124: The Life You Save May Be Your Own | Johnny O’Donnell (M/38)

“Chase the result instead of waiting for it.”

For Johnny, this quote is his way of telling himself that he isn’t a victim anymore. In his life he always wanted results, but wasn’t willing to race for them himself.

Weight Gain Background and Contributing Factors

Johnny’s weight gain began around the 6th grade. Many factors were in play, including both eating more and lowering his activity—more video games and less time outside. Johnny’s dad had left home the year before, and his mom didn’t have a clean lifestyle, so at this same time he went to live with his grandparents. Johnny’s grandfather insulted him about his weight, and his grandmother made up for that mean behavior by giving Johnny food for comfort.

“I was always the fat kid of the house.”

Johnny ate a lot while his grandparents were at work, and ate when he was alone.

How Being Overweight Impacted Johnny’s Life

Johnny got picked on and bullied about his weight a lot as a kid. In about the 7th grade Johnny noticed that his peers could do physical activities that he couldn’t, and he felt slow and self-conscious about his physique. Johnny began to wear shirts to the pool and use other clothing to hide his weight. 8th grade was the year Johnny’s weight started to really affect him, and he knew that being heavy was definitely impacting his life.

“It was really then that I understood it and it started to define who I was, and that’s really when I started to hide from the world and use excuses as to why I could not do anything physical.”

As a kid and teen, Johnny says he would have described himself as “worthless and fat.”

“I missed a lot of my childhood, based on my own self-image.”

Johnny shares that when he was younger even if he was performing a very selfless act of any kind, he still would consider himself worthless, because he would still be looking at himself as if from a camera and all he would notice was his fat. At age 16 Johnny went into a Gold’s Gym in Southern California and tried a diet they suggested. At age 18 he worked at Universal Studios and a woman brought him the cabbage diet book. He tried it for one day. He tried a constant rotation of fad diets—Atkins, South Beach, etc.—pretty much every six months.

“Everything seemed so complicated.”

Johnny could count 42 different diets he tried before he reached the age of 30.

The Turning Point

Less than 2 years ago a friend was staying with Johnny after a bad breakup. They went out together and got the friend’s wished for comfort food—donuts and coke. Johnny weighed 475 pounds (215.9 kg) at this point and his friend weighed 450. (204.5 kg) Johnny’s friend ended up having a brain aneurism in the bathroom at Johnny’s house, and Johnny had to break the door down to help get him out. Johnny was so tired, out of breath and exhausted that when the paramedics arrived, they also wanted to examine Johnny even though his friend was the one who needed a life flight. As soon as Johnny got home from the hospital that night of the incident he just broke down.

“It’s done. Life needs to change.”

(Johnny’s friend ended up spending 2 months at the hospital having brain surgery, and despite memory loss has thankfully recovered.)

Starting The Weight Loss Journey

Despite a very clear-cut transformational moment, for Johnny the new lifestyle was “yo-yo” for about the first 30 days. He had to battle his social anxiety on many levels, from exercising around other people to talking to others about his changes. Sometimes Johnny would go for a walk at 4 a.m. or 11 p.m. so that no one would see him. Around the 30-day mark, Johnny started to put sticky notes all over his house, and put goals all over them, and this approach was too scattered. He has since written about this on his blog. Johnny discusses the process of learning to set good and realistic goals for himself. His first goal of this type was just walking every day. Smaller, easier to achieve goals became what he used, like bringing his own food for lunch, or cutting down on processed foods. Smaller goals were less overwhelming, and positive feedback with weight loss encouraged Johnny that he was making progress. Johnny found it motivating to reward himself for tangible scale progress with small things like a new shirt.

Mental Shifts

It took losing over 100 pounds for Johnny to begin to feel good about himself and the changes he was making. After the first 100 pounds, he started to adapt to who he was becoming and he had to focus on getting healthy for himself rather than anyone else.

“I think that it will always forever be a mental battle ground for us to truly ever be content with what we’ve done.”

Still, he struggled at times. Johnny never wanted to see himself in a mirror or his reflection in a window. At one point Johnny convinced himself that his girlfriend was lying to him when she complemented a change in his physique, because it was so hard for Johnny to accept the changes that were happening to his body.

“It’s sad to say, but there are days today that I still see myself 475 pounds.”

Johnny discusses that he had a difficult time with having a cheat meal, because he feared that with one slip he would be right back “at 500 pounds.” It’s amazing how thick his skin had grown to be—he was used to the fat jokes, used to being the funny guy, always one to be the first person to make a fat joke so that no one else can do it first—and how long a mental change can take. He was so used to always using himself as the ‘bad example’ in the room, it took some time to break that habit. One day he had to say to himself:

“Johnny, when are you going to start realizing you’re now a good example?”

