I took the StrongFirst Kettlebell Course at Iron Body Studios in Needham, MA several months ago – a crash course in using the kettlebell to develop basic functional strength. Artemis Scantalides, the super-petite co-owner of Iron Body, blew my mind, lifting heavy weights I’d never even touched. I could barely breathe watching her press a 50-pound ‘bell with one arm. That day, my max on the same press was 20-pounds.
I lift because it brings me pleasure, not so I can hit some target number. But I left Artemis’s studio that day inspired to work toward one very specific goal: to press twice my limit – 40 pounds – just once.
Of course, as with so many things, I was selling myself short. Eight months later I reached that goal and then-some.
We don’t know what we’re capable of until we give it a try.
Learn how to leverage PLEASURE
to get HAPPILY grounded in HEALTHIER habits.
My friend Sandra Costello asked to take photos of me after I wrote a body-positive piece that went viral. 1 On the phone she said “People know you’re fit, but I want to make you look pretty.”
“Eff pretty,” 2 said the part of me that still hearts Nine Inch Nails; 3 the part that still wants to shoot the whiskey and smoke the Camels I dropped years ago. That she thought I gave a crap about looking pretty felt insulting.
“Eff her,” said the part of me that checks herself in mirrors all day, the part that still sucks in her stomach even though she has a six-pack, the part that’s sometimes just as proud of her shapely shoulders 4 as she is of her two daughters. That she didn’t already think I was pretty made me feel defensive.
“Eff me,” said the part of me that’s still being held hostage on the playground, getting pushed and punched to the tune of “Sme-lly Ke-lly Big Fat Be-lly.” Today I’m completely safe and can’t walk across a room without bumping into one of my blessings. That I am wasting even one brain cell worrying about how pretty I am or am not makes me want to clone myself so I can throw a drink in my face. Continue reading →
I used to be 300 pounds. Now I’m not. And there’s things I miss about my 300-pound body. That piece listed five of them. ↩
Apparently, avoiding f-bombs makes my writing more accessible. There’s no accounting for tastes. ↩
I saw them and Soundgarden last week. Trent, Chris – If you’re reading this, we should hang. ↩
Shapely means muscled. Toned means muscled. If you want to be shapely and toned, that means you want muscle. Trust me. ↩
The Pleasure Principles are a road map to better health and happiness for everyone, and the presentations are awesome, but it’s the Q&As that really light up the carousel.
The clip below is from a Q&A following the motivation presentation. A new run of my Pleasure Principles starts soon. Enrollment is limited, and registration is open for just one week. Make sure you’re on my mailing list and you’ll know when the party starts.
he·don·ist: hēdnist / noun / a person who believes that the pursuit of pleasure is the most important thing in life; a pleasure-seeker.
Experiencing pleasure – at least, the absence of pain – was always my priority. But taking my pleasure first often guaranteed I’d deal with pain later. With most vices, this is the order of operations; drinking precedes a hangover, getting high precedes flunking a math test, spontaneous sex precedes all manner of undesirable outcomes, and endless-chocolate-cake-cookies-and-ice-cream precedes unnecessary weight gain.
We’re tormented by our obsession with weight. Losing weight is hard to do, and the overwhelming majority of us gain back whatever weight we lose (and then some). Every failed weight loss effort drags us deeper into depression. It becomes harder and harder to get and stay motivated. On the heels of every failed effort, we grab for anything to numb out, to check out, to quiet the critical, screaming beast in our heads. We drink, we watch TV, we eat. And eat. And eat. Continue reading →
I used to weigh more than 300 pounds. I smoked like a house on fire, I drank like a blues guitarist, I ate whatever I wanted whenever I wanted, and I never, ever exercised.
In 2003 I lost more than half my body weight. In 2007 I started a wildly successful personal training career. Today I’m fit enough to run (though I usually choose not to), and thin enough to comfortably wiggle my butt into size 6 jeans (though I usually wear super-stretchy workout clothes).
