Super-intense, New Year's Resolution Weight Loss Miracle

by LUKE BAUMGARTEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & mericans have lost faith in New Year's resolutions. So proclaimed a study conducted in late 2005 by Opinion Research Corporation in conjunction with some corporate flack with a book to sell. Noting that people's resolutions always fail, the flack concluded that we should lead less critical lives, setting goals with happiness in mind, not betterment. (Sounds like quitter talk to me.)

This much we think is true: studies (formal ones as well as random samplings of Spokanite personal trainers) suggest that 90 percent of you resolvers are going to give up after one month. Some see this as a fault of the resolution system. We see it as a challenge. If we're all going to quit our resolutions by February, why not get all the work done before then? Here's what we're going to do: Get the resolution done before we quit altogether. I'll be your guide.


The Post Freshman 30

Here's what we're working with: I'm a 25-year-old music editor who gets paid to lead a sedentary lifestyle. I ended my freshman year of college at 6-foot-3 and weighing roughly 185 pounds. I haven't grown, but I'm now hovering at a lard-assy 215. That's totally unacceptable.

To whit: I resolve to get as close to young, lithe Luke as possible. The quantifiable part: lose 30-ish pounds as quickly as possible. The unquantifiable parts: get some definition in my jaw, see my cheek bones again, get my sides slimmer than my ass, flatten my stomach and once again have pecs that are recognizable as such.

This is what I did: I got myself a personal trainer, Ben Greenfield, who has published a book called Shape 21 (book publishing is a sign of quality). I got a YMCA membership. I got a meal plan, a workout regimen based on a 21-day cycle and a couple of ideas as to how I might lose those 30 pounds this month. For the record, I didn't tell anyone about the exact weight goal because I didn't want to hear the braying and neighing that kind of weight loss would cause -- the blathering on about crash dieting and unsustainable, unhealthy weight loss. My perspective on all that jawing is this: I'm currently engaged in unhealthy weight gain, so at least unhealthy weight loss is a shift in the right direction.


Pretzel Logic

(1) I'm horrendously out of shape; (2) I have asthma -- which is manageable when I'm healthy, but, of course, I'm not; and (3) a summer back injury (two herniated discs at 25 years of age, kids!) left my hamstrings so inflexible that I can barely touch my shins.

In order for this little experiment to have any chance of success, then, I needed to do pre-emptive work on problems (2) and (3) before I could fix (1). I wasn't sure how I'd manage that in the week or so I had before the training began until my girlfriend Adrienne, for reasons completely her own, started taking yoga. I'd watched enough Dharma & amp; Greg to know all about the stretching and breathing yogis did, so next time Adrienne went, I tagged along.

FSG Yoga has a gorgeous room on West Main, just off Division. Though the fa & ccedil;ade has floor-to-ceiling windows, the room is dim. Dark wood flooring cuts a swath several feet wide from the outside door to the rear of the space while soft, light wood -- pine or something -- lines eight or so feet on either side of the dark track. The walls on either side are exposed brick, old and weathered. The rear wall is glass with wood shingling, separating the yoga space from changing rooms. The room is kept at a balmy 85 degrees. When we got there, it was full of people who seemed perfectly at home. Their collective sense of ease made me incredibly uneasy. I stripped to bare feet and running shorts, grabbed a mat and began some feeble hamstring stretches, eyes darting, waiting for the carnage to begin.

Though there were people bigger than me, and older, I felt like the instructor was directing everything at me. "Now," she'd say, serenely, "press your hips up into downward facing dog." I'd comply as well as I could, but I couldn't get bent the correct way. She offered some advice I didn't comprehend, then just started manhandling me into position, or as close as I could get. She did this a few other times until my lanky, uncoordinated motions were roughly approximating the fluidity and grace of all the old people around me.

By the second session, noon the next day, I was capable enough to not need help, and I could feel myself loosening up, so I decided this should continue, becoming hopefully a component of my fat-loss regimen.


