Chapter 11: The Virtuous Cycle, Level 2

Chapter 11.

The Virtuous Cycle, Level 2


We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit.



Congratulations on making it this far. Don’t stop now! While Level 1 can impart solid health benefits, it’s just scratching the surface of awesome. Level 2 is where you can see some significant results. As I mentioned, it’s perfectly acceptable to make your way through this level and then hold firm. Level 3 is pretty hard core, and if it’s not for you, that’s cool. Let’s make it through Level 2 and see how you feel.


Level 2, Exercise: Fitness Focused

Many of you are probably trying to figure out just what “fitness focused” means. To be totally honest, it’s hard to say. This isn’t, after all, an exact science, and much depends on your starting point. Still, I know people like to have guidelines, so I would say that by the time you have yourself well into this step you should be hitting about three or four hours of exercise a week at a pretty good intensity.

Does this sound like a lot? For a couch potato, I’ll bet it does. But there are 168 hours in a week. Four hours a week of exercise equals 2.4 percent of that. It’s not so much. It’s what the average American spends watching TV in a single day.

So how do you become fitness focused? I’ll tell you.


Step 1: Establishment

Once you’ve found an exercise that’s not so bad, you have to make it part of your routine.

You’ll have your ups and downs, for certain, but you need to get to the point that you feel you have this down as part of your regular schedule. This is where printing off that schedule and sticking it to the fridge can help.

For those who decide to work out at lunch, I advise blocking off 11:45 to 1:15 in your electronic calendar so people don’t book you in meetings that go until noon but somehow stretch to 12:15 and throw you off, or have you dashing to a one o’clock meeting all sweaty and gross. And try to keep track of when you bail and when you stick it out; this information will come in handy as you work to keep this exercise thing going.

For those tackling a workout early in the morning (good for you!), make sure you have your gear ready to go the night before. As soon as that alarm goes off, know that you’ve got to motivate yourself for only the 30 seconds it takes to get out of bed and start brushing your teeth. Once those vanity lights hit your eyes you’ll be awake, and you won’t have anything better to do with the time, so you might as well work out. As an added motivation, have the coffee timer so your first cup is freshly brewed and waiting.

Most important, know that this stage of the Virtuous Cycle is a fragile time, so focus!

This is where you build the foundation for changing everything. When you build a house, you start by digging a hole. Then you build forms and pour cement, and it takes quite a while before things even get back to ground level.

Okay, that analogy doesn’t make a lot of sense. What I mean is, don’t expect to see a lot of visible changes just yet. In this stage, your major accomplishment is sticking to a regimen and garnering health benefits. It’s not until you put Level 2’s dietary changes into effect that you will begin to see a significant change in the mirror (I know vanity motivates, which is why I’m even bringing this up).

You will start feeling better and more energized, however, and that’s a big thing; it’s something to be proud of. Your exercise doesn’t have to be super intense, lengthy or every day. It’s just got to be regular and not a lame effort.

Again, don’t sweat the fat loss aspect so much yet. You’re not ready for sustainable fat loss. The reason for this can be described via the old joke that the easiest way to gain five pounds is to lose 20. In other words, lots of people lose 20 pounds and then gain 25 back. I don’t want you to be one of those people.

Screw that stupid scale.

My ultimate goal is to have you “transcend” the scale, to have you get to a point that you just don’t give a damn about what it says because everything else in your life has become so awesome. I almost never weigh myself, and the only reason we have a scale in the bathroom is because the kids are growing and like to find out how much they’ve gained, not lost. If it were up to me I’d shove it in the storage room so I didn’t have to keep stubbing my toe on it. Well, we also need it to weigh luggage to make sure we’re not over the airline’s stupid weight limit when we fly.

The numbers on the scale really shouldn’t matter. Scales lie. You could be retaining water or constipated or maybe you’ve gained muscle. Consider just hiding the damn thing and digging it out for a look only when you’re curious because you feel you’ve accomplished a lot.

In chapter 7, I suggested that belt notches, how pants feel, and the mirror are more accurate indicators of progress. I may never use a scale, but I use that mirror every time I shave to see what my midsection looks like. It beats what any scale can tell me.

