“Wow, you’re really FAT, aren’t you?”
I was 11 years old and walking to the water fountain at school when a kid told me that.
I’d never seen this guy before, and he wasn’t in my class. But for some reason, he felt the need to tell me just how fat he thought I was.
Part of me would like to say this was a traumatizing, scarring event, but it really wasn’t. I don’t have recurring nightmares about it. I haven’t been to therapy to talk it out.
It was just was just one kid doing what kids do- being dicks to each other.
No, the reason I remember it so well is that it was the first time I realized that I was fat.
As a child I was blissfully unaware. All I knew was that I liked to eat. Now, as I was approaching my teenage years, the knowledge that I was a “fat kid” became part of my identity.
From that point on, my weight was something I was self-conscious about. At first, I thought I was just doomed to look like this. After all, in my 11-year-old brain, it made sense. My parents and brother were fat (at the time). It only made sense that I would be fat too.
All that changed when I turned 14.
This was WAY back in 2000, when the internet had just become a thing, and my family had finally got it installed in our house (these were the “good ol’ days” of dialup when you had to wait until your Mom was off the phone to use it ;)).
I can’t remember how it happened, or what led me there, but I found my first fitness website, called Dave’s Teen Bodybuilding (or something like that). The website has long been taken down, and it was one of those really early, bare-bones sites.
But it had the essentials. It gave exercise descriptions and pictures. It gave workout routines. It gave nutrition advice.
But most importantly, what this website gave me was the knowledge that I could CHANGE MY BODY! For a kid who hated the way he looked in the mirror, this was probably the greatest thing anyone could have told me.
I remember going for my first workout when I was 14 years old. I was on vacation with my family, and my Dad took me to the hotel gym.
One of the older guys in there noticed that my Dad and I…ummm, didn’t know what the hell we were doing, so he helped us out.
After that, I was hooked. My parents bought me some free weights and a bench press for the basement. I started working out religiously. I’d spend my free time scouring the internet for any new information that would help me.
I officially became…a gym rat.
Discovering fitness and lifting weights early on is something I’ll always be grateful for. And in retrospect, it’s probably one of the things that stopped me from becoming SERIOUSLY obese.
But it wasn’t until much, much later that I truly figured out what I was doing. I’ve had a LOT of ups and downs since starting on my fitness journey.
Hopefully by sharing this, people who are either going through this process themselves or are just starting can gain something from it, learn from my mistakes, and get the job done properly.
2000-2009 (14-23 years old): Spinning My Wheels
Like I said, I’m truly grateful for discovering fitness early on in life. But in a lot of ways, it sucked because of the era I grew up in.
If you’re a young guy (or girl) in your teens and early 20’s today discovering this stuff, I envy you. The information we have now is just SO MUCH BETTER. When I was a kid, the information we had was truly awful. Among the nonsense I got fed:
- Eat 6 small meals a day to “stoke your metabolism” (bullshit)
- Eat an extremely low fat diet, “if you don’t eat fat, you won’t gain fat” (total bullshit)
- Lift light weights for 15 plus reps to get that “toned” look (utterly laughable bullshit)
- Do slow, long cardio sessions to keep your body in the “fat burning zone” (such bullshit I actually cringe when I think about it)
- Eat absolutely, impeccably clean 6 days a week, and then have a big, hedonistic cheat day on Sundays (not really bullshit, just bad advice)
I’ll be doing future posts on just why this is all, well, bullshit (just in case any of you still believe it and it’s sabotaging your progress), but at the time this stuff was treated as gospel.
You’d think with all the time I spent in the gym and learning about nutrition I’d have looked pretty good during these 9 years, but the truth was I was actually fatter than when I was kid, and I seriously struggled to lose weight and build my physique.
The first issue was my workouts. I was always fairly diligent about actually going to the gym. Sometimes I would take time off, but on average, I was pretty good about actually showing up. I usually wouldn’t let more than a few weeks go by without working out.
The problem was intensity- or lack thereof.
I would do these long cardio sessions at a slow pace, followed by half-assed workouts using weights that were way too light for me.
The second issue was my diet, and my mentality towards it. As the years went on and I discovered more and more “fad diets”, I would jump on each of them with a vengeance. Atkins, raw-food vegan, fruitarian- I tried them ALL. Not only did I try them all, I was obsessed with doing them perfectly, with 100% adherence. I would accept nothing less from myself.
And at first, I would. But here’s the problem with incredibly restrictive diets…they suck.
So eventually I would always break down. Sometimes it took a few weeks. Sometimes I would only last a few days. But in the end, I’d always throw in the towel, go on a binge, and end up fatter than when I started.
