Three years ago Brenda Stevens of Portland, Oregon went from 210 pounds to 160 pounds in one year--doing all the right things.
On February 20th, after I had written, "Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Losing Weight, Exercise, Stress, and Cardiovascular Risk from an Expert, Dr. Sharon Alger-Mayer. The Best Diet, How Much Exercise, the Hormone Stress Connection, the Best Phytonutrients, and the Healthiest Carbs", I got an inspirational email from a reader in Portland, Oregon.
Brenda Stevens wrote: "The February 20th blog post is really important. I am 53 years old, 5'9" and went from 210 pounds three years ago to 160 in one year, by doing all the things in this post. Changing one's attitude and thinking about how you spend your time is critical."
I wrote back: "Your story is inspirational. So...what do you think was the biggest factor in your weight loss?"
After I read Brenda's common sense story of diet, exercise, and weight-training I asked her if she would be willing to share some of what she has learned over the past three years with all of us.
Brenda is like so many of us--lots of work and family responsibilities--with too little time to do it all--let alone find the time to exercise and prepare healthy meals. But she finally figured out a way to do it--and as they say, "A picture is worth a thousand words."
“Well, you are over fifty now,” said the doctor in response to my question about my little infirmities – the stiffness and pain in the morning, the inability to get out of a booth or a car without help, the difficulty in sleeping, the inexorable upward creep of my blood pressure.
“This is all just a part of the aging process.”
That was me two years ago. Fifty one years old. Aware that I was overweight (a size 20 qualifies, doesn’t it?) but not looking in the mirror much.
Exercise meant a hard slog in the dark and rain in a heavy coat and then feeling exhausted for days or maybe a tweaked knee that made it even harder to get up the front stairs.
Dieting meant no fat, or crunchy tasteless microwaved frozen broccoli – these doomed Herculean attempts never lasted long! I made small permanent changes, drinking only non-fat milk and air-popped popcorn.
Did these changes even slow the rate of my weight gain? Hard to say.
I’d started out my twenties at 125 pounds, walking everywhere in an Eastern college town. But then I moved back to Oregon and got a car and a job, and began the standard American life of driving to work, sitting all day, a doughnut mid-morning, fast food at lunch, driving home into the garage and sitting all evening.
By the time I was fifty, I weighed 210, parked in the closest possible parking spaces and sat on a stool to teach because standing for too long made me dizzy. I was depressed. I felt ugly. I felt hopeless. And after that visit to the doctor, I felt old.
But on second thought, I realized that the way I felt was NOT due to aging. I knew active, healthy people who were over fifty! All I had to do was look in the mirror to know what was wrong. And then figure out how to change it.
"The day I decided this wasn’t a do-it-yourself project was an important day for me. I found a trainer who had years of experience working with middle-aged people and a nutrition degree, and started in."
The Road to a New Me
The road to a “new me” turned out to be a five-fold process, and it took me two years – one to make the changes, and one to learn how to maintain them. These are the five points of change that I put into place, pretty much all at once:
1. My attitude. This was the first and most crucial transformation. I had to change the way I felt about myself and how much time and attention I was worth.
2. How I fed myself. I learned that I had been routinely eating so many calories that even if I cut down, I would still gain weight. Different eating habits were necessary to lose fat, but not cause me to go into starvation mode.
3. The amount of physical activity I engaged in every day. Building up to 11,000 steps was an important part of this.
4. I had to get my heart rate into my training range for 20 to 30 minutes or more at a time, for a total of at least an hour a week. (This is also known as “high-intensity,” “cardio,” or “aerobic” exercise and it is on top of, and different from, those 11,000 steps. And now I’m building up toward two hours per week.)
5. Building muscle tissue – important to have the stamina for all that exercise, and it sped up my metabolism so I had a fighting chance of maintaining my new weight and fitness level once I attained it.
Because I was so unfit, I needed to start at a low intensity of exercise.
I did the muscle training, I did the cardio, just with lower weights and at a lower level than I do now.
Having a trainer who was used to working with middle-aged, overweight women was really important!
And I didn’t start with 11,000 steps a day. I started by wearing the pedometer and seeing how many steps I was taking every day. Less than 1,000! Oops. My first goal was to double that. By the time I’d been at it a couple of months, I was logging 10,000 steps a day. After a few months, I had worked up to the basic routine that I’ve stuck with now for two years.
