“Sir, do you have your seat belt on?”
I could hear the flight attendant, but I continued to close my eyes, rest my head against the window and cling to the blanket covering my lap, hoping she would keep walking down the aisle.
“Excuse me, sir,” she said, her voice beginning to rise, as the passenger in the middle seat gently nudged me. “Do you have your seat belt on?”
As I pretended to wake up, I looked up at the flight attendant, hopelessly searching for an answer to her simple question. It must have been a pained expression she had seen before. Without hesitating she reached into her pocket, casually handed me a seat belt extender as discreetly as someone palming $20 to a restaurant maitre d’ for a good table, and walked away.
I almost cried as I unfolded it and buckled the extender to the end of a seat belt that had failed to reach my navel. I knew I was overweight. That’s not a difficult realization for someone who’s 5 foot 7 and 329 pounds. But it wasn’t until that moment that I felt ashamed.
It’s hard to say why that was the moment I became embarrassed enough to want to change my life. I had long ignored other potential turning points that were seemingly just as humiliating.
I already had unscrewed the armrests of a press box chair in order to fit into my assigned seat at a hockey game; I had an airline passenger unsuccessfully try to change her seat because my waistline was, well, overflowing into her space; and I had become a platinum member at the only big and tall clothing store where I was able to find size 52 jeans and XXXL shirts.
None of that had mattered, for whatever reason. But this time was different.
My journey didn’t begin with a New Year’s resolution or at the start of a month or week as so many false starts had in the past. This one — the one that has become my lifestyle — began on Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018.
There’s nothing significant about that date other than it is the day I decided to change my life. I made it a significant moment by not only making that decision but sharing it on Instagram and Twitter, where readers follow my work as a sportswriter.
I wanted to make myself publicly accountable, so I posted a “before” picture and announced that this would be the first day of a long journey without knowing if it would sputter out in a couple of weeks and I would look like a failure and a quitter to my friends, family and thousands of strangers.
Those strangers would end up serving as my motivation then and now.
On Aug. 1, 2005, I weighed myself upon checking into the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center. I weighed 199 pounds.
It would be the last time I would step on a scale and see a number under 200 for the foreseeable future.
After being diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma for the second time in four years, I was forced to undergo a stem cell transplant that would keep me in the hospital for a month and at home for another month after that. The only thing that I turned to for comfort during that time of uncertainty was food. I treated every meal as if it was my last — pancakes and bacon for breakfast, cheeseburgers and fries for lunch and macaroni and cheese for dinner.
A few months later, my cancer had gone into remission but I had gained over 50 pounds. “To be honest,” my doctor told me, “at this point I’m more concerned about your weight going up than the cancer coming back.”
It was a powerful statement I quickly ignored as I stopped at the nearby Carl’s Jr. and ordered two Double Western Bacon Cheeseburgers. I wasn’t eating for comfort anymore. It had become an addiction I couldn’t kick even after beating cancer twice.
Flash forward to Sept. 25, 2018, when I posted my “before” picture on Instagram. The positive messages came pouring in, first from friends and family and then from people I had never met. I normally get about 100 likes on a picture and maybe a handful of comments. This one garnered over 1,000 likes and nearly 200 comments. It had struck a chord.
I decided I would post a picture on my Instagram story every day I worked out. I wanted to continue to keep myself accountable during the process, but also realized I didn’t want to let anyone down.
Day 1: I went for a walk.
Day 2: I was on the treadmill.
Day 3: I was on the bike.
I also started posting photos of all my meals with their estimated calories. I had to be honest with myself. This wasn’t going to work if I followed up my workouts with more pancakes and cheeseburgers. I posted photos of the oatmeal (150 calories) I had for breakfast, the salmon and vegetables (440 calories) I had for lunch, the steak and asparagus I had for dinner (560 calories). I also logged daytime snacks, such as nuts and veggie sticks (400 calories).
The idea was to keep things as simple and sustainable as possible. Consistency was the key. My friend Daniel Roberts, a professional fitness trainer, worked with me every day during the first few months and told me four words to live by: Move more. Eat less.