Trial by Treadmill

Before I started my actual weight-loss, my trainer Ben Greenfield wanted to gather some baseline data. He hooked me up to a machine that calculated my resting metabolic rate -- the number of calories I burn daily while doing nothing. The number turned out to be 2200.

Next he wanted to measure my peak oxygen utilization, meaning I'd need to run on a treadmill while breathing into the same machine. He got me all hooked up and strapped in, making sure the neoprene sleeve covering my nose and mouth wasn't letting air escape. Then he started the treadmill. I don't know if the sleeve thing was screwing with my equilibrium or if I'm really as clumsy as I say I am, but I could not, for the life of me, get the hang of that thing. I was drifting laterally on the machine. I couldn't take my hands off the rails, much less swing my arms. My feet kept flailing for balance, only finding it on my tiptoes at the end of each stride. I obviously didn't see it myself, but I could guess at how it looked.

I did the tests at U-District Sports Performance, one of the clinics where Greenfield works. His colleagues were excited because (a) this was a new metabolism/oxygen system and (b) they'd heard the first guinea pig was going to be some fat reporter. The whole crew, needless to say, gathered around to watch what proved to be the most lumpy, fleshy, awkward melding of man and machine since Robocop. It must have been pretty bad, because all these trainers and PTs, whose job it is to put fat, uncoordinated sorts onto treadmills, looked like they were watching a public execution: a bit sick and a little afraid. I was flailing, so they brought me off the treadmill amid half-hearted reassurances that treadmills are tricky. I was put on a stationary bike that looked at least as old as I was. I rode out the test just fine.

I had one final diagnostic to run, but because of a series of previous engagements, it didn't happen until my training had already started.


Shooting for 18

"Twelve to 18 percent body fat is healthy," Ben told me when we met, hurrying through a body fat analysis at the Liberty Lake Athletic Club the day before he flew to Thailand to compete in an adventure race and triathlon.

Sizing up my little flab factory, he guessed me at about 20 percent. You can measure body fat a number of ways, he said. Each had a degree of accuracy and a degree of discomfort. The caliper method he chose was extremely accurate and excruciatingly painful. He began by taking the fat of the back of my arm, pinching it with his fingers, pulling it away from the bone and muscle, then clamping down with the calipers. He did this three times. The third time felt like he broke a blood vessel. My eyes watered. He then did the same thing in six other spots. Ribs, belly, calves, underarms, thighs and one other place I've probably repressed.

He tried to explain the calculations he was doing -- the calipers help determine body density; density and age then calculate fat percentage, or something -- but all I could think about was the mass of soft tissue he'd gotten a hold of under my arms.

He put the measurements into his computer. "26 percent fat," he said. My jaw dropped. "No wait. 22.9 percent." Still really bad.

Whereas I haven't worked out since July, being a slab of human sinew is so important to Greenfield that he plans his vacations around being in shape. More than that, though, fitness is what he wants to be famous for, the thing that will take him around the world. The news was harder to take, I think, because the bearer was everything, physically, that I'm not.

That isn't to say he'd actively slung any of the guilt I felt. Chummy and charismatic, Greenfield has an affable, laid-back way that's disarming. (It's easy to forget that once disarmed, he has abs that could put your eye out.) Other times we'd talked, he seemed generally unconcerned with my body's state of disrepair. I imagine he's an effective trainer, because at no time did he seem judgmental or even particularly worried. It was significant, then, when he said, gravely, and with a bit of urgency, "OK, now the first thing you need to do is get that under 18."

Adding insult: Finding the 104 grocery items Greenfield required for the first week of his meal plan proved much harder than you'd think. At around $90, it also cost significantly more. Adding injury: I was supposed to do my first exercise circuit -- a few pushups, a few squats and some ridiculous things called "push jacks" -- three separate times today, but time got away from me (104 things from the grocer, remember), and I only did the circuit twice. Oops.


