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the network engineer fears the backhoe, and the systems engineer fears the network engineer

Losing Weight

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[Content warning: I’m about to talk about my personal weight loss. I’ll do my best not to repeat the same fatphobic crap you’ve seen before, but at the same time, be warned that I am dissatisfied with my own weight and have been working on changing both the weight and the dissatisfaction.]

I’ve always been on the heavy side.

I learned the word “percentile” from the pediatric growth charts in my childhood doctor’s office, in the context of discovering that I was always above the 75th percentile in weight for my age (though not always in height). The first time I ever remember being ashamed of my own body was in grade school, sitting on the flat plastic seat of a swingset and noticing how my thighs squashed against each other; from then on I disliked wearing the navy blue uniform shorts my school required in warm weather, even though the navy blue slacks were hot and heavy in the spring and early summer in the muggy Ohio River valley. I remember not being able to run as fast as other kids, or as long, but at the same time I wasn’t prodigiously strong like some of the other oversized kids in my class.

As I got older, I got into better shape (thanks first to martial arts, and then to cross-country running; I wasn’t particularly spectacular at either, but I was good enough). Cross-country in particular was the refuge of my overachieving circle of friends during our high school years, when we decided that we should probably do some sort of sport, but needed to find one without an overly onerous time commitment. My undergraduate years, however, were not great for me as far as my weight was concerned. I stopped exercising, and between the dining hall and the late-night house of pizza across the street, my freshman fifteen (ha!) was more like a freshman eighty-three.

Eventually I found myself a comically stereotypical systems administrator (beard, ponytail, cargo pants, paunch encased in black t-shirt). The ponytail was the first to go, and the glasses came to replace it, but the paunch stayed throughout the years.

So what?

This spring I started working at RunKeeper. I remember being seriously concerned while I was interviewing that I was simply not athletic enough to fit in at, well, a fitness company. Then, this past spring, the company launched a sort of informal incentive program for employees called “Earn Your Kicks”. Apparently the initial idea had been that employees would set running-related goals for themselves, and in return the company would buy them new running shoes, but then it grew into something more general: participation was entirely voluntary, and participants were challenged to come up with “big, hairy, audacious goals” related to their own fitness. They would announce these goals at the weekly all-hands meeting, and then track their progress towards these goals on a big whiteboard at the front of the office.

My first thought was “oh, no way, not ever”. What could be more fun than to try once again to lose weight, and then fail again, except that this time instead of failing in the quiet of my own home, with only my family and the cats to be disappointed in me, I would get to fail in front of my colleagues and friends, people whose approval I care very much about, people who trust me to get things done for them? Sounds awesome, right? So I watched coworker after coworker announce their goals, and I watched the updates appear on the whiteboard, and I felt that familiar wistful feeling of having something fun happen around me without being able to be part of it. Maybe if I weren’t so fat, I could have a fitness goal! Yes, really, that’s how my mind works.

There was, however, another force at work in my mind, though: fear. (If you get squeamish about medical issues, you might consider skipping to the next section.) According to the NIH assessment guidelines, I am clinically obese, and have been for over a decade. In addition to the quantitative measures (BMI and waist size), I also have several of the common comorbidities of obesity, i.e. other health problems that commonly occur in obese patients: I have depression, hypertension, and sleep apnea. Fortunately (thank you, past several employers!) I have had uninterrupted access to good health care, and so I am managing all of these conditions, but none of them are going to just get better by themselves; the key word above is “managing”, not “curing”. These conditions are not particularly fun by themselves, but they are risk factors for some of the really scary stuff. I’m trained and certified as an EMT, and I have no excuse for having a rosy view of cardiac disease, pulmonary disease, stroke etc., but I’m also a human being, and humans are experts in self-delusion. I managed to remain fairly blasé about my gradually increasing rogue’s gallery of medical conditions, but the breaking point for me came when, a month after I started at RunKeeper, my health benefits became active and I switched to a new PCP. My initial physical exam revealed that I had developed a ventral hernia, starting right below my xiphoid process and extending straight down about a hand-span. There was no question of it being a complication of abdominal surgery, since I’ve never had an incision in my abdominal wall; essentially, I had grown so fat that I was beginning to explode in slow motion. This was the last straw.

Here We Go Again

My new PCP referred me to the Mount Auburn Hospital Weight Management Center, but when I called to make an intake appointment, the earliest they could schedule me was two months out. However, one of my friends suggested that I start tracking my eating and weight with MyFitnessPal. I know the app, it integrates well with RunKeeper, it’s free; I figured I’d give it a try for two months, so that when my intake appointment arrived I’d be able to hit the ground running, so to speak.

