My Personal Weight-Loss Journey
No life-improvement plan is going to be effective for you unless you believe in it, and one of the keys to believing in a system is holding trust in the leader. A sports team that doesn’t have faith in the coach is in trouble. Same for the company whose employees are skeptical of the CEO. So before we get started, let me tell you a little about me and the strange path that led me from Yale University to the life of a truck driver.
Just about every trucker has a rich backstory. You see, truckers come in all shapes and sizes, all shades and age groups. We come from all over America and beyond, from small towns for sure, but also from cities. We’re men and we’re also women. We’re married and divorced, straight and gay, grandmothers in their sixties and bachelors in their twenties. We come from all different kinds of education levels, hold a wide array of political and religious values, and enjoy a diverse pool of interests outside of work.
For a guy like me who’s hopelessly, incurably outgoing, this diversity is one of the great pluses of the job. I love this aspect. One day you’re talking to a Native American from New Mexico who’s telling you about his tribal rituals; the next day you’re talking with a former hippie from Maine who writes poetry whenever her motor is turned off.
My story? I’ve had a lot of adventures. I’ve been to dozens of foreign countries under all sorts of different circumstances. I went to college at Yale but have worked with street gangs in Chicago and been part of the squatters’ movement in Europe.
There’s been love and loss and lots of passion. There’s been uncertainty—times when I haven’t been sure where I was going to sleep or how I was going to eat. There have been triumphs—from becoming the first African American to be named an All-Ivy League swimmer, to being named America’s Fittest Trucker. And like you, I’ve had my share of disappointments as well.
My birth name was Anthony Blake. I grew up in the far west suburbs of Chicago, a patch of heartland suburbia built on the fields of a long-fallow farm. My parents split up when I was a young boy, and I was the rare African American kid who was brought up by a single father.
Like an omnivore that eats everything, as a kid, I played all sports. There was always a ball or mitt or tennis racket attached to my arm. But I took a particular interest in swimming. I wasn’t big or even graceful, but I loved technique, finding little ways to improve, always tinkering to uncover tricks that could make me faster and more efficient. I loved to compete and test myself against others who were also trying their hardest. By age ten, I was an Illinois state champion in swimming. As a teenager I had a national ranking.
An uncle of mine by marriage, Hayes Jones, had won a gold medal in hurdling in the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo. I talked to him once about all that he had achieved in sports and what he had to do to get there. I remember that I didn’t come away awed or feeling like I had been talking to a superhero. I came away thinking, Well, hey, he did it. Why not me, too?
I had always done well in school academically, and so I was fortunate that when it was time to pick a college I had plenty of choices. I settled on Yale, largely for the swimming program. Yale had once been
an absolute swimming powerhouse, winning four NCAA titles over eleven years.
Unfortunately, that span was from 1942 to 1953. (In fact, under Coach Robert J. H. Kiphuth, Yale had 528 wins and just 12 losses during those eleven years, for the greatest collegiate winning percentage of any sports team in history.) But I arrived on campus full of optimism, convinced that I could help the program get back to greatness and excited about working under Yale’s terrific longtime coach, Frank Keefe.
Since my early childhood, I’ve always liked going against convention. I didn’t rebel for the sake of rebelling, but I never minded being different. And my time at Yale just highlighted that fact. I didn’t mind that most of the best swimmers were from California and Florida, and here I was, from the guts of Illinois. Or that most other swimmers, including my teammates, were tall and lanky and classically built, while I was just 5 foot 8 and maybe 140 pounds, soaking wet. While swimmers were supposed to specialize in a single event, I was a generalist, who swam sprints but also swam long distances. I wasn’t going to worry about whether I fit in; I was going to trust my work ethic and my techniques and my desire and drive to succeed.
At the time, there had yet to be an African American swimmer in the Olympics, and there was still a great deal of mindless prejudice against African Americans in the sport. One of the most memorable moments of my teenage years came when a baseball executive named Al Campanis went on national television and, without a trace of embarrassment or self-consciousness, said, “Why are black men, or black people, not good swimmers? Because they don’t have the buoyancy.”
If that’s the way most of America thought of black people, well, I was going to change all that.
