Genuine Curiosity

Author Dwayne Melancon is always on the lookout for new things to learn. An ecclectic collection of postings on personal productivity, travel, good books, gadgets, leadership & management, and many other things.

 

How to lose 50 pounds in 6 months

As I mentioned in my previous post, I've lost over 50 pounds since last July and have learned some things along the way.  I thought I'd share some of my experience here, in the hopes that others might benefit.  By the way - I know this ended up being a bit long, but hopefully it's broken up enough to make it usable.

First, I started this journey due to a "wake up call" from my Doctor at my last physical.  Getting older, plus a lot of travel, plus some bad habits (no exercise, poor discipline when it comes to eating, etc.) had all stacked up and the odds were no longer in my favor.  Here is what I did.

Goals

Working with my doctor, I set a target weight based on my height, age, etc.  To get to my target, the basic math never changes:  you need to consume fewer calories than you burn.  I didn't want to try some "quick fix" fad diet, so I tried to approach this in a way that I could maintain over the long haul.

With the weight target in hand, I determined the number of calories needed to maintain that target weight, using an online calorie calculator.

From there, I set several goals to support my journey:

  • exercise at least 3 times per week.
  • consume calories at or below my daily target to maintain my goal weight
  • lose at least a pound a week until I reach "steady state" at this new calorie level
  • reduce my sodium intake (blood pressure was one of the concerns that came up in my physical exam)

Instrumentation

As you may gather from this blog, I'm a fan of gadgets. So, naturally, I looked for gadgets that would help me track my progress.  I used several tools for this:

  • A fitness tracking band to track my exercise.  I chose a Fitbit Force which has since been discontinued, but I am also a fan of the Fitbit Flex and Jawbone Up24 from past experience.  By the way, the brand isn't critical - pick one you like that has the features you need - for less stress, look for good battery life
  • A Withings WiFi-enabled digital scale with body composition sensors.  This scale is accurate, automatically updates my phone (the Withings App) with my weight, body fat percentage, pulse, etc. so I can track progress over time.
  • A Withings blood pressure cuff that connects to my iPhone and records blood pressure readings.  This takes your blood pressure readings automatically, and syncs them with the same Withings App that the scale uses
  • MyFitnessPal which is a great app to track what you eat, as well as to track exercise.  This also syncs automatically with my Fitbit and my WIthings scale, which is pretty cool - you can optionally allow it to subtract the calories you burn, for example, so you can eat more if you exercise more.
  • A digital food scale - this is crucial for recording your portion sizes for accuracy
  • I later added a Polar Heart Rate Sensor once I switched form walking to running.  I use their app (Polar Beat) to track distance, pace, calories burned, etc.  I like this app as it gives me audio feedback as run, such as my distance (it uses the phone GPS to track distance), pace, average hear rate, and it tracks distance and calorie records.  You can even "replay" your run on a map view, showing your pace and heart rate at different points along the run.

Of course, you don't need all of these gadgets, but I find they helped keep me motivated.  I believe the "must have" items are MyFitnessPal, the food scale, and some kind of digital scale to weigh yourself.

Habits

Since I'd developed bad habits in the past, I needed to develop new habits to be successful.  The ones I targeted were:

  • walk at least 10,000 steps per day (tracked by the Fitbit)
  • diligently track my food consumption with MyFitnessPal (there is a web site as well as a collection of mobile apps for most platforms)
  • exercise deliberately (i.e. beyond just "incidental" walking during the day) including while traveling
  • once I added running to my routine (more on that below) I set a goal to run at least 3 days per week for at least 30 minutes each session

Diet

At home, I began weighing my portions so I could log them.  MyFitnessPal makes that easier because of its huge database of foods, and its ability (if you're using the smartphone app) to scan a barcode and auto-populate the nutrition and portion information.  After a while, this habit of weighing your portions also helps you guesstimate portions in restaurants to keep you from going way overboard.

