For the first 25 years of my life, fitness was not a priority.
I was “husky” or, as some might say, “fat”. I was born that way and I was going to die that way and I didn’t see how that was going to change. In fact, I thought exercise for its own sake was something that irritating people did when they were already in great shape. I certainly hadn’t seen any evidence to the contrary. No, in my experience, people who were fat stayed fat. It was foretold by the Bible, as far as I knew.
Of course, that isn’t to say that I didn’t want to lose weight. I tried for years – restricting calories, signing up for Weight Watchers, joining my high school track team. Nothing worked. And I was physically active, always involved in a sport of some kind. I played basketball almost every day in college – and managed to get even heavier. Technically, I was obese.
But when I was 23, I started losing weight because I found something that worked: the now infamous Atkins diet. I liked it because it was relatively easy – all I had to do was avoid carbs and eat a lot of eggs and meat. But at some point, well before reaching my goal, I hit a plateau. No matter how strictly I stuck to the diet, I couldn’t lose any more weight.
So I started to exercise. A lot. And it worked. Not only did I keep losing weight, eventually getting down to about 80 kilograms, I could actually see some muscle definition. (Take it easy. I said “some” definition. Not Ryan Gosling in Crazy Stupid Love definition.)
Now, exercise and fitness is a part of my daily life, just like hugging my children or organising iTunes. I always make room for it. It makes me feel good and it prevents the obese monster inside of me from coming out and destroying the city. But losing all that weight (and, most importantly, keeping it off) and “becoming fit” hasn’t been easy.
Here’s what I learned that helped me along the way…
But first, let's discuss our terms. There are (I assume) a lot of people out there with super duper attitudes who want to achieve "fitness" because it’s important for everyday health and living a long life. I am not one of those people. I want to look good.
That’s right. Society has been pressuring me to look a certain way all of my life and I can’t fight it. It’s too big and strong! So I accept the standards of beauty as they are and aim for the ideal that gives us articles about de-bloating and salt soaking.
Is it healthy? God no. I’m a mess. But it does motivate me to exercise regularly and eat reasonably well, so maybe this societal pressure isn’t all bad. And as long as no one can see the fat kid crying inside of me, everything should be fine, right?
Anyway, where were we? Ah yes. Lessons!
The most important thing is consistency
On my FJ (Fitness Journey), I have gone through periods of working out for two or three hours at a time. And there have been stretches of time when I’ve only been able to manage 20 minutes. Regardless, I’ve always made time to exercise – running, biking, weight lifting, whatever. I never go too long without doing something. It keeps things under control and makes it easier to get back on the horse.
Of course, there have been times when I haven’t been able to exercise for a few days in a row and I’ll feel soft and bad and want to eat everything in arm’s reach, but I always manage to dig deep and pull myself out of that hole.
“Diets” will only get you so far
I love a gimmicky, easy diet. I might never have started my FJ without the help of Dr Atkins. But unless it’s a change you can make permanently, there will reach a point where it stops working. This is where I echo all those fitness experts who talk about lifestyle changes. These people may seem out of touch and like they wouldn’t know a tub of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream if it wrestled them to the ground, but they’re right about this…
If you want to lose weight and get fit in any kind of meaningful way, you need to change the way you live
Aside from those heady days of bunless burgers, butter and bacon, the most effective changes I’ve made have been permanent. In addition to exercising regularly, I am very aware of my calorie intake and I’m mostly “sugar free”. Of course, part of sustaining a lifestyle change is allowing for the occasional departure from the routine...
As far as losing weight is concerned, diet matters a lot more than exercise
This was hard to learn.
When I was at my most fit, I was working out two hours a day. So if I had a piece of chocolate or a cookie or a bacon egg and cheese bagel sandwich I was reasonably certain I could burn it off. And it was so rare that it didn’t matter or add up to much. But I was also eating the same thing every day, living a decidedly Spartan existence. (I was single, folks. VERY single.) Eating to live, not living to eat, etc.
But that eating to live not living to eat lifestyle became unsustainable as I started a family, so I had to learn how to balance a more variable diet with exercise.
Shoulders back; abs tight
This is just a good posture policy – and I’ve been told that flexing your abs all day is a kind of workout.
Hugh Jackman told me that if you only have 20 minutes to work out, use the rowing machine
Don’t make a big deal out of it, but I once interviewed Hugh Jackman when he was in Sydney to promote Les Miserables. He was still doing his Wolverine Workouts then – protein bombs in the middle of the night, intermittent fasting and crazy weight lifting.
But I wanted to know what someone whould do if he or she only had 20 minutes to work out. He said hit the row machine – it gives you a muscular and cardiovascular workout.
Then we sang together:
Hugh Jackman also told me that he desperately missed burgers and beer
I hate it when people dispense advice and tell people that they shouldn’t deprive themselves. If you want to get fit and look like society wants you to look, you absolutely MUST deprive yourself. You simply can’t defy the laws of thermonuclear dynamics and expect everything to fall into place.
There are some who say that depriving yourself of that burger and beer will mess with your cravings and could result in a binge or a more serious derailment of your goals. But in my experience, it’s MUCH better to train yourself to not eat this stuff ever so you don’t crave it. Cravings aren’t settled by satisfying them once in a while. That’s the best way for them to come back. You have to get rid of this stuff and make a habit out of not eating it.
