At just 29 years old, Justin Simpson got a not-so-stellar report card on his health. His doctor called his cholesterol level "embarrassing" and said his liver had become so fatty that he was considered prediabetic.
At that time, he was at his highest weight ever — 305 pounds — but also at his lowest point emotionally. He knew something had to change. Armed with motivation to live and lead a healthier lifestyle, he made some big, big changes. Here, he shares his decade-long journey in his own words.
'I Knew I Had No Other Choice'
No one likes going to the doctor — and I definitely didn't. What's even worse is when your doctor looks you straight in the face and says your blood pressure is an indication that you could die very soon. Once she said that, I knew I had no other choice but to make some serious changes, and fast. I was only 29 years old — how could I be close to death?
Not only did I want to have a long, healthy life, but I also really wanted to go on adventures. I had always dreamed of traveling, and I realized how unrealistic that was given my state of health and my weight. I knew it wouldn't be fair to my travel partner if I had to stop for a break every 15 minutes or had to carry insulin my entire trip.
Though I transformed my lifestyle for myself, a big motivation was to not let down those who depend on me.
"There's no such thing as before and after, there's only before and in-progress."
How Boxing Changed My Life
In 2009, when I left that doctor's appointment, I was 305 pounds. Over the next five years, I tried a couple of bad crash diets. I also tried the Mediterranean diet, which was recommended to me by that same doc. I knew from the moment I bought a book about it that it wasn't for me, but I really wasn't sure what else to do.
Over the next five years, I lost 30 pounds thanks to a lot of weight fluctuation and crash diets. Really, I didn't know how to eat, didn't want to learn and didn't push myself.
In fact, it wasn't until July 2014 that I decided to take it seriously. I started then with a weight of 275 and got down to 210 by November 2015, which is about where I've stayed ever since.
So how'd I get there? I like to say that the journey of health is ongoing, and my philosophy has always been 'There's no such thing as before and after, there's only before and in-progress.'
While this is true, I did take some proactive steps over the last decade to drop nearly 100 pounds and get my body fat percentage down to 14 percent.
For starters, I now love to cook! I challenged myself to find ways to enjoy foods I knew were good for me but had never liked. I also started tagging along with my friends to cycling classes and, perhaps most importantly, I started Couch to 5K with the intention of running my first 5K before I turned 30.
Read more: Couch to 5K: A Running Plan for Beginners
I hit that goal, just two weeks shy of my birthday, at the Hot-to-Trot Thanksgiving Day 5K in Knoxville, Tennessee. The very next day, I walked into TITLE Boxing Club, and life changed forever. That's when I began my journey training as a boxer.
For the next year, I was a member and the weight really started to fall off. Inspired by my own improvement, I wanted to help others make better choices and meet their goals, so I became a boxing group instructor. A few months later, I decided to go even further and become a National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)-certified personal trainer.
Today — four years later! — I'm a board-certified personal trainer with a nutrition specialization and a growing list of clients. I have been promoted to director of my gym, and recently, I was nominated as the Best Personal Trainer in a city-wide poll.
'As a Person Who Loves to Eat, Nutrition Was My Most Difficult Hurdle'
My fitness journey, undeniably, has played a major part in my transformation. It's hard to believe that I once couldn't run a 5K, when now, that's easy for me.
However, as a person who loves to eat, nutrition was my biggest, most difficult hurdle to overcome. For years, I postponed cleaning up my meals because I had a negative perspective on what 'eating healthy' would look like. If I'm being honest, I truly believed I'd have to eat salads all the time, and trust me, I'm definitely not a salad guy.
"I lost about 100 pounds, but I rarely ever ate any salads and never starved myself. Knowledge is indeed power!"
What clicked for me is when I changed my mindset. Instead of focusing on all that I couldn't have, I decided to think about what I could have. I really believe nutrition is a process and you have to trust it.
I did everything I could to learn about foods and learn how to cook, and I challenged myself to try anything and everything. And guess what? I lost about 100 pounds, but I rarely ever ate any salads and never starved myself. Knowledge is indeed power!
How I Got My Eating on Track
I've said it before and I'll say it again: If I would have put myself on a very restrictive diet that was only about leafy greens and olive oil dressing, I wouldn't have met my goals. (And I wouldn't be helping so many others to meet their own, too!) Giving myself the ability to eat what I like — within reason, of course — helped me to keep meals fun. I knew if I was miserable every single time I ate, I would have given up fast.
