My writing is typically around financial issues and how improving your financial situation can ensure you some earlier retirement and its associated total freedom. However, total freedom means freedom not only from financial stresses, but also things like health stresses and relationship stresses. Today’s post will be a bit more health-oriented.
Over the past 14 months I’ve lost 32 lbs., during which time I rarely (if ever) exercised or changed my diet. How? Because, I believe I’ve cracked the code on easy, healthy weight loss, and it has nothing to do with diet, pills, meditation or exercise. You may be saying, “But Eric, what does this have to do with retirement and financial independence.” I promise that I’ll address both of those issues. But, first, let me give you an amusing history of my weight.
It All Started With a Pizza
Like most kids, weight was never on my mind. As an adolescent, I was far too concerned about not being a loser at school; who had time to count calories? I had no concept of “healthy” vs. “unhealthy” food. I knew there were some really fat kids, but I never made a connection between lifestyle and weight. With a jackrabbit metabolism, weight was simply a non-factor in my life. That held true until August of 2001…
I remember like it was yesterday… (cue dramatic music) It was an August night before my Junior year of high school; I was 16. I was watching Caddyshack alone in our basement. I had ordered a large Papa John’s Pepperoni pizza to commemorate the “occasion,” and I ate whilst laying on the floor in a sleeping bag and laughing at the funniest movie of all time. Probably around the scene where the Baby Ruth bar was floating around in the country club pool, I reached behind me to grab another slice of pizza, only to find (gasp!) an empty box. Curses! Words could not describe my shame. I just finished a whole pizza. There was a time in America when Dad would bring home a pizza on Friday night to feed the whole family–with enough left over for lunch the next day. And here I am, having just scarfed down a large all by my lonesome, still hungry for more, and managed to do it all while in full Shavasana. Not my proudest moment.
I weighed myself in our bathroom, 201 lbs. Oh. My. God. I was probably only 5′ 6″ at the time, so packin’ 201 lbs. on that little skeleton probably took some imagination. I vowed to never weigh above 200 lbs. again. I signed up for cross-country running the next day. I found workout partners and used the school’s gym every day we didn’t have practice. I joined the Army two years later, so any excess weight I still had was quickly removed with mandatory PT, three squares a day, and ornery platoon sergeants. I got way down in weight, 163 lbs. (now on a 6’1″ frame) was about where I bottomed out in 2008. My 201 lbs. was a distant memory…at least until 2014.
And Then There Were Three
I knew I’d gain a bit of weight when I left the military in 2010. I’d heard the horror stories. For the most part, dating my wife kept me in shape. I crept up a little bit in weight but never to a point where I was “fat.” I plateaued around 185 and was comfortable there. When we got pregnant, I expected some weight gain, but it truly took me by surprise. I would weigh myself every few days and the numbers just kept going up. 191..193..196..201… I felt like I went to the gym rather often, I ran rather often, I did a Tough Mudder, but nothing could halt the rise. Our lives became somewhat sedentary toward month number nine. When our family became three in February 2014, I hit rock bottom (top?), at 211 lbs. I couldn’t believe it.
The Precipitous Fall Using N.E.A.T.
I barely had enough time or dedication to hit the gym on the regular when we didn’t have a kid. With a new baby in tow and a nursing wife, I had to come up with some way to lose weight that didn’t require time, effort, or special dieting. It seemed impossible, until I stumbled upon the concept of N.E.A.T., or non-exercise activity thermogenesis.
For folks who are overweight, with BMI’s above 25 (at 211 lbs mine was 27.8 [calculate yours here]) the concept of weight loss is rather straightforward: burn more calories than you take in. In effect, everything you do other than eating and drinking helps you lose weight. It really is that simple. Granted, once you get down to a certain point, you can start looking at types of calories, # of meals, what time of day you eat, and all that other stuff. But for most of America, the logic of weight loss really is that simple–more calories used than consumed. Any deeper thought than that when you’re already overweight is just analysis paralysis.
There are two, and only two, ways to burn calories: Exercise and Non-Exercise.
We all know how exercise can burn calories. A 20-min bike ride will burn about 200 calories. You burn about 250 calories for a 20-min casual swim. Even doing a single burpee burns about 1.4 calories. I figured my exercise regimen would stay about the same–run once every other week, hit the gym once a month, and not much else. However, I thought I could really benefit from N.E.A.T.
*Note: Exercise is obviously a fantastic and efficient way to burn tons of calories. I’m not saying it isn’t. I’m only showing you that there’s a awesome, streamlined, and potentially more effective way.
Everybody’s body burns calories. Your body needs energy (calories) to do everything: pump blood, digest food, process waste, breathe, and blink. The amount of calories that your body burns at rest is called your basic metabolic rate, or BMR. It can be calculated as follows:
For Men: BMR = 66 + (6.23 x weight in pounds) + (12.7 x height in inches) – (6.8 x age in years)
For me, 179 lbs., 30 years-old, 6’1″ male, my body will burn 1,904 calories a day for doing basically nothing. The problem though, is that the average American man eats about 2,640 calories. Assuming zero activity, I’d gain one pound of fat (3,500 calories) every five days given my 700 cal/day deficit. Luckily, though, nearly everyone gets some activity. The average person walks about 4,000 steps per day, so that’s 200 calories. You’ll also probably do light housework, play with your kids, walk around the office, etcetera. These activities are all under the “N.E.A.T.” umbrella:
Of course this list is not all-inclusive. Like I said, any activity that you do that isn’t “exercise” has some caloric expenditure. But anyway, when I started looking into N.E.A.T., my first reaction was, “I could stand up at work!” And that’s exactly what I did. I didn’t wait around for a ergonomic standing desk, I just got a bunch of boxes and stacked them up. I pushed my chair into an empty cubicle and, voila, standing desk! Three things amazed me about this: 1.) How routine it became to stand up at work once the chair was gone, 2.) How hungry I felt after the first day, 3.) Why so many people who walked by would ask if something was wrong with my back, and 4.) That I would lose one pound of fat every 2.5 weeks just for standing 7 hours a day.