You might think that when I reflect on my 300-pound self that it would be with disdain or pity. Hell no. The longer I’m thin, though, the more I miss the gifts of living in a body so big that people often turned away. It may sound strange to some, but here are five things I miss about my old, obese self: Continue reading →
It’s hard to get out of bed, hard to get motivated, hard to be nice to the people we know, and hard not to punch the people we don’t. We’re vitamin D-deficient, we don’t remember what sunlight looks like, and we’re still broke from the holidays. The last time most New Englanders moved was when they walked from the table to the couch at Thanksgiving. 1Continue reading →
Let I, and those like me who exercised through the winter be truly grateful. Amen. ↩
Q: Hey, Coffey – how can I consistently exercise, eat well, maintain emotional equilibrium and make steady progress toward my healthiest, happiest self on an average of 5-6 hours of sleep?
A: You can’t.
When we’re tired, life is about just making it through the day; getting to work alive, 1 surviving the workday, 2 and pulling off evening obligations. 3 We keep ourselves upright all day with drugs and sugar, collapse in a heap in front of a screen, eat more junk, and go to bed way too late – again. <!–more–>
Don’t get me wrong, sleep isn’t a magic bullet. Getting eight hours every night won’t make you the kind of person who thinks nothing of preparing healthy meals. Eight hours of shut-eye will not catapult you to the gym every morning at 6 am. But you can bet your butt you’ll be a lot more likely to make those kinds of choices once you’re consistently getting enough sleep.
To that end, here are 5 tips to help get your ass in bed at a reasonable hour:
1- Make it a decafternoon.
In the morning, do what you will in the caffeine department; after noon, cut it out.
2- Front-load your screen time.
Stare at screens earlier in the evening, if at all. Nothing’s going on tonight that you can’t read – or watch – tomorrow.
3- Set a get-ready-for-bed alarm.
When that puppy goes off, begin the process of bedding down for the night. Aim to be in bed 15 minutes before you’d like to be asleep – set the alarm accordingly.
4- Stick to a pre-sleep routine.
Figure out what yours is, or should be, and follow it. In the same order. Every night.
5- Go to bed when you’re tired.
Assuming your other obligations are met, if you’re tired, go to bed. No one will miss you, and you won’t miss anything good, I promise.
Congratulations! You’ve decided to take the leap and snag yourself a personal trainer. Before you invest time and money, remember: not all trainers are created equal. Here are some red flags to watch out for when you’re shopping for the right one: Continue reading →
The biggest problem with modern eating – the root cause of many of our nutritional, weight, and behavioral woes – is snacks. Compared to what our grandparents ate at mealtimes, modern meals have certainly changed, but the most significant change, by far, from then to now is the volume we eat between meals.
If you’re a regular snacker who’s nonetheless healthy and happy, my hat is off to you. For the rest of us, here are a few good reasons to sack the snacks: Continue reading →
If you have a dog, odds are she’s the happiest, healthiest, most engaged member of your household. Assuming you’d benefit from being happier, healthier, and more engaged in your own life, here’s a short list of ways we’d all do better to treat ourselves like we treat our dogs. Continue reading →
It’s been a long time. Over ten years. Time flies. I’m married now and have two tiny daughters, a two-year-old and a one-year-old. Believe it or not, I’m a personal trainer. I know, I know – how the hell did that happen, right? I’ll spare you the details, but after you and I finally connected, 1 things changed. 2 things changed. I lost half my body weight, and then I started to get healthy, and the getting healthy gave me my first real shot at happiness.3
I only ever see you at the gym. Maybe in other contexts you’re a thoughtful, knowledgeable person. Regardless of how competent you may be in other areas, it’s clear to this personal trainer that you have absolutely no idea what the hell you’re doing when it comes to lifting weights. 1Continue reading →
I imagine the guy in the above photo does actually know what he’s doing. And if he doesn’t, the heavily oiled fella behind him is sure to save the day. ↩
“How do you know you’re addicted to sugar and starch?”
I get this question a lot. Admittedly, sugar and starch addiction is less devastating than alcoholism or drug addiction. But just because I’ve never sold my body for a bagel doesn’t make it any less of an addiction.
There was no darker period than the winter months following the birth of my second daughter. I experienced all the symptoms we’ve come to recognize as postpartum depression – loss of of interest, insomnia, lethargy, rage, hopelessness – symptoms that, in the moment, feel like a life sentence. Continue reading →
It’s a challenge to live healthier – and treat ourselves better – today than we did yesterday. This is especially true if we’re addressing compulsion, addiction, or emotion-numbing behaviors. No matter what we’re trying to overcome, mindfulness can be our greatest ally.
