I didn’t start bike commuting purely for fitness and weight loss purposes, but it was certainly a very big plus. As I wrote in my previous post, the 100+ mile per week commute from Riverdale helped me lose weight pretty much no matter what I was eating, but just a few months after moving to the city (and after a very harsh winter that didn’t allow for much riding) my cycling mileage shrank dramatically and I regained all that weight. I had resolved to get back on the path to good health and fitness.
I acquired some new tools to help me lose weight, such as a new scale, beeminder, and a custom Excel spreadsheet, but the real effort was figuring out a new lifestyle. If I was going to lose weight again, my relatively short 9-mile per day bike commute just wasn’t going to cut it.
And so, for the first time in many months, I headed to the gym. My usual go-to cross-training cardio workout is the elliptical machine. But I noticed that I just didn’t feel as tired after a 500-calorie burned workout as after an equivalent bike ride. And as I learned from cycling, if you don’t “suffer”, you’re not working hard enough.
Besides, one of the great things about cycling is being outdoors and seeing things you wouldn’t otherwise see. I never liked indoor cycling, and I don’t really like indoor elliptical training, either. On the other hand, the last thing I wanted was to look like one of those awkward geeks on the elliptical bikes.
So I started doing the only other natural type of cardio activity. I started running. My wife runs to work every day. Heck, one of my colleagues runs to work several days a week, and he lives even further away than I do!
I quickly discovered that running is hard. After what I thought was a sufficient period of treadmill training, I went for a run with my wife in Central Park. After just 3 miles I simply couldn’t run any more. I practically limped forward until I caught up to where my wife was waiting for me. I told her I needed a very long break. An hour later my pace for the run home was a truly pitiful 11:45/mi, as compared to a barely acceptable pace of 10:30/mi at the start.
A few days later I tried running outdoors again, but this time it was even worse. After just 2 miles out the pain in my shins was so unbearable I had to walk practically the entire 2 miles back. I learned the hard way why they say cycling is “low impact” while running is “high impact.”
With time, though, things are improving. I can now run continuously for about 3 miles, and with only minimal stops (for water and a brief stretch) for about 5 miles. On my longest run to date, I completed just over 6 miles in just under an hour of running, not counting about 15 minutes of rest at the turn-around point.
My wife and I have even gone out on more runs together, including a 4.5 mile run through the sandy salt marshes in Brooklyn’s Marine Park. On our recent Miami beach vacation, we took turns going for 3-5 mile beachfront runs each morning (most of the path is on hard-packed sand or concrete, but some was loose sand).
The most amazing thing about taking on a new activity like running is the sense of constant improvement. One of the metrics I’ve been tracking is my time for 1 treadmill mile at a 5% incline. The first time I attempted this I completed the mile in 11:20. Now I can do it in just under 10 min.
Running outdoors on level ground, I’m now trying to get my 1.5 mile run test time down to 11:45 (my current PB is 13:13).
My current most ambitious goal is a greenway run commute, for 6.5 miles, without stopping, some time before Labor Day.
More exercise is great, but rapid weight loss requires massive dietary changes, too.
I’ve always found it much easier personally to add exercise than to subtract food, but both are truly necessary in order to achieve any sort of meaningful weight loss. In fact, exercise makes you quite hungry, so exercising without watching what you eat may lead you to consume back all the calories you lose.
Now that my weight loss is clearly visible, I get asked a lot what sort of diet I’m on. [Actually, the most frequent comment is that it must be all that cycling I do, but I quickly correct that mistaken impression.] Truth is there is no magic diet. But there are a few helpful things I’ve learned that worked for me, though YMMV.
The first step in my diet was to drastically reduce my caloric intake for the first 2 weeks. I would suggest carefully and conservatively estimating how many calories you burn per day (including exercise), then aim for a daily deficit of 750 calories. For both calorie counting and estimating calories burned, my favorite smartphone app is LoseIt. This handy tool provides estimated calories for many popular foods (including restaurant foods) and allows one to scan the bar code of packaged items for instant data.
Make no mistake about it, restricting my intake by about 750 calories compared to what my body needs was very difficult and often quite painful, particularly as I sometimes felt extremely tired during exercise. To mitigate this, I generally ate an energy bar immediately before exercise, though I had to compensate for this with significantly less food at other times.
However, after 2 weeks on such a strict diet my body was definitively in weight-loss mode. Not only did eating about 250-400 calories more per day after those harsh 2 weeks feel decadent by comparison, but it seemed to actually condition my body to lose weight even when I (temporarily) ate significantly more than my daily burn.
In fact, I went on a beach vacation for the first week of June, and I had significantly less control over when and what I ate. Worse, I didn’t have access to a scale to check my progress. [I even asked the hotel if they have a scale, and all I received was a cryptic response that they might have one in the mail room to weigh packages.] About the only thing I could control was the overall quantity of food I ate. Fortunately by this time I had learned what mildly hungry feels like, and if that feeling ever went away, I knew I was eating too much.
I weighed myself the morning after returning home, and was proud and relieved to discover that I had actually lost about a pound. Nevertheless, this is noticeably less weight loss than my previous rate of about 1.5 pounds/week, so I’m imposing a 5-day harsh period to get me back on track.