Renewed Determination

The five months since my last post have been full, interesting and educational—and some of it depressing. You may have noticed that I dropped off the radar, blog wise. Actually, I’ve had many things going on and several reasons for not posting on this site. Well, I’m back. I have a specific reason for coming back. One thing important is that I’ve learned much about maintaining weight and the difficulties of going from unhealthy to healthy.

In April, I dropped off of program. It wasn’t intentional. My first plan was to lose the weight, which I did pretty well through Medifast. I lost the weight quickly and learned a great deal about myself. Then I switched, in the fall, to lifting weights to build muscle mass—to continue the weight loss from the other direction, gaining muscle to increase fitness and metabolism.

My job changed in ways that made it difficult to get to the gym regularly. This was more of an excuse. Had I truly wanted to make it, I could have. Of course, there were two reasons for not wanting to make it to the gym. One was an issue with my testosterone level (which I’ll address further down page) and the other was arm pain—not only when lifting, but constantly. Having spent several years in the military, my instinct was to just work through it. This had worked in many other situations. But, no matter what I did the arm only deteriorated.

So, I thought if I laid off a few weeks my arm would get better and I could just go back to it. Instead, I discovered that it didn’t get any better—it continued to get worse. During this time I lost the habit of going to the gym. A good habit must be reinforced just as strongly as a bad habit must be resisted. If you don’t go, you develop the habit of not going.

In June, I received confirmation of what I suspected. I had a torn rotator cuff. I had learned a lesson too late. That lesson was to always always always (perhaps I should say ‘always’ a few more times) lift with proper form. If you’re not going to take the time to learn and use proper form, then don’t lift! On June 23rd, I had corrective surgery to fix the rotator cuff and remove a bone spur from my shoulder. I have been in recovery since hen—I suppose physical therapy is a form of gym, right? It really stinks going from lifting weights in the quest to build muscle to working with pulleys and bands trying to regain the ability to raise my arm above my waist. If you haven’t had rotator cuff surgery, please take it off your bucket list. I assure you it isn’t fun.

During the first few months, even without the gym, I maintained my weight with little effort. Some habits were easy. I still avoid most sugars. I try to limit carbs on most days, but allow myself splurge days. I also avoided those foods which are simply not good for maintaining health (notice the past tense in that sentence). This will bring up another lesson learned, later.

I kept telling myself I was going to go back on program later and I’d go back to the gym as soon as my arm was good enough. This morning (Sunday, Sept 6, 2015), because of how my shirt no longer fit, I said to my wife, “That’s it! I’m back on program right this minute!” I went in and ordered more supplies and notified my coach. Fortunately, I have enough Medifast supplies stored to tide me over until the new shipment comes.

The issue of my testosterone was less of a lesson and more of a discovery. Early in the year my endocrinologist tried lowering my testosterone lower than ever. I was doing well, with lots of energy and motivation. This all changed with the new dosage. It took me several weeks to put the lower dose and my newly acquired lack of energy and motivation together. Then it was a couple months until my next round of tests. A couple weeks ago my doctor found that my low levels matched my symptoms and raised my dosage back up to the higher level. We did an MRI to see if there was a pituitary tumor causing problems. This showed my pituitary gland is fine. The doctor and I agree that the problem is that I still have too much body fat (more on this and testosterone in a later post). I should have continued with the Medifast to continue reducing fat and waited to start weight training. Lessoned learned.

Now with my T levels adjusted and my renewed intent, it’s time to get going back on the path of healthy choices. An important part of this will be this blog. The blog gave me accountability. When facing decisions, it helps to consider what I’ll report in this blog—good news, bad news, success or failure.

If you have dropped off your program of health, get back on program. Don’t let anything keep you from it. “When it comes to health, tomorrow never comes and later is a lie.”

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Depletion of Will Power

A great deal of my reading, both professionally and personally is in the area of ethics. Ethics is often described as “The study of ‘How should I live?’” It delves into issues of honesty, propriety, temptation, etc. It is fun when this interest sheds light on my own struggles with weight and food temptation. Don’t be surprised, because if it is unhealthy and harmful to eat to excess, then isn’t doing so unethical? If I should eat in moderation, then eating immoderately is to behave unethically.

