The Health Challenge that Changed my Life
There are periods in your life that you remember above all. Perhaps it’s when you first met your significant other, when your child was born or when you were part of an accomplished group in sports or business.
What I am about to describe is one of the most enjoyable things I have ever done. Besides the health benefits, I discovered essential things about myself I never thought possible, forged incredible friendships, and felt alive and exuberant for each of the 90 days it lasted.
Like many people, I am prone to stress-induced eating and have suffered from high blood pressure since I was 21. I’ve had periods where I was able to muster the will-power to drop weight, get in shape, and improve my health, but holding on to that state was always hard to do. Over the last 15 years, I have been able to make working out a part of my daily activity. I started road cycling and then weight-lifting. Four years ago, I became a Peloton fan and since accumulated nearly 700 rides.
I only drink occasionally and in social settings. I am generally athletic, but irrespective of the exercise I do, my eating habits are what dictates my weight more than anything else. Thus, I am typically heavier than I like to be.
One of the best decisions I ever made
In 2018 I decided to join a group of friends in their bi-annual Body Fat Challenge (BFC). The BFC was started by my longtime friend Tino Herran in 1998 as a challenge amongst a small group of friends and business associates. It has happened every second year since. In 2010, the BFC was even featured on The Today Show where the participants were interviewed by Katie Couric. The 2018 BFC included 41 men of all ages, was the largest group ever fielded and is memorialized in this documentary video.
The incentives built into the BFC is what makes it work
Before I tell you how the program works, please understand that almost every similar challenge I have been a part of failed at some point as people got distracted and dropped out. Tino’s genius is that he architected this to be something nearly impossible to get out of, and therefore it works.
So here’s the deal:
- Everyone signs a legally binding contract.
- The bottom 20% get their heads shaved by the winners.
- For bald-ish participants, they get worked up with permanent markers and then forced to wear a wig for three days after the program ends.
- To ensure everyone stays true to their commitment, each of us writes a check which is subsequently held in trust by an attorney. It’s only cashed in the event that someone quits or a losing participant defaults and then it’s donated to charity. At the end of the competition, all checks are either returned or shredded.
- The check amount is determined by the group and represents how much the participant likes their hair. Over the years, some checks have been significant, but in 20 years no check has ever been cashed. Why, because the losers always opted to have their heads shaved rather than cash the check.
Such is the system that makes the BFC work, and boy does it!
The BFC is not about weight-loss; it’s about body composition change, which is what everyone who’s out of shape wants. The problem is, too many of us focus on what the scale says, and when we are not losing weight, we become discouraged. Each year, there is at least one person who drops 20 pounds by the mid-point, only to find their fat percentage went up. When people starve themselves, focus on cardio workouts exclusively or do long cardio workouts, this is what happens. The BFC is completely unforgiving about this. You either lose fat or you lose the competition. Losing weight alone doesn’t get it done.
Here’s the way the competition flows:
- Everyone weighs in at a Bod Pod machine at the University of Miami. The Bod Pod determines how much fat a person’s body as a percentage of their overall mass.
- The body fat loss portion of the program lasts about 90 days.
- There is an initial, mid-point, and final Bod Pod measurement. Body fat percentage lost drives 70% of their score. For instance, a person who starts at 30% and drops to 20% realizes a 33% drop overall.
- On the second to last day of the program, there are 1-mile run and 150-meter swim events.
- On the last day, there is a 10-mile cycling race.
- Each participant chooses their best two sports, and these count towards 15% each of your final scores.
- There is a lunch celebration after the bike race where the loser’s bracket is announced.
- At that point, the electric razors come out, and the bottom 20% get their heads shaved.
Tino has always said, the BFC is not about winning but instead about not losing!
What did I do?
I love winning! That said, my ambition was primarily driven by wanting to get in great shape — a competition against myself. For me, placing in the top 5 out of 41 was my goal.
I wanted to leave nothing to chance and keep in mind that I am very competitive and a bit obsessive about stuff. I am also a big planner. There were many participants who did well and didn’t go to the lengths I went to.
I started by visiting with my Cardiologist, Dr. Cesar Pellerano, who conducted a VO2 Max Test to determine my overall fitness, and anaerobic threshold. Dr. Pellerano helped me calibrate exactly the types of workouts I needed to maximize fat loss and muscle retention.
I hired a personal trainer, Rick Philips, at Somi Fitness, to help me stay honest with weight training. I would do 30–45 minutes of circuit training Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays with Rick and many of our BFC brothers.
I upgraded my bike, although I didn’t need to do that! It did provide a bit of a psychological edge for the field.
I consulted with a nutritionist, Cristy Besu, who gave me an excellent diet program that was sustainable. Fortunately, I had the foresight to ask her two crucial questions:
- What can I do about eating when I travel?
- If I do a more extended cardio session, what food should I use to supplement the additional calorie deficit?
The travel program was critical for me as I often traveled for work, and the thought of packing a cooler with food to travel with was excruciating.
