Tell us about yourself.
My name is Ben Stern, I currently live and work in Boston as a Software Engineer. I moved from northern New Jersey, where I grew up, to study Mechanical Engineering at Tufts University and graduated in 2016. I grew up playing multiple sports, mostly ice hockey, and added football in high school after the coach saw this double-wide sophomore and proclaimed he needed to get me in shoulder pads. I loved playing sports, but my hobbies switched focus in college where I was active at the campus radio station, and also learned to love cooking. But, I also stopped exercising, developed unhealthy eating habits, and when I graduated I was at the absolute heaviest weight I had been in my life.
Through personal training and nutritional advice from the coaches at Ethos, I lost 65 pounds in about ten months and put my life on a much healthier path. Over the past year I’ve worked towards more strength based goals such as a 48kg turkish get up and deadlifting 505lbs at the most recent Tactical Strength Challenge. I’ve surprised myself with what I’ve been able to accomplish in a relatively short time, and I’d like to share my experience so far.
Was there a moment when you decided to make a change?
There were many moments of frustration that built up over time. The ones I most remember include finding holes in the thighs of my jeans, not keeping up with my friends playing pickup basketball, and having a couch literally crumble under my weight. None of them concerned me enough to make a sustained lifestyle change, and for a long time I had the opposite reaction and continued to comfort myself with food. Even when my family reached out to me about my health, I still found excuses about stress and how that old couch was already structurally compromised. The frustrating moments gradually got more frequent, and my thinking flipped from “I should do something” to “I need to do something”.
When you started, what was your goal?
My initial goal was to lose weight and learn how to sustain that change. I didn’t know, and didn’t want to know, how much I weighed and how much I had to lose. I had tried and succeeded at losing weight before, but it didn’t last and I quickly gained the weight back. I didn’t have anything more specific in mind, which is why I wanted to try personal training.
How did you start?
I started by researching gyms and trainers in my neighborhood. I wanted to find a way to avoid feeling judged or embarrassed while still getting the guidance I needed. I found Ethos, and read numerous glowing reviews. I was reassured through emails with the owners and an introduction to the trainer I would be working with. But, I still remember being incredibly nervous even as I walked over to the gym the first day. However, after just one session at Ethos I knew I had found the place with the right atmosphere and community.
Has your goal changed?
My goal has changed because my mindset and habits have shifted. I’ve learned to think about my diet and fitness as life long pursuits. My goals have gotten more specific, time bounded, and actually achievable. I’ve set goals including logging all my meals for a week, and losing 10lbs by a certain date, and recently I’ve been able to set more challenging strength based goals. Each milestone and shift in focus keeps things interesting and presents new challenges, but they all support my pursuit of a healthy lifestyle.
What are some of the biggest lessons you have learned?
My top 3 would be:
1) The scale measures your weight, not your effort, nor your worth. Tracking my progress is incredibly helpful, and as an unrelenting nerd I maintain a log of my weight in a spreadsheet. Collecting lots of data about myself means I can see every set back, but I can’t let that deflate my self esteem. One of the many great things about spreadsheets is you can make a trend line and ensure yourself that you’re headed in the right direction. If I’m not happy with my current weight I’m only upset until I step off the scale, and then it’s time to think about what comes next.
2) Asking for help is a sign of strength not weakness, especially if you ask good questions and utilize the advice.
3) Your goals should scare you a little. I find the feeling of conquering self doubt incredibly rewarding and it keeps me motivated.
What words of advice would you give to others who are looking to attain a big goal?
Don’t let fear of failure hold you back. I waited far too long to get started and commit to losing weight, in part because I had tried, succeeded, and then regressed before. Setbacks and stagnation will happen, but they don’t nullify the work you’ve invested. Also, don’t go it alone, find a buddy. They don’t have to be a trainer, but having someone you trust who knows about your goal keeps you accountable and gives you a clear outlet for support if and when you need it.
What is the hardest part?
I still struggle with using food as a coping mechanism for stress. I have other outlets for stress that are more productive, and I use them frequently. But, that hasn’t stopped me from making plenty of regrettable food choices.
How did you overcome this hard part and how do you continue to do so- ie do you have a system in place etc.
Exercising regularly has been the biggest help. I learned from experience how much better I felt when I ate well before and after training. Those lessons allow me to think proactively about how the choice of what I eat will make me feel. I don’t expect to ever be perfect with my diet, but I also don’t expect to give up exercise in some form.
How do you manage being social and keep working towards the goal?
I think everyone is looking to balance social and personal lives on some level, and so most people are more understanding than I would expect. If I’m ever asked why I suggested a restaurant with healthier options or chose to meet up with the group outside of mealtimes, I’m honest with my friends and coworkers and say that I’m working towards a self-improvement goal. On the other side, I still let myself have fun. I don’t beat myself up or feel guilty about enjoying the time I get to spend with my friends and family. Prioritizing my fitness goals without compromise if it means I will ultimately be unhappy seems counterproductive.
Do you ever want to give up and say F this?
I’ve thought about it, but every coach I’ve had from sports and now training has hammered into my head that character is defined by reaction to adversity. Completely giving up is the only decision that is guaranteed not to help you overcome the challenge. If I ever feel stuck I try to find small changes in my routine that won’t detract from my goals. Examples might be, finding new music for my walk to work, letting myself sleep in during the weekend, or eating something besides salmon for the 34th consecutive Tuesday.
Did you sacrifice anything? If so, what?
I don’t think I’ve really sacrificed anything. I’ve spent time, energy, and money but I see those as investments not sacrifices.
Do you subscribe to a particular mindset or way of thinking?
As a software engineer, I have to think about change as incremental and iterative, and I’ve started applying that mindset outside of my job. Whether it’s software or weight loss, huge transformations happen gradually because changing too much at once is hard to sustain. Smaller focused changes are easy to keep up with, and you can easily track how that change affects your progress toward a goal. A small change that doesn’t work is easy to identify and correct. Then, when something works you can keep it up while finding the next improvement to make.
Anything else you feel is important for people to know?
I absolutely could not have had this much success in turning around my lifestyle without the coaches and community at Ethos. I didn’t think it was possible for a gym to build such a supportive and positive environment, and I also wasn’t sure if the athletes training at such a place would see results. I’ve never been so happy to be so wrong. So, I’ll wrap up by thanking the coaches and athletes that work everyday to make being a part of the Ethos community so fantastic.