda? How do I develop a consistent exercise routine? Every attempt I made to get healthy before this one, the plan was to achieve my goals through will power and discipline. The key this time was realizing that discipline and will power are hard to manufacture and usually temporary. Instead, what I had to do was build habits and systems that would work even on the days I didn’t feel motivated.
So this article is about how to build, reinforce and grow the habits and systems you need to actually start living a healthy lifestyle. What that healthy lifestyle looks like is up to you. There are millions of diets and exercise programs out there created by people who know much more about the science of this stuff than I do, and you can choose the one that sounds best for you. No matter which program you go with, I think the methodology I outline below will help you stick to the plan and achieve your goals. For those of you who are curious, at the end of this piece, I explain the diet and workouts I use, but I strongly believe my approach can be applied to any fitness program.
And as long as I’m giving disclaimers, I should mention two other things: One, this is not one of those pieces with a sexy title like “How to Lose 30 Pounds in 30 Days.” This takes time. Just as it took awhile to form the bad habits that got you here, it will take a long time to form good ones, and maybe even longer to break the old ones. But the upshot to this is that you’re creating a system that’s sustainable. By creating new habits, you’re building something you can actually stick to long-term.
Two, not everything I’m about to say will work for you. All I am really saying by posting this article is that these are ten things that worked for me, and these are ten thing that are all worth trying. It’s very possible that only a few of them will work for you. Hopefully, if that’s the case, you will agree that reading this was still a good use of your time.
Trying all ten of these might be hard. Because some (though not all) of these tips will sound kind of ridiculous. They will make you roll your eyes and maybe even vomit inside your mouth. I know, because that’s how I reacted when I first heard them. But if you’re anything like I was, then you know that what you thought was the right approach wasn’t working, so maybe it’s time to try something different.
I’d encourage you to try both the tips that seem like they’ll work and the ones that seem like a waste of time. Both can help you achieve your goals.
It just might take a little while.
1) Start slow and build up
When I see other people try to “get fit,” I notice they often take the same dive-in-the-deep-end approach as the one I described earlier. Most of us try to make these dramatic changes in our diet and workout habits all at once and then intend to stick to them through pure will power. This always fails, because will power is overrated. What you need to do is build up a habit that is so ingrained, you do it even on the days you don’t feel like it. Even on the days you have no will power. You want living healthy to be like brushing your teeth and showering. You don’t skip those on the days you “don’t feel like it.” You just do them.
And habits are best built gradually. Ask yourself this: What is the easiest, lowest commitment first step I can take to being healthy? Then do that. Working out four days a week sounds like a tremendous challenge, but could you work out once a week? Working out 30 minutes to an hour at a time is a lot, but could you just do fifteen minutes? So, instead of pledging to work out four days a week for an hour at a time, pledge to exercise for fifteen minutes, once a week. Surely, you can do that. Then, once that becomes so ingrained in your life that it’s automatic, you just build it up. Start doing it twice a week instead of once. Then, start doing it for 20 minutes at a time instead of fifteen. And keep building until you get to the level you feel is right for you.
At the beginning, your goal shouldn’t be to get healthy. It should be to get started.
The key is to start off with a workout goal that is so laughably easy that you can do it without even trying. Then, once that becomes an established habit, give yourself the goal of doing just a little bit more.
You can apply this same approach to eating right. For me, I started off saying I was going to eat three healthy meals a week. That’s it, just three. The other 18 meals a week could continue to be pizza and nachos and whatever, but three times a week, I would be good. And that was fairly easy to do. From there, I built up to one a day. Then two a day. Then I stopped drinking soda. Then I stopped drinking Gatorade. Then, when I went to get bagels, I passed on the giant chocolate chip cookie I normally got with them (I’m telling you, I had some bad habits). If I had made all these changes at once, I never would have been able to sustain them. But by doing them one at a time and building up, I was able to develop good habits while my body barely noticed. The key is to wait until one good habit is so ingrained you don’t even think about it before adding another.
There are a few key things you need to do for this to work: One, understand that you can always do more than you set out to do. If the goal you set is to work out once a week, you are still allowed to work out more than that. But just view this as extra credit. So if you set out to eat three healthy meals this week, and then end up having five, that’s awesome! You actually did more than you told yourself you were going to, which is an incredible accomplishment. But if next week you go back to three, that’s great too, you still hit your goal.