I found that measuring and logging my food had another effect: I started thinking about the tradeoffs I wanted to make.  For example, when I realized how many calories I was consuming with my nightly glasses of wine, I knew I either had to "reserve" space in my calorie budget to be able to have my wine or just skip it that day.  The same thing for desserts - I could have that piece of cake, but I needed to not eat something else to make the budget work.  That took a while to get used to, but it's been a good change.

One piece of advice that has really helped:  my doctor told me that if I "blew" a day by eating too much, not to try to make up for it by under-eating the next day.  Instead, he advised me to start fresh the next day and stick to my calorie target.  He explained that we're dealing with averages and that if I'm able to stay at or below my target most 90% of the time, I'll be able to sustain a good level of fitness.

Exercise

Easy does it

From an exercise perspective, I started out with walking.  I'd walk for an hour a day after dinner at a pretty good pace - about 4 miles per hour.  Over time, I began to mix in more hills and occasionally walk for two hours when I could afford the time.  To make the time go by more quickly, I listened to podcasts and audiobooks (I listened to Atlas Shrugged during my evening walks, for example - it is NOT a short book).  I also did a couple of weight workouts per week at my local gym - nothing too extreme, but enough to build strength and balance out the lower-body work from the walks.

Pick up the pace

After a few months, a few things changed - first, the walks got to be a bit monotonous; second, the weather got to be unfriendly; and third my travel picked up which made it harder to find time for the walks.  I started looking for more time-efficient ways to get my workout in, so I began to do more intense (faster) walks in the gym on the elliptical trainers because they worked my arms & legs at the same time.  This worked well, but also got to be a bit monotonous and some hotel gyms didn't have the elliptical trainers. 

Full speed ahead

For my next phase of changes (roughly a month ago), I decided to add running into the mix.  At first, it was challenging since there is a big difference between walking fast and running (in endurance, impact on my knees & hips, etc.)  However, with all the walking I'd done, it wasn't as bad as I feared.  I did some running outside when the weather was good enough, or in the gym on a treadmill when it wasn't - and pretty much every hotel gym has a treadmill.  I've been gradually increasing my distances and my pace to keep things challenging, and the addition of a heart rate strap has been a big help there.

Planning

Along the way, I found that planning ahead was crucial to my success.  Rather than eating what happened to be available, I began planning ahead to try to aid in making good choices.  The same was true of exercise - if I didn't plan ahead, it didn't happen.  For example:

Food Planning

  • General
    • When I'm not traveling, I tend to plan my meals more so I have more control over what I eat rather than being tempted to snack on the first thing at hand or eat something just because "it's there" - this means having a plan before you go shopping, and knowing what your options are when it comes time to prepare meals.
    • When I don't have a lunch appointment, I make and bring my own lunch - again, planning ahead so I don't make less healthy or "off plan" choices
  • Travel
    • I now travel with a stash of Kind bars in my bag (good ingredients, low sodium, and a balanced nutritional profile) in case I find that I need a quick snack on the run.  Starbucks used to carry these, but they have since replaced them with a different brand that also has good nutritional composition, albeit with fewer flavor choices (I like the Almond Cocoa flavor a lot).
    • Grab a durable fruit (like an apple or an orang) and tuck it in your carry-on bag so you have a ready snack.  
      • Carrying napkins and some empty plastic bags can help for cleanup and disposal of the core, peel, seeds, etc
  • Restaurants
    • I do some quick research ahead of time to find out what's on the menu, narrow down my choices ahead of time, and and to determine low-sodium options
      • MyFitnessPal is a big help here - it has calorie nutritional information from a lot of restaurants so you can compare choices
      • I've also noticed that more restaurants provide nutritional information on their menus or web sites, and some even include "meal builder" capabilities so you can customize your choice and see the impact of the changes in real-time

