I’ve shed more than 20 pounds (10kg) over the past 4 months.
I look better, I feel better, and I’d like to think I’m a lot healthier than I was just 16 weeks ago. I’ve done this by essentially turning my body into a science lab, trying different experiments, and seeing how my body responds.
Here are the habits I’ve adopted, in order, that have enabled my transformation:
1. Daily exercise
This is only thing from this list that isn’t new to me in 2023, but is worth mentioning. I’ve always been consistent about exercising, tracing to my days as a competitive high school and college athlete.
I consistently weight trained three days a week for years, from high school through my early 30s. I rarely touch weights anymore, but I still do bodyweight workouts, HIIT training, and I run about 20 miles (32km) every week. I also like to cycle wherever I can.
This has been the easiest part for me to maintain, as it’s a healthy habit that has been imprinted into my brain for a long time. However, I had still managed to become a bit chubby due to overeating, with my exercise habit being the only thing preventing me from becoming truly overweight.
2. Daily cold showers
I took my first (intentional) cold shower on the morning of January 18, 2023. I had heard Andrew Huberman mention it as a guest on my favorite podcast (The Knowledge Project). At the time, I hadn’t given any real thought to the need to address my health, but I was sufficiently intrigued to give it a try.
I made a contract to myself to do it for 7 days, first thing in the morning, 2-3 minutes each time. Surely, I could tolerate that, right?
Almost, no. It was awful. I currently live in Tokyo, where homes are designed for the humid Japanese summers, which makes them cold in the winter. No central heating here. To wake up cold and go straight into a cold shower or bath isn’t for the faint of heart. But remember, I only made a 7-day contract, and I believed I could will myself through that.
Around 10 pm each night, fear of the next morning kicked in–just 9 hours from now I’ll have to jump in that bath! When I’d jump in, my vocal cords would engage. I was literally making noises that probably sounded something like a beached whale having an orgasm. I searched for hacks, like combining my shower with brushing my teeth, which I always do for about 2 minutes anyway.
I made it through a week, and something funny started to happen. I still didn’t like it, but I also didn’t want to stop. I felt some sense of accomplishment. The way I looked at it, I was expanding the range of conditions in which I could survive–expanding my comfort zone in a way–and that was always something to be proud of. I started to experience how much control I had over my physical feeling, whether through what I was thinking in my head or the way I’d try to control my breathing, long, calm, and slow, to warm my body up.
I’m writing this on Day 151 from January 18th, and I’m pretty sure the number of cold showers/baths I’ve started my day with is exactly 151. It turns out there are some real physiological and psychological benefits of cold exposure, having to do with Circadian clocks and endorphin release. Plenty of other writers can explain those things in more detail than I can (have at it, Google).
I can say that, for me, this cold shower habit has helped me wake up with more energy and ensures a small “win” at the start of every day. And while I still don’t love those 2 or 3 minutes (some days are harder than others), I consistently feel good when I step out of the shower to face the day.
There is one other important–perhaps most important–benefit I believe this has given me, which I’ll get into later.
3. Daily yoga
I’ve thought about taking up yoga for about 5 years now. I had gone to a class here or there and I liked it. But every time I started looking into studios, I flaked. Guys like me don’t do yoga. I’m too big. It’s expensive. I’m not flexible enough. If I become more flexible, then maybe I’ll give it a try.
I’d start making an effort to stretch to work on my flexibility, only to flame out after a few days. Then, after having repeated leg pain from running, I started seeing a physiotherapist. He showed me how pathetically weak (and unbalanced) my hips were, gave me some exercises, and suggested yoga.
I still didn’t do it.
Two years later, a month or so after I started my cold shower practice, I dove straight in. No buildup or anything. I literally ran past what would become my future studio (shout out Ignite!) on a cold night in February and it caught my eye. I had run by it dozens of times and hadn’t noticed, and this time I did.
I looked it up online when I got home, Googled a few other studios for good measure, and I committed…22,000 JPY (~$160) a month. I’m not sure how wise of a commitment this was for someone who had been to 3 yoga classes ever, but I haven’t looked back since. I even found out my first week was free, so if I had any doubts they were alleviated right away.
I was hooked after that trial week. Now three-and-a-half months after joining, I’ve been to about 120 classes, so pretty consistently every day. I’m still neither flexible nor graceful with a balance pose, but I’m far beyond where I was when I started.
4. Daily eating habits
I have a massive appetite. Every one of my friends, even coworkers, knows where to go with extra food. I get my money’s worth from any tabehodai (all-you-can-eat) situation, and I can recall putting down 24 or 25 small plates at the kaitenzushi (conveyor belt sushi).
I’ve tried in the past to count calories and did so for about a half-day. It’s too abstract to calculate and measure portion sizes, and too much work.
I’ve tried to play around with intermittent fasting, and managed for about 3 days. I’m always hungry in the morning.
But I tried it again this year, and it has stuck. I made the decision to stop eating before noon, and trying to stop eating after eight. I’ve been rigid about the morning and flexible about the evening, because so much of my joy of living revolves around izakaya nights with friends, and I never want to be that guy who watches everyone else eat. But I try to be mindful; on days where I know I might eat late, I will try to push back eating from noon to, say, 2 pm.
