This past spring 45-year-old Jeff Levine did something he had never done in his entire professional career. A busy doctor, Levine’s days were filled with patients and with his teaching duties as an assistant professor of family medicine and obstetrics at UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. His evenings revolved around the paperwork spun off from his appointments and classes and his wife and four daughters. In short, Levine had included everyone in his crammed schedule — but himself. And it was killing him.
By ignoring himself, Levine had ballooned up to 370 unhealthy, unattractive pounds. “I was sitting in an office telling women how they must lose weight,” says Levine. “They would stare at me and think to themselves, ‘this guy needs to practice what he preaches.’ “ At this stage of his busy life Levine was a prime candidate for the television show “The Biggest Loser.”
For those who shun reality TV, NBC’s “The Biggest Loser” is based on the premise that one is never too obese to return to health. Levine joined several teammates, and, competing against another team of desperate-to-lose folks, entered the show’s boot camp. In 12 weeks, before being voted off the show, he lost an amazing 103 pounds. Even more impressive, Levine continued losing weight after he returned home, finally shedding a total of 153 pounds, bringing his now-fit frame to 217 pounds.
Levine recounts his experience on the television show and talks about how any workaholic can copy his success when he speaks on “How to Maintain Fitness as a Busy Professional” on Thursday, August 17, at 7 p.m. at the Robert Wood Johnson Center for Health and Wellness in Hamilton. Cost: $5. Call 609-586-7900.
Levine was not born overweight, nor did he come from overweight parents. At Syracuse University he played baseball while earning his bachelor’s degree in biology and psychology. “I remember both of my parents were extremely lean until they were in their early 30s,” he says. “Then they really ballooned up.” Without knowing it, their son followed the same path, and began putting on the pounds at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
Levine’s odyssey from fat to fit transformed a lot more than his figure. He has since developed an entire life regimen for those wanting to lose weight and stay healthy. It combines three elements — eating healthfully, maintaining regular physical activity, and setting aside time for mental relaxation every day. While scarcely revolutionary strategies, Levine’s plan offers a host of surprisingly clever tactics to achieve each goal.
Schedule it. “Absolutely every bit of advice I or anyone offers you is guaranteed to fail,” says Levine, “unless you make the time for yourself and concentrate totally on your health needs.” Fitness in not a prize to be snatched midst multitasking. It demands an emotional commitment. Where do I find the time? You are an executive, responds Levine. Schedule it wisely and flexibly.
Instead of etching in bronze 5 p.m. as the immutable fitness hour, look over your week and pencil in the 30 minutes for each day as the situation demands. Using this strategy, working late merely postpones, not cancels, the fitness time.
Getting an exercise partner, particularly from work, makes it more likely that fitness appointments will be kept. Having a partner can also make working out more fun.
But above all realize that you are making a life change that calls for a real emotional commitment. Like any business project, there will be setbacks. Expect them, and don’t allow them to get you down. Don’t saddle yourself with shame, just re-tie your running shoes and keep going.
Re-program yourself. “I want to see clean plates,” parents tell their children. “From birth we bribe, trick, and bully our children into eating constantly,” says Levine. “Small wonder that we grow up never heeding the body’s natural signal, which tells us to stop eating when we are full.” Give up your membership in the clean plate club and let your very capable body tell you when it has had all it requires.
Levine suggests that initially people should keep a food log, and each time they reach for food, ask themselves “am I really hungry?” If the answer is no, try to distract yourself for 30 minutes. When you do eat, write down what, how much, and why. But by writing down the real cause of why you grabbed the forkful, you get to know your eating triggers and can avoid them.
For many executives, food inadvertently becomes a concentration drug, or a tension reliever. Just being aware of this might be enough to make some stop before getting another bag of chips from the vending machine or absently grabbing a slice of leftover birthday cake from the office kitchen. Others might find a way to hang on to the crutch, if necessary, by planning ahead and keeping a bag of baby carrots or a bowl of strawberries on their desks.
Be good to yourself. Parents and professionals, tuned in to the needs of their children and their clients, too often think that it is selfish to spend time on themselves. But it is impossible to attend to either family or work with maximum energy while neglecting your own health.
Make it through the day. Where’s the time for health in an overcrowded daily docket? Levine suggests that sedentary office workers fix themselves a healthy lunch and keep it varied. Use the time saved by avoiding restaurants and fast food lines at noon to take a walk and see what the outdoors looks like.
Invest in a pedometer. Nothing so gratifies the novice weight loser as a pedometer. At the end of the day it swells the ego by announcing that you’ve achieved 4,000, 6,000, 8,000 steps — a few more each day, a tangible march toward victory. “Now, go for at least 10,000 a day,” says Levine. “This may involve parking the car a little farther from the office or taking the stairs instead of the elevator. Whatever gets the steps in.”
Avoid temptation. Whether at home or office, keep the healthy food immediately available in line of sight. Put a fruit bowl on the counter and the carrot slices in a snack bag at the eye level shelf in the fridge. Prepackage snacks to answer instant cravings, but for heaven’s sake, make them foods you like. Levine’s few dietary mottos are moderation (he’s a great fan of measuring portions), variety (eating regularly what you like avoids binges), and nightly treats. (Yes, life is too short.)
Finally, Levine insists, eat breakfast. Not only does it increase energy, but it also diminishes long days of nameless cravings.
Take it on the road. Travel and dining out are an inherent part of most professional lives — and a big cause of weight gain. Yet in each situation there are smart choices you can make. When you first enter the restaurant, tell the waiter not to bring bread to the table. “You didn’t choose this restaurant for the bread,” says Levine, “so don’t devour it while you’re waiting for what you really want.”
When you eat at a dangerous buffet, fill up on a bowl of salad as an appetizer. Then, taking the small plate, circle and inspect the entire buffet. Select only the most appealing, healthy foods — perhaps the grilled meat or fish, the boiled vegetables, or the broth-based soup, rather than every food in line that attracts you.
When booking a hotel, find one that has a gym or is adjacent to a large park with walkways. When you check in ask about fitness kits, a number of large chains are just now rolling them out, offering everything from Yoga mats to flexibility balls to hand weights that travelers can keep in their rooms for the length of their stays.
Until the exercise kits become universal, Levine suggests keeping light weights in your luggage, along with a small ball that you can use to work your hands.
Have fun. “I never use the term exercise, because people immediately think of work,” says Levine. “Instead I suggest they be creative and choose any kind of fun physical activity. Play tag with your kids. Carry, then walk with, your toddler. Just hanging around with children burns calories.”
Attend to your spirit, too. Don’t neglect mental relaxation. Practicing meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, or even quiet reading of reflective poetry refreshes the mind and helps to dispel the tension that inevitably builds up at work.
Levine joins his four daughters at their summer camp, where he vacations as camp doctor. His wife, Suzanne, who can now put her arms around her husband and touch her hands, recently asked what was the best part about his hard won weight loss. “Simple,” Levine replied, “I got my life back.”