The next time you’re itching for a fix, 1 before you pick up and check-out, ask yourself one or all of the questions below.
You’re doing something new in the service of your 1 health. You’re lifting weights. You’re eating all whole, real food. You quit talking to your back-stabbing “friend.” You stopped huffing glue, or smoking tryptophan. You’re eating mindfully. You threw away your scale. You’ve stopped eating based on convenience and begun eating as we evolved to eat 2. You’re meditating 3 everyday. Whatever you’re doing, you feel GREAT.
Cue the haters: “But WHY?!” “That’s a little extreme, don’t you think?” “It’s just not normal.” “You’re being irrational.”
If you’re anything like me, when other people question your choices, you begin questioning your choices, too.
For folks like me, cookies are cannibalistic: we choose to eat just one, but that first cookie chooses to eat untold hordes of other innocent cookies. Luckily, this snowball effect can work in our favor, too. Weight training, especially for the novice, works in much the same way as the cookie phenomenon: you decide to do the first rep, that first rep practically does the rest. Cookie begets cookie; bench press begets bench press. Continue reading →
I’ve been enjoying a weeks-long period of true abstinence from sugar and starch. Energetic and rested, peaceful and proud of my clean streak, it’s a pleasure to wake up every day. Free of the insulin cycle, I am physically and emotionally at the top of my game. The satisfaction is all-pervasive, and I wonder how I could ever feel differently. Continue reading →
We’ve lost the war on obesity. Fighting fat hasn’t made
the fat go away. - Dr. Linda Bacon, Ph.D., “Healthy at Every Size“
Self-acceptance is the crucial ingredient to making lasting, positive change. Self acceptance is also the key to happiness, whether or not you change a thing. You’ve been in therapy. You’ve heard all this before. For many, the concepts of ‘self-acceptance’ and ‘self-love’ are purely academic. I hope this post helps make both concepts a tad more tangible and meaningful. Mine is just one story, but the issue of internalized hate is universal. Feel free to sub in your own facts.
Q: “I’m overweight and I want to lose weight 1. What exercise will make me lose weight?”
Let me cut right to the chase: Exercising to lose weight is like bailing out the Titanic with a 5-gallon bucket. Sure, you’re doing something, but the ship is still going down. Even the ACSM agrees – exercise alone is not a very effective weight loss tool.
I’d spent the previous three months rehabbing a sprained knee. I’m a personal trainer, and for those three months I went easy on it every session, every day. Then came that fateful Saturday morning when the knee was feeling good.
I’m eight, sitting on the floor of a hotel room in Orlando. I’m on vacation with my grandparents, and we’re watching the Miss America Pageant*. At some point in the spectacle, Miss New York, my home(state)girl, wisps across the stage as her stats pop on the screen: 22 years old, 5’10”, 126 pounds.
And so the idea that 22 years + 5’10” + 126 lbs = Beauty shoots a firm, thick root down into my young, fertile mind.
I think to myself, OK — I can be that. I’m eight years old, but I’ll age. I’m only about four and a half feet tall, but I’ll grow. Too young and too short, yes, but me and Miss NY are practically the same weight! As long as I don’t gain an ounce in the next 14 years…Hmm…I wonder how many girls don’t gain an ounce during puberty. I wonder how much an inch weighs… Continue reading →
“Coffey, the way you eat seems so restrictive. Removing whole food groups like that? It’s unnatural, not to mention physically and psychologically unhealthy.”
Oh, I disagree. Allow me to explain my thinking.
Our bodies evolved to thrive in perfect synchronicity with the planet. For most humans across most of history 1, this synchronicity involved the ebb and flow of the seasons. And for most humans across most of history, life was a study in survival, a study in securing food. 2
Winter’s end is approaching. We’ve been living on insulin-releasing, fat-storing grain and hardy fruit for months. But these crucial, life-sustaining, high-sugar and high-starch foods are running out. If we are wealthy enough to have cultivated and stored more than the average family, what remains of our food is overtaken by hungry pests – our perpetual enemies in the war for calories (energy) – themselves waking from their winter slumber. By the first thaw, those with the best root cellars have been living for weeks or months on nothing but small rations of potatoes and other starchy tubers. The truly lucky have a small stash of dried beans from which to draw. Come March we are weak and lethargic from inactivity and a lack of nutritious food.