Two, you should be patient in waiting to raise the baseline on how hardcore you’re being about things. In other words, don’t work out once a week for a couple weeks, then decide you’re all set and graduate to twice a week. Really wait until raising the baseline seems easy. Until going from one workout a week to two sounds like it would be a joke because of how well you’re handling the workload you already have.
Three, when you adjust your baseline upwards, do it gently. Notice how I said you can start off at fifteen minutes, then shift up to twenty. You don’t have to go from fifteen straight to thirty. Again, we’re talking about creating change that will stick with you for the rest of your life. There’s no need to rush it.
2) Do fun workouts
A lot of people who start trying to get fit immediately gravitate towards the most boring/unpleasant exercises out there. They start running, swimming, or lifting weights. These are all great workouts, and for some they can be enjoyable. But if you don’t like doing them, then why not choose something you’re actually excited to do? I’m competitive and like sports, so basketball and tennis were great choices for me.
Other people love rock climbing or hiking. Others get really into the classes they take. If you think you hate all forms of exercise, then keep experimenting until you prove yourself wrong. Worst case scenario: use the treadmill, but get an iPad, sign up for Netflix and turn hitting the gym into an excuse to watch the next episode of your favorite program.
Many people point out that these just aren’t as good a workout/calorie-burner/muscle-builder as those other, more boring exercises. But that’s not the point. The key is to get started. Right now, you’re not working out at all. So is doing pilates better than going for a walk through the woods? Probably. But going for a walk through the woods is undoubtedly better than doing nothing. So focus on the activity that gets you exercising. Down the line, if you still want to do those other more-boring exercises, you can. If you like playing tennis and hate weight lifting, then I guarantee it’ll be easier to transition from playing tennis three times a week to lifting three times a week than it’ll be to transition from lying on the couch all week to lifting three times a week. Who knows? Maybe playing tennis will even make you more excited about lifting because you see how building up your strength will improve your game. But right now, the focus should just be on getting yourself started down the path to fitness.
And something really great may happen along the way. You may find out that doing the thing you enjoy is actually a good enough workout, and you never have to transition to anything else.
3) Schedule your time
If you tell yourself you’re going to work out for half an hour “at some point,” tomorrow, you probably won’t. No one has enough time to do what they’re already doing everyday, let alone squeeze in another 30-minute activity. And we all know that exercising for half an hour takes a lot more than 30 minutes. You need to drive to the gym, change, work out, shower, change again, drive back to where you were and then collapse on the couch and complain about how sore you are for the next 20 minutes. No? That’s just me? Fine. But the point is, you can’t just assume that tomorrow you’ll magically find that half hour somewhere in your day. You need to actually plan when you’ll do it.
So write out a schedule. For example, write on a sheet of paper: 7:00-8:00, wake up, eat breakfast, shower. 8-9, commute to work. 9-5, work. 5-6, go to the gym and workout. 6-9, watch Jessica Jones on Netflix. Then, as you go through the day, cross off each thing you have scheduled. By the time you get to your “go to the gym and workout” slot, it’ll be automatic to just keep following the schedule you have written.
4) Work out with a RELIABLE partner
Find a buddy who already exercises regularly and ask if you can join them. Most friends are happy for the company and the opportunity to share what they’ve learned with someone else. Once you schedule a time and a place to meet up with that person, it’ll be tougher to cancel. When the only person you’re cancelling on is yourself, it’s easy to decide “I’ll just work out tomorrow.” But when you know that a) you’ll be bailing on your friend and/or b) you’ll be making your failure a more public one, it’s harder to flake.
But here’s the key to this one: Choose a friend who’s already working out consistently. It’s tempting to make plans with a friend who also wants to start exercising. You might feel that the two of you are on the same level and can help hold each other accountable. The problem is, that friend hasn’t established a workout routine and the corresponding discipline needed to maintain it. Therefore, that friend is a risk to bail on you. And if he does, then suddenly it becomes easy to use that as an excuse to say, “Well, if Mark can’t work out today, then I guess I’ll just do it some other time.” You want someone you know you can count on. And that friend who already has established a regular workout schedule has already gotten to a place where he doesn’t cancel.