Early in my freshman year at Yale, I was placed in a pool lane with a senior, Andrew Geller, who was the best swimmer on the team. Frustrated
that he wasn’t swimming fast enough for my liking, I passed him, which was considered poor pool etiquette, especially for an incoming freshman. He was furious and let me know it. I shot back, “I don’t care who you are, if you aren’t going fast enough, I’m going in front of you.” That pretty much summed up who I was at the time.
By my sophomore year, I had placed fifth in the Eastern Seaboard Swim Championships and made the all-conference team, becoming the first African American swimmer ever to be named to the All-Ivy League team. That year Yale finished 10–3. My junior season, the team was 9–1.
And then my life took a sharp turn. I went to the US Open meet, my opportunity to qualify for the US Olympic Trials in the 100-meter freestyle event. Looking back, I might have been a long shot. But failure hadn’t really crossed my mind. It rarely did back then. This was just something I needed to do before I could make the US Olympic team.
Except that my expectations outstripped my abilities. Well, you can guess what happened: I missed qualifying for the Olympic Trials by less than a second. Eight-tenths of a second, to be exact, or about as much time as it takes to read the words eight tenths.
I knew that this had been my one chance for the Olympics, and it wasn’t going to happen. There was no arguing, no do-overs, no one I could appeal to. The data—in this case, the electronic timer—had said that I had failed. I remember standing in the cool-down pool in Minneapolis and crying, my tears mixing with the chlorinated pool water. I was crying over a dream that had died. But I was also crying for something bigger: my attitude, competitive streak, and technique simply hadn’t been enough to get me through.
I returned to Yale for my senior year, but I didn’t want to swim anymore. The quest was over, and I was heartbroken. So much so that one evening, a few of my roommates found me passed out near a bottle of pills, and I spent a few days in the psych ward of Yale–New Haven
Hospital. It was the first time I had really wanted something and didn’t accomplish it. And that was a shock to the system. I wasn’t released until I could convince the doctors I wasn’t a danger to myself.
As part of my recovery program, I got back in the pool and started swimming again. Late in my senior year, I helped Yale win a share of the Ivy League title for the first time in years. That was on a Saturday night. On Monday morning, I was gone.
Graduation was only a few weeks away, and I was in good academic standing. But I felt like I had gotten all I could out of school. I was tired of reading about Jesus and Buddha and all these other spiritual luminaries who had followed their destinies. I wanted to do it, experience the world for myself. So I hitchhiked home, dropped off some bags, and told my dad what I had done. He was less than pleased, as you might guess, and tried to talk me out of it. But it was too late. I told him, “I’m going to travel the world. I don’t know when I’ll be back, if ever.” And then I headed off.
I spent the next fifteen years traveling, following my heart. I surfed in California and hitchhiked in Europe. I threaded my way from Amsterdam to Prague to Trinidad to Honduras to Togo to Ethiopia. There wasn’t much in the way of a long-term plan or organizing principle, just a deep sense that life needed to be experienced and an unshakable belief that it would all work out.
People often ask me if I ever finished college and got my Yale degree. The answer, I’m happy to say, is yes. It was a goal that I set and—after working harder than I thought—I was able to accomplish. When I was in my mid-twenties, after a few years of wandering, I decided to re-enroll. I was so close to graduating that I had to finish, and Yale—which wants as many of its students as possible to finish with a degree—let me back in. One problem: I felt like I couldn’t bother my father with tuition; I had put him through enough. But after paying for
classes, I had nothing left to pay for room and board. But I was determined, so I did what I had to do.
I had recently been in Europe and had joined the squatters’ movement there. I thought, Why don’t I try that here? I spent that final semester of college living rent-free in abandoned buildings and in the swim team locker room, eating most of my meals at the local soup kitchens. It was hardly the fun and easy college life that other kids were living. It was the opposite, in fact. But I finally got that degree.
As my thirtieth birthday approached, I decided to go back to Africa. Like a lot of African Americans, I felt as though I didn’t really know my personal history. Connecting with my ancestral heritage became very important to me. I traveled all over the continent, mostly using money I had saved or earning it along the way by making wood furniture. In South Africa, I met with tribal elders. They said that when a son of the soil returns home, he should get a new name. They gave me the name Siphiwe (pronounced seh-PEA-way), a name common among the Xhosa and Zulu tribes. They said it means “Gift of the Creator.” For a last name, they chose Baleka, an anagram of A. Blake. It means “Fast” and “He Who Had Escaped.”
