Hitting age 40 didn’t seem to bother me much, and when I told my Dad, he said “just wait until you are 50.” When I hit 50, I saw what he meant. I was forgetting more and more stuff. I was putting on weight like crazy, and my once strong arms and chest were atrophying before my eyes due to decreasing muscle mass. My hearing and vision were getting worse, and my teeth started cracking more. I told my wife, Carolyn, that “Look at me honey…I’m getting old, fat, dumb and toothless.” Without batting an eye, she said, “You have another problem…you are going to be alone, too.” When I told one of my friends about my post-50 plight, he said “why worry about it? It’s a losing battle.” He had given up on fighting the “battle of the bulge” and had resigned himself to decreasing energy and an expanding waist line. Shouldn’t I continue to do the same?
What did I face?
Before my 52nd birthday, I went to the doctor for my annual exam. I never like going for a physical. There’s nothing worse than hearing the sound of your doctor putting on that rubber glove and asking you to drop your drawers and bend over for a prostrate exam. To this day, the sound of a rubber glove snapping onto skin makes my skin crawl. But the prostrate exam turned out to be more pleasant than what my doctor (who I will call “Dr. T”) shared later.
She said, “Anthony, according to medical guidelines, you are morbidly obese. Unless you get this under control, you are heading for stomach surgery.” One of my wife’s friends just had her stomach stapled, and it got infected, and she spent three weeks in the hospital. I had read where Charlie Weis, the great offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots (and later the head coach of the Notre Dame football team) almost died from a botched gastric bypass surgery. I know the risk was probably low for any one person, but I definitely didn’t want to go the surgical route, at least not yet.
I knew I had been gaining weight pretty steadily since I got married to my beautiful wife, Carolyn, in 1990. I was about 200 lbs then with a 36″ waist. Over the next 22 years, I had gained 70 more lbs, an average of about 3 lbs each year. Sure, there were photos and even a video or two over the years that shocked me when it showed me, in color, how much my stomach and backside had grown. My profile was worse than Alfred Hitchcock’s, complete with a 42″ waist. My behind was getting so large that it often spilled into a second seat on the subway. And the summer vacation pictures were the worst, as I couldn’t hide my big belly under a flannel shirt or sweat jacket. Being somewhat tall (about 6′-2″) helped camouflage the problem a bit at work, but only for so long. I had hit 270 lbs for the first time (the “before” picture).
What motivated me?
Dr. T went on. “All of your scores are terrible. Your bad cholesterol is too high. Your good cholesterol is too low. Your blood pressure looks like the score from a NBA game in the 1980s between the Lakers and Denver (those were some really high scoring games). You have fatty liver, sciatica, lower back arthritis, a “hiatal hernia” (where the stomach is so large it begins to push into the esophagus), and sleep apnea.” When I asked her if that was it, she said, “and one other thing, you have bad breath.”
But what could I do to change this? I was 52 and aging way too fast. My job was very sedentary, and the only time I got up from my chair in the office was to get a coffee or go to the restroom. When I came home, I was too exhausted to do anything but eat dinner, take a nap, and get back on the computer to do some more work. Going up the stairs to the 2nd floor bedroom in our house left me out of breath. And you can easily guess the ramifications of that kind of lack of energy to one’s sex life.
Dr. T was very blunt. “I think you should take one opportunity to try to get this under control through diet and exercise. But if that doesn’t work, then I think surgery is your next option.” My wife had been after me for years to “change my lifestyle.” But Dr. T’s talk was a major spark that lit a fire under me.
The first year: limited success
I talked to Carolyn about what to do. She encouraged me to join her gym. This was a big step for me. Not only was I always tired, but I was definitely not a gym person. But I finally went with her to sign up. To my surprise, the gym had different vibe and atmosphere than the gyms I was familiar with in my early 20s. Aging, out of shape guys like me were everywhere (as were fit people), and so I felt right at home. I began to work out.
My wife is a morning workout person, and during this first year, she encouraged me to accompany her to the gym on a regular basis. So I would work out in the morning, and go to work after showering at home. This was one of the benefits of having a flexible job. I would work my entire body on Monday, Wednesday and Friday; usually a few different machines and exercises for each muscle group (chest, shoulders, arms, back and legs). I almost always ignored abdominal exercises, as I didn’t like them when I was younger, and I sure as heck wasn’t going to start doing them at 52.