5) Make your meals ahead of time
These are the worst times of the day to prepare a meal: 1) When you just woke up and are racing out the door to get to work on time. 2) When you get home from a long work day, exhausted. Yet the former is when we most often prepare the lunch we would theoretically take to work, and the latter is when we usually make dinner. In those states, it’s no surprise that we often just end up grabbing something to eat at the place up the street, or having a TV dinner. We gravitate towards the unhealthy and the easy because making good-for-you meals takes time and energy, and we're usually contemplating making them during the time of the day when the last thing we want to do is spend 30 minutes cooking.
I propose making a bunch of healthy meals all at once, during a relaxed period in the week, putting them in the refrigerator, and then pulling from those when it’s time to eat. This way, the easiest, laziest option is to just eat the food you’ve already prepared. I’ll usually spend 45 minutes one day preparing six servings of a dish I like. Then I have discovered a couple other options I can make with really quick prep times. So whenever it’s lunch time, I can either heat up one of those pre-prepared servings or make one of my quick go-tos. Does it get boring having one of the same three dishes everyday for lunch? A little. But not as boring as you might think. And let’s be honest, before I started eating healthy, I still only had maybe five or six dishes in my regular rotation anyway. Sure, I wish I had a bit more variety. But this is a minor tradeoff to make for the fact that it’s so much easier to eat healthy meals and, consequently, it’s a minor tradeoff to make for the fact that I feel so much better in day-to-day life.
6) Stock your house with healthy snacks
If you’re like me, the act of snacking doesn’t usually come from hunger, it comes from boredom. You have nothing to do, and you find your body drifting to the kitchen and needing to put something in your mouth. What it is doesn’t really matter. I was surprised to discover that my body was just as content snacking on raisins and apples as it was potato chips. It was the act of mastication that it was seeking. So throw out the unhealthy munchies and stock up on the stuff that’s good for you.
7) Celebrate your victories
My first hundred or so attempts at getting healthy were also filled with a lot of self-loathing. Every time I ate something I knew I shouldn’t, I beat myself up and called myself a loser/idiot. It was the classic example of someone being far meaner to themselves than they would ever be to someone they loved. It also did not have anywhere near the motivating effect I wanted it to. Instead, I would believe my own self-talk, that I was a loser/idiot, and obviously if I’m a loser/idiot then there’s no way I can overcome the massive challenge that is eating right.
So if this sounds like you, I would encourage you to try the opposite. Instead of beating yourself up when you fail, try celebrating yourself when you succeed. When you work out, take a moment to praise yourself. It is a real accomplishment. You of all people should know this, since you have so many times told yourself you would work out and didn’t. When you have that plain lunch of grilled chicken and broccoli instead of getting pizza up the street, give yourself a mental high five.
Yup, that’s right, we’re entering into the realm of the ridiculous-sounding suggestions I warned you about at the beginning of the piece. I can feel the eye rolls coming, but before it’s too late, just ask yourself this simple question: What do you have to lose? Do yourself a favor, give it a try, you may just find that this whole fitness thing suddenly gets a bit easier.
8) Start viewing yourself as the person who eats right
Okay, as long as we’ve already gone down this crunchy path of “self-talk really matters,” let’s stick with it and expand on the subject. When you view yourself as someone who eats right and works out, then it’s very natural that you would do those things. When you view yourself as someone who eats terribly and sits on the couch all day, then it’s very natural that you would do those things. So what you need to do is shift the way you think of yourself.
One thing that helps you to do this is affirmations. Here’s how they work: You write out a sentence about yourself as though you are already the person you want to become. So, for example, you might write, “I eat healthy and work out on a regular basis.” Even if that statement is false, write it as though it is already true. The only rule is that the sentence has to be about who you are and what you do, not who you aren’t and what you don’t do. In other words, you should not write “I don’t eat foods that are bad for me.” Instead you should write, “I eat healthy foods that are good for me.”
Then read it regularly. And really read it. Don’t just glance at the sentence, but let the concept wash over you. Take it in. At first, you should do this every day. But after awhile, you can start reading it every other day or a few times a week or maybe you won’t need it at all. Gradually, you will notice a shift in the way you view yourself, and consequently, you will start to act differently too.