The great irony is that for all the effort I put into eating a healthy diet, 90% of the food that actually went into my mouth was pure trash. Like I said, those restrictive diets only lasted a few weeks (at most). And in-between those sporadic weeks of discipline were months of sheer gluttony- McDonalds, Wendy’s, pounds of cookies and chocolate, microwave dinners.
It was an utter nightmare.
By the time I turned 23 in 2009, I was 5’6 and weighed in at just over 200 pounds.
To illustrate what that looks like, here’s a picture of me in Mexico in December 2008 (I keep this pic on my phone as a reminder of how far I’ve come):
2009-2011 (23-25 Years Old): Starting To Get The Hang Of It
By the summer of 2009, I was 23 and I’d finally hit a breaking point. I decided that something needed to change. I realized that everything I’d done up until that point hadn’t worked, and if I wanted things to change, I’d have to try something different.
The first change I made was to my workout. I started to realize that my current weight lifting routine (which mostly involved flailing around with a bunch of tiny weights for half an hour) wasn’t really producing the results I wanted.
The problem at the time was this- being 5’6, I was worried that if I lifted heavy weights, I’d end up looking “bulky”. Fortunately, around this time I started getting better information, and I realized that the only way I would “accidentally” get too big is with a huge dose of steroids. I started lifting free weights pyramid style (sets of weights that start light and get progressively heavier).
Right around this time, I also got into what would become a huge passion of mine- Muay Thai.
For those of you who’ve never tried it before, let me tell you this- Muay Thai is GOD DAMN HARD WORK. I had started the previous year, only attending classes sporadically. But it was during this summer that I truly committed to it- 3 days a week minimum.
Once I got over the pain of the first two weeks, I was hooked.
The second thing that changed (and the major factor that finally gave me some success) was my diet. I started to realize just how ridiculous all those fad diets I was attempting were, and I knew I’d have to adopt something more realistic if I wanted to make it stick.
In a word, my new eating plan…sensible. Here’s a sample of what I’d eat:
Breakfast: 2 Eggs, 1 Whole Wheat Bagel with Butter
Lunch: Lean Turkey Sandwich with Veggies on Whole Wheat Bread
Dinner: Steak, Baked Potato with Sour Cream, Asparagus
Dessert: Some Twizzlers and a Chocolate bar.
Like I said, a sensible, mostly healthy diet. Combined with the heavy weight training and Muay Thai, I started losing weight QUICKLY! I started at the beginning of July 2009, and by the middle of August, I’d lost 20 pounds, going from 205 pound to about 185 pounds.
But the most important thing is that this was a diet I could stick to. I wasn’t miserable. I wasn’t starving myself. I was enjoying my life. I could go out, eat and socialize with my friends, and still be able to lose weight.
Don’t get me wrong, it was hard work and required discipline. I couldn’t just eat whatever I wanted. But it was manageable.
Although I stumbled on this “sensible” approach by accident and recognized that it was the reason I was losing weight, it would take me a long time to TRULY internalize it. Over the next few years I would go through occasional phases of intense (and sometimes bizarre) diets when I really wanted to kick it into high gear and drop some more weight.
But for the most part, it would only last a few weeks, and I’d go right back to just eating responsibly.
Over the next year, I had a few little bumps in the road. Once I started school again, I got a part-time job working at a pizza restaurant (a nightmare if you’re trying to lose weight), but I only gained back about 5 pounds or so.
By the time summer rolled around, I was right back at it, and by the end of the year, I was 175 pounds.
2011-2012 (25-26 Years Old): Moving To Asia For The First Time
In March 2011, I packed my bags and moved half way across the world. I had just finished university and taken a teaching job in Seoul, South Korea.
It was a major change in my life. Not only was it my first time living abroad, it was my first time really travelling alone. It was also an amazingly positive experience, and as far as I’m concerned, one of the best decisions I ever made.
It was also, as it turned out, good for my waist line. Everyone wants to knows the “secret” to how people in Asia stay so slim. Like most things, there really is no secret. It’s a combination of factors.
During my time in Korea, I was walking EVERYWHERE. And because I was new to Seoul and wanted to explore, I did a fair amount of it.
When it came to food, one of the first things I noticed is that the portion sizes were way smaller (plus, the food I was eating was mostly Korean, which allowed me to fill up on vegetables).
Within about 3 months of arriving and adjusting to my new lifestyle, the fat melted off. By the summer, I got myself down to 165 pounds, a personal best for me.