Instead, I made little changes to my habits, little bits at a time, and found new, sustainable ways to eat clean and actually have fun with food. Over time, I didn't have to make 'conscious' health decisions anymore because it had become the normal way I ate.
I understood that if I wanted to make long-lasting change, I would need to take on something that I could do forever. I had been learning a lot about the paleo diet and thought it seemed like a good method that I would enjoy, so I started cooking mostly meals I'd tracked down from paleo recipe websites. I was getting to eat vegetables I liked, plenty of lean proteins that I liked — and I grew to love it! There were even paleo versions of some of my favorite high-calorie meals (hello, country-fried steak!).
"I never eat something I don't want to eat, so I'm left with a nutrition philosophy that I can use forever."
But I also knew that even paleo wasn't fully sustainable for me if I were to remain strict, so I was never 100 percent strict. Rather, I used paleo as a starting point. This means if I wanted to have a bit of rice, I'd do it but I'd watch my portions. If a coworker brought in cookies, I'd have one but limit myself to that one. So I was primarily following paleo but also being very aware of what I was taking in that fell outside of that scope.
Once I became a trainer, my schedule exploded and it was very difficult to cook fresh meals every day, so I started getting my feet wet with meal prepping. I started small by just making my lunch for the week and then eventually started batching my dinners as well. It took a few weeks before I latched on to the concept because the idea of eating the same thing day after day for a whole week was boring to me... but I quickly realized how much time and effort I was saving.
Meal prepping then led me to my current philosophy of not being afraid to try new foods — but also being OK with eating a lot of whatever you like. I love sweet potatoes and I could eat them every day, so I do! I could eat seasoned ground turkey every day, so I do. I never eat something I don't want to eat, so I'm left with a nutrition philosophy that I can use forever.
In those early days my focus was more on making better daily decisions than it was staying under a calorie limit. I quickly found that I would be consuming a calorie deficit automatically by simply eating cleaner, healthier foods!
"The hard truth? You're going to mess up your diet. You're going to have weeks where you gain weight. But you don't need to beat yourself up for it! You're not a failure, you're a person."
Nowadays, I calculate my caloric needs using the Harris-Benedict equation to get my basal metabolic rate and total energy expenditure. I adjust my daily requirement based on my current goal (cutting weight or bulking mass) and then break down my macros from there. I want to set a good example for my clients while also teaching them how nutrition works, so I'm very transparent about how my macros break down and why they break down the way they do.
I do not track micros but I do eat a variety of vegetables throughout the day, supplement with a daily multivitamin and occasionally have some powdered greens in the afternoon, so I have no reason to believe I'll be out of balance anytime soon.
'No One Else Can Lose Your Weight — It's Up to You to Go Get Your Own Success'
Boxing is a very personalized sport: It's you and the bag, or you and your opponent. It also requires a great deal of self-discipline and training, and you have to be your own biggest supporter to get through the workouts. The same is true with any sport and with any lifestyle change. That's why it's so important to be kind to yourself — and to be positive.
Something I hate is the phrase 'cheat meal.' I also hate when people bring treats to an office and coworkers turn them down because they're 'being good.' This insinuates the rest of us are 'being bad' for enjoying a cookie.
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The hard truth? You're going to mess up your diet. You're going to have weeks where you gain weight. It's part of it, and it's just how it goes. But you don't need to beat yourself up for it! You're not a failure, you're a person. You learn from it, and you move on. Too many times people get discouraged with themselves when they make a bad decision or suffer a setback and it causes them to give up completely. I feel like taking away these critical phrases and thoughts and being more forgiving of ourselves will take us all a long way.
When you're a fan of yourself and your own cheerleader, you give yourself the responsibility you need to succeed. It's important to understand that no one else can lose your weight. No one else can get you to the gym or maintain your diet. You may have dietary limitations or medical issues, but it's ultimately up to you to take responsibility for yourself, work around your limitations and go get your own success.
Accountability partners are awesome, workout buddies are great and a supportive significant other is an amazing thing to have, but at the end of the day, your success depends on your efforts and your attitude.
Accept that and watch your success start pouring in!