The Zen of Overdoing It

Since I'd failed to finish even the easy workouts that Day One required, I woke up today wanting to really achieve, so I did something stupid. I followed my first day of cardio and second day of circuit training with a yoga class.

After running and lunging at the Y, I got to FSG five minutes or so before class. The room was packed. This was apparently a mixed-level class, so there were beginners like myself in with wizened old white-bred South Hill yogis. Problem is, I didn't realize the class had several levels of expertise, which means I didn't realize I was supposed to skip the harder poses.

I was already pretty winded, and within two minutes, beads of perspiration were rolling off me like those drizzly little Zen fountains in garden stores. Each drop on the mat was a wave breaching the levee of my concentration. Forty minutes in, I realized I was going too hard, but it was too late. I was in a rough push-up position, trying to get my knee to sit fitfully on my elbow when I just collapsed, totally exhausted. I stumbled to FSG's makeshift washroom, spending 10 minutes light-headed, feeling like I might pass out backward into their tub. I spent another 10 trying to figure out why they have a tub.

Two days in and already I knew this wasn't going to be fun. It won't be a glowing story of transformation; it's going to be a battle of attrition. It will probably end with a pound or two lost at the cost of emotional and relationship stress, too much uncomfortable self-reflection and a lot of work.

The rest of the class I just lay on the mat, knees tucked under my stomach and sternum, arms out in front of me, forehead pressed to the earth in a position called "the child pose." Crestfallen.

Day 3

Snap Peas and Almonds

Compared with yesterday's debacle, today was easy. A slightly harder cardio tempo and a circuit that focused on my core. It's a landfill down there, but whatever muscles exist below the blubber held up pretty well.

I've been pretty impressed with the food Greenfield's plan offers. I've eaten my share of snap peas and almonds, but there are some proper meals as well. The spinach omelette I ate before my 63 squeeze crunches, 42 semi-bent-leg windshield wipers and my 63 crawl extensions (per side) this morning was pretty bomb.


Talking to myself

Until now, the first day's grocery shopping had been the biggest food-related pain in my ass. Today, it's officially everything to do with food.

Adrienne has been wonderful about scheduling for me and, when necessary, cooking. I didn't realize how invaluable the latter was until I got to her apartment at 8 pm, finding her absent. I was on deadline, stressed, cursing myself for both and fainting for food. I'd eaten almost nothing all day because the tzatziki portion of my cucumber and tzatziki snack had a taste that made me want to cut my tongue out (any nice words about Greenfield's meal plan hereby come with a big caveat).

Being at Adrienne's joint, though, felt like a circling of the wagons. I was in a comfortable place where I write well and think well. I had the food I needed and the means to prepare it. Things were OK; the world was one. Then I looked at the night's meal and saw the monster that lay before me.

Beef Stir-Fry, Ingredients: 1 sirloin steak, 1 half bell pepper, 2 shallots, 1 handful mushrooms, all sliced; 1 tsp fresh ginger, 1 lime rind, 1 carrot, all grated; sugar snap peas, broccoli, a handful each; turmeric, curry, salt and pepper to taste. "That's a lot of ingredients," I said aloud (talking to myself is new). "That's also a lot of slicing/grating/tasting," I thought, turning the monologue inward, "but whatever. Day Four. I can do this." I sliced the shallots and the pepper; then I tried to grate the lime. Catastrophe.

Adrienne's roommate is the cook of the joint, and she has lots of cute little scale replicas of actual kitchen implements. The grater she employs is small enough for an industrious mouse to make quesadillas. I'm unsure whether it was the teensy grater holes, the thickness of the lime's rind, or the size of my ham fists, but no grating happened. No matter how hard I pushed, how hard I squeezed, how hard I cursed. And I cursed. Under my breath at first, then over my breath. Then through my breath. In spite of it.