Accepting compliments is still a challenge for Johnny and feels like it’s a great honor when folks come up to him to say that he’s an inspiration to them. Johnny is in awe about this, when he can see the direct result of his efforts helping others.

Biggest Challenge in the Journey

Nutrition is still the biggest challenge for Johnny. He says that you can read every single book on nutrition, talk to dieticians, but it takes a long time to find out what works for yourself. Between issues like eating before or after workouts, where do you fit in carbs, meal frequency, how much variety in foods, things can be very confusing.

“We’ve complicated things so incredibly that you second guess everything that you start to do!”

Johnny has made the shift from eating because he loves food to finding what kinds of food fuel him best and make him feel his best, and foods that don’t create cravings. He discusses that eating is very personal and no one’s food plan will work for anyone else. The body’s reaction to food depends on too many factors for there to be a one-size-fits all approach. Johnny eats very similarly day-to-day, as he has found a group of foods that work best for his body and his workouts. Sure, he admits, it is boring, but finding that menu he can work with has been a real triumph.

“Nutrition has always been one of those things where it’s like: ‘what is the perfect thing?’ And the answer is: there is no perfect thing.”

Finding a food balance in life is a habit that he feels people will always chase after their whole life, even after a weight loss journey.

“When you are obese, the last thing you…want to hear is: ‘you can’t eat that.’ And that’s the hardest part that people have to get past.”

Johnny stresses that when you speak nutrition and exercise with someone who is formerly obese it’s very different than speaking with someone who has never been overweight. Nutritionists and trainers can possibly assist you in a weight loss journey, but the advice you might get from someone who has never been overweight cannot truly understand the mental work going on in a journey. Johnny jokes about how while you might exercise for 1 hour every day, but you have to live with you mind the other 23 hours every day. During his journey, the annoyance he felt with skinny people giving Johnny advice was some of the inspiration for his website’s name: biggiefit.com. He felt like they lacked perspective that someone who has experienced life as an overweight individual can offer.

Self-value is a critical component Johnny feels people need to work on, and is the key to making a life change.

“Whatever you choose to believe, you are going to be. Period.”

It has nothing to do with willpower, but a person needs to find their big why or reason to make a change. Johnny cautions adults to be good examples for their kids both in nutrition and activity levels. Kids want to play with their parents and be active, and Johnny challenges people to admit to their kids that if they are too overweight to play to say to themselves that they love food more than they love playing with their children. This is a harsh perspective, Johnny will admit, but he feels strongly about his stance. Johnny feels like people have gotten used to saying to themselves that they “don’t care” what others might think of them, but in reality they do. Many people might just not want to face up to the fact that they are unhappy and that their inner sadness reflects their outer health.

“I hate [the label] ‘diet’, because diet is for someone that wants to lose 10 pounds before their wedding or go on a vacation…This is a life altering change that you will make for the rest of your life.”

No matter how much progress we make in our journey, Johnny says that we are still always growing and learning, and it may take a long time to get over habits that are very ingrained. In the last 23 months since Johnny lost over 225 pounds (102.3 kg), he is by all measures a weight loss success story, and he is excited to share his advice with the public and his clients.  Johnny and Sam discuss the perils of being approached by corporations who want to take advantage of before and after photos from weight loss journeys. They share the challenges of maintaining integrity in the face of rampant product placement of the diet industry.

Current Goals

Johnny always wanted to do an unassisted pullup, and now he is up to 10 in a row. Currently Johnny is working towards sequences of 25 bodyweight exercises one after another—dips and pullups, and he wants to complete a 5K by January of 2015. His current goal is 38” waist and a 1XL shirt. Johnny says he looks at his own loose skin as a “badge of honor.”

Johnny’s Advice For Your Journey

“Move. Move, move, move.”

Go outside and walk. Johnny emphasizes that people should focus on a visible goal, such as walking to a certain house in their neighborhood, rather than something vague like “eating healthy.” He advises people to:

“Pick a goal that you can see.”

Everyone needs to embark on this for themselves. Love yourself. Learn to feel the great reward of accomplishment and pride for something you can achieve.

Resources Discussed in This Podcast

  • MyFitnessPal app
  • FitDay app (Apple/IOS only)
  • Johnny recommends using pen and paper for tracking workouts and food. A diary can help you go back and see how your eating and exercise affect your own mood for months back.
  • Finding and listening to transformational stories that are relate-able.
  • Your instinct. Watch out for people only trying to sell you something when they are discussing nutrition.

On Johnny’s Workout Playlist

Contacting Johnny

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