How workouts remarkably improved my life in 2019

My pursue to a healthier and fulfilling life through physical activity

Matheus Ulhoa
6 min readJun 26, 2020

My last accomplishment

Last year I lost 11 kg — or approximately 24 lbs. I felt healthier than ever. I felt proud of myself for such commitment and for the rewarding feeling of achieving meaningful goals.

Other areas of my life improved as a collateral effect. I wasn’t even suffering, still having my mundane pleasures of eating a home-made burger and eventually a Kit Kat’s.

How was that possible?

There are simple rules we insist on not following.

My evolution progress: March 2018 (inconsistent calisthenics), January 2019 (starting consistent workouts), September 2019 (maybe my best shape in life). All rights reserved.

The simple rule to weight loss (or muscle gain)

Once again, the rule is simple math you likely know but don’t put in practice:

Caloric Balance = calorie intake (food you eat) — calorie expenditure (exercise you make)

All diets work this way, whether restricting a macronutrient, a source of food, counting calories, or counting food points:

  • Vegan and Vegetarian Diets cut animal sources at different levels.
  • Ketogenic, Paleolithic, and Low-carb Diets, in essence, cut carbohydrates in different levels.
  • Carnivore Diet cut anything but meat.
  • IIFYM Diet balances macronutrients — fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. Here we set a daily calorie goal, we weigh the food we eat to calculate calories that are left to be ingested.
  • Diets from nutritionists will give you a fixed diet or a certain degree of flexibility, replacing food based on previously defined points. A nutritionist will likely make the IIFYM work for you, removing the diet flexibility or converting calories to food points.

This caloric balance should be negative if you want to lose weight and should be positive if you want to gain weight. Does it remind anything?

Some people see this sort of truth as a “bro-science”, diminishing the nutritionist’s knowledge and work. Far from this. This is the Pareto Principle applied to nutrition: the “20% knowledge” you need to produce the 80% significant results.

80% of our results will come from basic knowledge + discipline to apply it.

So don’t we need nutritionists? We still need them to step up our game. To fine-tune our plans systemically. Yet, 80% of our results will come from basic knowledge + discipline to apply it.

Some people will have no interest in learning a bit of nutrition or will be so undisciplined in that area in life, that they will need a “touch-point” to create a commitment. No shame about that.

Just mind you can achieve substantial results doing the basics.

Old motivation lost

Back to my youth days, I was a sportsperson. I enjoyed playing football — British vocabulary here — and later I was committed to the gym. Then I entered college and I became sedentary due to other priorities.

Honestly, my initial motivation for the gym was to become more handsome. When I felt this motivation was empty (for me), I quit. But exercises are important for many other reasons. I just didn’t realize that immediately, even though I knew the wise words.

“Do exercise; it’s good for your health”.

New motivation, same solution

A few years later and I was under 30, with a fluffy belly, my bronchitis was intensifying and I felt an increasing stress at work. Curiously, I felt my life was in increasing chaos in many aspects.

Analyzing the situation today, I understand that my unruly life, not having an established routine while working remotely, was triggering a vicious cycle of undesirable outcomes: stress at work, my bronchitis coming back and strong, and a dramatically fluffy belly — not a problem for me except for being a consequence of an uncontrolled life.

One day, I saw an older guy in better shape than me. That image was annoying. I was looking way worse, while I was privileged in many ways:

  • I was younger, so hormones were in my favor.
  • I was at the beginning of my career, so I had fewer responsibilities.
  • I was single and didn’t have kids, so I had more free time.

Everything in nature was in my favor but I wasn’t making the best use of the curse of the waves. This somehow made me feel mediocre — not for not being “in shape” but for not doing my best — and this feeling made me act.

My motivation changed from “being a good looking guy” to “be the best version of myself”. The solution was still a disciplined commitment to the workouts.

“I don’t have time for that…”

I said this sentence many times, creating excuses for myself for not prioritizing things I wanted to do.

Despite the fact I had the time and simply wasn’t managing it properly, the shocking truth for me is: the abdicating of important things doesn’t help us to achieve more.

At that time, my train of thought was “I’m a junior Engineer; I should study more, learn more, and work more”. Because of that, I was neglecting some basic needs I had, leading me to an unbalanced life.

This reminds me of the paradox of the Total Leadership concept — mentioned in the HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Managing Yourself. The idea is that the more you are happy with all areas of your life, the more you become productive. Hence, we should take care of the following areas:

  • The self
  • Work
  • Home & Family
  • The Community

We intuitively think that life is a zero-sum game: if I work out 1h a day, the 5 hours per week will cost me a career development. The good news there’s a paradox underlying such balance.

“Abdicating of important things doesn’t help us to achieve more.”

The day I decided that taking care of my health was a priority, I spent more than 10h a week with my workouts + driving + cooking + eat well. I was still working the same hours, often more hours — and at a faster pace. That’s simply because I was allowing myself to do something really important for me.

Ensuring all aspects of our lives are minimally covered is the best way to move forward. Often we’ll prioritize one or another, but it’s important to know this paradox exists and helps us immensely. Again the common wisdom “less is more”.

A proof the Total Leadership paradox works

Exercises gave me back plenty of things I already knew, and more:

  • A cultivation of excellence. I wanted to be better each day. One more rep. One more plate. Lift weight for long seconds. While pursuing a good looking body might be empty for some, pursuing the best version of ourselves is inevitably great.
  • I had once again some time only for myself. No bosses, no family, no girlfriend, no friends. I enjoy taking care of people I love and because of that, I started to neglect the self.
  • A meditative time for my soul. The workout became my meditation. No hurry, no phone, enjoying the process, the pain, releasing any anger, listening to my Hip-Hop playlist, putting my thoughts in order, processing information and plans. It was the time I used to think systemically about my life and the next steps.
  • A self-discipline routine. I controlled my nutrition. I was consistent in my workouts. I managed my progress. I replicated this process to other areas of my life, recovering my control. A fantastic feeling!
  • A healthier condition. My bronchitis diminished drastically. I felt stronger. Period.
  • My productivity improved. Oxygen inside my brain early in the morning. Faster thought, totally awake, confident, energized to face any battle.
  • My relationships improved. I was less stressed. I was happy with myself. I felt accomplished for doing what I proposed myself to do. I positively impacted the lives of people close to me, who engaged in exercises and improved their lives as well.
  • My self-esteem increased. Looking younger, stronger, and in shape but more than that, I was feeling I was at my best. There’s nothing more rewarding than taking care of ourselves as we truly deserve.

Our body is our only vehicle for all life. We should take care of it so it can last. I want to travel more, and my body should be able to follow my young spirit.

Commitment with the self is always a good strategy, whether your motivation is health, beauty, or body able to follow a vivid soul.