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My Healthy Makeover: Harley Pasternak's 5-Factor Fitness and Other Get-Fit Things

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It's strange to tell people that you look great now. Essentially, that's what I'm doing here, and it sounds insufferably conceited, although I don't mean it that way. You don't tell folks you look great -- you're not supposed to know until you're told, right? But we wear how we feel as if it were clothing, so the better you feel, the better you look. Truth.

Sometimes we don't feel so great. We think all those fun, vibrant people around us were born that way, that we weren't so lucky. The key is figuring out that a healthier attitude (stop feeling sorry for yourself) and a healthier lifestyle (get off the couch) changes everything (life) for the so-much-better.

For years I struggled with my weight and felt ugly and worthless because of it. I spent 10 years hiding in my apartment, avoiding a social life because of the way I felt about myself. I eventually figured out that I was being an idiot, that losing weight wasn't going to guarantee happiness or a hot boyfriend, so I got off the couch and started a life.

I have to point out that the realization that I was holding myself hostage for no good reason is what freed me, allowed me to feel better about myself. The weight loss came later, and upped the quality of my life.

I was still at Canadian Living and Homemakers magazines when I found the determination to get fit and reduce my weight by 50-plus pounds. The following is an adaptation of a piece that first ran in Canadian Living's March 2007 issue. The full article included a colleague's success story. Colleen is more dedicated and therefore more fit and trim than I am, damnit, so you have to go to to read her part.

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Tell us about your weight issues: how much you gained and lost, if you were heavy as a child, and why.
I was a plump kid. Why? Yes, I ate vegetables, fruit and healthy cereals; sweet desserts were mostly Sunday treats. But rice and pasta were staples, as were sauces and gravy, which I poured all over the rice and pasta (OK, the vegetables, too). I ate adult-size portions before I should have. Plus, I was a bookworm who thought she was dreadful at sports and so put no effort into physical activity. As an adult, I made unhealthy food choices when my schedule got busy, and I maintained an inactive lifestyle.

I'm five foot eight and weighed 216 at my highest. I now weigh 160, which means I'm down 56 pounds. I lost 40 of those in the last two years, which may not sound like much in that amount of time, but I'm smaller and more muscular than I've ever been at this weight. (A healthy weight for an adult five foot eight is considered to be between 122 and 164 pounds.)

How many false starts did you have before you were successful?
Several, including three gym memberships (I'd go for a few months, then stop). At Weight Watchers some time ago, I lost 30 pounds and kept it off for about three years until I had a not-so-cheery winter and gained 20 back.

Why were you successful this time?
I was sick of feeling bad about myself. Being in the fashion/beauty side of the magazine world made it worse -- I always felt huge and frumpy (stylish clothing is hard to get over size 12/14). Hitting the obesity mark was a kick in the pants.

Sticking with it came down to a series of things:

  • Outside help. I hired a personal trainer for two days per week (and did a third day solo) for three months, which got me in the habit of going to the gym.
  • Incentives. My gym, The Womens Fitness Clubs of Canada in Toronto, has an incentive card -- work out 10 times per month and the card goes into a draw for a prize -- plus, after 12 cards you get a free month.
  • An efficient exercise routine. I use the book 5-Factor Fitness (Putnam, 2005) by Harley Pasternak, which took my workouts from an exhausting and inconvenient one hour, three days a week, to an energizing 25 minutes, five days a week. Based on what another trainer, Tony Horton, has now cleverly termed "muscle confusion," my routine is five minutes of cardio warm-up, 10 minutes of two weight exercises (two different exercises per day), five minutes of an abs workout (a different exercise each day) and five minutes of cardio cool down (more if you want to trim fat quickly).
  • Healthy eating. I don't feel deprived. I've reduced my portions and intake of unhealthy carbs (such as white bread and rice) and upped my intake of vegetables. I try to eat smaller amounts five times a day. Sugar content is the first thing I look at when I'm food shopping. Most reduced-fat foods contain extra sugar, which doesn't work for me.
  • Support. I joined the office "Chub Club," a group for those of us at work who want to lose weight; we support one another around good eating habits, have weekly weigh-ins -- and get fined for eating junk food. The money collected goes to the person who most closely reaches her goal (a brilliant incentive for me to stay on track).

Why do you think this approach worked for you?

  • Results. I saw physical improvement within a couple of weeks and continue to see changes. I still miss occasional workouts, but this program has become part of my lifestyle. The program is on a five-week cycle: each week the number of reps and the weight of the weights changes, so my body never plateaus and I feel my muscles working every time. I actually look forward to each workout.
  • I get an Eat-Whatever-You-Want day once a week. I indulged heavily at first, but now on that day I generally tend to eat as healthily as I do the rest of the week.

How do you account for keeping this weight off?
I feel great and like my body more. Some folks can love themselves no matter what's on the outside. I couldn't, so I had to change.

What gets you to stick to this new diet-and-exercise regimen?
I haven't yet reached my goal -- I'd like to drop to a size 8 perhaps (I was an 18/20 plus at my highest, now I'm about a 10/12 regular), but as I keep going, it's becoming more about achievements. When I started this, I didn't have a deadline. I just wanted to make changes, which I continue to make at my own pace. I never thought I'd run -- now I can! I'm developing muscle definition in my arms, and I finally have a waist. Progress inspires progress. As well, the 25-minute routine fits into my schedule more easily than an hour-long workout.

What health benefits have you noticed?

  • Improved cardiovascular conditioning. Before if I ran for a bus, it would take me about seven minutes to recover properly. Now I'm not even winded -- and I enjoy the sprint.
  • Healthier mental state. I like myself. I also used to spend a lot of time thinking about my next meal or snack. I still love food but see it more as fuel, so I think of it less often.
  • Improved knees. For years I had sore knees, but because my weight is lower and my muscle strength higher, they don't bother me as much.
  • Improved flexibility.
  • Stronger abs, which means less strain on my back.

Have you had any setbacks, and if so please explain.
These days I don't have "setbacks." I now feel that missing a few workouts or occasionally eating junk food isn't the end of the world. I feel so much better about myself that I trust I'll get back on track before I do major damage -- and I do.

Do you have any weaknesses?
I go overboard at big family spreads, which once included hamburgers, hot dogs, sausages, dumplings, rice, pie, cake, cookies and ice cream in one meal -- and I tried them all. Eating like that now, though, puts me in a food coma.

What do others say to you about your weight loss?
Friends and family say I look great -- that's always lovely to hear. My mom, who worries about me as mothers do, is pleased because she understands what the weight loss has done for my psyche, as well as my health.

I appreciate the reactions I get from people who haven't seen me in years; some don't recognize me. Positive reactions are gratifying, especially because I don't always see the changes fully myself.

UPDATE: Well it's 2011, three years later, and starting a new career adventure kinda messed up my routine. Setback? Well, it's life. And I'm trying a new route that I hope gets me to a place like this again.