One book I’ve been reading is Dan Ariely’s “The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty: Why we lie to everyone—especially ourselves.” It’s a fascinating look at honesty and the things that trip up our efforts to live as we believe we should. In a chapter I read this morning, Dan discusses Cognitive Depletion and its effect on temptation. It can be quite enlightening for those of us struggling with dietary temptations.

Just as a muscle can be worn out through use, our will power can be worn out through activity. We live stressful, tempting lives. All through our day we face temptations and make decisions. We exercise our will to overcome these temptations. Funny thing is we do this with all sorts of activities, not just our diet. We face decisions at work. Often there is a temptation to cut corners and we have to will ourselves to resist. We might face decisions on the road home and have to resist the temptation to react to other drivers. With each use of our will power ‘muscle’ it becomes depleted and by the end of the day we may find ourselves without the strength to overcome the next temptation. Often this “bridge too far” temptation is dietary. We know we shouldn’t have it. We know we will do better without it. We know we are healthier without it. However, we quickly find ourselves giving in to temptation and eating what we should not.

How can we overcome this? There are a couple ways. If you can manage your day to have the most stressful events in the morning or right after breaks when you are refreshed, this might help. But let’s be honest, if stress could so easily be managed we wouldn’t really be stressed, now would we? A better way is to be aware of what is going on. Be aware that after stressful times temptations take on new dimensions and what was once easy to overcome becomes harder. Prepare for this beforehand. For example, you can empty the tempting foods out of your house. Remove the sweets, the chocolates and the ice cream. Don’t keep them around to tempt. Perhaps you should remove the Pizza place’s magnet from your refrigerator door so you don’t get tempted to just dial up a large with everything—including double guilt. Keep a selection of healthy options quickly available so the choice is made beforehand. If you find it difficult to pass by a certain restaurant then on stressful days you may need to drive home a different way.

One of the best defenses is being able to recognize a problem coming on. Highly stressful days with lots of choices can deplete your ability to make good decisions. Be prepared. The good thing, also like a muscle, as you overcome temptations and get used to eating healthy it can become easier to make those good choices over time. However, it is unlikely you will ever be beyond the siren call of certain foods and free of any and every temptation. So make a plan and keep an eye out on those really stressful days.

This week’s weigh-in and thoughts

IMG_20140718_133538This week’s official weight is 296 lbs. The last time I was less than 300 lbs. was in 2004. I am now 53% to my goal having lost 88 lbs. on my current program. From my lifetime highest I have lost 129 lbs. total. This number (approximately 130 pounds) has got me to thinking about one of the major problems that comes with being so overweight. I used to hear people often say that all one had to do to lose weight was to eat less and get up and exercise. This is easier said than done.

I was carrying an extra 130 pounds around in fat. Think about what else in this world weighs that much. My wife weighs around 120 lbs. or so. Imagine her carrying a 10 pound weight and me carrying her everywhere I go, every moment of every day. Bricks weigh somewhere around 4 lbs. each. That means I was carrying the equivalent of 32 bricks everywhere I went. Sit in a chair and place 32 bricks in your lap (the general area where most weight is carried) and try to stand up. This should make it obvious that telling a fat person, “Just get up and do something” is either insensitive or cruel. It shows a serious lack of understanding (or caring about) their situation. It is easy for the skinny person to say this, because he has much less to lift.

Now imagine this weight being placed on you whether you want to carry it or not. You can’t escape it. Dropping a brick each week, might look attractive when you only have four or five bricks to carry, but when carrying 35 this looks like it will take forever. It is like looking into a tunnel that is too deep to see the light at the other end. This makes the overweight person depressed. What do people want when depressed? They want comfort. What is the overweight person usually drawn to for comfort? He wants food. It is often the attempt to assuage emotional lack that got the person overweight to begin with.

While it is true that the only way to successfully lose weight and get healthy is to decrease intake of food and increase the burning of calories, telling this to a fat person is like dangling water in front of a parched man. A plan is needed. Support is needed. When those small steps seem to be taking too long, someone needs to help draw the attention to how far the person has come, not how much farther they have to go. Perhaps that person can’t get up right now—you might not be able to if you were carrying along a whole other human being in weight—but can start with decreasing intake. Perhaps instead of telling that person that all he needs is more discipline, or he just needs to do it, you can encourage him to not look to food for comfort. Perhaps you can be a comforter in the place of the food.

