The (Literally) Lean Startup: How to Slim Down While Starting Up

Tl;dr: Use common sense and ignore fads – it all comes down to just diet, exercise, and discipline. Make a plan, stick with it, and you’ll lose weight. See below for specific tips.

When I started my first job out of college, I gained fifteen pounds in about three months. In retrospect it’s obvious why – I carried over my college eating habits into a new environment. The problem? In college, I fenced three hours every day. At work, my biggest exertion was standing up to grab free snacks.

Modern work environments (especially for hackers) are very unhealthy. Sitting for just four hours per day will literally kill you faster, and it’s damn hard to pivot your way out of diabetes or heart disease.

I managed to halt my post-college weight gain through a variety of expensive counter-measures (including the generally-very-expensive Paleo diet), but since sacrificing my income to join startup-land a year ago, I’ve had to give up all those luxuries.

Nevertheless, I’ve lost five pounds and gained a lot of muscle in the last twelve months despite sitting at a desk for an average of fourteen hours a day.

Here’s how I did it.

First, you need to accept that there are no secrets and no magic bullets. Everything on this list will be obvious, and the real trick is to integrate these elements into a plan and stick with it forever. And frankly, if you lack the willpower to set a plan and stick to it you should not be starting a company.

Your weight is ultimately governed by one simple equation:

Change in Weight = (Calories Eaten)/(Quality of Calories) – Calories Burned

That’s it.

Yes, there is a genetic component.  Yes, the more weight you lose the harder it is to lose more and keep it off (I currently weigh 15% less than I did when I was 14 years old). But both of those factors work by reducing the calories you burn.

If you’re fat, it’s because you’re burning fewer calories than you’re consuming. And you can always fix the problem by simply consuming less or burning more.

Specific Tips:

Exercise:

1.     Run. Running burns more calories per minute than nearly any other exercise you can do. Yes, it is painful and hard. That’s the point – the pain you feel is your muscles getting stronger and the exhaustion is your body’s now-maladaptive evolutionary response warning you against expending calories. And anyone can do it with practice – last year I could barely run a mile and a half, now I can run 10+ miles. Also, unless you have a serious prior injury, running is actually good for your knees.

2.     Set a Routine. Follow It. Consistency is crucial. Many days you’re going to feel like hell and want a break. It’s in your head. Your body still needs exercise. My routine is 3.5 miles on the treadmill, 30 Russian twists + 30 crunches + 10 leg lifts, 30 bicept / tricept curls. All together, it only takes about 40 minutes, and I try to do it at least five times a week (you need exercise basically every day for your entire life.) To help stick with the routine, try Pavlovian conditioning – choose a favorite daily activity and only allow yourself to do it after going to the gym (for me, I try to only Reddit after the gym.)

3.     Do a little exercise every time you stand up from your desk. This may be too disruptive in your work place, but if you’re alone do ten squats and fifteen jumping jacks every time you go the bathroom or get a drink. This will get your circulation going and (maybe?) mitigate the deadly effects of sitting all day.

4.     Podcasts in the gym. Exercise can be boring. Make it productive by listening to an excellent entrepreneurial podcast like Stanford’s Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders, This Week In Startups, or Mixergy.  If you run out of podcasts, get a book on tape (e.g. through Audible). Or if your brain needs a rest, catch up on Battlestar Galactica through the Netflix app (which works surprisingly well even on 3G).

5.     Endurance Cardio > Weightlifting. Jackedupius Startupicus Guy is a common sight, and having more muscle does help you burn marginally calories even while sitting. But building too much muscle takes up valuable gym time and can make it harder to run for long distances (which is what really burns the calories.) 

6.    Get FivefingersYes they look silly and are a bit expensive, but they’re awesome. I used to get blisters from my running shoes (which are equally expensive) after three miles, but I never get blisters from Fivefingers even after running 12 miles. And barefoot running is maybe better for you. Be careful because it takes some adjustment – you need to change your running stride to land on the ball of your foot, and it takes time to build up the calf muscles to avoid hurting your Achilles tendon. Start slow and be patient.

7.     Buy dumbbells. They’re cheap. Keep them by your desk and use them after the gym plus whenever you’re waiting for something. That’s about as much weightlifting as you need.

8.     Cheap Gyms are Fine. Basically all you should be doing at the gym is running on the treadmill and lifting weights. You don’t need to pay $100/month for fancy lighting and classes that are by and large a waste of time. A little dinge won’t kill you.