All of that said, as discussed, if you’re careful and consistent with your exercise and diet, an occasional burger and beer are not going to completely derail you.
It actually helps to be obsessive
Whenever you want to make a change, certain people in your life will find it unsettling. Whether it’s trying to lose weight or learning how to tap dance or starting a pickle collection, things are going to be different. And some people can’t handle that. So you have to not care what people think. You’re doing this for yourself, not them (although other people usually appreciate it if you look better physically – they’re the ones that have to look at you all day).
You’re going to order different drinks when you go out. At a restaurant, you might ask a lot of really irritating questions and want things on the side. You might even prefer to meet up after dinner to avoid temptation.
I can’t tell you how many times I, when I was working out the most, opted to exercise instead of meet people for dinner. It was just more important to me to get my routine in than have the same boring conversation about whatever happened on The Practice that week. Look around you. No one remembers that show now. No one.
So even though, to a lot of people, it might seem weird to choose the gym over friendship, you are trying to change your life. That is not easy. And if you have to be a little weirdly obsessive about things, go for it and know that Jesus loves you. Probably.
The last 5kgs are the hardest...
And the least necessary because whatever’s demanding you lose more weight probably doesn’t want you to be happy.
To keep going, you need to see results – and to see results you need to keep going
The best motivator for me has always been results. Whether it’s running an hour every day, going sugar free or avoiding Gerard Butler movies, if something works, I stick with it. It’s also important to do some research, but you’re going to have to try lots of different things to figure out what works for you – and it could take a while
All fitness magazines and websites peddle the same advice and feature the same photos of ripped, attractive people planking
I went through a period of subscribing to Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness and Men’s Unattainable Beauty Standards and it felt like I was reading the same thing over and over again. There were unlimited tips – lift weights with your eyes closed, don’t neglect leg day, the “Popeye Workout” overemphasises the forearms, don’t eat anything you didn’t kill, etc – and it got way too hard to implement all of them, so I gave up.
I do however recommend reading Arnold Schwarzenegger’s The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding for weight lifting ideas. And you should absolutely watch the bodybuilding documentary Pumping Iron, which is hilarious.
I don’t know about all these supplements
I’ve tried a few different supplements over the years and I haven’t seen any real results. Many years ago, I tried taking “fat burners” for a while that enabled me to run on a treadmill for hours at a time, but they also gave me a rapid heartbeat that prevented me from being able to sleep. And that seemed, well, bad.
They also became illegal!
Again, not good.
If you can afford it, a trainer is absolutely worth it – as long as they give you a plan to stick to when you’re not training with them
For motivation, it’s supposedly better to work out with an acquaintance, but I have only ever found it weird and uncomfortable to have someone I know standing there howling “one more!” while I try to hoist up a barbell that’s too heavy for me.
But a trainer should show you how to exercise properly and give you a diet plan you can stick to. And he or she should also be able to motivate and encourage you achieve your goals.
Here's a conversation I had with a trainer once after I casually mentioned wishing I looked like Hugh Jackman:
TRAINER: Do you?
ME: Do I what?
TRAINER: Want to look like Hugh Jackman.
ME: What do you mean?
TRAINER: You just said you wanted to look like Hugh Jackman. You can if you want to.
ME: (panicked) I don't. I'm sorry.
I got pretty uncomfortable but I suppose he was right. I could look like that if I wanted to. We all could. But was I willing to live that kind of life and make fitness my job? Are you? It’s Hugh’s job to look like that. And if I needed to look like a superhero in a movie, I’d probably wake up in the middle of the night and eat a baked chicken too. I just want to feel better about myself.
Whether I’m on a treadmill or a stationary bike, I need to be able to read or my thoughts turn dark
If I’m not properly distracted while doing cardio, all I can think about is how much I hate cardio and the world that makes me do cardio instead of learning a language or expanding my knowledge of geopolitics. Eventually, I’ll start thinking about setting old scores or how much I resent the Harry Potter franchise and people who say “because the Internet”.
Like I said, dark.
Instead, I catch up on some light reading!
Of all the weight loss "tests", the clothes test is the most reliable and satisfying
Aside from the birth of my children (maybe), the best feeling I’ve had in life is discovering that my pants are suddenly too big for me. The mirror and scale tests are too incremental to notice when a big change has happened, but somehow the pants test seems to happen like a wonderful surprise. And then you have to think about the new clothes you have to buy, which is a great problem to have.
When you hit a plateau, you need to change something
Exercise differently – lift heavier weights or do more reps or more cardio – and switch something up in your diet. Look for problem areas – maybe that tear-soaked triple chocolate brownie you allow yourself to have while watching Love Island needs to go.
If you sit all day at work, try to stay active somehow
Haha just kidding – I hate this kind of advice. What are you supposed to do? Run laps around the IT department?
Unfortunately, you’re going to have learn to love yourself no matter what
I know. It doesn’t seem practical, or even desirable. But if any of this is going to work, you have to be okay with whatever fitness level you’re at – enough that the self-hate doesn’t do any serious damage – but not so much that you’re not motivated to improve.
The reality is that you’re probably fine. There’s nothing wrong with trying to do better, but it’s not a big deal if you can’t.
Seriously no one cares.
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Watch How to Get Fit Fast on Monday, 13 August at 8:30pm on SBS. The first two episodes are streaming now at SBS On Demand: