Two months. That's how quickly I thought I could lose my gut. This was back in the fall, before my kids dragged home bags of Halloween candy that I gorged on after they had gone to bed.
My son had begun pointing at my belly and asking if I was pregnant. It got a good laugh from his sister and mother the first time, and like all natural comedians he knows to play the hits.
But that wasn't my motivation.
I was tired. I would catch sight of myself in the mirror, my dress shirt straining across my midsection like sausage casing, and utter sighs of self-recrimination. With my 40th birthday on the horizon, I wondered: How did this happen? The years had drifted by, and the pounds had crept on. I felt weak and lethargic all the time. I wanted to feel strong and have energy. And yes, I wanted to look better, too.
The personal trainer I hired laughed in my face when I told her I wanted to work off my gut in two months. "More like six," she said.
That was six months ago.
The danger zone
There are as many reasons to want to lose extra pounds around your middle as there are factors making it difficult to do so.
Better health is the most obvious. For men, having a waist size of 40 inches or more and a body mass index (BMI) above normal puts you at greater risk of a litany of diseases and conditions, including heart disease, hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, cancer, kidney disease, stroke and sleep apnea, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The day I began my weight-loss regimen, my waist was 40 3/4 inches. And, at 210 pounds, I was 13 pounds over the upper limit of "normal weight," according to an online BMI calculator, putting me squarely in the danger zone. The only thing my gut was speeding me toward, besides cheeseburgers, was an early grave.
Then, of course, there are the physiological effects of packing on pounds. Your 30s usually mark the beginning of age-related sarcopenia, the loss of muscle mass and function. It's one of the reasons why you can begin to feel weaker. If you are inactive – by far the biggest factor contributing to weight gain, along with diet – the fat you put on has an enzyme that converts testosterone into estrogen, sapping what little energy you have left after a long day at your desk.
Lugging around a spare tire also bummed me out. Every cover of Men's Health magazine is bound to include some promise of a ripped midsection. Celebrity magazines rave about taut tummies and point big yellow shaming arrows at sagging stomachs. In a survey conducted by researchers at Western Illinois University in 2009, more than 300 people were asked to rank body parts by attractiveness. Among women, abs came out on top, followed by biceps and pectorals. Men ranked glutes above all, followed closely by abdominals. The participants said they worked out at the gym accordingly.
From scarcity to scary
Whatever your reasons for wanting to lose weight, you face an opponent with 200,000 years of experience and formidable tenacity on its side.
Our bodies have evolved to survive scarcity. For most of our time on this planet, food has been rare – particularly fat, salt and sugar – so whenever we had the opportunity we gulped down as much as we could and held on to it in our guts for as long as we could.
"Storing fat there saved our lives," said Stuart Phillips, the director of the Physical Activity Centre of Excellence at McMaster University. "Unfortunately, now that we have easy and open access to food all the time, and season doesn't matter, for most people, what served us well in terms of survival once is now hurting us."
The liver, pancreas and other organs in our midsection were never meant to have a lot of fat stored in them, Phillips said. "When you start to store fat in those organs, it's a really bad outcome."
Visceral fat is so bad for you, in fact, that it wreaks havoc even on people with a normal BMI, according to a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2015. People whose midsections were bigger than the circumference of their hips were more likely to die from heart disease than people who were obese but whose fat was more evenly distributed throughout their bodies, the study found. So even if you're otherwise skinny, if your belly is wider than your hips, don't think you're safe.
"On average, it doubles the risk of earlier death," said Francisco Lopez-Jimenez, the director of preventive cardiology at the Mayo Clinic and a co-author of the study.
The reason you most often hear for hiring a personal trainer is that she will keep you accountable. And she will.
At our first meeting, Jennifer Lau interviewed me about my goals and my diet and exercise. I had to come clean about the chips and the pop and the chicken wings. At least I could be honest about running semi-regularly, although it felt like telling your doctor you've got a heroin habit but, hey, at least you only smoke cigarettes on the weekend.
Then I had a fitness assessment. I don't remember any of the words spoken during this embarrassing reality check, but I do remember sounds.
"Eeeesh," Lau said as I strained to touch my chin to my knee from a seated position on the floor. I couldn't come close.
Apparently, years of working at a desk had weakened and tightened the muscles in my legs and back and around my hips and core – all of me, basically.
"Your core is one of your weakest areas," said Lau, who has the perfect personality for her job – she's a friendly hard-ass with no poker face.
I couldn't do more than 30 pushups. My legs buckled as I tried to squat 60 pounds.
So Lau put me on a program filled with dead lifts, squats, presses and pushups.
"We keep your goals in mind, but our main goal is to make you functionally as strong as possible," she said
I would have to work out three days a week – two on my own and one with Lau.
I left the first few sessions so butt-kicked I worried I might throw up.
Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays I would head to the gym carrying a notebook containing all my exercise details – weights, reps, rest times. I would spend an hour going through eight to 10 exercises, swinging kettlebells one minute and holding a plank the next, trembling like a sinner before the Lord.
The rest of the week I did my best to run at least three days – two short runs of at least five kilometres and a longer one on the weekend.
A combination of weight training and cardio workout is the best way for a guy to work off his belly, according to a study conducted by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health and published in 2014.
"People think: 'Okay, if I want to lose fat mass I need to go run,'" said Rania Mekary, co-author of the study. But she and her colleagues looked at 12 years of data of 10,500 men 40 and over and found that when it came to reducing waist circumference, doing both weight training and moderate to vigorous aerobic activity was best.
But the researchers also found that, in a one-to-one comparison, weight training was twice as effective as aerobic activity.
"When you engage in aerobic activity, over time you will tend to lose muscle mass," Mekary explained. The more muscle you have, however, the more you burn off fat – assuming, of course, that you are actually using your muscles. Lifting weights or doing any kind of resistance training fires up the body's energy-burning system and keeps that engine running longer than aerobic activity does.
"You're increasing your metabolic rate, and it's not just temporary," Mekary said. In fact, your metabolic rate increases not only during the time you spend grunting in the gym but for the next 48 hours.
Mekary's advice for a guy near 40 who wants to trim his midsection? "Weight training is key. It's essential."
Nutrition, not diet
And yet, exercise is not the most important factor when it comes to losing weight. Not even close.
There were days when I would come home from the gym, starving and sure that whatever I crammed into my mouth would burn off instantly, only to be proven oh so wrong.
So I called a bodybuilder for advice. If you are working out three days a week and running like mad the rest of the time, how much leeway do you get come dinner time?
"The diet is all of it," said Peter Van der Linde, who won the men's masters, the category for guys between 40 and 45, at last year's Canadian Bodybuilding, Bikini and Classic Physique Championships. "You can't train yourself out of a bad diet."
I learned this lesson the hard way on a few occasions.
The nutrition plan Lau put me on – "'Diet' implies that it's a short-term plan," she said – was simple and utilitarian, meaning boring.
Breakfast was a medium-sized portion of meat with a handful of nuts and one cup of vegetables or three eggs with half a small avocado.
For a midmorning snack, I could choose between a small Greek yogurt and a handful of nuts or seeds or have celery and one tablespoon of hummus or almond butter.
Lunch was a portion of lean meat one-and-a-half times the size of my palm, two fist-sized portions of vegetables along with one flat handful of carbs – brown rice or quinoa – on training days.
Midafternoon, I was back to either Greek yogurt and one piece of fruit or more celery and hummus.
Dinner was the same menu as lunch.
Eating protein at every meal was essential. Protein activates the satiety hormone, which keeps you feeling full between meals, according to a study published last year in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. It won't just stop you from drifting into the pantry, it's also essential for putting on muscle while losing weight.
In a study conducted last year by Dr. Phillips at McMaster, one group of men were put on a high-protein diet and another group were put on a low-protein diet. Both groups ate a calorie-restricted diet and were put on a gruelling exercise regimen. By the end of four weeks, the results were striking: The men on the high-protein diet lost an average of 10 1/2 pounds of fat and gained 2 1/2 pounds of muscle, while the men in the low-protein group lost seven pounds of fat but gained no muscle.