Adrienne called. I grunted my displeasure. She offered a few conciliatory words offhand (she was undergoing a displeasure of her own at that moment). We hung up. I slammed the lime into the garbage can for emphasis and catharsis. The emphasis was ho-hum; the catharsis was negligible.

I looked around for turmeric and curry, finding none. I then -- stupidly, not having learned any sort of lesson -- tried to grate the carrot. I stopped short of hucking that in the garbage too, but not short of creating a mushy, frothy pulp at the back end of that unfortunate little grater.

Subsequent slicing was sloppy and annoyed. When finished, I tossed all the ingredients into the biggest pan I could find, only to find them over-filling it. After spilling the brown rice (which I don't even like), I made a wail like I'd been gutshot by a 30-30, then had an impromptu squat and calm, whereby I squatted down close to the linoleum, put my head between my legs, and took a few deep breaths.

Lacking spices of any kind, the dish that resulted tasted exactly like it should: as though unflavored vegetables had been heated alongside unflavored meat. I gnawed dutifully on my food, understanding this fiasco was entirely a function of impatience and hunger. I need to control that.

Getting in shape is about more than just exercising a lot, especially if you're overhauling the other elements of your lifestyle that have made you (me, God knows; us) fat. It's the time-dedication, the scheduling and the price of eating healthy that are weighing on me, not the exercise. There just isn't enough time in my day to do all this.

When Adrienne got back to the apartment, thankfully, she brought a decent grater.

DAY 5:



I'm beginning to question the quality of the cardio workout I'm getting on the elliptical. I ran for a short distance today, just hustling from point A to point B. My lungs were burning more after two minutes running than after 20 minutes on the elliptical. Of course, it was numbingly cold, so this was hardly a controlled, scientific comparison, but I'm definitely going to give the treadmill another try.

Not today, though. I feel incredibly uncomfortable at the gym still. I'm already being scrutinized for my gut and my sides and my tits, so why get stared at for my lack of coordination? The thought gets my inferiority-sense tingling. I need backup or something.

Things I didn't eat today: berry shake, turkey cucumber sandwich, a half-dozen cherry tomatoes. Things I did eat: one small serving of leftover stir-fry, roughly one leaf's worth of spinach strawberry salad and one handful of cereal.

I ate half of what I was supposed to, and I felt fine. This makes me think my body's getting to the point where it can handle eating very little. Greenfield is continually reiterating the importance of keeping my caloric deficit (the number of calories I take in minus those I expend) less than 1,000 so I don't depress my metabolism, but those words of warning echo dully off the sheer cliff face of all the world's actors, starving themselves continually and looking really good for it.


the empire strikes fat

This morning, the idea of slicing pears and avocados to make my lunch salad was far too daunting. So was finding a proper lid for the Tupperware thing that would have held the cereal milk I was supposed to have for today's "fuel replenishment" snack. So I went without. I figure that's like 500 calories or so right there avoided due to my abject laziness.

I was also supposed to work out this morning, but didn't manage it. I'm still cripplingly afraid of going to the gym alone. By early evening, though, as it became clearer that no gym partners were surfacing and as the guilt of another failed day filled me, I forced myself to go.

The nighttime walk from downtown proper to the YMCA through Riverfront Park in winter is beautifully horrifying: So much crystalline wonder, so many shivering, half-dead hobos. In my little American pastoral that evening, I imagined being gutted like the thing from the opening of The Empire Strikes Back, my steaming innards used to keep someone named Shifty warm through the night. I imagined what the tombstone would say.

I didn't even look at the workout until I got there, and that's probably good, because I might not have done it. An intense set of repeats awaited me on the elliptical (no treadmill, not alone, no way), followed by an eight-exercise circuit with free weights. Heading into the belly of the barrel-chested beast for the dumbbells made me uneasy. I was supposed to do the following: 14 overhead presses, 14 curls per arm, 14 ski kickbacks (tricep things), 14 weighted squats, 14 front raises, 14 bent rows, 14 dead lifts, 14 chest press (bench press with dumbbells, essentially). I was supposed to do this three times.