Stress and Sleep Impact Health and Weight

Businessman with the World on his ShouldersMost of my posts on this site have been about my weight loss program, but there is more to being healthy and choosing health. There is also more to losing weight than just the types and amount of food you eat. One other dimension of health is proper sleep. Getting enough sleep so that your body can rest is very important.

We may think nothing is getting done while sleeping. This thought has been my problem for years. All my life I have been the early riser. I have always woken up with a head full of things that need done. Since my office is in my house, getting to my desk is one of my first steps each morning. For years I would get up sometime between 4 and 5 AM (my wife’s alarm goes off at 4), then stop off for coffee in the kitchen and go straight to my desk and start my day. I would usually start work within ten minutes of waking up. This morning I’ve have had my first meal replacement, have checked the church’s social media sites, have checked church’s email accounts, have laid out plans for the day, and have started this blog post. I got out of bed only a half hour ago. This is the best part of working at home.

Being this way, I often saw sleep as unproductive time. When I woke, my mind would spark on ideas and I’d jump up and go to work—I’m sure those who barely crawl out of bed want to shoot me right about now. On top of this, I’m not very good at taking naps. I seldom enjoy them. However, I had to learn to see sleep as something other than unproductive, do-nothing time. During sleep is your body does a great deal of housekeeping: waste disposal, endocrine balancing, muscle building, etc. If you don’t get enough sack time these things don’t get done well. One choice I’ve made is to get enough sleep each night, shooting for 7 to 8 hours. Of course, this is not always possible, especially when under stress.

Stress related sleep problems can be a triple threat to losing weight and getting healthy. Under stress your body releases cortisol. This causes your body to desire carbs and sugars. It also causes you to store more of your intake as reserves. This is fine if stress involves possible running from a sabre toothed cat on the Eurasian steppe or a leopard on the Serengeti, but not so good for an overweight man who sits in an office chair all day. One way your body gets rid of cortisol is through good deep sleep. The more you sleep, the more cortisol is removed from your body. The less you sleep the less is removed and the more problems this can cause. Then stress, which makes your body produce this cortisol, makes it hard to sleep. So, this very system meant to help becomes a source of defeat. Cravings go up; need for caffeine increases; less sleep is possible as you worry; more cortisol is produced and less is removed; and you end up in a downward spiral. The most insidious part is that, for men at least, the hardest fat to lose is around the midsection (abdominal fat). Guess where cortisol packs it on? Cortisol contributes to abdominal fat—right there, where it is hardest to remove.

I decided early on to change my waking time to around 6 AM. I’m still in my office within 5 minutes, so it makes little difference for productivity. However, it gives my body between 7 and 8 hours each night. Lately though, I’ve been under a lot of stress with several personal and professional choices. This has made falling asleep, and staying asleep more difficult. One of the great things about losing weight has been the loss of my C-PAP machine. I no longer need it for sleep. However, over the last couple weeks stress has started affecting my sleep. For a while I found myself unable to fall asleep for long periods of time and then sleeping very lightly. I wear a Jawbone UP24 which monitors my sleep patterns telling me how long I spend in each sleep stage (light or sound sleep) and how often I awaken. I noticed it becoming harder to fall asleep, harder to fall back asleep when waking during the night, and harder to stay in bed after my wife’s alarm went off at 4 AM. I also noticed that what time I did sleep was being reported as less and less sound sleep and more light sleep by the Jawbone app.

The biggest problem has been thoughts that just won’t leave my head. I was finding it harder and harder to disengage my mind. Then I would finally fall fitfully asleep and then seemed to wake continuously through the night. If I didn’t find a way to undo this, it would sabotage all the healthy choices I was trying to make. A couple nights ago I decided upon a strategy to try, which I’ll share here for others who may be struggling.

