Letters from Boot Camp: Plateau? No Way—This Is a Cliff

Our boot-camping editor is facing some wicked Plateau Demons this week—and they’ve got him rattled.

Why are you doing this? Really, why are you doing this? To be young again? Because you will never be young again. You will be 49 next week, and I don’t care what anybody says, that’s not young. It’s not old, but it’s not young. So why are you putting yourself through this? What are you trying to prove? That you can still be handsome? That you can somehow squeeze back into 10-year-old pants? If you quit, what’s the difference? You tried it, it didn’t work out. People quit every day. But you are putting yourself through hell and you don’t look any better. That’s the truth. And you have always been someone not afraid to face the truth, no matter how difficult. So maybe it’s time to face this truth. Maybe it’s time to just admit this was a ridiculous idea, deal with the embarrassment, and cut your losses.

—from an internal monologue in my head one recent evening, as I sat watching TV on my couch


There was a morning last week when I was looking in the mirror. There comes, in the life of every Boot Camper, a moment when in the midst of your weeks of physical torture you look into the mirror and see someone slightly different looking back, someone thinner, someone fitter.

This was not that moment.

What I saw instead was somebody… still fat. How could I still be fat, four weeks in? I was eating better and exercising like a decathlete. Curious, I did something I shouldn’t have.

I dragged out the scale.

If you heard a piercing shriek coming from the general area of Old City last week, that was me. I get weighed every Wednesday to chart my progress, and many of you loyal “Letters from Boot Camp” readers may recall that in last week’s post I dutifully reported that I had lost the un-astonishing but respectable amount of a pound and a half the week before.

So imagine (I mean it: Imagine) the horror when, just two days after getting weighed, I stepped back onto that same scale, the morning after Fusion trainer Nick had put me through a workout fit for the Gestapo, only to discover that I had gained weight. And not just a few ounces, either. Three pounds.


In two days.

Two days with no cheesesteaks, no French fries, no cookies, no ice cream, no anything-that-tasted-good. WTF? doesn’t even begin to cover my reaction to this news.

The rational part of you does make an appearance in these situations. Rationally, I knew you had to consume something like 10,000 calories to gain that much weight that quickly, and obviously that had not been the case. And rationally, I knew that there was probably a very logical explanation for this: the soup I had eaten yesterday had more sodium than I realized (water retention), my blood pressure was up (huge project at work), the scale was broken (wishful thinking). But when you are trying to turn back time in the manner I am, and you are working out harder and more often than you have since you were 25, rational isn’t what happens. What happens is panic.

I briefly mulled calling Fusion poobah Gavin; perhaps he could figure it out. But I immediately conjured a vision of him going through everything I had eaten over the past week or two, turning over every carb like the page of an indictment, sentencing me to nothing but okra and seaweed for the rest of my life. When I got to work I trotted two offices down and almost threw myself across the desk of my friend Christy, with whom I have been sweating like an NBA player at a jazz dance class on Tuesday nights. (A brief aside: Picture me, a late-40s cherubic gentleman, doing hip-hop to “Gettin Jiggy Wit It.” Yes, it looks just as ludicrous as it sounds.) Reeling me in off the ledge, she assured me that “everybody” goes through plateaus, some period where their bodies register odd shapes and weights before quickly snapping back to normal.

I remained unmollified. So I did the only thing I could think of: I rallied the troops. In a suitably dramatic email with a subject line blaring “911!!,” I wrote the Champagne Ladies, ringing the alarm bell and confessing I was now deeply worried that no matter what I did—no matter how many burpees or mountain climbers or bicycles—I was doomed to look not like the Marlboro Man, but the Michelin Man.

I told them that I was about to go on a weekend to Atlantic City with friends, and “now all I can think about is how much I won’t be able to eat or drink, and how miserable I am going to be, ruminating about all of the work I am putting into this and it’s not working. If I am going to gain three pounds, I might as well do it eating a big fat cheeseburger. HELP!”

They rallied like the stock market. CL Pia told me she, too, had this happen, and that I had to take the long view. “I say go enjoy the weekend,” she wrote. “Try to stay moving as much as you can, go for walks with friends, and enjoy the beautiful weather.” My other three lovelies responded in kind: “I think the scale is a bad determination of progress,” wrote CL Margaux, “since it can so easily fluctuate and throw us off mentally. Enjoy your weekend—in moderation. Have a drink, take some pressure off yourself.” CL Molly, writing from a business trip to San Fran, told me to remember that “you have already done more in the first few weeks of boot camp than some people do in a year.” “Dig deep and recommit,” added CL Heather. “Know that you are toning your body on both the inside and the outside. Be patient with yourself. You are currently laying the foundation for life changes (no overnight results).”