Now let’s talk about some numbers that do matter.


Step 2: Frequency, Intensity, Length and Difficulty

Level 2 is all about taking what you did in Level 1 and pushing it harder. We’re in Stage III, which is Do mode, so when it comes to exercise, do it more often, do it harder and do it longer. You can even pick more challenging things to do.

Here is how it breaks down.



The number of times you exercise a week; that’s a good number to track.

Were you a total couch potato, and now you exercise twice a week? Awesome.

Go for three.

Then four.

You get the idea. You know how this works now.



How heavy are those weights you’re lifting? How many sets did you do? How fast did you run? What pace did you swim at? How high is the bike tension in the spin class? Lift heavier weights. Run or swim faster. Push harder in your fitness class. Take your chosen activity and just give it more. Your heart should beat faster and your breathing should be heavier. This is about increasing the level of effort.

All these exercises have intensity numbers (tension, speed, weight) that you want to increase, baby step after baby step, tortoise-ing your way to ultimate victory.

And that ultimate victory can translate into other numbers, such as improved cholesterol and blood pressure, lost inches of fat and gained inches of muscle, even gained number of visible abdominal muscles, if you’re super ambitious.


Length of time

Perhaps your average workout time was 20 minutes. Now it’s time to go to 30 minutes. Then 40.

Work out longer. Run farther. Swim more lengths. Cycle more miles. Then do more.


Experiment with Higher-Difficulty Exercise

Remember when I said that total newbs didn’t need to adopt exercise regimens that were great calorie burners or wonderful muscle builders? Well, it’s time to start changing that.

It’s time to start kicking your own ass, just a little.

It’s time to embrace the (little bit of) pain. Start trying out the harder stuff. Not running yet? Perhaps it’s time. Stuck on a stationary bike? Go outside on a real one and go faster. Lifting weights with machines? Get some good training on the free weights, and maybe try kettlebells. Still taking the beginner Spinning classes? Try advanced. And maybe give power yoga a shot instead of basic.

Start searching for things that burn more calories, demand more of your body, get better results and make you feel that you carpe-ed that diem a little more.

Remember, it’s not just the direct physiological changes you’re questing for with pursuing more intense forms of exercise, it’s the psychological boost you get from doing so. When you get good at going hard at physical fitness, you build a skill of mental toughness that makes you more capable when it comes to dealing with food. You get that enhanced “executive function” we talked about in chapter 4, which makes you more capable of sticking to a healthy eating plan.

Don’t hurt yourself, but don’t hold back either. When you progress and give your body time to adapt, you can accomplish amazing things.


Born to Run?

Did you walk in Level 1? Did you try short bursts of jogs? It’s time to give this sport a try. I’m going to push this one again, because it’s a great example of how pushing yourself can get amazing results. Plus, it doesn’t cost much, is a fantastic and practical time saver and is addictive.

First, though, let’s bust some myths about running.

“There is a clear body of evidence that running does not lead to the development of osteoarthritis,” says Reed Ferber, an associate professor of biomechanics at the University of Calgary and director of its Running Injury Clinic. “Some of those studies have good evidence that it is actually protective of joints.”

“There is really no evidence that running causes joint injuries,” echoes Irene Davis, an expert in biomechanics and director of the Spaulding National Running Center at Harvard Medical School.

In fact, Davis told me (with apologies to Bruce Springsteen) that humans were born to run. “I think we evolved to run,” she said. “It’s in our genes and is the most natural exercise we have. It doesn’t make sense that it would wear you out.”

And being heavy is not an excuse to sit on the sidelines. A 2003 study in the Journal of Biomechanics compared knee loading in 21 obese and 18 lean subjects. When the obese subjects walked at their usual (slower) pace, they experienced less knee loading than the lean subjects. When everyone walked at the same pace, the knee loading was also the same. The authors proposed that obese subjects had an “ability to reorganize neuromuscular function” to protect their knee joints.1 It’s possible this could be true for a cautiously paced running program as well.