Of course I didn’t stand all day. I had meetings and such where standing wouldn’t be appropriate, but I otherwise stood. I didn’t stop at the standing desk, either. I bought a big pack of sugarless gum at Costco and put packs everywhere. In my desk, in the car, on my mousepad at work, everywhere. I like chewing gum, it makes my breath smell nice and strengthens my teeth and jaw, and if I can burn one pound of fat (6 hrs. of chewing each work day) every 2.5 months, why not? Lastly, I bought a pedometer and strove to hit 10,000 steps per day. It became a game. I would take the long way to the bathroom, or walk around the house with the baby, or walk over to a coworkers office rather than call–little things. I was probably walking around 5,000 steps/day without trying, so this extra 5,000 steps burned another 250 calories/day.
I understand that this all sounds pretty stupid, but it works, and it shouldn’t sound stupid! It sounds a lot more reasonable to burn a pound every week or two by making your body work a little harder over long periods then boomin’-and-bustin’ on fad diets and unsustainable exercise regimens.
I instituted these changes pretty much right after the baby was born and the weight started dropping quickly. Standing, chewing gum, and a little extra walking added up to over 700 calories per day, or a pound of fat every five-day workweek. Before long, I was under 200 lbs, then 190. Getting below 180 (to 179 today) took a little longer, but it still happened.
I think we’re conditioned to think that exercise is the fastest way to burn calories. While exercise is certainly the fastest way, I’m not sure it’s the best way. Your fat cells don’t have a preference. They line up to provide your body energy regardless of what the energy is needed for, whether it’s swimming the English Channel or changing your oil.
Burning Calories is Like Cutting Expenses
Let’s bring this back home a bit. As I’ve often said, I’m generally a pretty lazy person. I don’t want to get up early and go to the gym. Faced with a decision to work out or not, I’ll probably choose ‘not.’ However, I don’t want to be unhealthy, either, so I devised a solution that fits my lifestyle.
Burning calories and cutting expenses are two very similar things. In expense reduction, there is active expense reduction, like skipping Starbucks and couponing, and then there’s passive expense reduction, like cutting your cable bill or changing insurance providers. In the former, each expense reduction requires an action every time, in the latter, one action reaps perpetual expense reduction without additional thought or action.
Cutting calories is the same. You can actively exercise, whereby each trip to the gym, pool, basketball court, or running track will burn calories. Or, you can structure your lifestyle so that you’ll burn calories without thought or deliberate act. By removing my chair and making my desk into standing-room only, I removed the daily decision to sit down. By putting gum everywhere I made gum chewing a habit. The pedometer is a little bit of both active and passive, but by structuring a bit more walking into my life and making it fun and seamless, it was unnoticeable.
The law of inertia is strong. Just as it would require me to act (move boxes, cords, etc.) in order to sit down again at work, I would have to take an act to create a cable bill, install inefficient incandescent bulbs, go back to to a Cadillac phone plan, and so many other things that I’ve thus far cut from my expenses. I’ll typically choose not to act, so I take an action once and perpetually reap the benefits.
How N.E.A.T. Extends Your Retirement
I found a pretty interesting graphic on BariatricNews.net from the European Congress on Obesity that shows how many years you lose in given your BMI. As a 30-year-old with my (then) 28 BMI, I was giving up 1 year of life than if I held a “normal” BMI between 22 and 25. Now that my BMI has fallen to 23.6, I’ll now have another year of life in retirement, as well as countless more years of my life being a healthy and vibrant human being.
Many of us, myself included, get very caught up in how early we can retire. I’m guilty of feeling envious to those that have retired before me at 30 or shortly thereafter. I get competitive and feel that they’ve “beat” me. What’s so often ignored is that the length of retirement can be pushed from both ends. Sure, you can retire earlier, but you can also extend the back end of retirement–both by living longer and being healthier throughout. When I accepted this, I lose the envy I’ve felt toward other bloggers, knowing that my retired life could be just as long and lively as any other, so long as I maintain my health.
The concept of N.E.A.T. only works for so long. Just as with expenses, there are only so many cable/cell phone bills to cut, cars to downsize, memberships to cancel, CFLs to screw in, and insurance plans to change. As the easy-to-cut expenses fall away, then you need to start biking more, wrapping your hot water heater, cutting your tax bill, and hanging your wet laundry. Same with weight. As you enter your target weight range, your body will require you to start being more deliberate. The easy weight is gone, so now I’ve started to bike to the park-and-ride instead of drive, force myself to take walks during lunch, eat more healthily, and do some quick and dirty muscle work each day. I feel great and (I think) look pretty fantastic; overall, I feel better each day.
Thanks for reading, and good luck!