By my mid-thirties, though, I was tired of having no real plan and no real income. I knew I wasn’t cut out for a corporate job. (Besides, I may have had a Yale degree, but to say that my résumé was “nontraditional” was an understatement.) There was essentially a fifteen-year gap in my work history, one that wasn’t going to be easy to explain to a corporate recruiter.
A truck driver friend named Jaberi made a suggestion to me: Drive a truck. It suits your nomadic lifestyle. You got plenty of time to think, and you can save a lot of money. I did what I usually do and said, “Why not? I’ll try it.” I traveled to southern Missouri and enrolled in Prime’s uniquely successful Student Driver Program. I got my commercial driver’s
license, spent another four or five months on the road with an instructor-driver, and eventually became a lease operator.
The job fed something in me and suited my personality. The roads are a wilderness, each trip a unique adventure. But, unlike my previous adventures, this one brought steady employment and a plan. I didn’t mind the solitude. And driving triggered this feeling of familiarity. I hadn’t really been in a pool since I’d left Yale, but here I was maneuvering in a lane, reaching a destination, and then returning to where I started in the opposite lane; getting lost inside my head; feeling a sense of independence as I paced myself. The parallels between driving and swimming were hard to miss.
And I liked the unpredictability, too. One week, I’d be hauling flank steak to the West Coast. The next week, I’d be transporting diapers to Miami. You just never knew where you were headed, what part of the country you’d see next, what kind of weather and air you’d be experiencing. But to me, that was all part of the fun. So, too, was gaining an understanding of how important my new job really was. So many of our daily necessities—clothes, food, furniture, medicine—come, literally, off the back of a truck. Drive a truck for a little while, and you soon realize you’re a vital part of the economy. Without truck drivers crisscrossing highways and delivering goods we use every day, this country doesn’t run. It’s that simple.
But here’s what I didn’t like: the changes to my body. For all the adventures I’d had over the years, one of my most vivid moments—a real plot point in my life—came when I realized that I didn’t like how I looked.
In less than two months on the job, I had somehow managed to gain more than 10 percent of my body weight. At that rate, I could come close to doubling my body weight within a year. My energy level was low. It almost felt like I was wearing a costume—one that I couldn’t take off at the end of the day. It wasn’t just that I didn’t like what I saw
when I looked in the mirror; it’s that I didn’t even recognize the figure in front of me. Hey, wait a second: This isn’t what I look like. Is it? Really?
Yale swim team photo
Starting to let myself go
This was all a new sensation for me, almost like visiting a foreign country. See, for my entire life, I had put a premium on health and fitness and, yeah, I’ll admit it, on my looks. I had always been an athlete. Over the years, I had struggled with plenty of concerns and challenges. But fitting into my clothes had never been one of them.
Now? All that muscle, originally built up from so many sessions in the weight room and countless nautical miles in the pool, was atrophying. My abs were turning into flab. I lost my beloved six-pack and picked up love handles instead. I even felt my face stretching out and feeling heavier on my neck.
And maybe worse still, there was a real price that came with all this, physically and psychologically. I felt sluggish. My energy was low. I
was moody. This unwanted weight gain was affecting everything from my sleep to my sex life.
I looked around and saw my new coworkers. Don’t get me wrong. They were—and are—absolutely fantastic people. But they were also, for the most part, overweight and not on a path to live a long life.
There are 3.5 million truckers in the United States. A full 86 percent of them are overweight, and nearly 70 percent are obese, the highest proportion of any profession in America. A recent Gallup Healthways analysis revealed that transportation workers, including truck drivers, have the highest risk for chronic health problems of any occupation in America. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) put long-haul trucking at the top of the list for jobs with the highest rates of obesity. If you wanted to find one profession that embodied the country’s obesity epidemic, this one, sadly, would be it. Trucking is at the heart of this national crisis.
How bad is it? As I write this, the overall life expectancy for the US population is 78.7 years. For truckers who own their own vehicles, it’s 55.7 years; for union drivers, it’s 63 years. Some of this is directly because of the obesity and bad health that runs rampant in the industry. It’s also because of indirect effects. Bad habits, erratic hours, and sleep deprivation lead to the factors that cause fatal traffic accidents on the roads.
Bottom line: I love driving, but not at the expense of my health. And certainly not at the expense of my life.