“I’m sure some obese people do have knee pain because they don’t exercise,” Ferber said. “Immobilization has corrosive effects for your cartilage. Moving is what lubricates your joints.”

Harish Ganesh, 40, is an entrepreneur and father of two living in Kochi, India. Running is what enabled him to lose over 50 pounds and drop his waist size from 38 inches to 30 inches. “Exercise was anathema for me,” Ganesh told me. But then he started walking. “Slowly, I was starting to enjoy my walks.” His walks got longer and longer, until he became a runner, which changed everything else. “I understood that exercise was motivating me to eat healthily,” he said. “Running for me is a passion now.” And that’s why he’s successful at keeping weight off.

“I tried running but it just hurt too much,” Jen McKinnon told me. “So I just kept walking and it just kept getting longer and longer. Then I started running bits and pieces during my walks, and now I’ve got my first 10K race coming up.” And like so many others, McKinnon said, “All this exercise has put me in the right mind-set for dealing with food.”

Graham Levy is a 43-year-old electronic technician in Halifax who began running in 2010 because a friend was training for a half marathon. “I thought it would be cool,” he told me. He started with walking too. The walking led to 40 pounds of weight loss, “And then I got light enough that I felt ready to start running.” He’s down a total of 65 pounds, and has run his fourth marathon, with his latest effort being under four hours. Now he’s got his eye on qualifying for the Boston Marathon.

Anna Mae Alexander is 29 and lives in Calgary. “Three years ago I couldn’t walk,” she told me, referring to her polymyalgia rheumatica. “I started controlling it with foods that were less inflammatory, then began walking. I worked my way up to doing the 60K Weekend to End Breast Cancer, then registered for a Learn to Run program. I’ve done a few 5K races now.”

If you try to become a runner and fail, don’t give up forever. Third time was the charm for me.


Tune Your Technique

When I decided to start training to qualify for the Boston Marathon I went to see Cory Fagan, who operates TCR Sport Lab in Calgary, to get some coaching. One of the most important things he did was change my running technique. Try these tips to get faster and avoid injury:

  • Stand tall and lead with your chest. Imagine there is a string at the top of your head pulling you skyward. Don’t slouch forward when you run.
  • Fast hands = fast feet. Keep a small angle at your elbow so your thumbs almost brush your chest as you run. Don’t let your arms hang low, but keep those hands high and pump them in short, rapid movements.
  • Try to be quiet. Pretend as though you are sneaking up on someone so that you land soft rather than slam your feet into the ground.



Fun with Fido

If you want a dedicated running partner, there are certain breeds of dog that can go the distance, but there are cautions as well.

“For any breed, you want to start out with an exam to give them a clean bill of health,” said Idaho-based Marty Becker, the veterinarian for and author of more than 20 books on pet ownership, including Fitness Unleashed, about working out with your dog.

“Wait until the dog is fully mature until you really start pushing the mileage,” said Katrina Mealey, a professor of veterinary medicine at Washington State University. And keep in mind that certain breeds of dogs are better adapted to running than others.

“Dogs with pushed-in faces—pugs, Pekingese and Shih Tzu, for example—have a hard time breathing normally,” Becker said. “If you take them too far or too fast, they are at risk of dying.”

Mealey added that these short-muzzled dogs can’t tolerate heat as well either.

Some specific recommendations from Becker and Mealey for dog breeds that are good distance runners: border collies, German short-haired pointers, Dalmatians, Labrador and golden retrievers, and standard poodles. Even if you want to run sprint intervals, they can keep up.

And the dog doesn’t have to be big. Mealey had a Jack Russell terrier that would keep up to her fast pace for eight miles.







I’ll close this section with a reminder. Fitness Focused is about incremental pushing in four key areas:

  1. Frequency of exercise: Do it more times during the week.
  2. Intensity of exercise: Go harder, sweat more, get a higher heart and breathing rate.
  3. Length of exercise session: Make each session longer.
  4. Difficulty of exercise type: Pick harder classes, go from elliptical to treadmill, run instead of walk, swim instead of aquacize …


You don’t have to push all four things at the same time, but do keep them in mind. That list you’ve put on the fridge? Write this along the top: “Remember to push.”