Right around this time, my workouts also took a turn for the better and I discovered 5×5 training. I joined a gym in Seoul, and switched all my workouts to this new style of training, with plenty of heavy bench pressing, squats and chinups.
I looked pretty damn good. And the fact that I was young, single and living in the second biggest city in the world gave me plenty of motivation to stay that way.
2012-2013 (26-27 Years Old): Getting Fat- AGAIN!
In late 2012, I returned to Canada. I’d finished teaching in Korea and had just spent a month in Thailand living out a dream of mine- training Muay Thai in a Thai gym. Most of my family and friends were shocked to see how I lean (at least compared to how I used to look) I’d become during my time away.
Unfortunately, it didn’t last long.
I somehow got it in my head that, because I had lost the weight already, the work was over and I could go back to eating the way I used to eat.
This, by the way, is VERY common among people who lose a lot of weight. Because at the end of the day, everyone talks about losing weight. What no one ever talks about is KEEPING IT OFF. That’s the real battle, and, to quote the great Stephen Pressfield in his iconic book The War Of Art , “the battle must be fought anew everyday”.
Slowly but surely, the weight started creeping back on. The calories just started adding up.
Meeting old friends for dinner and drinks.
Living back with my parents (and having 24/7 access to a fully stocked refrigerator full of goodies).
But the last nail in the coffin came when I started working in a restaurant kitchen again.
I came back home in September. By the time Christmas rolled around and I stepped on the scale, I had ballooned back up, going from 165 pounds to 185 pounds- ALL OF IT FAT.
I can honestly say that this was one of the most demoralizing periods of my life. Not only had I gained back half the total weight I’d lost, but things were also not going well in other areas of my life.
Coming back to Canada was a serious wakeup call for me. I moved to Toronto with the plan of getting a job in the nonprofit sector…but it didn’t quite work out that way.
I had become incredibly complacent, and my own laziness and lack of initiative in pursuing my goals meant my life was not going anywhere, and I was stuck working a job I absolutely HATED.
To cap it all of, the weight I’d gained my first few months back home wouldn’t budge. I was so broke at that point I couldn’t even afford a gym membership. I even got desperate and started going back on extreme diets (with no success).
2013-2016 (27-30 Years Old): Moving To Japan
In August 2013, I once again left Canada. I realized how truly unhappy I’d become, both in terms of my life and my health. I packed my bags and moved, this time to Japan.
When I landed in Tokyo, I was a VERY chunky 185 pounds.
At this point, I knew the weight had to come off. There was no way I was going to let myself continue walking around that fat.
But I also knew that if I was going to do it, I had to be smart about it. I had to not only take the weight off and get lean, but I had to structure my life in such a way that I stayed lean.
I started paying very close attention to what I was putting in my mouth.
I started learning what worked for me and what didn’t.
I started eating food that struck a balance between healthy and delicious
Most importantly, I once and for all made the commitment that I’d never be tempted to go on an extreme diet purge EVER AGAIN.
The most important thing I learned during this time is that getting lean and staying that way is all about HABITS. And if there’s any piece of wisdom I could pass on to you, it would be that.
Not only did I take the weight loss slow, and I did it in phases. During the summer of 2013, I weighed 185 pounds. By the summer of 2014, I was 173 pounds.
By 2015, I was 165 pounds.
In August 2016, I left Japan after 3 years.
I weighed 155 pounds. 30 pounds lighter than when I arrived.
I didn’t lose that weight over night- it came off gradually.
Could I have lost it A LOT faster? Probably. But it was important to me to make sure that this time, it stayed off.
2016-Now (30 Years Old): What’s Matt Up To?
It’s now October 2016. I’m back in Korea, and I’m ready for yet another change.
I’m extremely proud of what I’ve accomplished so far. Going through this process has been one of the best things I’ve done for myself, and it’s given me a sense of determination, resilience and discipline that I never would have developed otherwise.
But it’s time to kick it up to another level. I’m currently 155 pounds, 16% body fat. My goal is to get down to that sweet spot- below 10%.
Those abs that I always wanted when I was a kid? Yeah, you bet your ass I’m getting those.
I’ll be taking it in small chunks. This past week I kicked off a 60 day challenge, with the goal of going from 16% to 12% body fat in the next 2 months (I’ve got about 10 pounds to lose).
Lucky for me, experience and wisdom mean that I have the tools to execute this properly.
I’m not starving myself.
I’m not on some bland-ass diet that I hate. I love my food, and you can have my fork when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.
I’m just eating less- and I’m keeping track of it.
10 pounds. 8 week. That’s a little more than a pound a week. Challenging? Yup. Doable? Most definitely.
Check out my first week of progress updates here.