The first week was a bit of a challenge, as I still had morning cravings. But, as soon as I jumped in the cold shower, got out, and made some tea, I wasn’t hungry anymore. It’s almost like I distracted myself away from thinking about food. And once that initial hunger subsided, I found that I didn’t even really start thinking about eating again until after noon.
You can read about the science of this elsewhere, but it’s simple enough conceptually. After a certain number of hours without food or significant calories, your body goes into ketosis–essentially drawing on fat for energy. If it can’t draw from your full stomach, it has to go somewhere else, and that’s the fat we all want to lose anyway.
Now, I’m rarely even hungry in the morning. And I’ve found that often, what I would have eaten for breakfast (generally healthy stuff, like Greek yogurt or eggs) just becomes the bulk of my lunch. This, in effect, cuts out one meal a day that would very likely be some kind of oily, deep-fried goodness.
So basically, I’ve been able to lose weight consistently while still drinking beer and eating all of the junky foods I love–fried chicken, ramen, ice cream, etc. It just works out that, net-net, I end up eating a bit less of it over the course of a week.
In the past month, I’ve started experimenting with a different format, where I try to go 24 hours without eating once a week. I’ve been doing it on my “boring” day, like Monday or Tuesday, where there’s generally not much happening socially and I get a lot of stuff for the week done. The first time I was a bit hungry. But the last 4 weeks, I’ve been able to get through my full Monday routine–run, bike ride to the office, work, and yoga/fitness class after–basically without feeling hungry at all throughout the day. In fact, I feel just as energetic as any other day, given that Mondays are among my busiest and I’m able to get through everything.
It’s worth mentioning, I always hydrate–a lot. I drink at least two liters of water a day, usually a lot more. And on the day I’m fasting, I make sure to also drink tea, black coffee, and even more water than usual.
I’m certainly not the first human who has been able to lose unwanted weight, but through some self-experimentation, I’ve found a way of managing my eating habits that works for me. I don’t have the discipline to count calories, pass up a mouth-watering bucket of chicken, or not savor my bowl of ramen until the last drop of soup is gone.
But I have found that so much of our eating habits, and our hunger, is mental. Having discovered that, I’ve found a way to get myself to, fairly comfortably, limit my overall number of meals in a weak. As a result, I can eat whatever I want, I don’t need to count calories, and I can still be fairly confident that over the course of a full week, I’m taking in a lot fewer calories than I used to.
Consequently, I’ve found that my overall appetite has decreased, getting back to what is probably a “normal” amount for a person my size (I think before, I was so deeply ingrained in my eating habits that my body got used to having more food than it ever needed). And funny enough, last weekend at the kaitenzushi, I was pretty full after 10 plates and tapped out at 15!
5. Daily natto
I’ve been hearing for a long time that fermented foods are good for you, loaded with probiotics that we know are probably good even if we don’t know why. The problem is, most fermented foods taste so bad–I mean, is fermented all that different from rotten?
I like kimchi as a side dish when I’m eating Korean BBQ, but when I buy it at home, it ends up sitting in my fridge for months. I’m not a big sauerkraut guy. Go down the list of fermented foods, and there’s nothing that has me looking forward to lunch.
There’s one fermented food that is pretty much a staple for people where I live now–natto (fermented soybeans). I had it a time or two, as part of breakfast at a ryokan, but I didn’t like it. It’s slimy and it smells bad.
But I always admire how healthy older Japanese people appear to be, so I decided to give natto another try. Just like my cold shower habit, I made a 7-day commitment to eating a little package of natto every day, and two months later, I haven’t stopped! I even brought six packages when I went back to the US for a week.
At first, I used some tricks to make it tolerable–mixing it with a strong-tasting condiment I love called yuzukosho. (This is not a combination acceptable to Japanese people, by the way, but we all have to walk our own path at times 😆). Now, I have progressed to mixing my natto with a small soy sauce and spicy mustard (karashi) that usually comes with it.
I can happily report that, about a week ago, I actually craved natto for the first time. I had some late-afternoon hunger and had not had my daily natto yet, and I genuinely looked forward to it. It has definitely been an acquired taste, but isn’t that true of so many things we love? I don’t know too many people who absolutely loved beer or whisky the first time it hit their tongue.
6. Occasional (let’s see how often) sauna & cold bath
Another Huberman trick that intrigued me was his sauna routine, so I gave it a try. That’s a big thing in Finland, where people are also generally pretty healthy, right? It’s supposed to be good for your circulation and help eject toxins from the body, but for me, it has been more about expanding the range of situations I can find comfort in, much like cold showers.
The routine I’ve tried to follow is to spend 20 minutes in the sauna, followed by 5 minutes in the cold bath, and repeat that cycle 3 times. I’ve done this 4 times so far, with the goal of starting to do it as close to once a week as possible (I most likely will not, since it does take some effort to find a sauna/cold bath combination).
