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How I Gamified My Own Brain to Lose Weight & Improve Fitness

Mark Suster
Socially distant hiking in Sedona (we drove there)

I recently wrote about my weight-loss journey over the past 18 months where I lost 65 pounds without a fad diet and returned to my college weight. If you want to get in better shape and haven’t read that you might start there. I separately wrote about some food plans I use.

I started advice with the premise that no amount of exercise or food eating plan would help with long-term fitness or weight goals unless you first had a mental plan and a set of measurements to track your progress. You could then layer on a plan for eating better and getting more exercise followed by improvements to sleep, which are vital.

I created a graph where I listed the components of success in order of important (bottom to top) and how I evolved my approaches over time. I will get into workouts and fitness in a later post but for today I want to cover my mental plan for changing how I eat.

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There is no diet or not fitness activity that will help you over the long haul if you don’t have the right mental plan. That’s why in the graph I have above I say that the most important things are lower on the Y-axis and you need to truly solve this before being effective at the next level up.

Mental psyche is everything in getting into shape and I don’t know of many great tools don’t to help with the mental psyche of losing weight so I had to gamify my own mind. I want to share with you how I did this. It might work for you or at least you can use some of my ideas to find ones that work better for you.

Let me start by explaining what I mean about “mental psyche.”

A huge breakthrough for me in thinking about my own mind and psyche actually came through the Peloton. What I never expected of Peloton was how much of the amazing experience was MENTAL as well as physical.

In the early days, when 20–30 minutes was still hard for me, I mostly rode with Ally Love. She’s all positivity about life, body and fitness. She encourages you, smiles, tells stories, tells you that you can achieve anything. So when I start a ride, even if I’m tired or don’t feel like working out or have had a tough week I can’t help but feeling better on the ride and afterwards. Peloton lifted my mental spirits in 2019/2020 through what were two emotionally draining years in the world (fires, protests, politics, he who shall not be named, etc). Ally Love and riding became my happy place. It was inspiring. Having a positive mental outlook helped me perform better.

As I got more advanced in my riding I started doing longer rides and found a “Power Zone” program (I will explain this in a future post on exercise) with Matt Wilpers. I start a long ride (60-90 minute) with a sense of dread thinking “I am REALLY not up for this today.” If I were just on a random stationary bike on my own I might not push myself hard that given day or I might quit early. But Matt mentally gets you through your warm up, lays out the interval schedule we will ride in advance and lays out a plan for how to attack the time we have together. Matt reminds you throughout the ride to check your form, not be inefficient on form and how to the most out of yourself and your mind.

He’ll say things like “I can’t do the workout for you. YOU’RE the person who turned up on a Saturday morning to this ride. You got this! Stick with it. I’m just your guide but you’re going to feel great when this is over. Make sure your hips are straight, your knees are aligned and your feet are pointing forward.” Suddenly I look at the screen and 45 minutes have passed. He then reminds me, “You didn’t turn up for a 60-minute ride only to give up in the final few minutes. This is when all the good stuff happens! This is when you’re going to get the benefit from the hard work you already put in.”

It’s amazing what mental coaching can do for a workout. “A calm mind is a calm heart and calm muscles. Free your mind. Free your body. The rest will come easier.”

And just as you’re completely spent and want to stop with just 4 minutes left Matt reminds you, “Don’t be that person on YouTube who loses steam in the final 30 seconds only to be passed and forever be seen as the person who gave up. You got this! My students all finish strong.” You can’t help but not want to let Matt down. It’s a form of accountability but of course it’s all just in your own mind.

Somedays I need the love and positivity of Ally “Hit it! Quit it! And say you did it !!” And sometimes I need the focus on my form of “Coach Matt.” Sometimes I need the drill sergeant of Alex Toussaint (I feel like if I don’t do what he says he’s gonna come kick my ass!) or the completely camp, lovable Cody Simms or Matty Maggiacomo (treadmill).

Working out is all mental. Peloton gives you individual coaches that guide you through being your best self and make you want to turn up and do more, do better and do it more often.

The problem is that there are no obvious online equivalents of a Peloton coach for eating better, and weight loss is 80% what you eat and 20% how you work out. If I had a daily person who could guide me through better choices in breakfast, lunch & dinner (and not sabotaging it all in the evenings, which is my weak spot) then I think weight loss would be much easier.

With no platform to really help me with “food coaching” I had to be this coach for myself. I had to gamify my own mind in order to produce the kinds of results in the kitchen and the next morning on the scale as I was producing on the bike.

