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How to Get (and Lose) a Dad Bod
It’s easy to be thin in High School. For me it was, anyway. My body was happy to gobble up any food I threw at it. Chicken biscuits multiple times a week? No problem. Bags of candy? You can never have enough Skittles. You couldn’t get me to touch a salad, but I used to eat a bowl of extra butter popcorn almost every single night. I had my own metal mixing bowl that I only used for popcorn. It was a great bowl.
Just play tennis a few hours a day and watch it all melt away. I’ve never been a bean pole. I have a pretty broad frame. Still, I struggled to hit 170lbs.
College, too. You hear about the freshman 15, but I was never so lucky. The cafeteria offered unlimited pizza and burgers with fries every night. Soft serve was always on the menu. We would bake funfetti cakes in our dorm just for fun. Didn’t add up to much. Maybe I needed to drink more. But I was walking around campus to class, playing intramurals or club tennis, and always heading somewhere. College never managed to hit me in the gut.
What got me was the graduation 15. Or 30. I took an internship at a small financial firm in Washington, DC. I sat at a desk in a massive office park scrubbing Excel sheets for however many hours a day. There was a McDonald’s next door. I swear it wasn’t my fault. I was poor, and a double cheeseburger and large sweet tea were only a dollar each. Do you have any idea how hard it is to find decent sweet tea in DC?
I’d occasionally play hoops with some buddies or walk around downtown, but for the most part my general activity level slowed to a crawl. From sitting in class for 4 hours a week my Senior year to sitting at a desk 8 hours a day, suddenly those double cheeseburgers weren’t going anywhere except my gut. Half an hour on the treadmill (when you can make it to the gym) doesn’t exactly compensate for days in a chair.
Its a hard habit to break. Life never gets any easier. It’s not as though you ever get to work any less. Unless you get fired, in which case you’re probably binging on chocolate cake and ice cream. You get married and have a wife demanding your time (in a good way, of course). Kids gobble up your free time and energy like little tasmanian devils whirling around the house.
It’s a crazy, chaotic, wonderful life, unless you’re trying to stay fit. By the time my second child was due, I’d gained more weight than my pregnant wife. If I ever stepped on a scale (which I didn’t), it would have easily hit 200.
I could feel the extra weight on my belly, pressing against my waistband. I could see it on my face in the mirror. I had a great dad bod, gut, manboobs and all. If I ever played basketball or flag football or ultimate frisbee, I was gassed before the first half ended. As someone who thought of himself as an athlete, that was particularly embarrassing.
At some point, probably looking at one of the horrible pictures of myself with the kids, I figured I should do something about it. But I was in my thirties, working full time and writing a book on the side, chasing around (metaphorically) two kids, and had almost never intentionally exercised in my life. Losing weight wasn’t going to be easy.
Here’s the thing about fitness: it’s incremental. It’s about habits, small and large, over the course of a lifetime. For every 90-day success story, there’s someone who made a few small tweaks every so often until they added up to radical change.
I switched my lunch from whatever was in the fridge to a meal-replacement shake one of my wife’s friends had introduced to us. It tasted good and actually made life easier, not having to worry about shopping for and preparing lunch. Also, instead of drinking sweet tea at lunch for the caffeine, I started mixing sweet and unsweet. That was it. Not a huge change, but I stuck with it for the whole year. The pounds didn’t fly off, but I lost a couple and stayed there.
The next step was starting to exercise. A tough one for me, because I had never had any kind of exercise plan before. Playing sports had always been enough to keep me in shape. I’d joined a gym after college but rarely went. So I had no idea what to do. Taking an hour and half to trek to the YMCA or wherever wasn’t an option, and my home gym consisted of two 8-pound weights and a yoga mat.
Well, you have to work with what you’ve got, so i signed up for the online P90X workouts. I think it was 100 bucks for the year, with access to all the P90X stuff plus a bunch of others. I chose the 30-minutes-a-day version and committed to finishing the 90 days. That was plenty. The cardio sessions were a struggle to complete. The strength training was eye-opening. I could not do a pull-up. I found some workout bands to use instead. At least the yoga wasn’t a problem.
But it didn’t matter how terrible I was. I did it. Everyday. Usually. And I got better. I could make it through the cardio. I could use a little bit more weight. I could increase the number of pushups. I even did a pull-up.
I never would have thought I could find half an hour for something fun, much less a workout, but it quickly became a regular part of my schedule, sliding right into that slot after work and before starting dinner. Seeing progress is an incredible motivator. It was easier to want to continue the longer I went. I didn’t necessarily like doing the workouts, but I loved the idea of being someone who worked out. It’s the closest you can get to feeling young while being old.