I also bought a membership to a Cryo Miami, a cryotherapy spa. Cryo was vital to recovery, stress relief, and super simple to do given you are in and out of it in 3 minutes.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I would do 25 to 45-minute interval workouts on my Peloton bike and weekends I would road cycle on the official BFC course (10 miles up and 10 miles back) in an hour or so. Later in the competition, I started spinning with Maria at M*ergy rather than doing the Peloton.
I was recovering from an Achilles injury so I did not attempt to run for most of the competition. Once in a while, I would go to Riviera Country Club with the guys to swim a few laps but swimming isn’t my strength.
But most importantly, I was eating healthy food seven times per day. Food prep sucked, but this was the cost of success for me.
I was watching my fitness get to levels I had never felt before. By the end, I could cycle the 10-mile BFC course at an average speed of 23.5 mph with no drafting (slightly more than 25 minutes). I could sustain a 45-minute Peloton ride at almost 25 mph average speed. I could do multiple workouts in a day, and it didn’t phase me. If I skipped a day for rest, my body was craving the next exercise.
In 2018 we added a Whatsapp channel for the first time. Whatsapp became a transformational element of the program. Imagine 41 individuals trash-talking, posting pictures and videos of workouts, results, and more — all day long! There were times I would post videos of my friends and me at the gym at 6 am and hear stories of guys who slept in, saw our posts and changed their schedules to get to their workouts. There was the time 7 of us got together at Gus Cabrera’s house for a CrossFit “GusFit” session. We posted a video of all of us and 20 minutes later one of the other contestants sent over Dominos Pizza to sabotage our efforts. This was part of the constant hazing and fun that made this program work. So many great memories!
When I started the program, I was scared I would be able to maintain the discipline to succeed. My wife, Becky, even told me, “Are you sure you want to do this? You won’t look good with your head shaved.” It was at that moment that I knew I was OK. My response to her was, “can you tell me the last time you ever saw me come in the bottom 20% of anything?”
What I found was that the social pressure the program created was more than adequate to make this easy for me. I have never been so compliant with anything related to my health like this in my entire life.
I’m 6'1,” and I weighed in at 253 pounds with 28.3% body fat, which meant I had 181 pounds of lean body mass to start which was an advantage; that said, I also had 72 pounds of fat! As the program got underway the fat started melting off. By the mid-point, I had lost nearly 19 pounds of fat and was in 7th place.
In the second half, I stepped it up even further, which became easier because my workouts got better, and my body was asking me to work out every single day.
By the end, I had dropped 41 pounds of fat and gained 6 pounds of muscle while getting down to 14.1% body fat, a 32-inch waist, and third place in the body fat portion of the competition. I am pretty sure the last time I was at 14% body fat was when I was 15 years old.
The guy who won the body fat portion was Gus Cabrera. Gus is a weight lifter-type who lost nearly 63 pounds of fat in the 90 days of the competition. Gus broke all the previous records.
Over the next two days, we dueled in our athletic events. I held onto third place overall and was thrilled with the outcome. Nine men got their heads shaved and many of the wives and girlfriends also stepped up their fitness and diets and got in better shape alongside their partners.
More importantly, the 41 men were able to drop 820 pounds of fat overall, an average of 20 pounds each. We also donated $10,000 to Goodwill Industries of South Florida, an amazing organization that employs 3,500 people, half of which have disabilities.
Something we never imagined also happened. We decided to leave the Whatsapp channel in place and, in the almost two years since, the group has remained connected, sharing personal stories about their lives and health and continued to form incredible bonds, not to mention, help each other in business and life.
One of the best things that happened to me was the friendship I forged with Ernie Santana. Ernie is a longtime BFC participant and always one of the leaders. He is a man’s man of epic proportions. Ernie is an Ironman, exotic car collector (Youtube) and bowhunter who spends much of the year traveling the world’s wilderness in search of his next challenge. To the observer, Ernie and I were each other’s nemesis. In truth, we were 100% aligned in helping to drive engagement from everyone involved. In other words, trash-talking on Whatsapp! And thankfully, I placed third and Ernie fourth, giving me bragging rights for 2 years — yes, I am poking the bear!
So as we get ready to begin the 2020 BFC, I cannot tell you how excited I am. My excitement stems from 1) Knowing that in late April, I will be in great shape; 2) That we will help scores of other men achieve the same outcome; 3) From now until then, I will be part of something incredibly fun and very, very special.
In advance of this year’s competition, we worked to take our capabilities to the next level by building an entire set of tools to administer the full lifecycle of the BFC on 8base. The new system allows for the BFC administrators to capture all of the competition’s rules, invite participants, monitor activity, dashboard results, compare against prior years and manage the different stages of the competition.
Additionally, each participant receives access to their version of the app where they can:
- Be notified of competition results, events, and other relevant information.
- Enter their profile and see their results from previous competitions.
- Capture workouts, pictures, and measurements.
- See other athlete results and pictures.
- Share results and follow the competition newsfeed.
- Access perks from local merchants for food, personal training, nutritionist services, cryotherapy, and more.
This year’s BFC will undoubtedly bring many new experiences, accomplishments and maybe even some new records. I plan on documenting some of this journey so stay tuned for updates.
Please feel free to leave comments here or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow the 2020 BFC on our new Twitter account at https://www.twitter.com/@challenge_fat.