1. The Gym Routine: I go to the gym three times a week--in the morning, so I'm sure I do it--and do a classic weights routine.
- I warm up for five minutes or so on the elliptical to save my bad knees.
- Then do a series of exercises designed to build and maintain muscle in the upper and lower body and core.
- I do three dropped sets per muscle group, with two minutes of elliptical in between.
- By the time I get to the cardio part of my session, my heart rate has been in my training range for half an hour. I know this because I have my trusty heart rate monitor on!
- Then I'm on the elliptical or the treadmill, in the higher end of my heart training range, for twenty or thirty minutes.
3. My After the Work-Out Routine: I drink about 50 calories of apple juice or have a little chocolate toffee after working out – a bit of simple sugars to replace glycogen stores. I don’t do drink sports drinks. It’s too easy to replace all the calories I just burned off! I do drink a lot of water and make sure I stretch afterward, especially the calves, quads, the front of my legs and the hip flexors -- boy can they get sore if you walk a lot and don't stretch them!
4. A Rest Day is Non-Negotiable: I take one day off per week. That's my recovery day. Not even active recovery -- I've done a lot of reading about the necessity of rest and recovery to the system. I'm off my feet that day. Well, that's the goal anyway. It's hard to not walk around now! Walking is my recreational activity of choice!
5. Hour-Long Walks: I take an hour-long brisk walk three times a week. My walking buddy and I meet early in the morning on Tuesdays and Thursdays and burn up four miles. My family likes to get outdoors, so we might go hiking, row on the nearby river, or go for a bike hike on the weekend.
6. Getting My Daily 11,000 Steps In Every Day: For daily activity, I always put my pedometer on when I get dressed and I make sure that I get those 11,000 steps in every day. After the morning walk or work out, I probably have about 5,000 under my belt, and then I supplement with a lunchtime walk and a walk after dinner.
I don’t use labor saving devices – my can opener is a hand crank. I would get up to change the channels manually except that watching TV went out the window somewhere in this whole process!
The food thing was hard.
My trainer tested my body composition and I learned that not only was 50% of me made up of fat tissue, my lean body mass would only burn 1800 calories a day.
To lose fat, therefore, I needed to take in no more than 1350 and 1750 calories a day.
This seemed completely unrealistic until I discovered the magic of:
- Logging my calories
- Planning what I would eat in advance
- Eating every three hours or so
- Eating the right things.
Eating the right things turned out to be critical.
It’s easy to ingest 1800 calories in one sitting if you’re eating fast food.
I learned about lean meat subs with no mayo or oil--and adding extra vegetables.
I learned that broth-based soups are my friend and that I really do like plain Greek yogurt with fruit and that eating that handful of nuts or bag of chips blows the whole budget for the day.
I learned how to cook vegetables and make salads that were delicious--NOT chewy microwaved broccoli--and that air-popped popcorn and herb tea is a fine evening snack.
And I learned that this wasn’t going to be a temporary fix. This is a new way of "eating for life". And that’s SO true!
The New Me
Two years later, I bumped into Mary at the grocery store.
We had taught in the same school for years, but I hadn’t seen her in awhile.
“Mary!” She looked right through me.
“Mary, hi! Salem! First grade!” Now she looked scared.
“Brenda! Third grade!” She’s backing away. All of a sudden the light dawned.
“Oh my gosh!” She almost shouted. “YOU’RE Brenda!” She stopped and looked me up and down. “What happened? You look so young!"
“I didn’t even recognize you!"
What a difference two years can make.
My life has changed profoundly. Not only am I happy and healthy, but I’m confident that these are permanent changes in my attitude and lifestyle.
When you are happy and healthy, you tend to attract and be attracted by healthy activities and people.
Yes, it takes time and attention, but once you make the commitment to these changes and take the actions necessary to bring the change about, your life will open up in many unexpected ways.
This change is probably one of my proudest accomplishments. I really believe that if I could do this, anybody can!
Brenda Stevens lives and works in Portland, Oregon. She is presently writing a book with her trainer, James Dubberly, on how to transform your life through exercise and nutrition. You can find more of Brenda’s writing on her essay blog: Tearing Up the Pea Patch .