Spring could not come quickly enough.
Livestock, thin from the winter and from gestating young, are giving birth onto newly-thawed ground. We set about planting the food that will mark the end of winter’s forced vitamin and mineral deficiency. Early spring vegetables are soon available in abundance. Once a new generation is safely born, we are at liberty to slaughter a few older livestock and feast on fresh, lean meat. We fish the increasingly populous rivers and streams. The protein in these springtime feasts enables our bodies to repair winter’s damage and rebuild lost muscle. If we’re lucky enough to be able to digest dairy, we share fresh milk with nursing goats and cattle. Sowing fields, repairing damaged homes, and tending gardens means we are active from dawn to dusk every day. There is no wheat and hasn’t been for months. There is no fruit. The tubers and beans are gone. Physically active, living on fresh vegetables, lean meats and milk, we move toward the lower end of our natural weight range. We regain our full strength and health. We are energized. We are sated.
Summer is a time of even greater activity. As each week unfolds, different crops become available, and for the short time that each individual food is ‘in season,’ our tables and bellies are full of them. The ‘balanced meal,’ a post-industrialization fabrication that necessitates both electricity and the internal combustion engine, does not exist. We eat our fill of what we have. What we don’t have, we anticipate. This anticipation makes foods special. It adds meaning to the seasons. It gives us a chance to live in the state of wanting, which increases our experience of pleasure and, many social psychologists report, our overall happiness. Through summer we continue to inhabit the low end of our natural weight range. There is an abundance of fresh food, physical activity and deep, well-earned sleep. In this mode, we reach the lowest end of our natural weight range. We are in perfect sync with the planet and our surroundings 3.
The arrival of autumn is bittersweet. A long, difficult, physically stagnant winter is ahead for most. Harvest time foods provide a tremendous number of calories (energy). These specific foods enable us to gain and store the fat that will take us through the winter. Were it not for the body’s ability to quickly stockpile and retain fat, we wouldn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of surviving the the cold, dark months ahead.
What foods mark the harvest? What foods do we have to thank for our efficient weight gain and retention? What foods, prior to refrigeration and mass transport, were responsible for giving us enough fat to live on to be able to survive several winter months of near-starvation?
Grains (read: wheat). Rice. Cereals. High-sugar fruit. We owe them a debt of gratitude. And we don’t need them anymore.
The sweetness we experience when we eat starch and sugar is pleasurable. It inspires us to eat more. The euphoria we experience when we digest these foods helps to numb our feelings of fullness so we can eat past it.
As far as our bodies are concerned, our very survival depends on our ability to eat every morsel of sweetness that we can secure. Through most of human history, the more starch and sugar we were able to eat, the more fat we stored, and the more fat we stored, the more likely we were to see the spring.
The grain and starchy vegetables and fruit we managed to set aside helped us maintain the fat we’d spent autumn storing. Since glucose is always the body’s preferred fuel, it doesn’t take much of it to prevent the body from burning stored fat. Today, this metabolic safety net is a curse; back then, it was what kept us alive. We were fat-storing machines until the food ran out or the rats and weevils got into the wooden barrels in our root cellars and begin their own Thanksgiving.
My, modernity, you’re…convenient.
With you, it’s always harvest time. I’m no longer competing with rats for my wheat stores. Hell, I don’t even have to bake my own bread! Sugar is something my body evolved to eat healthily for only 6 weeks out of every year when fruit was in season, but now that there’s a freighter full of internationally harvested fruit that arrives in Gloucester three times a week, I can eat it all day every day. How wonderful. How simple. How tasty. How absolutely not how our bodies evolved to eat.
As a society, we demand and fully expect that every day be Thanksgiving Day. Our bodies have become entirely divorced from the natural, healthy ebb and flow of the seasons, of nature. If you have addictive tendencies around certain foods it’s effortless to eat like every day is a feast day, and many of us do. Obesity is evidence that the survival mechanism manifested as the body’s drive to store fat has overridden the brain’s ability to mediate our physical and mental cravings in light new, hugely relevant information: The famine is never going to come.
Say that ten times fast.