So far, I’ve only made it the full 20 minutes in the sauna twice–I am fine to push myself, but I obviously don’t want to pass out in there. I’ve found the first 10 or 12 minutes to be pretty easy, especially after the cold bath. Then it becomes a bit tedious. I’ve made it to 15 each time, and the two times I made it to 20, the last minute felt like the end of a heavyweight fight. But, that makes the first few minutes in the cold bath feel all the more amazing.
It’s critical to hydrate. Assuming there is a water dispenser at the sauna, I’ve been filling up a bottle each round and bringing it with me into the sauna, which helps a lot.
The cold bath is pretty easy for me at this point, given my training with daily showers. But on a few occasions, I have pushed myself to the point of almost being numb (when I’ve tried to go a bit beyond the 5-minute mark). It’s interesting to feel your pulse all over your body, and to need a bit of support standing when you come out. But I won’t push it beyond the line where I still feel in control.
After the full 3 rounds, when I finish the last cold bath, I like to sit in the regular hot tub for a few minutes, just to relax as I wind down.
I’ve felt great after each session so far, but drained at the same time–it definitely feels like a workout. That sounds contradictory, but give it a go and I bet you’ll see what I’m talking about. And again, drink a lot of water–I’ve found that I can lose as much as 2kg (nearly 5 pounds) of water weight during the hour and a half (which I assume I put back on after guzzling a few liters of water).
7. NOT measuring my progress
One last little trick that I think has helped: I have generally avoided measuring my weight. I never set a hard goal around my weight; I knew I wanted to lose a bit, but I didn’t give much thought about how much. What I did know was the behaviors (exercise, eating fewer calories, etc.) that would result in weight loss.
The way I’ve looked at it is simple. If I’m able to consistently adopt the right behaviors, then weighing myself was essentially a risk with no real reward. If I weighed less, well, I’ve been doing the work to make that happen. And if I did not weigh less–maybe I measured too soon or something–that would have the potential to discourage me from doing the work altogether.
So, as long as I had the right habits starting to shift into autopilot, I decided to just let them ride. I tend to be internally motivated, so the reward of validation, to me, wasn’t worth the risk of possibly becoming discouraged. At some point, the curiosity got to me and I jumped on a scale, but this was certainly not part of my regular routine.
My grand insights
I’ve learned a few things from turning my body into a lab these past few months:
1. The body and mind are intimately connected.
More than I had imagined before.
2. Hunger is 90% mental.
We need water every day. But, as the descendants of hunter-gatherers, who might catch a rabbit today and nothing tomorrow, we don’t need food every day. The idea of 3 meals a day is a habit driven by marketing, more than anything else.
3. Small wins matter.
I teased it earlier–the last great benefit of my cold shower practice. I’ve been reading lately about neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to form and reorganize synaptic connections. At a level I can understand, I basically see this as habit formation–we are wired to have certain beliefs, and the more reconfirming evidence we get over time, the more hardwired those brain pathways become. And lest we forget, to a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
This is where, I believe, my approach to cold showers prompted all of the changes above. By committing to just 7 days, or about 15 minutes total–an amount I believed I could push myself through no matter how awful–I believe I started to chip away at all of the reconfirming evidence in my brain about past failures to stick to an intermittent diet, to count calories, to enjoy natto and the like.
I made a (small) commitment to a new health habit I wanted to form, and I stuck with it. Once I passed 7 days, I started thinking how cool it would be to make it to a month. I felt good telling my friends about it. And once I got beyond 3 weeks, I was way too close to achieving the full month to stop. I also found that the actual experience in the shower became less painful, sometimes even enjoyable. I got used to it.
As that habit started to solidify, I was able to start incorporating the other habits in–yoga, intermittent eating, and natto. And, using the same approach, I was basically able to solidify those, too. I truly believe it all roots back to having that first small win, followed up by a few more, start to rewire my actual brain pathways to believe I could stick to new habits I wanted to adopt. In time, I’ve become the kind of person who does those things, and having that as part of my evolved identity only serves to root the behaviors even deeper.
4. We should all make a sport out of trying to expand the range of conditions in which we can be comfortable.
I can’t stress it enough. This is such a strong belief I’ve developed that I’m going to write about this separately soon.
5. There are no hacks no an end, but there are hacks to a means.
We’ve all seen clickbait promising the secrets to being rich, losing weight, or having great abs. This framing does more harm than good, because it is too focused on a result while completely ignoring human psychology.
We are more committed when we are more invested. The sunk cost fallacy is usually framed in a negative context, where we stick with a bad decision, job, or relationship because we have trouble accepting a zero return on what we’ve already put in. But understanding the concept means you can make it work for you as well, when you focus on committing to the identifiable steps that result in the outcomes you want.
Instead of thinking about ways you can shortcut effort and hack a result, think about how you can hack your brain into committing to the steps. For me, making short, 7-day commitments was the start of exploration around this. In that short of a time frame I was able to already start feeling “investments” that I didn’t want to give up.
I look forward to continuing to test things on myself, and I’d be curious to learn what has worked for some of you. Reach out if you have any suggestions!