This low moment was followed by what you might call an aha moment. I was at home watching TV one night, wallowing in my new weight gain, when an infomercial came on. It was for something called the ROM Machine. ROM stands for “range of motion,” and it was a giant contraption that promised the users the benefits of sixty
minutes of cardio, thirty minutes of strength training, and twenty minutes of stretching in—get this—a four-minute workout. I was like, Come on, really? Four minutes? This is a joke, right? I’m watching athlete after athlete on the screen—this parade of smiling, buff-looking, muscle-bound guys—get on this machine and say that after four minutes, they’re exhausted. Just dog-tired. It’s the hardest workout they’ve ever done.
As is usually the case with me and infomercials, I’m skeptical. But at the same time, I’m intrigued. A four-minute workout sounds highly questionable, of course. (I mean, that’s half the time of eight-minute abs, and people doubted that.) But what I had seen actually made a lot of sense. The machine is like a sit-down bicycle with your legs out in front of you. But there are also handles, and when you pull them, it’s as though you’re rowing. So it’s like you’re riding a bike and rowing a boat at the same time. And when you get to the extreme end of the motion, you push back the other way, and the resistance changes. So whether you’re pulling or pushing, it’s four minutes of maximum resistance, maximum stretch, maximum range of motion. I’m watching this, and the guy in the commercial is explaining the benefits and all the science behind it. He’s talking about how, when you use a greater range of muscles over a greater range of motion, you circulate more oxygen, which causes more of the metabolic process to produce energy, which requires fat burning. By the end, I’m thinking that, especially as I’m coming to terms with my new weight gain, this machine would sure help me.
Damn, I want a ROM Machine.
There are two problems.
First, the ROM Machine costs $15,000, which I did not have. In fact, I didn’t have much if any money at all at the time. (This is one unfortunate consequence of spending so much of your twenties and early
thirties following your bliss.) If it had cost $1.50, I might have needed an installment plan. And second, I am a truck driver, putting thousands of miles on my odometer each week. I can’t exactly carry this machine onto my truck.
But I was impressed, and I was inspired. I wasn’t going to buy a silly ROM Machine from an infomercial. I started researching the principles behind it. There had to be a way I could start burning fat and shedding all this extra weight without a traditional gym. What I discovered: there was a lot of research supporting the idea that a short burst of intense exercise had the same—and sometimes even more—benefits than longer workouts. This came at a time savings, a cost savings, and a reduction in the risk for injury.
Looking back, I see this was the beginning of 4-Minute Fit.
At first there was a lot of trial and even more error. I tried doing exercises that had helped me back when I was swimming competitively—push-ups, sit-ups—but haphazardly, with no plan, no system. I’d pull over at a truck stop or a parking lot, climb out of the cab, get out a piece of cardboard and, right there alongside my truck, get to it. In the beginning, some drivers laughed at me and what I was doing. That was nothing new. Other drivers would say they were looking to lose weight too or that they had once been athletic before their bodies got away from them. But no one asked to join. It was as though they had resigned themselves to being overweight.
Meanwhile, I was determined to lose this weight, but the results weren’t coming. At least not fast enough.
Next, I started bringing different types of equipment on the road with me: resistance bands and kettlebells and a weighted vest. Again, it felt good to exercise and sweat a little and get my pulse rate up. But I wasn’t seeing the results that I wanted.
Then I tried to get to the next level by experimenting with different
exercise programs that were trendy at the time. I did Zumba and P90X and Tae Bo and GSP Rushfit. I would try the DVDs, which wasn’t always easy on the road. I’d park the truck on a flat surface and then set up the DVD player so the sun wouldn’t create a glare. I would change into workout clothes, connect the DVD to an external speaker so I could hear, and then get in my workout. When I was done, I would have to break everything down, change back into my old clothes, and pack up. My sixty-minute DVD workout was taking more like two hours in total. But I was on a tight schedule—like most of us, including truckers, are—and so I knew that it wasn’t going to be sustainable.
I tinkered with my diet, too. I was vegetarian and then pescatarian. I tried Mediterranean and Paleo. I would see results at first, but then inevitably I would slip and the weight would return. Again, when you’re pressed for time, you’re driving on the interstates, and you’re pulling into unfamiliar towns at irregular hours, it’s hard to keep to one specific diet.