As you go through your day-to-day life, if you hear yourself thinking things like, “I’m just too lazy to work out” or “I’ll never be one of those people who can just have a salad for dinner,” stop yourself and repeat your affirmation (or, something close to your affirmation if you don’t remember it exactly). As you do this, you should start to hear those voices less often.
9) Realize that you will fail
When we set out to do something, we focus on succeeding. We set benchmarks to hit along the way and visualize accomplishing our goals. But we never think about what we’ll do when we screw up along the way, or when something unexpected happens. And if we’re not ready, that adversity can turn into a demoralizing opportunity to say, “fuck it, this is never gonna work” and give up.
It’s important to realize upfront that while success isn’t guaranteed, adversity is. So it helps to have a coping mechanism. Here’s the system I have found most helpful to use every time I screw up: Step one, accept responsibility. Step two, learn from this adversity. Step three, forgive yourself.
You’re not always going to be the person at fault for your struggles, but you have to understand that most times you fail, there’s a learning opportunity in there of something you can do differently. If you’re doing great with your new healthy lifestyle, and then go on the road for work and backslide into bad habits, it’s easy to say, “Well, what the hell am I supposed to do? It’s impossible to eat healthy on the road, and I don’t have a gym out here, so I can’t work out.” But still, look at the situation and ask what you can learn from it. What can you do differently the next time this comes up? Maybe next time you travel, you can make some healthy meals ahead of time, put them in Tupperware, and take them with you. Maybe you can look up where you’ll be visitng and google the closest places to eat with healthy food before you even leave on the trip. Maybe you can stay at an Airbnb instead of a hotel so that you’ll be in a place that has its own kitchen. As for working out, just look online. You’ll find plenty of exercises you can do in your hotel room.
When harnessed correctly, your struggles are actually invaluable opportunities to learn how to do a better job, and in turn they can help accelerate you towards your goal. But that only happens if you take a moment to find the lesson hidden in that adversity.
Then there’s the final step: Forgive yourself. Let it go. The reason we accept responsibility is so that we can grow, not so that we can beat ourselves up. Like I said earlier, beating yourself up leads to self-loathing and a bad self image, neither of which is conducive to accomplishing a big goal. That guilt and low self-esteem will weigh down the spirit you so desperately need.
As someone who has done this both ways, I can tell you, it’s a lot easier to get in shape when you go a bit easy on yourself.
10) Realize that you will get injured
This one goes under that same heading of “plan for adversity.” If you work out several days a week, there’s a good chance you’ll get hurt at some point. It may not be anything bad. It may just be twisting an ankle or jamming your thumb. But it’ll be a great opportunity to say, “Well, I can’t exercise now.” Don’t take that opportunity. Instead, be prepared to try something else. You hurt your hand? Try running. You hurt your leg? Try weight lifting. You have a bad back? Try biking. Swimming is pretty boring, but in many cases, it’s something you can do even while injured.
And when an injury makes you switch to a new workout you’ve never done before or one that you don’t like, applaud yourself. You just got hit with major adversity, and you didn’t let it slow you down.
So there you have it, ten things you can do to make sure you actually stick to your healthy eating and workout resolutions. And hey, look at that, this article is posted just in time for New Year’s. So if you’re one of the millions of Americans who has tried and failed to get healthy in the past, and is now resolving to try again in 2016, I would urge you to approach it just a little bit differently this time. What do you have to lose?
The answer is probably nothing, but it could also be 25 pounds.
Okay, that’s the end of the article, but like I said, I will tell you what exercise/diet plan I follow. Feel free to use this, adapt it or totally ignore it, I don’t care. This isn’t really what the article is about, it’s really just in case that opening segment piqued your curiosity.
I don’t count calories and I eat until I’m full. All I’ve tried to do is increase the amount of the following in my life: vegetables, protein, water, fruit, exercise, and sleep. Then I’ve also tried to decrease the amount of the following in my life: simple carbs (junk food, stuff that’s breaded/deep fried, pizza, bread, pasta, etc.), alcohol, heavy sauces/ creams, and stress. That’s it. Heaven knows I still have unhealthy meals a couple times a week, and boy do I love my sweets. But I eat so much cleaner than I used to and exercise so much more. Just doing that has helped me lose weight and feel light years better.