The exercise definitely helped. I could see some changes in my body. But it was a very slow process, and after that first year, after initially losing 13 lbs., I began to go to the gym less frequently. Work demands crept in and required more of my time. Pretty soon I was averaging one workout per week. I started to hover back up to 260 and then over. Although it still represented a reduction, I realized I was going to have to get my eating under control to really make a difference. And this was going to be even more difficult than joining and using the gym was.
Well, it is difficult for anyone to change their eating habits. But I had some distinct disadvantages. For one, I was a binge eater. Sometimes driven by emotions (high or low), I was known to be like a tornado in the kitchen, eating everything in sight. It was not uncommon for me to go on a binge at night–before going to bed–and have two salami and cheese sandwiches, potato chips, peanuts, cookies, and then some ice cream. Another disadvantage for me is that I was both a big portions and a multiple helpings kind of guy. Carolyn almost always cooked a healthy meal, but it really doesn’t matter if it is roast chicken and a baked potato if you are eating two or three large helpings of it. How was I going to change this?
But I was growing weary of not being able to fit into my clothes, of having trouble getting into an airliner seat and buckling up (and seeing the passenger next to me roll their eyes when they saw I was their seatmate), and of constantly feeling tired. In the second year, I just determined to change my eating habits and, in the words of my wife, adopt a healthier lifestyle. I had many friends who lost sizable amounts of weight on diets like Atkins, or eating only vegetables for months, only to gain it all back and then some. A fad or extreme diet might initially help me lose weight, but I knew myself too well to know I couldn’t stay on something like that. But what changes could I make that could be sustained the rest of my life and not just for a few months?
Year two: changing my eating habits
The first thing I changed during that second year was how I handled dinner. No more seconds of any food except vegetables. If I was still hungry, I would eat a salad, drink a lot of water, or have a piece of fruit. This was very hard in the first two weeks, but then became increasingly easier. I did not deprive myself of sweets or dessert, but I just reduced the portion. For example, instead of 10 Hershey kisses, I would have 5. When cutting cake, I would give myself about half of the slice I usually would take. No more binge eating. Even when I felt a bit high or a bit low, I did not raid the refrigerator. I just tried to find other ways to handle my emotions.
I didn’t really have major calorie problems at breakfast, but even there, I tried to find ways to cut back. For breakfast, I moved to eating low-calorie breakfast sandwiches (usually less than 300 calories) that are pretty high in protein (even more important if you are working out). And some little changes that I made to my routine proved important. For example, I used to stop for a Dunkin Donuts large coffee with cream on the way to work. That cost me $2 and added 100 calories every day. I nixed it, and the benefit was that I started pocketing $10 per week, $40 per month, and removed about 500 calories per week. That doesn’t sound like much, but 3500 calories is one pound, and just that small change potentially saved me about five or more pounds in one year.
For lunch, I would bring lots of fruit or vegetables. Sometimes I would skip lunch altogether. Skipping meals is generally not a good strategy (as you can become so hungry that you overcompensate for it at the next meal) and I certainly don’t recommend that to others, but it worked for me. In addition, the workplace is a setting where colleagues often bring in baked goods like pies, cakes and cookies, and there are usually birthdays or other events that folks kindly recognize. I made a general rule not to partake in eating any of the goodies, ever. Part of that was that I had learned about my addictive personality–saying “yes” once often gave me a justification to then go overboard and keep eating (as in ” I already failed, so might as well enjoy even more”). It became easier and easier to say no and to refrain as time went on (and once in a while, someone would bring a fruit or vegetable platter to these events, and that I would indulge in).