MyFitnessPal is great, and I still use it every day. I think it’s been the single most powerful contributor to my weight loss. Part of why it worked for me at the outset is that for those first two months I used it entirely in a descriptive, rather than a prescriptive, fashion; the app set a Calorie threshold for me, and I cheerfully disregarded it, figuring that the dietician at Mount Auburn would come up with a different plan for me anyway. As a result I felt almost no impulse to fudge the numbers, and so I tracked absolutely everything that I consumed over a period of two months (yes, even on Shabbat; given the health issues I mentioned above, I felt like this was getting into pikuach nefesh territory for me, your mileage may vary). That was an eye-opener, to put it mildly. I was aware in some vague, theoretical sense that I must be consuming more Calories than I was using, but even taking into account the inherent imprecision of Calorie estimation, it was alarming to see the numbers. In an odd sort of observer effect, though, I noticed after a few weeks that I was gradually reducing the amount of Calories I consumed every day, despite having decided that I was only going to observe and report. I had (with no small amount of trepidation) started to weigh myself again, and I noticed that my weight was slowly, slowly trending downwards.

Going to the Mount Auburn Weight Management Center for the first time was scary as hell. I was worried that they were going to push bariatric surgery on me (I am arguably within the clinical guidelines for bariatric surgery, but I am quite determined that I do not want it), I was worried that I was going to get yet another concern-trolling lecture from a medical provider about how I really should lose weight, and most of all I was afraid that this was going to be the final, inescapable confirmation that I was simply incapable of losing weight, even with specialized medical care, and that I was just going to be a fat guy for the rest of my life and that was all there was to it. Nevertheless, I went, and after a couple of visits (as my friend had predicted, they immediately told me to track my consumption and weight for two months and then come back; they were then completely discombobulated when I explained that I had already done so) I was working with a nutritionist, and I had a Calorie goal of 1800/day, and some suggestions for specific dietary changes to make in order to attain that goal.

These changes turned out to be surprisingly less awful than I had anticipated. The general idea was more protein, less fat and carbs, and the nutritionist was and continues to be absolutely spectacular at working around my various odd dietary requirements (I require that I be able to continue observing kashrut as I have been, but also to continue eating lunches and drinking beers with my colleagues and friends, nor am I willing to give up my pretensions to foodie-ness). What saves me is that I am entirely a creature of habit; before I embarked on this process I ate pretty much the same breakfast every weekday, and now I still eat pretty much the same breakfast every weekday, it’s just a different breakfast, but one I enjoy just as much.

Earning My Kicks

So, fast-forward to September 2014. I’m sitting in our weekly all-hands meeting, and another of my colleagues has announced a fitness goal to general acclaim, and suddenly I realize I’ve turned a corner. At this point I have lost somewhere around 30 pounds; on some level I can’t believe this is actually happening, but I’m not miserable, and I’m starting to think that maybe I can keep this up for a while. So I talk privately with our culture team, who give me the green light, and the next week I announce to my assembled colleagues my goal: I want to get my weight below 200 pounds and keep it there for at least two weeks, and I’m giving myself a year in which do it. Before I had finished the sentence I was drowned out by cheering and applause; I don’t think I’ve ever felt more grateful to the truly amazing group of people I work with.

In order to meet my goal, I’ll need to sustain a loss rate of a pound per week. I believe that this is an achievable goal for me; when I graduated high school, I weighed 185 pounds, and I’m still about the same height I was then. How have I been doing?

"graph of weight against time"

The red line indicates when I started the challenge; it looks like so far I’m slightly ahead of where I need to be (yay!). It helps a lot that I’m using a smart scale; this means that weighing myself daily is less laborious, especially since the companion app to this scale has RunKeeper and MyFitnessPal integration.

On some level, I still can’t quite believe that I’ve managed to consistently lose weight over a period of months. I definitely appreciate some of the benefits; for example, when in October RunKeeper held an event to celebrate one of our users running from Boston to New York as a warm-up for the New York City Marathon, I was able to run the first two miles with him. Earlier in the year I had tried to start running again, and managed for about a month and a half before an injury to my calf sidelined me, but now that I’m a bit lighter I’m optimistic about my chances of success (there’s a Systems Team 5K in my future in a few months). Probably the thing that makes me the most excited, though, is my Bluff Works pants. I had Kickstarted them back in 2012, and ordered the largest size in the initial production run, but when they arrived, it was simply impossible for me to wear them, so they sat mournfully in my dresser for two years. Now, at last, I can finally wear these pants, and yes, they really are as awesome as I had hoped way back when I ordered them. :)

I still have a good ways to go in order to meet my goal, but I also have plenty of time ahead of me to do that, and so I meet the new year with high hopes, and profound gratitude to every one of my colleagues and friends who noticed I was losing weight and cheered me on.