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How one man shed 214 pounds - and the mantra that kept him going

Wellness Wins is an original Yahoo series that shares the inspiring stories of people who have shed pounds healthfully.

Walt Howington, before and after.

By Andie Mitchell, Yahoo! Lifestyle

Walt Howington is 6 feet 2 inches tall, and currently weighs 194 pounds. Sixteen years ago, weighing over 400 pounds, he accepted a friend’s invitation to the gym and never looked back. This is the story of his weight-loss journey.


The turning point

I always knew that I was overweight, but I think there are two turning-point moments that really stand out for me. The first was when some friends and I decided to go hiking. The particular hike we did wasn’t very long, but it was all uphill coming back. When I got to the car afterward, I was terrified I was going to have a heart attack.

The entire year before I started losing weight, I became very anxious and had numerous panic attacks. My doctors ran me through various cardiac tests to make sure I was OK. I was already on blood pressure medicine, and I remember being worried for months that I would just fall over and die.

My second year on campus I moved into a dorm with friends from back home. This was when I reached my max of 408 pounds. One evening, my friends invited me to the gym, and to this day I am quite sure that they were only being nice to the fat guy. But for some reason I went. I chose a recumbent bicycle and rode it for about 30 minutes — a distance of about 3.5 miles. I distinctly remember thinking that I must not have been as out of shape as I thought I was.

The next morning, I woke up and literally could not walk. My legs felt heavy and radiated pain into my pelvis every time I moved. It was a good half hour before I was finally able to hobble down the hallway to the bathroom. I was 24 years old and if someone on the floor had had access to a walker, I would have used it without question.

My legs continued to feel better. Something had changed in me. Two days later, I went back to the gym. I was sore afterward, but this time I could walk. Going three times a week during that first month netted me a 35-pound loss. It was enough to be my catalyst for change, so I kept going. At the end of the first year, I had lost 120 pounds.

For the years after that, I yo-yo’ed pretty regularly, as is the custom of most previously obese people. Mostly I stayed between 230 and 250 pounds. I knew how to drop weight, but hadn’t yet learned how to properly change my lifestyle to the point where I could keep it off. But it would come in time.

Howington lost weight by exercising regularly and changing his diet. (Photo: Courtesy of Walt Howington)

The changes

After the first month, I basically turned my body into a science project. I kept reams of data on every aspect I could: calories, time spent working out, weight, even how many pounds I fluctuated between morning and evening. I eventually got to the point where I could almost predict how much water weight I would lose over the course of a night’s sleep. It was as brain-numbing as it sounds.

For me, it was all about the data. By stepping outside of myself and treating my behaviors, actions and direction as an experiment, I was able to keep on an even keel. It sort of depersonalized the process and psychologically softened the blow from any setbacks. I simply read the data and took control again.

The typical low-fat diet is where I started. I lost the first 120 pounds on just exercise and a low-fat diet. Later, I adhered to a strict ketogenic diet for nearly three years. I lost about 45 pounds on keto, which wasn’t much for three years, but I lost it and kept it off. For the last two years I have switched to a more moderate macronutrient and calorie-tracking style of eating, which, in my opinion, is the best of the various options. That said, the best diet is the one you can live with for years, not just until you lose the weight.


The after

The biggest difference is that I have more energy and I do more physical activities for fun. I have a different idea of fun than I used to. My friends and I do strenuous, off-trail hikes every summer to find new routes. Something that might have involved an emergency air evacuation only 10 years ago at 30 years old is something I enjoy at 40.

One thing that many overweight people assume is that life automatically becomes great at a smaller size. They see social media and make this connection between being happy, glamorous, loved and adored with being skinny. As someone who has made that journey, I can honestly say that life doesn’t really change that much.

I think that weight loss, after time has passed, really makes you live in the moment. When I go to the gym I know I never want to be obese again, but since it’s been so long, I don’t remember exactly what obese me felt like. I work out to be better than I was yesterday. One day at a time.

A negative aspect to losing massive amounts of weight is loose skin. For me, this was almost as bad as being obese. I had lost more than 200 pounds and still felt uncomfortable taking off my shirt at the beach. Exercise can hurt, but skin removal surgery is where the real pain comes into play. In 2017, I underwent an abdominoplasty and then in November 2018, I underwent a 360-degree body lift, otherwise known as a belt lipectomy, as well as adjacent liposuction.

Howington underwent surgery, including an abdominoplasty, to remove loose skin after losing more than 200 pounds. (Photo: Courtesy of Walt Howington)

The maintenance

I practice meal prepping. I eat chicken and rice or chicken and potatoes for most of my lunches and dinners. I can fix 12-14 meals, each about 500 calories, for about $25. I can then freeze the ones I don’t immediately use. Over a month or so, this nets me a nice variety in the freezer to choose from.

I make sure I work out six days a week. Even when I am sick I go to the gym. I might not get much done, but making that a must-do habit is very important for me. I have a scheduled workout so I know what I am doing each day I go in. However, I will sometimes work out with friends and just change up the schedule. It’s important to be consistent, but also not so rigid in your approach that you alienate friends and family.

I try to run a mile, for time, every day. I’ve never been a very good runner and I still have never run a solid, nonstop mile. But that daily mile is another habit that keeps me mindful of the overall goal.

Walt Howington

The struggles

I realized recently that I am addicted to food. I will eat anything I can get my hands on if I allow myself to venture down that path. The way I deal with that, now that I recognize it, is to maintain a strict mental focus — even going so far as to turn down invites to go out to eat with friends. For me, the fellowship might be fun, but I also know that if I go out it won’t be a matter of if I overeat, it is a question of how much I am going to overeat. I know some friends see me as a stick in the mud because I won’t go out to eat with them, but this body is the only one I have. I know a single meal won’t break me, but I also know a single meal can break me for an entire day, which makes it easier for me to break the next day as well. I do go out, but not as much or as often as other people typically do.


Advice

William Wordsworth, when asked how he wrote so prolifically, said, “To begin, begin.” These words are my mantra to people who ask me about weight loss today. Don’t wait until Monday or the first of the month. To begin, begin. Start right now. Take a mental stance to not eat the next piece of food that you know you don’t need to eat. If you keep putting off that first step, all you do is add steps you’ll need to take to get back to where you are right now. So stop waiting. Beyond that, the rest is a learning process. You’ll find out what works for you and what doesn’t.

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