The acronym to keep all of this in your head is FILD, because you will feel as though exercise has “filled” your soul.

Gak! Ack! Blarf! My stomach is heaving right now. I can’t believe I wrote that. Next section, please …


Level 2, Eating: Gastronomically Good

If you’re reading this, I trust you’ve adopted the Fitness Focused exercise level. That’s good, because it’s about to get harder, and you need the brain- and will-strengthening benefits of physical activity to power through.

You know how this works. Here we go.


CUT White Flour and REPLACE with Whole-Wheat Flour

We’re not asking you to cut fast food yet, so you can still have your god-awful McDonald’s/Wendy’s/Burger King/Arby’s buns. For the stuff you bring home, however, you need to make white flour anathema. To quote Seinfeld’sGeorge Costanza, anathema means, “They don’t like it.”

You need to learn to not like white flour.

Now I realize some baked goods aren’t going to work with white flour. For me, it’s Yorkshire pudding. I have made them with whole-wheat flour and they were just fine! Not to hear my wife and kids tell it, though. I damn near had a rebellion on my hands. (Seriously, though, if you’re baking a lot of stuff that requires white flour, you need to cut back on that.)

The big difference on the white flour front is going to be in the bread products you buy. When you cut white flour, you cut out a lot of garbage you might buy from the grocery store or other places. Many pastries and treats are white flour heavy, which means they’re out most of the time. Cheese buns and many other kinds of buns are out too. And say goodbye to white flour bagels and white bread.

For bread, consider 100 percent whole-wheat whole-grain varieties that list this as the first ingredient: “Whole-grain whole-wheat flour including the germ.” This is a good germ. Look for this. Buy this.

These breads have more fiber, less sugar, fewer other unpronounceable ingredients, are more filling, healthier, promote exercise performance better and are less likely to lead to overconsumption. Making this switch will retrain your taste buds so you come to dislike white flour. In the final step, when you cut fast food, doing so will be easier.


CUT Most Junk Food Snacks and REPLACE with Healthier Snacks

Ask the apple question. Instead of potato chips or candy, eat carrots and peas and apples and celery and grapes and strawberries and mini tomatoes and nuts and seeds … you get the idea.

Cut back on chips and chocolate and doughnuts and tarts and muffins and pastries and … you also get the idea.

You don’t have to go all or nothing on this. I advise—at minimum—replacing 50 percent of your junk food snacks with healthier options. Consider shooting for 75 percent.


CUT Spreads/Sauces and REPLACE with Less Spreads/Sauces

I remember watching a relative butter his bread. I was blown away by the amount he used.

I love butter. I have it on toast every morning (along with eggs), but I’m Spartan in my usage. I use just the barest amount to get coverage. Every time I use a spread of any type, or a sauce, for that matter, I use just enough to get a good addition of flavor without going overboard.

It’s a math game. Scoop out one level tablespoon of butter and see what it looks like. Memorize that size, and know that it contains 100 calories. How much do you need? You’ll find you can get away with much less and that the reduction has an imperceptible effect on taste.

Any time you’re adding a creamy sauce, mayo, cream cheese, slice of cheese, other spread, etcetera, to food, think about the amount. Keep it as low as you can without making it seem that life sucks.


CUT Creamy Salad Dressings and REPLACE with Vinaigrettes

This is not as straightforward as it seems, as some vinaigrettes can be loaded with calories. You need to read labels and find ones that are low in calories. Also, just as with the spreads, don’t use much. I have a powerful-tasting Greek vinaigrette I prefer and the amount I use on a large salad amounts to only 20 calories.


CUT Cereal and REPLACE with Eggs

I eat eggs for breakfast almost every day. Cereal—even the stuff you think might be good—is not good. It’s packed with calories, it’s heavily refined and it’s not filling. A trick manufacturers employ is to use multiple types of sugars so they don’t have to list “sugar” as the first ingredient. Read the ingredient “fine print” and watch for brown sugar, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, fructose and molasses. Taken all together, these “stealth” sugars can make sugar the leading ingredient. Not surprisingly, cutting cereal further lowers your sweetness threshold.