Over a few months, I lost a few more pounds. I tried a couple of diets, cutting out carbs, reducing any sweets, adding back nachos, binging every so often. I was in better shape, feeling good, strong enough to do multiple pull-ups, and didn’t hate when i looked in a mirror. I could have stayed there and been happy, but maybe all the testosterone had gone to my head, or maybe I’d knocked a few screws loose somewhere along the way. I wasn’t satisfied. So about a year ago, I decided to get serious.
I had a goal: for once in my life, for however short it might last, I wanted a six-pack. Call me vain. I can’t deny it. But I also had an idea how fit I would need to be to get there, and it’s important to be able to visualize what you are working toward and be able to see your progress along the way.
I doubled my workouts, adding a core workout every day, going from half to a full hour or more. But that was the easy part (even when my 4-year-old was whining for me to play a game or get him a snack). The unfortunate truth about having a six-pack or one of those bodies you see on TV, is that it’s much less about working out and much more about eating well. Yes, you obviously need the muscles, but if they are covered in fat then no one is ever going to see them.
For me, that meant big changes to my diet. I’d been doing better, I thought. Fewer snacks, more fruit. Less fast food, more protein shakes. But that wasn’t enough to achieve the body fat percentages I needed. I somehow had to get down to 1500 or so calories a day with as much protein as possible without starving myself into an inevitable binge-fest.
I cut out breakfast. Man, it hurt to lose my apple cinnamon cheerios. I looked forward to it. It helped me get out of bed in the morning. But I’d found that once I started eating for the day, it was harder to stop. After breakfast, I might work for a couple hours before getting hungry and thinking, “I’ll just grab a small, healthy snack.” Some days it was more than one. I’d tell myself to stop, but the stomach is not a good listener. If I waited to eat until an early lunch, I might be hungry in the morning, but it was easier to say no to everything, knowing I had only a couple hours till lunch, than to say no to every littler craving. My body soon adjusted to the schedule. I don’t get hungry in the mornings anymore.
I can’t testify to the the various health benefits claimed by intermittent fasting, but I can tell you the psychological effects are real. Maybe it will work for you, too. Dieting involves a lot of tough decisions. It takes a lot of willpower. The more you can simplify it, the better. The more decisions you can eliminate, the easier it will be. Don’t try to stop eating so many cookies. Stop buying cookies. If they are in the pantry, you will probably eat them. Don’t decide what and when to eat each day. Set a schedule for all your meals and snacks. It’s still not easy, but every little bit helps.
Work your habits into the cadence of your day. You won’t be going to the fridge when you are in meetings, so plan your meetings when you are likely to snack. I generally go out to get my caffeine and write after lunch, so I don’t eat in the mornings, drink a protein shake for lunch around 11am, and then leave the house. I go somewhere to get an unsweet tea (there’s a sentence I never thought I would write) and work until I pick up the kids from school. When I get home, I eat a snack, usually a bowl of yogurt, and then finish work and working out before dinner. Even if I wanted to snack, there just aren’t a lot of opportunities. Eat a satisfying, high-protein dinner, make sure there isn’t any ice cream in the freezer (if there is, might as well eat it now), and you’re good till the next day.
The goal is to find a rhythm you can live with. Losing just 1 pound a week will change your life if its something you can keep up for 20 weeks. Eventually you’ll reach an equilibrium where you maintain an ideal weight or have room to bulk up.
I don’t want to understate how impossible I thought this was before I tried it. I was always known as a picky eater. I was a meat and potatoes kinda guy, and I only recently came around on the potatoes. Give me simple, tasty foods and hold the veggies. I ate my cheeseburgers plain and my BLT sandwiches without the L or the T. Forget about a salad or a casserole. I struggled to find something to eat at Thanksgiving dinner.
Then the craziest thing happened. When I stopped drinking tons of sweet tea, cut out most fast food, and stopped snacking on empty carbs, my tastes changed. I needed a healthier snack, so I tried non-fat, unsweetened, plain greek yogurt. I hate yogurt. But with a little bit of granola mixed in, it became an absolute treat. Sometimes I’ll eat it for desert. I had never touched a salad in my life, but now I eat a simple spinach, olive oil, and parmesan salad almost every night. I was the guy ordering chicken strips at the seafood restaurant on beach trips. My family was shocked when I ordered fish and actually ate it. I could hear them whispering about it behind my back.
It’s amazing what changing just a few small habits can do. When I had my kids, I felt old, in all the good and bad ways. I was a mature, responsible adult. I had fun playing and caring for them, even on all those rough nights. I also had a dad bod, pushing past 200 pounds, and I was tired. My legs didn’t move like they used to, and chasing them around got me sucking wind real quick.
Now I’m a 35-year-old dad. My kids are older, crazier, and faster than ever. But they’ve got nothing on their old man. I’m a lean 160 and in the best shape of my life. I’ve still got a dad bod, but now it’s the good kind.