Exercise Planning

  • Schedule workouts, walks, etc. and keep the appointments (it helps to pretend you are meeting with a customer or something so you don't break the appointment)
  • Leave (or plan) time in your travel for workouts
    • for example, I sometimes take advantage of "time zone math" to get a workout in late at night on the east coast, or early in the morning on the west coast
  • Find a good place to run or walk near your office and combine a short walk with a quick lunch a couple of times a week
  • Choose "exercise friendly" hotels.  Hotels have gotten a lot better at telling you what their fitness amenities are on their web sites, which makes this easier all the time.  By the way, through this process I have grown even more for fond of Starwood hotels:
    • Some Starwood hotels (Westin, Sheraton) allow you to rent workout gear for $5 a day - including shoes.  That is hugely convenient when you don't have a lot of room in your suitcase.  Other Starwoods (Le Meridién) will even wash your workout clothes for you overnight, free of charge.
    • Starwood hotels also offer running maps of the local area with short and long running routes.
    • Their Westin brands have begun offering "Westin Workout" rooms, which allow you to reserve a room (in some locations, not all) with a treadmill or an exercise bike right in your room.  I posted a video tour of one of those rooms last year.
    • Most Starwoods offer free apples as a good, healthy snack either at the front desk, in the fitness center, or both.

Results, not just activity

I'm happy to say that this approach (while it may seem overwhelming when you read through it) has worked for me, and hasn't been as difficult as I'd feared.  I have made consistent progress:

Progress graph from the Withings app, showing measurements from my WiFi scale.

Progress graph from the Withings app, showing measurements from my WiFi scale.

  • I've lost over 50 pounds
  • I've lowered my blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels dramatically
  • I've trimmed down (warning, if this goes well, you'll spend quite a bit for a new wardrobe during the first 6 months)
  • I have much better energy and overall fitness

I'm still making progress, and now that I've added more strength exercise into my routine, my weight is holding more steady.  I am now in a "maintain" mode, which I feel I can sustain.

I know there is a lot wrapped up in all of this, and I've probably left some things out.  If you're looking to get into better shape, I hope my experience can help you make great progress.  If you have any questions, drop me a line via email (see my About page) or in the comments below.

Great Ways to Use Downtime for Improving Memory

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Remember what life was like before you had kids? Maybe it's a little fuzzy, but before the sleep-deprived juggling act that is parenting, you probably didn't forget things like where you parked your car, who that person was that you just ran into at the store, or that you also know her sister.  The good news is you can boost your memory by working out your brain in your down time.

Get Enough Sleep

Before you freak out at the impossibility of this suggestion, remember how important sleep can be. Harvard Medical School reports that "consolidated sleep throughout a whole night is optimal for learning and memory." Not everyone needs the same amount of sleep, but you'll know if you are sleep deprived. If you are, start making an effort to carve out more time to sleep through the night.

I use a fitness tracking wristband that also tracks sleep to keep tabs on how long I've slept and how well.  My kids are older now, but I still have the challenges of jet lag to deal with and sleep tracking can help me make sure I don't go too far with burning the candle at both ends.

Play Games

Simple games are a great way to exercise your memory skills. Try a hidden object game, like this free jewel quest game. You'll have some fun and you don't have to feel guilty about it! If you're away from your computer, smartphone or tablet, substitute a book of crossword puzzles or sudoko to fill the time and exercise your synapses.  I know a lot of people who swear by these puzzles as a way to keep their mind and memories sharp.

Stay Healthy

A sedentary lifestyle is bad news in many ways. By increasing physical activity and reducing time spent sitting you can improve your brain function. In his book "Saving Your Brain," Dr. Jeff Victoroff tells readers to do everything they can to improve (or maintain) blood flow to the brain. That includes the physical exertion needed to stay in good shape as well as keeping your arteries open by watching your cholesterol, blood pressure and more. For you, that might mean walking, rather than sitting, during a soccer practice or even parking farther away when you go shopping.

