It’s the story of so many midlife men. The weight had crept on slowly. I hardly ever weighed myself and when I looked in the mirror I’d pull in my stomach and thought I still looked great. My wife Kim had been buying bigger clothes for me and I didn’t pay much attention to my size.
In reality, my belly was enormous; I could barely stand up straight. I once went to try yoga and couldn’t do half of the poses because my stomach was in the way.
At that point, ten years ago, I couldn’t walk for five minutes without breaking a sweat or gasping for breath, but I didn’t worry about my health. I’d occasionally do a hardcore juice detox and lose six pounds, everyone would say, “You look great”, and then I’d start eating again.
When I hit 19 stone I stopped weighing myself. I just thought, “I don’t really want to know any more,” so I don’t know exactly how heavy I got, but I really wasn’t skinny.
Then, in 2017, not long before I turned 47, I developed a shooting pain that went down my arm and across my chest. I was convinced I was having a heart attack and rushed to hospital in Hong Kong, where I live. The doctor’s face went white when I described my symptoms and ran all the tests, including an ultrasound scan on my heart.
Fortunately, it turned out to be a trapped nerve and not angina. On that occasion, I was lucky… but I so easily might not have been. My weight had skyrocketed to around 20 stone. I’m six foot, which meant a BMI of 37.9. I was officially obese.
Today my life is totally different. I’ve just finished the toughest hiking trail in Europe. I’ve lost more than five stone (35kgs) and my mood and energy levels have completely transformed.
The heart scare was a turning point, but it has been a long slow process and walking has been a big part of it.
How I got fat
Looking back, I can’t believe how unhealthy I’d become, but It wasn’t really surprising. After being a keen rugby player and hammer thrower in my youth, by the time I reached my 30s the most exercise I did was looking for the TV remote. If I had to go to the shops two minutes down the road, a few hundred metres at most, I’d drive. It was insane. I would drive to Oddbins to get booze, as lifting cases of wine into the car seemed exertion enough.
I’ve always loved my food and eating was my main entertainment. I ate out all the time, at incredible restaurants. If I couldn’t decide what to have I’d order extra dishes. So rather than one starter I’d have two, telling myself I was sharing them with my dining companions, when, in reality, I’d eat the lion’s share of it myself.
I once did a restaurant crawl with a friend. Our evening started in Notting Hill, with an amazing griddled foie gras dish but there wasn’t anything we fancied for the main course, we went on to another restaurant, and another, and another. We picked the most delicious thing on each menu, each was as rich as the next.
When I wasn’t eating out, I was munching on chocolate. I’m in the confectionery business so tasting new products was all part and parcel of the job. I’d do a lot of tasting to develop a good product and then, when it was perfect, I couldn’t stop eating it.
On top of that I was working ridiculous hours and was a terrible insomniac. I would wake up in the night to raid the fridge, often forgetting I’d done it.
As you might have gathered, I don’t go in for half measures. And that was certainly true, not just of food. I was also drinking a ridiculous amount of vodka, with an ever decreasing proportion of fresh lime soda. Then I’d have dreadful hangovers and eat junk slumped on the sofa bingeing on Netflix. It was all I wanted to do, or was even able to do after a big night. I was pretty miserable. It was clearly time to knock the booze on the head.
Walking back to health
I’d started exercising at the gym before Covid, and was losing weight at the rate of about a stone a year but when the pandemic engulfed us, it was lockdown that really got me walking, as the restrictions meant there was little else to do and that’s when the weight really dropped off. At first I was shocked by how hard I found it. Within 15 minutes my heart was pounding, my legs were hurting. When I walked up the hill where I live in Hong Kong, I’d have to walk down backwards as my leg muscles were seizing up and I was in so much pain.
I saw a physio about my knees and he said: “If you want your knees to stop hurting, you must strengthen the muscles around your knee joint.” So I went to a trainer for strength and conditioning who suggested I start walking, alongside weight training and when that hurt she told me “get used to it … walk more and it will stop hurting.”. She was right – after a few months the pain stopped. Though each time I push on tougher hikes, or do a big legs day at the gym, there is an element of hobbling after the event.