I have for years practiced various forms of journaling. I usually have four journals going at once. One is a small notebook that I carry in my pocket to jot down quick thoughts and ideas. Many of my blog ideas get written down in there to work on later. Another is a journal where I write down personal thoughts and conclusions on various scripture passages—it will contain Greek and Hebrew word studies, outlines of passages, etc. A third journal is where I write down my thoughts on various theological and philosophical problems, etc. For example, when I jot down my thoughts on arguments about the existence of God, or the problem of evil those thoughts go in the philosophical journal. My final journal is the traditional type. It is a bound book with lined blank pages where I record my deepest thoughts and meditations. I’ve always slept with the small journal next to my bed with a pen in case an idea struck during the night—I could write it down and put it aside until morning.

A couple nights ago I decided on an experiment. I had noticed that after journaling on a problem I usually felt better. I decided to move the journal to my nightstand and, every night before bed, write down my thoughts, fears, apprehensions, emotions, etc. Then when I lay my head down, anytime something would creep in to remind me of a stressful situation, I would tell myself, “It’s already in the book. I can’t fix it tonight, but will work on it in the morning.” Then I would try to think about something comforting or relaxing. In this way I could put off thinking about those things, knowing I could go back to them in the morning. Upon waking, I open the journal and look through what was written the night before and use it as part of my planning the day. This way, when trying to sleep, I have assurance things will still get taken care of.

Over the last two nights, I’ve gotten an average of eight hours sleep and most of that has been deep sleep (an average of over 5 hours each night) according to my monitor. I feel much more rested. Hopefully cortisol levels will be helped. Now, I know this is not scientific. I also know it is only two nights. However, my personal experiences tell me it works for me. Try it if you want and see if it helps you to get better sleep.

Anticipating Scale Sticker Shock!

I used to work in a retail flooring store. We would calculate prices and then always round down. The reason for this is the psychological difference between a price of $4.00 and a price of $3.99. While the difference is only a penny, the lower dollar amount is more attractive to a buyer. The same is true of selling your home. When people search for homes on a database, far more will stop to look at a $149,000 home than one that is $150,000.

This same phenomenon works with weight-loss. If I step on the sale one week weighing 319 pounds and then the next week weigh 313 pounds, it does not feel as impressive as going from 320 pounds to 315, even though the first pair is a greater weight-loss. Because of this fact, I’m preparing myself in advance for my next weigh-in even though it is still days away. I weighed 318 at last week’s weigh-in and am expecting to weigh around 314 or so this week. I know ahead of time to expect a bit of let down because it will be another week at least to go under 310.

It is interesting how our expectations can have more impact on our feelings than reality. If we simply looked at such weight-loss realistically we would be happy to losing any weight—one pound is an achievement in itself. However, we too easily fall into the trap of, “If only it would have been a little more.”

What are your triggers?

triggersIt is interesting to see how many things we do, not because we want to do them, but because something else has triggered a desire within us. Anyone who does counseling learns to help people identify the triggers which tempt them to negative behavior.

Among men the problems caused by pornography addiction can be quite destructive—damaging relationships, and hurting the women who love these men. I have seen more than my share of marriages in trouble because of a husband’s inability to control this. Just like all addictions there are triggers which can lead a man, even one determined not to stray, to seek comfort in glossy photos and downloaded images. For some men it is arguments with their wife, trouble with their boss or their finances, and even a simple sense of being out of control that can trigger these behaviors.

Smoking is another addiction that has triggers. I used to smoke five packs a day and for me almost everything was a trigger. Some triggers for cigarettes can be arguments, stressful relationships, food, sex, exertion, worry, drinking. Many who have smoked for a long time may find the initial quitting easy, but finding themselves assailed by temptations caused by a trigger event—like an argument with a spouse. Once when my wife and I both tried to quit smoking, we started arguing and about three hours into quitting I said, “I’m going to go buy a pack of cigarettes before we kill each other!” Did the cigarette stop the fight or fix the problem? No. The most it did was relieve some of the agitation making us sensitive and ready to fight. The fighting was a trigger—and like most triggers, offered an easy excuse.

Unhealthy foods, as a source of comfort, can also have triggers. Have you ever noticed that these comfort foods never seem to be fruit, vegetables or other healthy options? It is the unhealthy foods we turn to when triggered. Some of this can be blamed on childhood memories. For many of us food was offered to comfort. Perhaps we were given ice cream when sad. We may have been given candy when we scraped our knee. Most of our memories about holidays and childhood happiness involve large meals of fatty, high carb, very sweet foods—the fattest cuts of meat, the gravy, the sweet tea, the multiple deserts, etc. When we think of childhood pleasure and happy times, these are often central.