In my first post I talked about Noom, a paid app you can download to create a plan to lose weight. Noom worked really well initially because it dealt with the psychology of why people make bad food choices and forced me to write down what some of my bad behaviors actually were. If you’re not able to identify your bad choices and develop a plan you’re never going to fix them.

I later switched to MyFitnessPal because after I sorted out the psychology it was easier to log what I was eating and keep a daily food journal. I’ve had numerous friends who to this day tell me “I don’t want to catalog everything I eat” but honestly that’s kind of a cop out for “I don’t want to keep score of how I’m doing.” It’s super easy to log. The tools are built into the app. It takes 10 seconds per thing you eat and at the end of the day you have a tally of that day’s activities and if you hop on the scale each morning (also super easy) then you can directly see cause and effect.

If you want to lose weight or become more fit then “I don’t want to keep a food journal” is the equivalent of “I don’t really want to know when I’m making bad decisions.”

You manage what you measure. If you’re not willing to measure you’re not going to be able to manage it.

You don’t have to be obsessive about it. Unless you want to lose weight. If you WANT to lose weight, it’s ok for it to become a bit of an obsession. Like finishing your bike ride strong. Like keeping your mental energy strong when you have 4 minutes left in the ride and don’t want to give up. Like 9pm and you want to eat a “small” bowl of ice cream but in stead you reach for a piece of Trident so that the scale tomorrow and the next day and the next day will say what you want it to say.

I know from personal experience that the hardest part of trying to get a fresh start is just that … knowing WHERE to start. There’s so much conflicting advice, everybody has an opinion and of course if you’re starting a new journey it’s really hard to tell other people that you’re going to do it because you don’t want to fail and look stupid. Most of us have failed in the past so we don’t all want to tell friends or family members and sound like “this time I’ve got it!” only to fall short.

If you’re willing to tell somebody else and have an accountability partner it will be a lot easier. I was too embarrassed to do this so I had to learn to hold myself accountable. If you can find just one person to trust I recommend this but it isn’t what I did.

I told nobody. I was tired of being heavier than I wanted to be and I decided I just wanted to make one big leap of weight loss that I knew I could hit and if I did this I would then think about “what next?” This is my “first push” on the X-axis of my graph. It was to lose 22 pounds (from 222 to 200). If I did nothing other than losing 20 pounds I would feel great and that would be better than where I was at.

It started with a dinner in NYC with a friend of mine — Will Porteous from RRE Ventures — and he mentioned that one of their portfolio companies was having a lot of success because it dealt with the psychology of why people overeat. That’s how I discovered Noom. He didn’t even know I wanted to lose weight — he was just talking about how well the company was doing.

I used the Noom app to begin to gamify myself. I measured daily what I ate and every morning how much I weighed and I started to give myself over to the authority of the app, knowing that I’d have weigh-ins and be accountable. Ultimately I was accountable only to myself but I imagined some sort of coach inside of Noom who would be disappointed in me if I didn’t hit my targets. (they do assign you to a cohort of fellow journey people trying to lose weight and a coach to check in with you). I assigned a status of “disappointed coach” in Noom the same way I didn’t want to disappoint my Peloton coach.

Here was the unlock for me. Because I made it a sort of game to myself, when the evening came around I found myself saying, “You’ve hit your step targets per your Apple Watch and haven’t over-eaten. If you cheat now your weigh-in tomorrow will suck. You can eat after your weigh in. Just hit your number first.”

The evenings are when I’m vulnerable to cheating. After a positive morning weigh-in when my number went down I never feel the desire to cheat! So I just had to bridge my mind from evening to morning. I had to focus on the number in the morning. The weigh in. The evening eating was the equivalent of the “last 4 minutes of the bike ride.” I could cheat after the finish line. Even though I knew that once I had a positive morning I wouldn’t cheat.

It was a game that I played with myself and on myself. I had to manage myself like an external person. “Eat the gum. The gum is a rule. If you eat the gum you can’t eat anything afterward. If you don’t cheat tonight you can cheat after the weigh in. Hit the number, Mark. You’ve come this far. Don’t give up now.” Every evening.

I literally developed self talk. On one level that’s strange but when you consider that’s precisely what we all do to get our best out of ourselves mentally in sports — tennis, golf, running, bowling, whatever — you can see how it can work every day with eating. Watch any pro tennis player or any major league baseball pitcher and you’ll see self talk. Why not us? Why not to eat better where it will really count?

And as you know, many people literally eat mindlessly without paying attention at all. It’s easier that way so that you don’t have to admit to yourself that you’re actually doing it. I know. I did this for years.