Walking instead of eating
Before I started walking I paid no attention to my diet. Calories weren’t even on my radar. But then I started tracking my exercise and seeing how much and how long it took to burn 1,000 calories. I thought, “Christ, I’m not going to have bacon sandwiches for breakfast any more, it’s really, really hard to burn that off.” I started keeping track of everything I ate on the MyFitnessPal app and still do. In the weight loss phase my target was 1,870 calories a day and 200g of protein. Now I eat slightly more. If I eat out I’ll mostly order fish, and when I visit London I make a pilgrimage to the River Café for light and deliciously healthy food. My days of restaurant crawling for foie gras and truffle burgers are a thing of the past.
Occasionally I’ll end up eating a load of junk food, but I feel tired, sick and find it hard to sleep. Before when I ate junk I’d think it was easing my hangover, but as I don’t drink now it’s really clear that feeling s–t is down to what I’m eating. It took a long time to admit this but after nine years of sobriety I can finally admit that this kind of food is not my friend, sugar in particular is an issue, my solution is not to have it at home and not start on that path.
Walking off the weight
By the time lockdown ended and I could come back to London in the summer of 2021, I weighed 14st 2lbs. It might have been easy to let things slide – I was surrounded by all my favourite restaurants again and work was gearing up but I resolved to burn 1,000 calories a day. Thankfully, as I got fitter the extra effort to hit my target became a pleasure.
Walking has now become my main form of transport. Of course, if I’m in a hurry, I take the tube, but usually I just look on my phone and work out the most scenic route, through as many parks as possible, and factor in the time. I’m a pretty fast walker – it goes with the name – so I usually get there quicker than my phone app says and it’s also a great way to relax.
Whereas half the time in the car I’d be fuming in traffic and never know if I’d find a parking space, now I know exactly how long my journey will take. It’s really brought down my stress levels.
I once walked all the way to Islington for dinner from our flat in Shepherds’ Bush, which took a good two hours. And I often walk into the West End, which takes about an hour. One Sunday I walked along the Thames path to Richmond and back, which took seven hours, but in general I average around two hours a day.
Walking has also transformed the way I socialise. I still love to eat out, but now I often meet people for a walk in a park or a stately home with gardens or go to a sculpture park. It’s all a bit middle-aged, I know, but walking outside, side-by-side people are generally more open. It’s less intense than sitting across a table.
And now I’m fit and well enough to try anything. If I visit a friend and they’re into paddleboarding or swimming or whatever, I can give it a go, which is great. Last year I ended up rope climbing in Colorado with a prep school friend and thank goodness because the skills gained saved my life on the famed GR20 hiking trail on Corsica.
Last summer I hiked the Camino trail, from France across Northern Spain. It’s 800km (500 miles) and 30 days of walking. Then this summer I did the GR20, which took two weeks, hiking for seven or eight hours a day. I lost about 6lbs even though I was eating masses. The night we finished the hike I ate an entire 1.2kg fish on my own; there was no sharing.
It was an amazing experience but not for the faint-hearted. My shoes, which would normally last for 1,200km, had shredded on the rocks within three days. There was plenty of climbing, hanging off rocks and teetering on ledges and all with a 12kg backpack, that might tip my balance with the next big gust of wind. But the views were stunning and with each day I learned that the world looks especially beautiful when you’re relieved to have narrowly escaped death.
Seven years ago I could never have imagined I could do that. But our bodies are amazing machines. It seems that whatever we give our bodies to do, they adapt. So if you give it booze and feed it junk all day, you will get fat. But if you walk day in, day out, and eat well you will get fit and healthy. It’s that simple. And the great thing is, once your body gets used to it, you actually want to do it.
Now I’ve got muscles where I used to have fat. And walking has helped me keep the weight off. I do fluctuate a bit, but nothing too drastic. I’ve been between 14st and 14st 8lbs for more than two years now. My creaky knees have stopped hurting. I even feel taller, as I can stand up straight without my belly. There’s plenty of research to show that exercise can reduce your risk of dementia, so that’s another big driver for me, after I lost my father to dementia last year. My average resting heart rate is now an athletic 41 beats per minute.
I’m just grateful for the heart scare seven years ago. It was the wake-up call I needed and now I’ve gone from thinking I’m about to die to thinking I can live forever.