Bless their hearts.

And yet. As awesome as they are, not the Champagne Ladies, nor Carmen Miranda, nor Rachel or Cortney or any of the other Campers who have so generously offered encouragement, are with me when it’s just sore me staring at racks of clothes that still stubbornly refuse to fit. This week’s reading from The Book of Gavin was titled “Inspiration,” and had an accompanying video showing Gavin and his Ryan Reynolds body in a tight-fitting wife-beater T-shirt. In a grave, 911-call-worthy voiceover, Gavin spoke about how now that we have reached the mid-point of Boot Camp, we needed to adopt a “new mindset” because we are going to push ourselves using heavier weights. “Your body’s going to feel a shock,” he warned. This past Tuesday Lt. Eric, our leader, told us exactly what that meant: We would each now have to bring a backpack with us, weighted down with between 10 and 20 pounds, and do all of our Boot Camp grunting with it on our back.

This is “Inspiration”?

No, this is Devil’s Island.

They’re all trying to motivate, to keep me going. I know that. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t, pardon the pun, feeling the weight of all of this. I have made some really solid adjustments to my diet—cut down carbs, almost eliminated processed foods and any sugar, added fruits and veggies, eaten a lot of lean protein. For someone whose love of white flour and potatoes could be classified as a passionate affair, this is not a small achievement. And yet my fat clothes aren’t loose. No one is stopping me to say, “Hey—have you been working out?” Maybe I am not eating enough, so my body is hoarding fat (an interesting, though unlikely, theory). Or maybe after years of yo-yo dieting (Atkins, Jenny Craig, the one day I survived that god-awful Beyonce maple syrup-and-lemon-water atrocity) my body has simply given up.

Yes, it’s been five weeks. But they have been five tough weeks. I am faced with a harrowing reality that it may not be enough that I am working out five times a week and watching what I eat; that I may have to overhaul my diet even more radically into a sea of broccoli, fiber, and legumes. In an effort to help, BeWell editor Emily sent me a story about how to “break through” a weight-loss plateau. It helpfully spelled out that your daily diet should be a mix of carbohydrates (50-60 percent), protein (20-25 percent) and fat (no more than 30 percent). It went on to break all of this down in grams, and mono- and poly-saturated fats, and and and…

And—are you kidding me? Can somebody tell me when fitness became a full-time job? Who has the time, or the wits, to categorize and sub-categorize every f!$*#! gram of anything that goes into their body every minute of the day? Run here! Journal your food! Read this tip! Watch this video! Clean out your cupboard! Check the glycemic index! C’mon, push push push!


I’m starting to feel buried underneath it all. It just seems too hard. At some point, I have to be able to live without risking a panic attack every time I eat. In May, I am facing two business trips, both restaurant heavy. I am writing a story on Italian food. I am overseeing tastings of both cupcakes and ice cream, neither of which I can eat. (Welcome to “Best of Philly” season at Philly Mag.) This is not a busy month—this is a month of dodging land mines. If I had a track record of recent success, of steady weight loss and a better body to show for the last four and a half weeks, I could lean on that to get me through. But I don’t have either of those. What I do have is an unforgiving mirror. And a nagging voice in my head telling me this isn’t a plateau, but a cliff—one I am going to have to fight like hell not to go over.

Tell us: How do you overcome weight-loss plateaus? Michael could use your tips and advice (and encouragement!) in the comments.


Michael Callahan, the executive editor of Philadelphia magazine, hates working out—which is what makes this little experiment so very awesome. He blogs about his boot camp experience—the good, the bad, and everything in between—every Friday on Be Well Philly. Catch up on the series here.

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  • Michael – I applaud your efforts. The changes you are making are great. A couple tidbits to ease this plateau:

    1. A healthy weight-loss is about 5 percent of your body weight every 3 months. While this may seem incredibly slow, it will prevent your bodies set-point from freaking out and making rebound weight a given and dramatically lowering your metabolism post-weight loss. As I tell all my clients: You have to go slow to go fast.

    Being healthy and thin is a full time job with the lifestyle and environment we live in here in America. It’s really a life-long commitment. However, if you take things gradually, that doesn’t seem so daunting. And it gets easier because you have more energy, etc.

    2. As the body detoxes, which it does when you are losing weight (toxins live in your fat cells), you will retain water while the body is processing those toxins. Hence dramatic weight gains. I would highly suggest staying off the scale and focus on measurements. By staying off the scale, you have to evaluate your days and progress internally versus externally. And in the end, this intrinsic motivation (being proud of showing up, feeling the energy from working out, experiencing better moods,etc.) is the only thing that lasts.

