HEALTHA Practical Guide To Weight Loss

A Practical Guide To Weight Loss

By: Roy Smalley – firefighter, health & safety officer, certified personal trainer

From a guy who’s been there, done that. This article will probably bore you. Seriously – losing weight (and keeping it off) is boring. It’s mundane. It’s repetitive.

Robert Collier famously said, “Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day-in, and day out.” While many who set out to lose weight have an exciting, inspirational story about their decision to make a life change, ask the ones who’ve been really successful at it – the people who have experienced and sustained dramatic physical transformations – and you’ll likely find their “how” a lot less compelling than their “why.”

As someone who’s been there and done that (and has the oversized t-shirt to prove it), I want to share with you my practical guide to losing weight. Rather than woo you with some rah-rah story, I’ll give you down-to-earth, actionable steps you can take once you’ve found your “why” – your reason to commit. Your “hot button.”

Tip #1: Find the fuel for your fire

Simon Sinek’s book “Start with Why,” says, “Working hard for something we do not care about is called stress, working hard for something we love is called passion.” Think about the “big dogs” in the fire service – the firefighters who get you pumped up at FDIC or the latest training summit. They’re inspiring because the fire service isn’t just their job; it’s their passion. If your only motivation to lose weight is that a doctor said you should, you’re going to have a really tough time staying committed. Find your “why” – not just a reason you should do it, but a reason you want to do it.

I’m 51 and compete in marathons and triathlons, but in my 30s I was obese and sedentary. As a full-time IT guy, I stood five-foot-ten at around 250 pounds with a 44-inch beltline. My wife and I were in the process of our first adoption. I knew I wanted to be healthier by the time we brought our daughter home; I just didn’t have the drive to do anything about it beyond the occasional week of “dieting” here and there. 

Then someone dared me.

Some other couples threw down a gauntlet: a 12-week weight loss challenge with cash on the table. Being naturally competitive, making the action I knew I should be doing into a contest threw just enough fuel on my fire. After reading some books and doing some research, I put together ideas on effectively structuring things to help meet my goal.

Tip #2: Take time to preplan 

Sinek strikes again, “For passion to survive it needs structure. A why without how has little probability of success.” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry put it another way: “A goal without a plan is just a wish.”

Having discovered my passion to perform, I planned for progress. Just like preplanning target hazards and updating box cards, planning ahead for weight loss success means choices become easier to make, without having to think about it when alarm bells are ringing.

Dinner was one of our at-home target hazards. We’d usually get home from work not knowing what to make, and too frazzled to figure it out. Often, the urgency of hunger would push us to frozen pizza or take-out – and too much of it.

Here, preplanning meant meal planning. We made two-week meal calendars – healthy meals that were quick and easy, meals that could sit in the slow cooker all day or could be prepped in advance and go directly from fridge/freezer to oven. In one big shopping trip, we’d get what was needed to make those meals. Planning to have leftovers made lunch easier the next day, too.

I can’t overstate the value of actually cooking for a healthy lifestyle. Studies suggest that cooking your own food, versus getting prepared foods or takeout, makes meals healthier1: lower sugar, salt, and fat, and better portion control. Your grocery budget will thank you, too – for us, one big grocery run every couple of weeks reduced impulse purchases on frequent smaller trips.

Daily exercise was also more successful by preplanning. Using a basic calendar, I’d plot out a week of workouts and plug them into my schedule, making it easier to maintain a movement mindset.

When it comes to exercise, my opinion might be unpopular with some fire service fitness gurus pushing “secret sauce” workouts: don’t worry about “functional workouts.” Here’s the thing: outside of shifts, a majority of firefighters are sedentary and gaining weight every year2,3. Functional firefighter workouts are often intense and complicated, which can turn those new to exercise completely off.

Functional workouts work great for lots of people – they can improve fireground work and resilience for trained exercisers. But for new exercisers with weight loss goals, it’s better to uncomplicate things and focus on the basics. Just like traditions in the fire service, there’s a reason why more conventional workouts including structural weightlifting and cardio stand the test of time. Having a secret sauce is a good accessory, but you need a burger to put it on.

Tip #3: Keep your head on a swivel

As preplanning makes the choices you want easier, environmental awareness can help make choices you don’t want harder. For example, when a friend or relative gifts me a plate of sweets, I store them in a locked cabinet or the basement freezer, packed in individual baggies. As a self-proclaimed stress-eater, keeping them out of sight in an inconvenient place makes them harder to binge by forcing a “gap” between environmental triggers and impulsive eating. If this is something you might struggle with – simply toss them.

This kind of situational awareness can help you set up systems that encourage success-minded behaviors– like driving a route home past the gym instead of the donut shop or scheduling time every day to work out together with your buddy. It could even look like taking batteries out of the remote and storing them in a drawer, making it harder to skip going for a run because, you know, TV.

Keeping your head on a swivel also means being aware of what you’re eating, drinking, and doing during the day.

Benefits of keeping hydrated

Are you getting plenty of water? We know dehydration increases the risk of heat illness and fatigue on the fire ground. But it also makes it harder for your body to use blood sugar, which can increase food cravings. Try starting every day with a big glass of water, and drinking a glass before and after every meal.

How’s your sleep? Insufficient sleep can lower your body’s levels of leptin – the hormone that signals “I’m full” – making you more likely to overeat. Firefighters can find quality sleep elusive, especially when working a 24, but don’t throw in the towel if that’s the case: there are other natural ways to boost leptin. 

Regular exercise increases leptin sensitivity, especially when you include strength training and cardiovascular conditioning in your weekly regimen. 

Eating mindfully by getting away from the phone, TV, paperwork, and other distractions helps improve leptin sensitivity and increase feelings of fullness. Thoroughly chewing your food forces you to slow down, giving time for leptin and dopamine (the feel-good hormone) to better interact.

Stress is a leptin killer, and firefighters experience daily stressors that the general population never will. Finding ways to de-stress improves leptin response while decreasing your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

Tip #4: SOGs are guidelines. Guidelines are flexible.

Occasionally, stuff goes sideways and your preplan goes out the window. We all know that prepping a meal to eat during your shift doesn’t guarantee you’ll actually get to eat it – don’t sweat it, keep some healthy backup snacks (like protein bars or bagged nuts) stashed in your gear, and save that lunch for tomorrow. If you and your crew must grab lunch on the go, items with lean protein and lots of veggies are good choices, and grilled chicken sandwiches work in a pinch (heck, grilled chicken ANYTHING is pretty good in my book!).

Every once in a while, take time for an after-action review – evaluate how you’re progressing, think about what’s working or not working for you, and what you need to change up or improve on.

At 170 pounds with a 31-inch waist, I’m fitter and stronger than I ever was in my 20s or 30s. I chalk that all up to developing healthy, consistent habits. Keep in mind that we don’t decide our future: we decide our habits, and our habits determine our future.

Roy is a certified personal trainer with more than twelve years in fitness, and eight years in the fire service. He is the co-owner of Center Circle Fitness in Mayville, Wisconsin, where he and his wife live, serve, and raise their family. Roy is online at www.roysmalley.us, where your questions and comments are always welcome.

1 https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/public-health-nutrition/article/is-cooking-at-home-associated-with-better-diet-quality-or-weightloss-intention/B2C8C168FFA377DD2880A217DB6AF26F

2 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26901392/

3 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7556237/

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