Adding to this was the difficulty of eating well on the “truckers’ grid.” See, when you’re trucking, assigned to maneuver this steel whale, this fifty-some-foot metal tube weighing as much as 80,000 pounds with cargo, you’re mostly staying on interstates. You’re not driving to the upmarket parts of town where stores sell grass-fed meat and organic fruits and vegetables. (Honk if you’ve ever seen a semi parked outside a Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s.)
So the challenges I faced were sort of like the challenges we all face, except many times worse. No kitchen, food storage issues . . . If standard diet and fitness plans weren’t effective for most of the American population, they certainly weren’t going to work for me and my coworkers. I needed something new, a plan that was completely different.
THE START OF A REVOLUTION
Finally, I diagnosed the issue. The problem was one of metabolism. Truck drivers are prime candidates for metabolic syndrome, the medical term for a combination of diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity that puts you at greater risk of heart disease, stroke, and other conditions affecting blood vessels. If I could figure out a way to boost metabolism while keeping workouts really short (to fit into the hectic schedule) and making eating simple (to compensate for the long hours and shortage of optimal food choices), not only could I change my body, but I could help the men and women who shared the road with me.
A slowing metabolism is the main driver of weight gain for most of us, and among truckers, the problem is even more exaggerated, thanks to our unpredictable schedules. The freight dictates when truckers drive. Sometimes that means driving at night, and sometimes it means driving in the day. It is the rare driver who gets more than six hours of uninterrupted sleep, and it all disrupts circadian rhythms and the natural biological clock. Sleep deprivation accumulates every day, every week, every month, every year that you drive.
And sleep is a major driver of metabolism. The hormones that regulate metabolism—leptin and ghrelin, which control appetite; insulin and adiponectin, which oversee fat storage; human growth factor, which manages muscle; and cortisol and glucagon, which control energy expenditure—are either produced in your sleep or regulated by your sleep patterns. This is a production cycle that is constantly changing and constantly interrupted for truckers. They’re not able to produce the hormones properly, so their metabolism doesn’t function the way it is supposed to. Again, a huge problem not just for those of us on the road but for anyone who’s tied to a desk job and at the mercy of the alarm clock.
But if getting more sleep wasn’t an option, what if I tinkered with my metabolism while I was awake? What if I exercised in short bursts? And what if I adjusted my diet—cutting back on carbohydrates and strategically timing protein intake every three hours —an eating strategy that would also help my metabolism to spike?
It was then that I remembered the infomercial, you know, the one for the ROM Machine. They claimed that four minutes a day was all you needed to spike your metabolism and set your body into fat-burning mode. What if I could replicate these same principles when I was on the road? I could do the pulling movement with resistance bands, four minutes, as hard as I can in one direction. And then I could do the pushing by turning it around and doing the movement in the opposite direction. So I would get all the upper-body work that this fancy, expensive ROM Machine would give me, but with the cheap, portable equipment I could afford and fit on my truck. I could take resistance bands on the truck, and I could hook them up anywhere—to a
roadside tree, to the truck, inside the door, or wherever. It was such a complete workout, incorporating just about every group of muscles and working in stretching. And, even better, I could complete the entire routine in just fifteen minutes—the maximum amount of exercise that one should do, for reasons I’ll explain in an upcoming chapter.
The results were remarkable. Like a snake molting its skin, I shed the excess weight. I worked myself into the best shape of my adult life and—while still driving full time more than 330 days each year—I returned to competitive swimming. In 2011, I won two events at the US Masters Swimming Spring Nationals and went on to compete in eight sprint and Olympic distance triathlons (winning my age group in two of those races), including the USAT Age Group National Championships. I competed in the 2012 Ironman South Africa, finishing in 214th place out of more than 1,300 athletes. This led one industry magazine to give me the honorary title of the “Fittest Truck Driver in America.”
With medals from the 2011 US Masters Swimming Spring Nationals
Crossing the finish line in 214th place at the 2012 Ironman South Africa
I realized something else: the same principles and program that enabled me, in my early forties, to look like the guy above? They could apply to my truck-driving colleagues, too. In fact, the basic principles apply to just about anyone, whether they’re obese and looking to cut their BMI in half, or already fit adults who simply wanted to elevate to super-fit.
Now, if I can take a group of sedentary, badly nourished, and exhausted truckers, give them no access to a gym, and still strip away enormous amounts of weight while having them exercise just four minutes a day, imagine what I can do for you.