9.     Keep It Interesting. I like running outside so I created “the Subway Challenge,” where each weekend I take the subway to the end of a line, and run home to Brooklyn. The exploration has been awesome (and probably merits its own post), and being able to run gradually farther distances and make progress towards a big goal is very motivating. You can follow my #SubwayChallenge progress on Twitter (@rogueleaderr)

10. Avoid Protein Shakes. It’s tempting to think you need one to “help recover”, but two scoops of protein can have 400+ calories, i.e. enough to undo around 3 miles of running. Unless you’re bodybuilding, you don’t need more protein.

Diet:

1.     This is What Matters – as much as I wish it were the other way around (because I love eating), diet generally has a much great effect on weight than exercise. Exercise burns disappointingly few calories – even my strenuous routine only burns around 600 calories, which is about the amount in a $2 McDonald’s triple cheeseburger. Cycling / elliptical / lifting etc. burn even fewer.  And food contains a lot of calories (122 in a glass of 2% milk, 216 in a cup of cooked rice). Dropping one glass of milk from your diet has about the same effect as running an entire extra mile.

2.     ~3,500 calories per pound of fat. Loosely speaking, if you want to lose ten pounds you need to burn 35,000 more calories than you eat. You can do that in a year by dropping just 100 calories from your diet each day (e.g. one small bag of chips.) Or you can just run 350 miles.

3.     Quantity is King, but Quality Counts. I have never seen a conclusive scientifically rigorous study showing that diets that restrict types of food but not calories have any real effect. But there are suggestions that some types of calories, specifically carbohydrates (grains, sugars) and foods with a high glycemic index (bread, rice) produce more weight gain per calorie consumed. And some foods (e.g. those high in saturated fat) will just kill you even if they don’t make you fat.

4.     Eat like a Caveman. Paleo works, at least for me. At my last job I spent a year completely avoiding grains, sugar, and dairy and I actually kept my weight flat despite minimal exercise. Ceteris paribus, it’s always better to get your calories from fruits, vegetables, lean meats, olive oil, and nuts. You don’t need to be fanatical about it, but even a shift in relative proportions will make a difference.

5.     Act like a Poor Caveman. The reason I stopped Paleo is that it’s expensive, both in money and time. Fruits, vegetables and meats have the nasty property of rotting when left in the pantry, so you either have to shop frequently (time expensive) or order from restaurants ($ expensive). So… EGGS! They’re super cheap, keep a long time, and it takes 3 minutes fry them.  I eat eggs for breakfast almost every day and my cholesterol is fine (the egg/cholesterol link has been debunked). And…

6.     Buy a crockpot. They’re cheap and awesome. I just bought this one for $20 and I’m loving it. They require extremely minimal prep time for cooking. And they also break down the toughness of cheap meat, making it practical and delicious to be “poor Paleo” by using lots of frozen meats and vegetables (which are much cheaper and non-perishable.) Just throw random meats and vegetables with tomatoes and broth and you have stew. If you want more heft, add quinoa or brown rice for a (relatively less bad) carbo hit.

7.     Fruit Smoothies: If you have a membership to Costco or another wholesaler (see if you can get on your parent’s membership if not), you can get relatively cheap frozen fruit, which never perishes, is full of vitamins, and makes delicious smoothies regardless of the quality or ripeness of the fruit.

8.     Take multivitamins.  Unless you’re paying a lot attention to the balance of your diet, it’s easy to accidentally get a subtle but insidious vitamin deficiency. Generic multivitamins cost around $0.08 per day, and take scurvy off the table. Just do it.

9.     (Bonus) Eat Less on Weekends. Outright dieting isn’t really an option for me because my cognitive capacity drops precipitously with my blood sugar, and I just can’t work when I’m hungry. But when I don’t need to work, it’s not the end of the world if I’m 10% dumber. So I’ve been experimenting with inverting my old “indulge on the weekend” approach and just plain ol’ restricting my caloric intake on weekends. I’ve been able to hold off weight without doing this, but I think it’s helping me break through my current plateau. Obviously don’t starve yourself, and be careful about exercising when you’re hungry.

And that’s all I’ve got for today.

There’s nothing magical here, but all these tips taken together have been enough for me to gradually lose weight and keep it off. If you’re disciplined about it, it should work for you too.

Comment below if you have any other good tips.

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