When every day is Thanksgiving Day it’s up to us to enforce our own system of checks and balances. We try by limiting calories. We fail. We try by listening to the party line that says we should just eat less and exercise more. We fail. And we fail. And we fail. Don’t beat yourself up, Baby. You’re failing because you didn’t evolve to eat that way.
We were never meant to control our consumption of sweet, high-starch, high-sugar foods – we were meant to eat as much of them as we could in order to store the fat we needed to survive.
Because of our biological drive to eat eat eat sweet foods, portion control is difficult for everyone. I would argue that making an effort to control our portions is unnatural. What’s a modern person, interested in dropping excess weight, to do?
There is an easier, more natural solution: to choose, for a period of time, to eat like it’s springtime and early summer, the body’s natural time of fat loss. Meats. Fresh, seasonal vegetables. Dairy, gut-permitting. Fresh, whole, nutritive foods. The compulsion to eat more more more is quieted. The has the vitamin and mineral resources to repair old damage. Excess fat burns like a prairie fire. Balance is restored – naturally.
If you’re like me, 4 the coolest part of eating like it’s spring and summer is the time it gives you. Breaking the cycle of bingeing and craving gives us the time and the emotional and mental freedom to develop a new, healthier, happier, more pleasurable relationship to food. With time and practice, some can even develop a natural ability to eat sweet, starchy foods in moderation, in a way that maintains balance. But like any new skill, we need freedom, time, and practice to get better.
*Addendum to the title: I detest the terms "Fat" and "Skinny" and would liked to have titled this post "Why Our Bodies Have a Tendency to Store Excess Fat & What We Can Do To Quickly and Safely Burn Through Those Stores of Excess Fat to Reach Our Healthiest Weight and Then Maintain That Weight As Nature Intended Us to Maintain That Weight Over the Course of Our Lifetimes." Motivated by the desire to reach as many people as possible, I chose to make the title something that would get found in a Google search. Working within a pre-existing paradigm, especially when that paradigm is riddled with dumb, is extremely frustrating. Forgive me.
For the sake of simplicity, my focus is on the agricultural period (circa 8000 BC-1825 AD). The same applies for the hunter-gatherer period, but with a ton more walking. And spears. ↩
It has come to my attention that, though the conclusion I arrive at in this essay is true, I get there in a convoluted, inaccurate, logical-fallacy-laden kind of a way. So here’s the disclaimer: I’m not science-y. I was an English major. The truth of the matter is that our guts evolved long before the agricultural period, back when we were still primates. We were losing and gaining then, in synchronicity with the ebb and flow of the season. I hope, though, that bringing the process to the prairie as I have in this essay will make it more meaningful and accessible, more relate-able and more memorable. ↩
Of course, through most of the agricultural period people had a life expectancy of about 30. If you wash your hands with soap, have a functioning toilet and are current with your vaccinations, your life expectancy pushes back substantially. ↩
A born over-eater, an addict, a compulsive pleasure-hunter. ↩
Strength training (weightlifting, calisthenics, and all manner of resistance training) gets a bad rep, especially with some women.
Listen up: No other kind of exercise is as beneficial as strength training. It tones lose skin. 1 It makes us stronger. 2 It’s the only thing we can do that actually increases resting metabolism. 3 Done at a quick pace, strength training is high-quality cardio. 4
Strength training is boss. In many respects, strength training is even better than sex. Don’t believe me? Here’s my list of 8 ways a lift is better than a lay: 5Continue reading →
Which is to say, it builds the muscle under the skin, giving said skin something to wrap around, which makes it look and feel tighter. That’s what ‘tone’ is. No, really. ↩
This one time I was training this chick and she was all like “Now, I don’t want to be *too* strong – I don’t want to get, like, muscly – I just want to get toned.” I’m still recovering from that one. ↩
“Nuh-uh! Green tea totally increases resting metabolism!” No, it doesn’t.
“Well, eating 6 small meals a day increases metabolism. That’s a fact.” No. No, it doesn’t.
“Ginseng! Acai berries!” Nope. Nope.
“Coconut oil!” Shut up. ↩
’Whatever. I prefer to walk on a treadmill for hours on end watching Extreme Home Makeover.’ Go nuts.↩
Delivered with my tongue firmly in my cheek. You like a firm tongue, don’t you? ↩