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On Fitness and Forgiveness

A couple days ago, I posted a picture on Facebook of my waistline while holding out the belt loop I used to use when I was drinking. I've been sober for going on 1,000 days now and I've been working out for about 2 years of that. A friend responded asking me about my fitness journey - so I thought I would share my response to him here as well:

My biggest struggle during my fitness journey has honestly been learning to find balance and to be kind with myself. Many character defects of mine like perfectionism, negative self talk, comparison to others, self shame, and others came out en masse when I started - as though it were open season for them to hunt down assassinate my progress and any confidence I gained. I learned that I had to (and continue to have to) reflect and identify the fitness goals I honestly desire to pursue.


For me, working out is somewhat meditative and helps me to be more present by giving me a space and time to dedicate to clearing my mind and focusing on myself. I also find it tremendously enjoyable; and by keeping a forgiving eye on my diet, I have also been able to gain strength, muscle, and slowly change the shape of my body. These further improve my mental health by helping lift me out of depressive episodes, calming my anxiety, and imbuing in me a confidence that can transcend my body dysmorphia.


On the ground, that looks like doing regular workouts regularly. While I may occasionally spend a leisurely afternoon experimenting with different workouts (which I also find fun), it more often means sticking to the same routine and the same handful of exercises for 4-8 weeks at a time before switching it up. Currently, I workout (at home or at the gym) 5-6x a week cycling through 3 day groupings of legs/shoulders, chest/back, biceps/triceps. There's also a really good 22-day ab challenge by Athlean-X on YouTube that can be paired with it - which reminds me that I'm overdue to start that again. But it also means that if I skip a day, or two, or ten - that's OK - no matter what any fitness buff may say. This is because there are many other things in my life which are important. Sometimes that takes the form of a two hour phone call with my mom, sometimes it's a guy who’s drunk and high on crack who needs to go to detox. Sometimes it's because the insistent creative voice inside me is calling me to write, or other times it might be because my crippling anxiety and depression is keeping me from getting out of bed. Fitness is but one piece of my existence - and while it is a spiritual act to take care of and enjoy the physical vessel my soul in inhabiting while it goes around the Sun a few times - there are many other forms of self care and other types of spiritual acts to be done that don't involve picking things up and putting them down.


Diet has been a little trickier. Mainly because I think it is so much more personal than a workout routine. I wanted to start with numbers because I realized that other than knowing that I underate a lot (also related to my BDD), I couldn't have told you how much of or what I was eating. But figuring out numbers around what to eat was insanely frustrating at first. There are a seemingly infinite number of websites with equally infinite and differing advice on how many calories one should eat based on every variable conceivable. Same goes with macros. It got worse when I tried to calculate my BMR, TDEE, or estimate how much over (or under) I should consume (and of what) if I wanted to gain muscle, lose weight, carve abs, etc., etc., ad infinitum. It seems that everyone is a nutritionist these days - and I don't have space here to address any of the fad diets, snake oil supplements (although, many supplements are good - I'll come back to that), pseudo-scientific holistic approaches, or the advice from that co-worker who got shredded in 8 weeks after eating nothing but pizza for 20 years and is now a "personal trainer."


I almost gave up on figuring out a diet entirely, but I eventually got a FitBit (and later an Apple Watch), and I got a Fitindex scale. I watched my numbers until I felt I had an idea of what numbers made sense to describe me. I then tracked down a couple not-too-complicated BMR & TDEE equations by looking at what a few peer-reviewed studies used and how Wikipedia explained them. For me that means that on a normal non-workout/non-work (i.e. sitting) day, I will burn about 1,840 calories give or take - so I try to always eat that at a minimum. For many reasons - not the least of which is what my doctors advised after the pancreatitis - I try to keep my fat macro to 15%. (N.B. I fail at this A LOT - but by keeping the goal that low, it means I'm more likely to average in the 20-22% range. On workout days, that number goes up by 400-600 calories. I've received the suggestion that if I want to put on even more muscle faster, I should eat another 10-20% above that. I don't know about that one for me just yet (see below) - but the most important phrase in that last statement was "for me." This whole journey has been about discovering what is important to me, why it's important to me, and how to go about it in a way that is reasonable, achievable, and fulfilling to me. I don't live in anyone else's body, just as nobody else lives in mine.


Boots-on-the-ground I eat a lot of tuna, turkey, pork, pasta, bread, cereal, bananas, clementines, oatmeal, and yogurt. I try to keep fruits and vegetables around that I will easily eat (it's more likely that I'll eat an entire bowl of blackberries than cut up a single pear). I keep cheese to a minimum and use fat free milk and other low fat substitutes when possible, and I stick mostly with homemade meals. I use the MyFitnessPal app to track everything and if I can't find what I'm eating in their database, I stray away from it.


I suppose I should point out that while I have struggled with BDD my whole life, I've never really had an Eating Disorder, although I've had disordered eating. I mention this because at first consuming that much food regularly was more emotionally difficult than physically - so this is a maturing relationship I have with eating. I also mention this because men don't really talk about issues of body image or disordered eating, even though it is probably highly prevalent, and I'm forever grateful to the women I've encountered in life who were so willing to freely share their experiences in these areas with me. So I'm intentionally outing myself for anyone who may have experienced or felt similarly who may want to reach out. I'm here.


Finally, a note about supplements since I mentioned them earlier. I get a good chunk - if not a majority - of my protein in powder form, which often come with additional goodies. I prefer Optimum Nutrition because I like their flavors and it's light - I can easily mix 3 scoops in 16 oz of water and it doesn't feel like I'm trying to down a Chocolate Cake Shake from Portillo's. But beyond that, protein is protein, and I get what makes the most financial sense. About the only thing I do keep an eye on is that a gram of protein is 4 calories - so based on that it's easy to calculate how "clean" a protein is based on the calorie count and serving size. During workouts, I like BCAAs - but I will also sometimes drink half a shaker of Mr Hyde pre-workout and drink the rest throughout - although that's more for the caffeine during early AM workouts. I also recently started taking a testosterone booster/estrogen blocker. The jury is still out on that one, and since I'm only getting older, it may be better to just go have my levels tested before making any more decisions down that road.


This may all be way more than you were asking for - or perhaps completely off the mark if you wanted straight workout routines lol. I think the most salient point of it all though is that it was important for me to figure out what I honestly wanted out of fitness, to point my feet towards that, pursue it, and remember to be kind and forgiving to myself when I misstep.

Thank you for taking the time to read. If you've never heard of Portillo's, I highly recommend getting on the first plane you can and going to Chicago (my hometown) and making a beeline for the closest one. Get the cheesy beef croissant, a large fry, and a Chocolate Cake Shake. Your heart and cholesterol levels may regret it, but I promise you won't :)

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