I was told to cut down on processed foods and eliminate pop, desserts, breakfast cereals, muffins, bagels, starches and anything deep-fried – foods low in nutrients and packed with sugar that people tend to eat in the morning.
"When you've been fasting for eight hours and you go and consume a sugary cereal or muffin, your insulin levels and blood-sugar levels are through the roof," Lau said. "Once you crash, the first thing your body wants to do is reach for something that's going to make you peak again."
And where does all that extra sugar go? Straight to your belly.
I tried to stick to the plan most of the time. Even when I veered from it, however, I usually followed its guiding principles: eat lots of protein and vegetables, minimize carbs, don't eat junk.
There have been treats, usually small and consumed reverentially. Despite the absolute prohibition on eating carbs in the morning because they make my blood sugar go haywire, every Friday I eat one piece of toasted white bread slathered in butter and strawberry jam. It is the single greatest piece of toast I have ever eaten, every single time.
Although I was never given a maximum number calories to eat each day, about three months in I began to limit it to 2,000. Several online calorie calculators told me that was the number a guy my size should shoot for to lose weight.
Each day I would record everything I ate and their calorie counts in a green notebook. At first, it was a nuisance, but it quickly became invaluable. I realized my three daily double-doubles added up to 420 calories, more than a fifth of my daily total. I cut it to one a day.
The notebook was also a good receptacle for thoughts on my progress – from how being "hangry" all the time those first few weeks gnawed at me to the importance of being a relentless pragmatist – since God knows my wife and friends didn't want to hear about it.
People who track what they eat are more successful than those who don't, several studies have shown. One, published in 2008 by researchers at the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research, in Portland, Ore., found that people who kept a daily food diary lost twice as much as people who didn't keep any records.
Besides, the more structure I could impose, the better. Because whenever the structure fell apart, so did everything else.
In December, I went to a friend's house to celebrate her birthday. She and her husband had put out an impressive spread for the party: ribs, brisket, cornbread. The kitchen island was covered with bowls of chips, gummy bears, chocolate. The morning of the party I weighed 198 pounds. The morning after I weighed in at 205.
"One bad day can undo two weeks of hard work," I wrote in the notebook.
I intentionally ignored that lesson on Super Bowl Sunday. I wasn't going to deny myself the pleasure of my favourite annual ritual of gluttony and screaming. The party in December was a failure of willpower. That Sunday, I voluntarily said: To hell with it.
I ate everything: deep-dish pizza, three ice cream sandwiches (the kind that has cookie as soft as the ice cream), almost an entire bag of chips, chicken wings. I drank the better part of a 12-pack. It must have been a day for miracles, because not only did the Patriots pull out the win, but I only gained three pounds, going from 191 to 194.
Nights like that taught me another lesson that I scrawled down in my notebook: If you want to make good diet decisions, don't drink alcohol. Looking back on every time I fell farthest off the wagon, I had a beer in my hand on the way down.
"Do you feel it?"
A friend asked me that when I told her that I had been exercising regularly and had lost weight.
I have lost 28 pounds. When I began this I weighed an even 210. This morning I weighed 182. My waist has shrunk from 40 3/4 inches to 36. None of my old pants stay up without a belt.
Strangely, I feel taller – stretched out, the way Gumby must feel tall. I'm 6 foot 4, so feeling tall shouldn't surprise me. But it does, and I think it's because I've leaned out.
The best part is when I go running. It's no longer a chore to lumber along for four or five kilometres in order to stave off the entropy of getting older.
Do you remember when you were a kid, how even when you were winded from running around all day, no matter how tired you were, you still took a fizzy joy in it? It's like that. I feel fast and light on my toes. I've carved eight minutes off my five-kilometre time – a function of running more and basic physics: It's easier to move lighter objects.
Mentally, it is tremendously buoying to exercise self-discipline. I'm spared the self-pitying whimpers that always followed when I was covered in Doritos dust. When I do give in to temptation, I savour every molecule.
I am glad it's taken me six months and not two, as I originally planned. Two months into this I was just getting used to it all. Now, I hope, it's become habit.