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Daniel made it clear from the start he wasn’t looking for a new client. He wanted me to do this on my own so he simplified my program into one sentence: Stay under 1,600 calories per day and do something active to get your heart rate up for 60 minutes per day. That’s it. Nothing more. Nothing less. The math will take care of the rest.
I posted every little milestone along the way. I flew to Las Vegas on the ninth day and the seat belt for the first time in months actually fit. It was still tight but I got it around my waist. I definitely posted a photo of that.
On the 12th day, I stepped on the scale and I was under 300 pounds — 298 to be exact — for the first time in years. These moments fueled me.
I continued to post every day but figured most people were losing interest until I posted what I called my 27th workout day. Dozens of messages reminded me it actually was Day 28. I was floored. People really were following me on this journey. What I found out later would change my life forever.
They weren’t just following my journey, many of them had actually decided to join me.
The messages came in every week from people who were now motivated to lose weight after watching me shed 60 pounds in two months. There was a 31-year-old journalist from Tehran who had lost 50 pounds in five months, an insurance claims adjuster from Las Vegas who had lost 30 pounds in three months, a photographer in Los Angeles who had lost 70 pounds in eight months. Then there was the 41-year-old pest control manager from Murrieta, who in nine months lost 104 pounds.
I never set out on this journey to help other people lose weight. I was lucky if I could just motivate myself. It was surreal giving anyone tips on health and wellness after being over 300 pounds just a few months earlier. I posted my workouts and my meals every day, not as a tutorial but as a way to keep myself on track. And yet here we were, people who had never met working for a common goal together.
Last October, a little over a year into my journey, I found myself at a movie junket for “Terminator: Dark Fate.” I had been invited because Arnold Schwarzenegger had filmed a commercial for the film with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George of the Clippers. Before I walked into the former governor’s suite at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, I was told I had only 10 minutes with him.
As I sat down, I hit record on my iPhone but before I could ask my first question, Schwarzenegger interrupted me. “Before we start, right off the top, I want to congratulate you,” he said.
I had never met Schwarzenegger. Perhaps he had me mistaken for someone else, so I said the first thing that popped into my mind, “Thank you … wait …?”
“It’s unbelievable the weight you’ve lost,” he said.
I wasn’t quite sure what was happening. I looked around the room for anyone that I recognized who may have told him about me, but I didn’t see anyone, so I simply said, “I love that you know this story.”
“I mean everyone knows the story,” Schwarzenegger said as he addressed the room. “He started at 329 pounds and he could not get his … belt on the airplane on. That’s what tipped him off. I’m so proud of you. He could not get the belt around him and he didn’t know how to explain that to the stewardess.”
I had never written a proper article about my weight loss or that seat belt incident. It was just an Instagram post that came and went in 24 hours. But somehow it had lived on, and somehow the six-time Mr. Olympia had learned about it.
Over the course of one year I had lost 130 pounds. A couple of weeks before meeting Schwarzenegger, I had stepped on a scale and was under 200 pounds for the first time since I checked into the hospital over 14 years ago. I was nearly 40 years old and in the shape I had been when I was 25.
“Here’s a guy who that has lost 130 pounds,” Schwarzenegger said. “He’s now below 200. I’m not below 200…. I should be below 200.”
I later teased Schwarzenegger that I would gladly give him some weight loss tips, and I thought he was teasing me by saying he would get me into Muscle & Fitness magazine. But a few months later I was being interviewed and photographed by the 85-year-old bodybuilding magazine, a truly surreal moment. “You deserve it!” Schwarzenegger later tweeted me. “Proud that you can inspire even more people.”
These days, I’m still eating right and keeping active, even if the pandemic is keeping me out of the gym. It’s just one more challenge for me and so many others.
When I started my journey, I didn’t know how long it would last. I was just hoping to avoid the embarrassment of having to use a seat belt extender again.
But that moment changed my life forever. It introduced me to so many strangers who have joined me on this life-changing journey, and one former bodybuilder in particular, who knew every detail of my story and wanted as many people as possible to know it as well.