I also mentioned earlier that you need to find dishes that you can make a bunch of servings of at once. So these are my go-to meals…
The dish I make six servings of all at once is a faux shepherd’s pie. Cook two pounds of ground beef in olive oil (I recommend two pans just so you can fit everything), then, as the meat browns, add two cans of corn, a big bag of frozen peas, a big bag of frozen sliced carrots and a box of chopped onions. While that cooks, make your mashed-potato substitute: two cans of white cannellini beans and some coconut oil mashed together until it looks like mashed potatoes. If you’re having trouble with the mashing, heat that combo in a microwave for one minute. Once the food is cooked, mix in the mashed beans, then add some general seasoning. Then you’re done.
Recipe 2: Grill some steak on a George Foreman grill, toss a bag of frozen stirfry vegetables onto the frying pan and cook it in olive oil. Then, when the vegetables are close to done, chop up the steak, toss it in, finish cooking and add a little teriyaki sauce.
Recipe 3: Grill a chicken breast, bake a potato and boil some Brussel sprouts or broccoli. Toss some salt over everything and put a bit of butter on the potato. It doesn’t taste great, but I only have this once every one or two weeks and it makes me feel like one of those super healthy clean-eating people. The rush of pride helps me power through the meal.
For breakfast, I usually eat two bananas, a couple slices of cheese and some raisins.
If you make any of these recipes, you may notice that the portions are pretty big. Like I said, I don’t count calories and I’m 6’2,” so these are good for me, but you may decide the shepherd’s pie can be broken into nine servings and you can have half a pound of steak in the stirfry. Adjust for yourself. But the key to all these dishes is that they’re super easy to make. Might it be a bit healthier to chop fresh carrots instead of eating frozen ones? I guess so. But frozen carrots are still carrots, and having something that’s pretty healthy and easy to prepare is way better than having something super healthy and hard to prepare. Because the former is something I’ll actually make. As for saving money, whenever I go to the grocery store, I check the meat and frozen vegetable sections. If I see any of my go-to ingredients on sale, I buy a ton of them, then keep them in the freezer to pull out as needed. I would estimate that I spend a little under $5 per meal.
As for what I do for exercise, my goal is to work out 4-5 times a week. Ideally, I lift three times a week, but if it’s only twice, I don’t beat myself up. For my other workouts, I do whatever sounds fun that day. That could be basketball with my roommate, going hiking with a friend, or joining a buddy at his workout class.
I started off this piece by saying that the resources out there are mostly focused on what to do, and not how to get yourself to do it. I believe this is true, but that doesn’t mean the latter form of resources don’t exist. The following are all people or things that helped me develop this methodology that I would be remiss not to cite. They are also worth checking out if you want to keep exploring the concepts discussed above.
The idea of affirmations, celebrating your victories and that system I mentioned for dealing with adversity is adapted from a methodology described by Chris Lee in a pair of interviews (http://lewishowes.com/podcast/chris-lee/ and http://lewishowes.com/podcast/chris-lee-abundance/) he did with Lewis Howes on a show called The School of Greatness. I know the title sounds a bit ridiculous, but those episodes literally changed my life. After listening to them, I started working out more, writing more, and spending more responsibly. In addition, I started feeling happier, more confident, and less stressed. I cannot recommend them enough.
The “start slow and build up” methodology and the idea that will power is overrated come from BJ Fogg (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AdKUJxjn-R8), and it’s now how I implement almost every major life change I make. In fact, he recommends starting off even smaller than I did.
Scott Adams (http://www.amazon.com/How-Fail-Almost-Everything-Still/dp/1480555347) and Ramit Sethi (http://www.iwillteachyoutoberich.com/) are both very into the idea of creating systems to help you succeed even on the days when you don’t feel motivated. I’m not sure exactly what things in this piece came from stuff they wrote, but I’m sure through osmosis, some of their ideas have ended up in this.
To read the next entry from my writings, click here.
At one point I was hired to write a workout column for a humor site, chronicling my experiences trying different exercise fads. To read one of those articles, as well as about the times I was hired to be one half of a conjoined twin at a trade show, dress up as Mickey Mouse for a parade, and be a bouncer at a nightclub, check out my book, Odd Jobs, by clicking here.
To make my book the next thing your book club reads, then bring me in for a live Q&A afterwards, click here.
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