Worrying I'd have to lessen the weight as I went, I grabbed 15- and 10-pound dumbbells and walked them over in the corner, situating myself between the punching bag and the Roman chair. This seemed to be the spot with the poorest view of the rest of the weight room, meaning it gave the rest of the weight room the poorest view of me.

I began with the 15s. The thought of how many pairs of eyes might be on me almost made me retch, but as I worked through the circuit once, the feeling subsided. By the time I was twice through and still using the 15-pound bells, I felt better still, like I'd a) picked a good, reasonable weight and b) that I was rising to the occasion. I finished up feeling sore, exhausted and really pretty happy. On the walk home, I all but dared Shifty to try and use me like a human sleeping bag.

This is a step forward.


It Takes

a Posse

Today I did some strategizing. This week, I stuck pretty well with the Shape 21 manual -- doing most of Greenfield's exercises, eating many of his meals -- but I feel I can push myself more. The cardio isn't really taxing me the way it should, so I seriously need to look into the treadmill.

This requires moral support (and backup). Since Adrienne is in the midst of some world-rocking things, I needed to look elsewhere. Luckily my firefighter friend Zach, having been given an interview with the Portland Fire Department, has gotten all angsty about the required physical tests. Also hating to lift alone (though for different reasons), he's begging to be in my workout posse. He joined me today, along with Inlander newsy Joel Smith, to great effect.

Zach's the kind of guy who likes his workouts heavy on the weight and long on the rest between sets, meaning his workouts and Ben Greenfield's are like oil and water. I want to do both, hopefully bulking up while I slim down. Zach's just paranoid enough about this job opportunity that I talked him into whipping that oil and water into a workout emulsion several times a week. A posse then.

Yet another step forward.

After the workout, I hit the scale. I'd almost rather not know how well I'm doing a third of the way through my program, but my editor has insisted on weigh-ins. The YMCA has a doctor-type scale that looks like it gives tetanus on contact. I stepped on, moved the counter-weights. The bigger one I set to 200, the smaller to 16 -- 216 pounds, where I'd begun the week. I slid the smaller to 215... 213, 212, 210... the scale finally leveled itself at 206.

There was a moment of disbelief, then intense relief. Ten pounds. Everyone I've talked to said not to expect more than two or three. I don't know how I feel about that. Did I lose fat? Water weight? Was this scale calibrated differently than Greenfield's? I'm going to consider it a victory until I find out otherwise.

Though I started this under the pretext of a populist look at New Year's resolutions, the more basic motivation is this: I don't like the way I look. I'm a dude, I'm straight and I don't like the way I look. A half-decade of collegiate punishment (alcohol; careless eating; a brief, back-alley foray into smoking) and post-collegiate neglect has left me flabby and soft in the most conspicuous areas. When I look in the mirror, I see the dimple where the underside of my cheekbones should be, I see my puffy jaw gently slope into my fleshy neck, and I curse the apathy, depression and bookishness that made me think neglecting my body was acceptable. I'm fat and I hate it.

Losing 10 pounds helps make my love handles look less like saddlebags, helps make my chin more than just one mound among many. Losing 10 pounds helps me not actively hate myself. I've lost about a third of the fat I wanted to lose in a third of the time I gave myself to lose it. Men, though, usually start fast out of the gate, then taper off, then have to worry about rebound weight gain. So I'm worried.

In high school, I saw enough crash dieting and self-mutilation among my female friends to get the sense that self-hatred is common in women. In college, I saw enough gym junkies and bulimics among guys to believe it's woefully under-reported in men. I pitched this story as a look at our culture of immediacy when what I really wanted was to wake up in the morning and not feel sick at the sight of myself. Immediately. A week in, I'm not there yet.

Luke Baumgarten's

"Super-intense, Inlander-funded New Year's Resolution Weight Loss Miracle" will continue next week.