The metrics are you scoreboard and your self-talk and your coping strategies (gum not ice cream, pickles not potato chips, 6pm dinner not 8:30pm dinner) are your mental toughness, accountability and hacks for improving performance.

It worked.

I started eating less in the evenings. I started looking for “trades” and everything became a game to me. I wanted a lower calorie option for everything so that I could hit my daily targets. I started learning how many calories were in basic things. How many calories are in: A bowl of rice, a bowl of cereal, a beer, a piece of pizza, an apple, a banana, a burrito? I had vague notions of what was “good” and what was “bad” but I wasn’t specific enough. It’s kind of crazy not knowing the main input into your body.

And here’s what I did:

  • I cut out milk in my coffee. With 2–3 cups / day and that was 100 wasted calories less at the end of the day. Yes, you can do it. If you like milky coffee just get over it. 2 weeks in and you won’t miss it.
  • I switched to almond milk in anything where I historically wanted milk (30 calories vs. 110)
  • I gave up almost all Cafe Lattes (150–200 calories for each one, what a fucking waste)
  • I switched from eggs (78) to egg whites (17) and then realized I could cook an omelet with 4 eggs whites (68) and one egg (70) for 138 total and be full as fuck for breakfast.
  • I started eating cinnamon raison bread (yes, my wife will tell you I’m obsessed). It’s 90 calories and doesn’t require butter because it’s sofa king tasty it doesn’t need it. I feel like I’m cheating
  • Yes, I could have a quesadilla! But I’d measure out 1/4 cup of cheddar cheese (110 calories) on a normal tortilla (140 calories) versus the gobs and gobs of cheese I must have put on before or frankly even worse how much Mexican restaurants put on. A Chipotle quesadilla has 610 motherfucking calories. What a crime. Mine is only 40% of that and I still feel great after eating it.
  • I’d even combine egg (70) plus tortilla (140) plus cheese (110) and for 320 calories I had my full breakfast with 2 black coffees I was done until lunch

It all became a game to me. I learned the numbers, embraced it, loved the fact that I had this new language of calories and the most I learned and the more I stuck to it the more I lost!

I didn’t let myself obsess about each and every day — there were some downs and some ups — but I knew I wanted to lose 1-1.25 pounds / week and that if I had even one total blow-out cheat day I would NOT hit this target. So I stopped doing stupid shit. My “cheats” became eating couple of pieces of black licorice (100 calories) or a toast with peanut butter (200 calories) or 6 popsicles (180 calories) in stead of 2–3. Yes, my family laughs at my on nights where they see me eating 6 popsicles — my little obsession, but it beats beer and tortilla chips.

I switched from steak to chicken to fish. Each trade I was incredibly happy with the calorie reduction. I used to love posting Instagram pictures with monster steaks I would consume and now I wonder why anybody would ever want to brag about that? Sure, I still love steak. But I can eat 5 ounces not 16. I see people posting these mega meat creations on Instagram and I feel empathy not jealousy. I know the pleasure that they’re getting from eating it but also the emptiness they likely feel from the effects on their health and wellbeing.

Food started to taste differently because I was used to the sauces and cheeses and dressings and oils and fat. But a few weeks in I realized just how tasty an actual tomato on its own really is. Truly. If you’re not there I know you think I’ve become just one of those extreme vegetarian evangelists but simple foods that are high quality really are amazing. I started by slicing tomato and putting salt and a small drizzle of olive oil on it. Add some basil and it’s even better.

I realized that this idea of “whole” foods had something to it. A pear, grapes, avocado, eggs, tomatoes, salmon with lemon, chicken without bbq sauce or even a high-quality salads from Sweetgreen — all amazing. I had just gotten used to the artificial things we do to our foods in America that my brain was out of whack. Eggs don’t need bacon and hash browns and cheddar cheese and sour cream to taste good. Sure, all of these things taste good (ok, amazing!) but eggs are wonderful on their own if you allow yourself to enjoy just the basic foods.

A day becomes a week becomes a month becomes three months. Small changes made every day become habits. And positive habits accumulate. You don’t notice it daily because it’s not a binge. But your week-in, week-out habits REALLY accumulate and a few months in you won’t believe how great you look and feel as the pounds melt off of you.

In my next post (in a day or two) I will tell you how I turned from gamifying my mind with food experiments to gamifying myself through increased workouts and how the two things together drove a total body transformation. I have already written it but if I included it here the blog post would be too long 🙂

This is a photo of a fun tool I’ve been using called Relive to create videos of workouts and poking a little fun at my family (and sometimes my friends :))

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