    3. You might have hidden food allergies. They not only drive our appetite but make us highly inflammed/swollen, also contributing to dramatic weight-gain within a couple of days. I’d start with gluten/dairy. Try eliminating one for a couple of days (preferably a week) and then adding it back in. Notice how you feel versus the scale…that will give you a great sense if they are affecting you on all levels.

    I could go on and on but hope these couple of mental and physiological tips help you ride out this plateau.

  • Michael, everything that everyone is telling you has been good and sound advice. I know it’s difficult to take it all in, though, when you feel like nothing has changed (or at least not changed the way you really want it to). Keep in mind that it’s only been 5 weeks. This isn’t the Biggest Loser where you’re living on Subway sandwiches and working out 12 hours a day. Normal people with jobs and everyday stress have a mountain to climb that takes a longer period of time to get over. Our weight fluctuates. We learn what works and what doesn’t work through trial and error. But we don’t reach our goals without moving toward them. Finish up the 10 weeks and see where you are then. Don’t give up now!

  • Chad Thompson

    Michael, I think your fundamental perspective about this is wrong and that is why you are starting to “feel buried”. I believe most boot camp participants have a goal of losing some weight or fitting into that old pair of pants and there is nothing wrong with either of those results. But they should not be the real goals in my opinion. Improved health and learning how to maintain it should be your only focus.
    Boot camp is only a few months, it is fine as a kick start for both your brain and body to get them acting, feeling and thinking more healthy. I don’t think most boot camp style programs emphasize that the end of boot camp is only the beginning of a participant’s quest for better health. Exercising regularly and eating healthy are active choices that you are now learning to make. You will be required to continue to make those same choices for some time in the future to attain your stated goal of significant weight loss. Each requires commitment and lots of work. The more that you do that good work, the easier it will become but I also know that it never becomes easy. If it did, we wouldn’t have nearly as large a health crisis as currently exists in the United States. You are to be congratulated for committing to this program, working hard and worrying about your ability to see it through. Just know that the real work is continual and that the payoff will be measured in progress over months and years, not weeks.

  • Wow Michael! That’s quite a journey your on…and I really have to acknowledge where you are with everything. Even the fact that, despite disliking (or hating) exercise, you’ve not only been doing it, but you’re willing to publicly admit your frustrations that to many are highly private and embarrassing.

    Here’s my take:
    As Ali pointed out, you could have food sensitivities which could be causing what’s described as Silent Inflammation in your body (mine did just this to the tune of nearly 20 lbs).

    However what I’m hearing is Stress, Stress and a whole lot more Stress. Isn’t that how must Americans feel these days? Stressed. You’re stressed now, you can see the even larger wave of stress coming your way which is elevating your level of stress and BAM… thus your monologue at the intro to your story.

    As a health coach and yoga teacher and total Type A person, I know how it goes when things get to be just too much. Especially when you’re doing a heck of a lot of things that you don’t enjoy – like exercising hard core and being a total nazi about your diet.

    I’m gonna suggest that bootcamp might not be the right type of exercise for you. It sounds like it’s just too damn stressful and adding to the problem and the stress. I’d suggest finding some sort of fitness routine based around something you might actually like.

    As for your food, sounds like you’ve got to chill out on that. Do you cook? What are you cooking? Maybe you need some help revamping what you’re eating and some new ideas that won’t be so high in sodium and other stuff that will make you stressed and worried afterwards.

    And last but not least… find something to do each day that you love… like absolutely freakin’ love. All this craziness has got you so contracted… you clearly love your job, but you’ve got to have some YOU time in there each day. For me… I just sat in silence for 5 minutes a day meditating and it really helped.

    Remember, you don’t have to keep banging your head on the wall hoping to get through to the other side…sometimes you’ve just got to take a step back to see that you can walk around the wall with little effort.

    Let me know if you need any other help!

  • Christine

    I always thought this was a problem kind of exclusive to women. We record every morsel, we work out for hours, and then we get on the scale and it doesn’t budge. I have to commit myself 100% all the time, and my hubby about 75% and he loses more than me. So don’t worry, your effort will soon pay off, soon as you build a little more muscle and you’ll be back to a calorie burning machine. BTW, I find myfitnesspal.com a fantastic site to track food and exercise and it’s free. I’ve lost 20 pounds since February by doing this :) Yesterday I lost .2 pounds after a great week of watching and exercising, so I added some calories yesterday and today the scale registers another .8.
    Makes no sense what so ever, so you just keep going.