Year two: changing my workouts
The lifestyle change cannot just be eating differently or exercising hard. It has to be a combination. Working out in the morning was not working for me, and getting to the gym once every week or two was woefully insufficient. I knew I needed to step it up. I started going at night. This was absolutely brutal at first. Not only am I by nature a pretty lazy fellow, but I had some bad habits of spending hours at night on the couch after dinner watching television and working on my computer. And it was so hard to do in the winter, when it was dark, cold and in Massachusetts, the ground was almost always covered with snow or ice. But I forced myself to go to the gym for one hour per night, usually 4 nights per week (Friday was date night with my wife, so I skipped that day). I would add a 5th day on Saturday afternoon (the gym closed at 6pm on weekends). At the gym, I was not a workout fiend, but I generally did 30 minutes of treadmill work (usually moderate walking to a light sweat) and 30 minutes of moderate weight training.
Another minor lifestyle change I made at work was to take the stairs rather than the elevator. Again, taking five flights of stairs twice per day is probably burning about 50 calories or so for a man my size. But multiply that by days worked over the year, and you have knocked another 4-5 lbs. off. These are the kind of small lifestyle changes that may not be dramatic, but over time, can have positive health effects. Just adding this change alone would negate the 2-3 lbs. that one could gain by aging alone (decreasing muscle mass, slower metabolism, etc.).
The role of mutually reinforcing positive events
I kept this up through the fall and early winter. The weight began pouring off of me. My wife was very encouraging. She would say “your stomach is disappearing!” One day she yelled at me as I went down the stairs “You have no ass left!” I didn’t know if that was good or bad, but I took it as a sign I was losing weight. I started this lifestyle change in October 2013. By February of 2014, I was down to 235 lbs. Colleagues at work were also very encouraging. Almost every day I would hear compliments like “you look terrific” and “you look like a whole new person.” Seeing progress on the weight scale is wonderful. But encouragement from family, friends and colleagues really drove me to keep going, even when the nights were brutally cold or when I was surrounded by veritable feasts of food.
And then the best encouragement of all: shopping for new clothes. I went from a 42″ wait to 38″ and had to buy all new pants. I went from a XXL shirt size to a XL and had to buy new shirts. But I probably should have waited. By late May, I was down to 222 lbs, and had dropped even more–to a 36″ waist.
More changes to my routine
Then I incorporated some additional changes. Our company is located in a large sprawling suburban office park. Rather than park outside our building, I decided to start parking at the furthest spot away in the complex. It was about a half mile to walk from this space in the office park to my building, meaning I would force myself to walk one mile per day. Even at a slow pace, that is another 125 calories per day. Doesn’t sound like much, but similar to cutting out the large coffee with cream or taking the stairs instead of the elevator, it potentially slices another five or more lbs off each year.
The other thing I began doing in the spring was intensifying the weight training part of my gym work. I really began lifting more weights and pushing myself harder, in an attempt to build more muscle. I knew that muscle weighed more than fat, but it also burns more fuel, and so in the end, a body that is more muscular actually uses up more calories, all things being equal. Of course, to build muscle means taking in more protein, which increases calories, but given the other changes I was making, I felt I could do this without jeopardizing the nice decreases in weight I had made. So I amped up the weight lifting and began drinking protein drinks at lunch during work and after going to the gym on the weekend.
Learning from some of my older and more fit friends, I realized that my body needed more time to heal and rebuild, so I decided to give myself two days off between body parts. So, for example, if I did bench presses, machine flies, and dips for my chest muscles on Monday, I did not do them again until Thursday. This worked well for me, as it gave me enough recovery time. Once in a while, given I was in the gym six days per week, I would even allow myself three days off between body parts to expedite healing. The weightlifting became somewhat addictive to me, and I even added Sunday as a 6th workout day.
Now it is not easy for an age 50+ man to build muscle (a man begins to lose muscle mass after age 35, which is why older ballplayers are motivated to take steroids, or how else can they compete with a 22 year old?), but I did begin to see some dramatic changes, particularly in my arms, chest and legs. In fact, one of the really muscular guys at the gym was sitting on the machine next to mine. I had seen him in the gym a few times over the two years I had been working out there. We nodded hello. Then he said “Didn’t I see you about two years ago, rolling around the gym with a big belly?” I said, “That was probably me.” He said “What the hell happened to you?” I think he thought I was sick…but I told him I had lost a lot of weight through diet and exercise. He said, in the ultimate compliment a 20-something body builder can pay to an aging 50 year old, “Well, you look athletic.” I was beaming for days.