This is an area that bit me during the last year or so.  I didn't pay enough attention to my physical health and ended up with not-so-favorable results at my last physical exam.  I got a strict set of mandates from my doctor, have been following his advice for the last 6 months, and am in much better shape now - and feeling much better.  Don't overlook the value of exercise, even if it is just a walk around your neighborhood every day.

Practice Remembering Things

Memory isn't a magical function that either happens or doesn't happen. The simplest (but often the most difficult) way to remember something is to really focus on it. By removing distractions like your iPhone, and the television in the background, you'll significantly increase the probability that you'll transfer it from short term memory to long term memory and therefore remember it.

Beyond simply focusing on something you want to remember, there are lots of methods that can help you remember a wide variety of information. Mental mapping, the peg system and memorization are all tried and true methods. You can't necessarily learn a system in your spare time, but if you choose one and begin using it, you can practice it in your spare time. Lifehacker has a great explanation of three popular techniques here.

Whatever you choose, stick with it! Eventually you'll know the teacher's name without peeking at your smartphone during your next parent-teacher conference. Who knows, you might even become a World Memory Champion (yes, there is such a thing). Good luck and remember to practice!

Working out while traveling just got a bit easier

After quite a while of being a slacker, I have decided to pay a lot more attention to my diet and exercise regimen.  A big part of that is designed to help me follow much better habits while on the road.

One part of this change is to do some sort of workout or physical exercise every day.  It's been going well, but workouts on the road can be a challenge when it's hard to create a convenient time window to get to the hotel fitness center.

Bring the gym to you

Last week, I was in Dallas and decided to try out one of the Westin Hotel chain's "WestinWorkout" rooms in which you can reserve a room with fitness equipment in it.  I really like this concept - it allows me to get a workout in when I want to, under much more relaxed circumstances.  Here is a quick tour of the room I stayed in:

 

In the video, I mention I was expecting a treadmill (the bike worked fine, but I still like treadmills better).  Good news:  you can now specify whether you want a cycle or a treadmill, at least in some hotels - I had that choice when I booked at the Westin in Seattle a few days ago.

I hope this trend takes off and spreads to other hotels.  I'm a "Starwood guy" so the fact that Westin is a Starwood property makes me hopeful that other Starwood brands will follow suit. 

The Easiest Way To Improve Your Presentation Skills

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In my line of work, I end up doing a lot of presentations.  I've also studied a lot of information on how to become a better presenter.  A long time ago, I took a class from Distinction Communication, a company that helps people develop more effective presentations (and presentation skills).  Since then, I've taken "refresher" courses from the same folks.  You can find a lot of free, helpful presentation tips and videos on the Distinction site, by the way.

Seeing what you don't see

One of the most effective techniques I learned was to videotape yourself presenting so you can see how you appear in front of an audience.

I must say, the feeling is both discomforting and extremely powerful.  Not only do you get to hear how clearly (or unclearly) you communicate, you also get to see the nervous habits you don't notice from inside your own body.

For example, you may notice you use a lot of filler words, like "Um" or "Uh."  You may find that you rock back & forth a lot, or don't make eye contact with your audience.  You may also find that you make strange gestures that distract from your content.

All of these sorts of things are normal but very hard to notice when you're actively presenting.

DIY presentation skills improvement

For a long time, the only time I ever had my presentations recorded was during these training / coaching sessions.  Last year, I realized I could do this kind of "presentation audit" myself pretty easily using tools that were readily available to me.

If you want to record your presentation, you can easily do it using your smartphone, tablet (iPad, Nexus 7, etc.), or the webcam on your computer.  Lately, I've been practicing my presentations the night before in my hotel room and using my recorded session to identify problems with my presentation.  I find it very helpful.

The key is to be in full "show mode" -- from a personal perspective, not just a PowerPoint perspective.  In other words, pretend you have a full audience and present as though it were the real deal, as this will provide the most useful data from which to improve your skills.

It's also kind of fun to keep some of these presentation audits so you can look back and see how your skills are evolving.