By comparison, eggs have only 70 calories each, taste awesome, are unprocessed, healthy and have a high satiety factor.

Cereal is quick and convenient, but it takes no time to get good at cooking eggs fast. Getting up five minutes earlier won’t kill you. Have eggs for breakfast.


CUT Most Restaurant Meals and REPLACE with Home-Cooked Meals/Packed Lunches

It’s the sit-down restaurant meals I’m talking about here. We’re not cutting fast food until the final step. Allow me to explain why.

Restaurant meals are more dangerous than fast food meals for a few reasons:

  • They taste better
  • The portions are larger
  • There is more choice
  • There is the bread basket
  • There are appetizers
  • There is dessert
  • There are doggie bags
  • There are buffets


A lot of people can’t handle too many fast food meals. They just get gross after a while. But if there was some kind of Star Trek transporter diet plan that “beamed” the extra unhealthy calories from restaurant food out of my stomach after eating—and if I could afford it—I could eat every meal at good restaurants every single day. There is so much choice and it often all tastes so good.

Read The End of Overeating and you’ll know why it tastes so good. The chicken breasts I make don’t taste half as good as the ones I can get in a restaurant, and there’s a reason for that: I don’t impregnate them with a ton of fat, sugar and salt that causes them to melt in my mouth and adds a ton more calories. Restaurant food can seem unprocessed yet still be processed to hell and back. The addition of fat means chewing is minimal because it makes food softer, so you can eat faster and take in more calories. Even seemingly healthy vegetables are often deep-fried in oil to make them taste better, adding a load of extra calories.

Another example: when I make mashed potatoes I use milk and a little butter. Restaurants often use whipped cream and lots of butter. All these extra calories add up fast.

You need to make restaurant meals for special occasions. It’s rare that I go out for dinner. And when I do, the kids are usually left behind. My wife and I save those outings for date nights and we savor them. Because I rarely eat at a restaurant, when I do I get to go berserk. I order whatever the hell I want. Because it’s a rare treat I throw caloric awareness to the wind and pig out big time. I’ve earned it.

Earn it. Make it rare, and make it special.

Remember that we have free recipes for healthy, lower-calorie meals on my website, Also, a registered dietitian can be a valuable resource to take you around the grocery store and show you how to shop if you’re unsure of what to do.

If you travel a great deal and must eat at restaurants all the time, or if regular business lunches are a requirement, you need to find a way to restrain calories while eating out. One resource you can check out is the book The Portion Teller, by Lisa Young.


CUT Mindlessly Reaching for Food and REPLACE with Stopping and Thinking

Exercise has strengthened your brain to make better decisions by now, so use that power. Decide if the pleasure is worth the calories. Think about whether you want it. Determine how much you’ll have and if you’ll be able to stop after a reasonable amount. Often, stopping and thinking will make you realize that you’re not as much hungry as you’re bored, or frustrated, or angry. If you’re truly hungry, and do want whatever you’re reaching for, go for it. At least you’re eating mindfully.


CUT Alcohol Intake by Another 25 Percent and REPLACE with Water

Again, no explanation required.



And now I’ll remind you that it’s okay to hold fast here. This is it for Level 2, and while it certainly involves effort to get to this point, you’ll find with practice that it’s sustainable without making you feel you’ve sold yourself into weight loss slavery. I made it to Level 2, more or less, and stayed there for 10 years before I moved on to Level 3. I’d lost 30 pounds and looked good and was healthy. When I was ready to up my game, see my abs and get super fit, I took it to another level.

If you complete both parts of Level 2 and hold firm, you’re doing great. You’re doing way better than the majority of people on the planet. Be proud.

And when you’re ready—when you want to—go to Level 3. Become a Workout Warrior. That, in turn, will make you want to pursue the dietary changes: Eating for Excellence.



  1. Paul DeVita and Tibor Hortobágyi, “Obesity Is Not Associated with Increased Knee Joint Torque and Power during Level Walking,” Journal of Biomechanics 9 (September 2003): 1355–62.
  2. David Kessler, The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable North American Appetite (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2009), 103.