I even added another walking activity to my routine over the summer. After going to the gym, I started parking my car in the center of our town, where there are sidewalks and it is well lit. I would walk from the shopping center to the local Dunkin Donuts, which was about 2 miles round trip. It sounds hypocritical for me to go to DD, but in the summer I would just get one water bottle (and sometimes two depending on how much I was sweating). As the weather got colder in late fall, I switched to decaf tea. But instead of letting the employees put the cream in, I asked for a small creamer on the side; I would use half of one creamer, for a total of about 10 calories.
By the end of the summer, I was down to 213 lbs and a 34″ waist, which were the same size pants I had in my last year of college. I ended up donating my 38″ waist pants and most of my XL shirts, and ended up getting new pants and size “L” shirts. To comfortably wear a 34″ waist-34″ length pair of pants was just a dream come true. Not only did I buy my own clothes, but I also inherited my son’s wardrobe. His whole closet of “L” shirts became mine to take. Not that he was happy about that, but my response to him was “Hey, I paid for most of this stuff anyway.” If he wasn’t shorter than me, I would have worn his pants, too. All of my jackets, including several gently worn and stylish winter ones, are those he was getting rid of…saving me scores of dollars.
And the compliments kept coming. One day, an older gentleman that I had been friendly with at the gym, and who regularly worked out together with his wife, approached me. He said, “Last year, I watch you on treadmill. You going so slow. I turned to my wife and said, ‘this man going so slow…something wrong with this man.’ And now you are going so fast.”
When I went back for another physical, Dr. T was astonished and so happy for me. The first thing she said when she came into the room was “you look so different.” By the early fall, I was 208 lbs, and I’d lost 62 lbs over the two years since she first read me the riot act in 2012. Every health problem I had disappeared except my lower back arthritis (well, the cracking teeth as well but that’s another story), but even that was significantly improved by doing the weight training. All of my scores not only improved significantly, but they were better than at any point since my late 20s and early 30s. My standing heart rate was getting lower and lower (meaning my heart was working more efficiently with less pumps), and in Dr. T’s words, it was similar to that of a “30 year old male athlete.” Maybe she was overstating things a bit, but I certainly was happy. I said, “Dr. T, this is a miracle.” And she smiled and said, “No, not really. You have lost the equivalent of a healthy 9 year old boy hanging on your back all of these years. Losing him is bound to make a difference.” The after picture below is me following a 70-pound weight loss and an intensified weight training regiment.
Other positive impacts
This transformation has not only made me healthier, changed my wardrobe, made it easier to fly, or revolutionized our sex life. It has given me more self-confidence and pride in how I look. I used to wear wrinkled shirts and would never tuck them in my pants due to my girth. Now I always have ironed shirts and pants, tuck my shirt in (when stylish to do so) and when I get my wife’s help, they even go together. People at work even commented about my “dressing to the nines” but it was really just changing from usually looking like a slob to dressing in normal business casual attire.
So what can men do after age 50?
The bottom line is that you can do a lot over age 50. You can reverse, as in my case, 20 years of bad eating habits and a couch potato lifestyle in 12 months by making a few difficult changes (eating very differently, going to gym 5-6 days per week) and through a series of modest changes (taking the stairs, cutting out the morning coffee and cream, and parking far away from the office). The health effects are astounding, and very similar to what quitting cigarette smoking does for once-heavy smokers.
It’s always tough to write an article like this, as it comes off like “look at me and what I did.” But my reason for writing this is to say “if I can do it, anyone can.” That sounds so clichéd, but it is true. Look at all the forces against me: I love food, I’ve got a very sedentary job, I’m a binge eater, I’m an emotional eater, I’m very lazy, and all I want to do at night is sit on the couch and eat chips. I also started this late–after age 50– and when I was already 70 lbs overweight. But it happened, and it has led me to play the role of motivational speaker with relatives and friends to encourage them. I’ve had a number of family members and colleagues tell me how much I have inspired them to make changes to their lifestyles and exercise routines. My hope and prayer is that this article would do the same for others.
Story shared by: Anthony Petrosino