But is there anything wrong with such foods, for special events? Of course not! This becomes a problem when I seek to replicate the fond memories and good feelings through the foods of that time rather than through the atmosphere. It is also a problem when such actions endanger my life rather than enriching it. When I am heavy and unhealthy and get into a stressful situation I can handle the stress in a healthy way or in an unhealthy way. Perhaps I could choose to go ride my bike, or go for a walk. Perhaps some time meditating, praying, listening to music or doing something creative could relieve the stress. I could also choose to medicate the stress and bad feelings with food, fooling my body into thinking it is feeling better for a brief time and fooling my mind into recalling happier times eating those comfort foods. However, after such a meal, the old stress comes back and is likely compounded with feelings of guilt for making an unhealthy choice and feelings of ill health as blood sugar spikes and falls, with various systems of my body trying to make up for my bad choice.

The trigger happens, but we must still choose. When we sense such triggers we have three options. We can ignore the trigger and try to knuckle through. This can be hard with the most ingrained and deepest seated of triggers. Some triggers have been experienced for so long and the response has been so steady that one has developed almost a muscle memory habit. You see this when a trigger occurs and the next thing you know you find yourself eating (or doing other behavior) and never really thought about doing it—you were almost on automatic pilot. However, in time
and with practice, some triggers can be overcome (for more on the role of habit in addiction see Kent Dunnington’s Addiction and Virtue: Beyond the models of disease and choice.). Our other options are to respond to the trigger. One can choose to respond in a healthy fashion or an unhealthy.

Earlier I mentioned that many men struggle with pornography. A negative response to the triggers in this would be to turn to porn and risk hurting a beloved and faithful spouse. What positive options are there for such a husband when facing this choice? One option I have recommended to such men is to carry a picture of their wife. I have my computer set, so that when I log on, the first thing I see is a picture of my wife smiling at me. I also recommend that such men, when fantasies creep in, turn their thoughts and fantasize about their wife. Believe me guys, no woman minds learning that her husband of ten, fifteen or more years still fantasizes about her. Remember the thoughts about her that filled your mind when you were dating—if you are male you had these thoughts; she had them too but is less likely to admit it. I don’t care if you have been married for thirty years—you should still have fantasized about your wife. And men, you will find that such a practice in directing your thoughts will quickly change your feelings about your wife.

I share this because it is related to the choices faced by one whose triggers lead to a desire to eat. The person can choose to eat the unhealthy foods and suffer the consequences. The person can also choose a healthy option, or may even choose to eat nothing for a time to try to knuckle through the trigger and overcome it.  One thing I have resolved to do while on my program is to set a timer for every three hours telling me to eat something. I make it a practice to not eat anything between these times. When I desire something strongly in between I do a self-check. Is it hunger or has something triggered a desire for comfort manifesting as a desire for food? I find that when I argue with my wife, worry about finances or stress over my job, there is a strong desire to eat something. However, knowing this is a trigger I know the desire is not real. It has no true power over me, beyond my own power to choose to surrender or resist. In such cases it is not that I truly want food, it is comfort that I want. I then try to find out how to get that comfort in a healthier way. One thing I want to do over this next year on program is to reprogram myself to not seek comfort from food but find it in more constructive and healthy places.

Why is it, many of us knowing the bad we will reap from giving in to temptations still do so? Why are we willing to accept a tomorrow with poor health as the cost of a today filled with momentary pleasures and comfort? One cause of this can be assumptions having little to do with the food itself. When the trigger is something another person does, we can feel like, “I’ll show her!” This is why many men struggling with porn will turn to it when fighting with their wife. When the trigger is a feeling of being out of control, we can seek control in the bad behavior—“I have no choice in that, but this makes me feel in control.” Another problem can be feelings of hopelessness, “Why am I trying to lose weight, if nothing is going to change?”

