July 18, 2012

Running and weight

I have pretty much always been overweight. As a kid, I shopped in the "husky" section that had nothing to do with our local college team. Growing up, my brothers were taller and leaner, and I was the more round guy on the end, the 'o' to their 'i'. I was not particularly active as a kid, though I did play youth soccer for some seven or eight years. But when I tried out for the junior high team, I washed out in the first couple days of tryouts because all we did was run. We didn't get to soccer skills until the last hour of the second day, and by that time I was finished.

Fitness and activity didn't come until later. Most every job I have had required me to be on my feet, and my decade-plus in construction has made me stronger just by going to work. Biking was my first extracuricular activity, and two years after that I was running. I ran my first 5k in March of 2005, and my first half marathon that November. I hadn't prepared terribly well for the half marathon, but the experience of the day, and crossing that finish line hooked me. I wanted to take this more seriously and prepare for a full marathon.

I was still pretty heavy at that point, but far from my heaviest. Before I started running (I think I had just started biking), my former wife bought me a scale one Christmas. It was one of those fancy models that not only gives you your weight with half-pound, digital precision, but it also estimates your body fat percentage by sending a small electrical charge through your body. I don't remember precisely what it read that first morning, but the weight was north of 190, and the fat make-up above 30%. I had no illusions that I was skinny, but those numbers were pretty shocking. What was worse was when I plugged my numbers into an online Body Mass Indicator (BMI) calculator. I was not only overweight, but I had moved into the "obese" catagory.


Back to 2005. Just after the half marathon, I started my plans to run a full marathon. Looking at some training plans, I would now be running 20, 30, or 40 miles a week. If I could stick to it, I knew I would be in the best shape of my life by the time I showed up at the start line. I imagined that the pounds would fall away as the miles went by. I even took a  "before" picture I could compare the glorious "after" person I would become. Shield your eyes, 'cause here it is:

For several months, I followed the training plan and slowly built up my fitness. Then a month or so out from the marathon, I got injured. I didn't know it at the time, but it was a classic IT band issue. I still showed up at the start line, but only made it 18 miles. I would finish a marathon five months later, mostly on grit and biking fitness.

So how about that physical transformation? I was definitely fitter, but the weight did not melt off like I had anticipated. I went back and looked at my running diaries, and I weighed in at the exact same 175.5 pounds a few days before the marathon, and I had somehow managed to gain a point of fat percentage. Over the next few years, the miles increased, but the weight stayed the same, or even climbed. In 2007, I ran 660 miles and I was carrying the exact same 182 pounds in December that I was on January 1st (that handy fat percentage meter kept me from believing that I was exchanging fat for muscle).

In 2008, I ran another 650 miles, but nothing much happened with my weight until the last two months, when my marriage frayed and I started running for UPS every day. After that difficult November and December, I finished the year about ten pounds lighter, I managed to maintain that loss for most of 2009. But after running a lifetime high of 928 miles, I was again back up to 176 on December 31st, a half pound heavier than my optimistic "before" picture four years earlier. What had become crystal clear is that exercise is not enough.

Not that this isn't completely obvious, but it comes back to calories coming in versus calories being burned off. I had been burning more calories for four years, but I was clearly consuming more as well. Part of the problem is the illusion that you can eat whatever you want after a long workout. Unfortunately, it doesn't add up that way. I would need to run about 28 miles to burn the calories in a single pound. By not paying attention to what I was eating, I was essentially running in place.

I heard on a podcast (can't remember which one) about combating childhood obesity. Today one in five kids are obese (triple that of 30 years ago), and many more are overweight. The study asked the question of where the best place was to start - exercise or nutrition. If you eat better and weigh less, you might be more inclined to move around more. The other side of the coin is if you move around more, you might be inspired to take care of your body and eat a little better. The study found that children were more successful if they started with the food side of the equation. Exercise is clearly important, but what you put in your body is even more important.

2011 was the year of the 30 day resolutions, and cutting out alcohol, fast food, meat, and making better food choices in general were some of the monthly challenges. As a result of those changes, I lost another 12 pounds during the year and I have managed to keep them off. Both the exercise and making good food choices are about taking better care of myself, and they were finally reinforcing each other.

160 pounds is now the number I dance around, and the 30 days of running helped push me below that. This is the "after" picture, about six years later than planned.

From this angle, the most noticeable difference is in my face (and of course my California tan lines). This is me at 155.5 pounds, and 21% body fat. Nothing like a Biggest Loser transformation, or even particularly skinny for my height, but still it is a difference of 20 or 40 pounds depending on the starting point, and 9 points off the fat scale. The miles of running, biking and that fancy scale have seen me move from obese, through overweight, and into the high end of normal on the BMI chart. At six years older, with the accompanying slowing metabolism, I'll take it.

There was no "diet", just dietary change. I still indulge, but the overall pattern is different. I understand that one day of exercise or one meal doesn't make or break it for me, and that it is how they all interplay over the long term.

Occasionally, the solution is very simple, but that doesn't make it easy. Even when you know the solution, you aren't always prepared to take action.  Running wasn't the silver bullet, but it improved my outlook and set me on the road to taking better care of myself. Everything played its part, but in the end it turned out to be a bit more about the meals than the miles.