Call me vain or unprofessional if you want, but I’m sharing the results of my recent decision to reach a fitness goal I’ve meant to work on for years, maybe decades. Call me self-obsessed if you want for how many words follow, but the journey has been for more enlightening, satisfying, and delicious than I expected.
For context, as a child I felt ashamed enough from being teased for excess fat that I would wear a t-shirt at the beach and pool. In high school I started sports, though not seriously, but friends commented on my becoming more fit. In college and beyond I competed at the nationals and worlds level in ultimate Frisbee, a demanding and highly active sport. I loved competing and discovering my potential. I didn’t understand then the importance of diet so developed skill, teamwork, and endurance, but didn’t reach the levels of fitness I could. I thought, “I exercise so much I can eat anything I want,” and ate a lot of ice cream, pretzels, and chips, and drank my share of beer.
Since avoiding processed food—that is, food with fiber removed—I’ve learned that ab definition comes from diet. I took these pictures when I turned 45 and started seeing looking like men in magazines as possible. I’m not sure how much muscle I can grow, especially pushing 50 years old, but I could see defining my abs.
The lockdown made eating healthy easy
The lockdown provided the perfect occasion to reach new levels, at least once I returned from my mom’s. Meeting friends and socializing often involved food and doof, as did staying with family. In principle, I could decline, but it gets hard. Now I can buy just the unpackaged fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and ingredients I want.
As always, accessibility is important to me. I don’t want to use special foods or eat how someone in a food desert can’t. The crazy result is that by eating seasonally, I spend less and eat more volume of food than any other way. This post shows my diet. This post shows my twice-daily burpee-based calisthenics (two years old, I’ve updated slightly and I hope improved my form).
My main change from before is I changed from eating until stuffed to eating until full. I still finish every meal more than satisfied. The summer also helps by enabling my strategy of enabling eating more by increasing the green leafy fraction—kale, chard, lettuce, beet greens, carrot greens, radish greens, collard greens, etc.
You’ll notice still some fat just to the sides of my belly button. You might see a bit on the love handles, but it shows mostly on the back. I’ll write more about my limitations below.
A voyage of self-discovery and self-awareness
I’m happy with the abs. I can’t tell you the voyage of self-discovery and self-awareness that came with it. I learned way more about myself than I expected. In my leadership work and coaching, I find we protect ourselves from the world by covering parts of ourselves, especially the vulnerable parts. I thought I meant we cover ourselves figuratively, but I’ve come to see that my layer of fat covered me literally in a similar way.
I didn’t know myself underneath. I thought the skin on my abs just had a certain level of thickness. It didn’t and I knew it. My DNA is as human as any model’s or athlete’s. I was lying to myself to protect myself from not trying. I thought trying meant deprivation, sacrifice, willpower, or hunger. On the contrary, it meant shifting my mind from considering something impossible—that is, disbelieving in myself, lying to myself—to deciding I could do it and doing it.
Coming up with the term doof helped too, by clarifying what not to eat. For a few months, when people offered food, doof, or alcohol, I’d decline. Well, maybe some wine and sips of rum from the one open bottle in my apartment.
Here’s another, catching my face in an awkward moment:
As I mentioned above, I wouldn’t say I reached the full level of chiselled the body can. I reached several plateaus. I took the pictures above in the last week or two, but I’ve looked that way for about a month.
Why this plateau?
I’m not sure. My biggest challenge seems recovery time. My lifting and cardio workouts are nothing compared to when I was younger, but I take longer to recover. So eating less to burn fat results in losing muscle. My arms and chest are skinnier now than a couple months ago and I can’t bench or curl as much as I could then.
Maybe I need to increase my protein ratio, maybe eat less fruit. I don’t own a scale, either for my food or for me, so I haven’t calculated my macronutrient ratios—part of my interest in accessibility.
Come to think of it, if I dig into my psyche, I don’t think I made my goal a certain physique so much as living a lifestyle that my body reflects. On reflection, I wrote this post’s title as a question, “Would you describe these abs as chiseled?,” to see if enough people would describe my results how I’ve described my goal to friends. If so, I’ll declare victory and move on—that is, probably start eating more to see if my muscles grow more even if some fat returns. If not—if people say, “Josh, you can reach more potential,”—I might challenge myself more.
How I feel
I love how I feel. I love to feel lithe muscle under taut skin. I love eating fresh and in-season.
I wouldn’t call it regret, but I don’t look back fondly at my years—decades—of lying to myself about my potential. I’ve come to believe that everyone should explore and discover their potential of physical fitness, whatever it means for them. If only I’d discovered what I have earlier, I could have lived more honestly, more balanced, and more satisfied. I could have achieved more earlier in other areas of my life.
I can’t change the past, though, so I can’t see any better strategy than to enjoy these results and apply them throughout my life and relationships.
I’ll still ask some bodybuilder friends their thoughts and advice, keeping in mind I know there’s no end to levels of fitness, so don’t want to lose myself in it. I just like being able to, when I feel like it, swim across the Hudson, row a decent 2k in competition, walk up 11 flights of stairs daily for a few months, row 100 kilometers in 22 days, fast on water only for 72 hours, meditate in a full lotus position, and stuff like that.
I like life.
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