We need to come to grips with these and realize that when we seek control through eating unhealthy foods we are actually losing more and more actual control as our body succumbs to ill health. We also should not be losing weight or getting healthy because we expect it to change others. It will not! We must do it because of the impact it has on our own lives, on our own experiences, on our own body. My losing weight it not going to make my wife’s personality or my bosses personality change. My losing weight is not going to make the world a rosier place where everyone is happy. However, my losing weight will make me better at my job (which may improve the relationship with a boss), more emotionally stable for dealing with others (which could improve the relationship with a spouse) and healthier so that I can finally make choices from a position of health rather than being forced into courses of action by illness (which gives a sense of true control).

Choosing health involves more than diet

stressAs I spend the next year making my health a priority, I have to come to terms with other choices that have undermined my health and well-being. One of these is work habits. Since 1998, my work schedule has been mine to control. One of the great benefits of being a pastor of a small church is that no one is monitoring your schedule. So long as you are prepared for the public meetings and programs of the church everyone assumes you are doing your job. There is an old joke that pastors work on Sunday and fish the rest of the week. Well, I have never learned that trick—which is a myth, anyways. Besides having this free schedule, I also have my office at home. I like this arrangement because I waste little time commuting and, if I get a sudden inspiration, my office is right in the next room.

Many would assume this amount of freedom would lead to laziness. Actually the first thing pastors in such situations must learn is the discipline to do their jobs without supervision. Being passionate about your work helps, and years before becoming a pastor Theology, Philosophy and the study of the Word became my passions. This keeps me from being lazy, but also drives me to overwork—a tendency I’ve always had. Before being a pastor I ran my own contracting business and worked 14-16 hour days, 6 days a week and even worked between services on Sunday. My problem is not laziness. My problem is exactly the opposite. I usually get to my desk by 5:30 AM. My work day usually lasts until 4:30 PM, if not later. I eat at my desk, while working. On top of this, I have evening meetings. Monday is supposed to be my day off (it is the traditional pastor’s day-off). However, over the years my biggest lack of discipline been taking a day off or taking my vacations. I am supposed to have four weeks of vacation each year and have taken perhaps a total of eight weeks in the last six years. Funny thing is, I often end up working during my vacation as well.

One thing the workaholic never realizes is this behavior is counter-productive. Look at your own work practices, your productivity, and your efficiency. When you do not take days off, when you work more hours than you should and skip vacations, you actually become unproductive and inefficient during the days and hours you are supposed to be working. Then, to get things done you have to skip days off and work longer hours and forgo vacations. Everything comes full circle and what used to be done because you were passionate, now must be done to make up for the bad choices. Passion can quickly turn to frustration and the joy you once felt gets choked out.

When you get to the burnout stage you start to lay things aside, perhaps finding reasons to run an errand, or take an extended break. You reason that this will give you some time to refresh, but all it does is torpedo your efficiency, which increases frustration.

It is important to take a day off each week. We need a chance to refresh. We need a chance to regroup and get our mind off the frustrations, and reconnect with the joy we once received from our vocations. It is also important to take vacations. These times allow an extended rest and a chance to refresh over several days. The cobwebs can be swept out of our heads, the knots of pressure can be relieved and we can regain our energy and passion. By the end of vacation, if your job is what you should be doing, then you will be chomping at the bit to get back to the office.

These choices also manifest physically. One thing contributing to weight and health problems is stress and its impact on the endocrine system and from that to eating choices. As stress build your body alters its chemical profile to handle the stress. This throws everything else off as the body looks for energy sources. You eat to meet this need, but the stress encourages you to eat for stressed desertscomfort rather than for health. What foods do you go to for comfort? Chocolate? Potato chips? Stress leads to a cascading effect by chemically forcing you to need food, then encouraging you to make bad eating choices, further altering your chemistry, and making you need to eat, so on and so on.  Do you see the circle of bad choices this locks you into as you slowly spiral down to worse and worse health?

Since I am on a one year journey of healthy choices, it has become time to make another choice. I must refrain from all work (except for emergencies, of course) on my weekly day off—my people need me healthy all week. I must also start taking my vacations. Of course, this means taking an actual vacation—even if a “staycation”—meaning no office work during that time.

If you find yourself stressed at work; if you find yourself inefficient; if you find yourself eating unhealthy foods to feel better during the work day; if you find you have lost the joy and passion you once had then rethink your work habits. Take time off for yourself. Take time to refresh and regroup. Clear your head and think about something else for a time and come back fresh. This is an important choice to make for your own health.