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How I Lost 20 lbs Without (Directly) Trying

I lost some weight over the last few months, around 20 pounds. I don’t know exactly how much I weighed before, and I only started stepping on the scale once I realized I’d already slimmed down quite a bit. I didn’t really change my diet, and I haven’t been sick. At no point was weight loss an explicit goal of mine, but the weight came off nonetheless.

While I didn’t have a plan at the beginning, looking back, I realize I learned some things that might be helpful to others who just can’t get fired up about – or are sick of – the whole game of ‘I want to weigh x’ or ‘I want to wear size y’

I Set Event-Based Goals
At 6 feet tall and hovering around 200 pounds, I wasn’t what you’d call fat. But as I went from being simply thirty to ‘in my thirties’ I noticed I’d gotten a little mushy. My corners weren’t as sharp as they once were. My briefcase felt heavy at the end of the day.

I wasn’t too stressed about it (I could still buy clothes off the rack and I wasn’t afraid to take my shirt off at the beach), but I thought, simply, I should probably do something active at some point. Get off my butt. Move around a bit. Plus I’m a little bit competitive – not ‘put your fist through the rec-room wall during foosball’ competitive, but I like to see where I stack up. So I set a simple goal: participate in a competitive athletic event at some point in the next year.

I grew up across the street from the town pool, and was on the swim team as a kid – I even trained at a fairly intense level for a few years during middle and high school. So I signed up for a master’s swim meet scheduled for just a few weeks later and started actually going to the gym I’d been paying for (which had a pool, fortunately).

I showed up to the meet with a training base of about nine workouts over three weeks that included a trip to Las Vegas in week three. My expectations were low. And although I swam slower than I had as an eighth-grader, a couple close races (one lost, one won) had me fired up for more. I figured that if I had several more weeks of regular workouts and no Vegas trip leading up to a meet, I might actually put down some respectable performances.

The next big competition was several months away, but I resolved to sign up and hope to improve in the interim. My weight and waist size didn’t enter my mind, just the thought of some good racing.

I Joined a Team
After a few months, I’d been getting my swim workouts in regularly but not frequently: maybe two-and-a-half times a week on average. Once at the pool, I would usually go about 1,800 yards at an easy-to-moderate pace for 30 – 40 minutes, with frequent breaks and generous intervals, before I got bored. Far from what would be required to achieve my vision of a successful meet.

Seeking to supplement my tapped-out self-motivation with some external drivers, I looked for a workout group to join, and found one that was convenient and that offered coached practices most days during the week.

And while this group turned out to be among the larger and more organized in the area, all that really mattered was that I was now among others with similar performance goals.

The group kept me in check: I couldn’t take that extra minute of rest if the other 20 swimmers decided not to; I couldn’t take breaks during a set without throwing off the group’s rhythm; I didn’t want to get passed by my teammates. So I pushed myself through the calf- and lat-cramps and the oxygen deprivation.

The team environment compelled me to show up with some consistency (no one asks ‘where’ve you’ve been?’ when you work out alone). My workout frequency increased, the yardage doubled, and the intensity escalated immeasurably.

I Accepted That My Progress Would not be Linear
Again, my goal remained, simply, an improved athletic performance a couple months down the road. Not pounds per week, not belt-notches. But around this time, I did start to notice some physical changes: were my pants riding a bit lower? Maybe one less fat roll when I bent over to tie my shoes?

I found the scale at the gym and tipped it at 191. The change was not drastic and had been gradual so I couldn’t tell by looking that I’d dropped 7, maybe 10 pounds, but I was pleased nonetheless. A week or so later, I weighed my self again: 192.

Another week, more workouts…what was with the extra pound? I decided not to care. Maybe I’d built a little muscle, or maybe I just hadn’t digested my lunch. Or the scale could be off. Whatever. I didn’t think I looked any different, and I was still making progress in the pool.

I realized that if I’d been tracking pounds daily all along it would have been driven me a bit bonkers. All these variables can create volatility that would conspire against me if I followed them too closely. Letting go of the day-to-day allowed me not to stress if I got busy at work and missed a workout, or indulged in a steak dinner and a few beers with friends some night.

What did prevent me from too many of those steaks was that it would slow me down come race day, not that it would increase the number on the scale. All I cared about was performing well in competition, so I had to trust that if I operated with that longer-term goal in mind, the requisite level of fitness would follow.

The other non-linear element was simply how I felt each day. Some days I was eager to attack the workout and felt strong throughout. Other days I hauled my leaden body through the water with what seemed like tiny tyrannosaur arms. While I did learn to account for exercise basics like making sure to drink water and eat something beforehand, I had to be okay with not expecting each day to bring an X% improvement over the one prior. It’s not a straight line.

Results and Next Steps
The meet finally came, and I ended up doing okay. I’d achieved my initial, basic goal of participating, and, more important, I’d gone faster than I thought I would in a few events (although I’m convinced I can go faster).

At the meet, I stepped on the scale: 179, my college weight. Again, just a number, but also, now I could tell I looked different and felt better than I had several months earlier, all secondary results of achieving the primary goal. And it’s okay that as I write this I’m up around 181 (I took a week or so break from the pool); if I’d set out specifically to weigh 179, I’d have ‘undone’ my goal, but there’s no undoing the fact that I raced that day.

Like that very first meet I signed up for at the beginning of this process, the most recent competition has left me hungry for more. I’m already signed up for events in the coming months, so I expect that I can maintain my level of fitness more than if I’d approached the process another way. I have a network of teammates that can keep me motivated, along with the same simple goal: participate, and do the best I can.

Dave Titus can be seen swimming in pools around metro Boston with the Cambridge Masters Swim Club. You can see him race the 2nd Annual Charles River One-Mile Race on Sunday, June 15th, or as part of a 22-mile relay around Boston Harbor on Friday, July 11th. The second effort is part of a nationwide fundraising initiative for cancer research; to support Dave’s swim, click here: Making Waves

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