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How this man used 'reward-bundling' to drop 35 pounds during the pandemic

Instead of fixating on losing weight, Aaron San Filippo focused on developing healthier habits as his number-one goal.
San Filippo says he is now healthier, stronger, and has “a lot more stamina and energy.”
San Filippo says he is now healthier, stronger, and has “a lot more stamina and energy.”Courtesy Aaron San Filippo

Aaron San Filippo, a 40-year-old video game developer from Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, spent most of his 30s overweight. Weighing 230 pounds at 5 feet 9 inches, he was easily worn out by simple activities. His blood pressure and cholesterol were both high, and he didn’t like the way he looked. It was time to make a big change to his health.

“It was a constant source of stress,” San Filippo told TODAY Health.

On top of his health woes, he recently got divorced and had moved into his own apartment. While it was a difficult time in his life, it also presented a perfect opportunity for transformation. “I’ve kind of structured a lot of things around my health,” he said. “The apartment that I'm in has a gym, that makes it very convenient for me to go down and just exercise every day.”

San Filippo began his weight loss journey in August, which he originally wrote about on Medium. Since then, he has shed 35 pounds and a half inch from his waistline. Here’s how he did it:

He tracked his calories and started a walking routine

San Filippo began restricting his calories to about 1,600 a day, which he tracked on the MyFitnessPal app, and took up intermittent fasting, skipping breakfast and eating only lunch and dinner. He also went for daily walks ranging from two to four miles. By February, he lost 30 pounds. His weight soon hit a plateau, however, and he found himself stuck at 200 pounds for the next three months.

“I think that's when I realized my long walking routine wasn't necessarily serving me anymore for a couple reasons,” he said. He spoke to a nutritionist, who told him he needed to eat more, particularly high-protein foods, and replace his daily walks with strength training and intense cardio.

Aaron San Filippo, before he started building new healthier habits.Courtesy Aaron San Filippo

He changed up his routine

Starting in May, San Filippo began a weight lifting regime 3-4 days a week mixed with high intensity interval training (HIIT) two days a week. He also goes for run-walks once a week, keeping to a 12-minute pace.

To build muscle, San Filippo ditched intermittent fasting and boosted his calorie intake to 2,100 calories a day, with the bulk of his calories coming from protein-rich foods like chicken, pork, and eggs, as well as protein shakes, cottage, cheese, and non-fat yogurt. He also eats plenty of green veggies including broccoli, Brussels sprouts and spinach. When he gets hungry between meals, he snacks on baby carrots, celery or bell peppers.

He said eating more protein helps him stick to his goals because it “makes me feel a lot more full, not usually hungry in the later part of the day.” In total, he’s lost an additional five pounds, or about a pound a week, since switching routines.

He focuses on weekly instead of daily calories

Sticking to a strict 2,100 calories a day is difficult, San Filippo said, especially as COVID-19 restrictions are lifting and bars and restaurants are reopening. So he devised a plan that allows him to eat more on certain days while sticking to his calorie goals.

“Typically, what I'll do is try to plan ahead for it,” he said of situations where he knows he is going to overindulge. “So if I know I'm going to go out and have a bunch of pizza or something like that, I will just lower my calorie goals for the other days in the week, and try to aim for the same general [calories]. 2,100 calories a day times seven is 14,700, so if I can kind of get in that range over the course of a week, then I'm good.”

He added: “It definitely requires more planning and mindfulness than I ever had before.”

Aaron San Filippo, after changing his diet and exercise routine. Courtesy Aaron San Filippo

Changing his habits was his top priority

Instead of fixating on losing weight, San Filippo focused on developing healthier habits as his number-one goal.

“It's easy to get discouraged because there's not always a one-to-one correspondence between doing the work and then losing the weight the next day,” he said. “So I tried to refocus on just building habits, because I knew having a daily habit, consistent lifestyle, was going to be much more effective long term than just losing weight fast.”

To turn exercising into a daily routine he looks forward to, he leveraged a habit-building technique called “reward bundling,” where he combined an activity he enjoys (listening to podcasts), with activities that are strenuous, like walking and weight training, he said, to make exercising “feel like it wasn’t work.”

“It’s kind of like a way to trick your brain into not hating that activity as much or actually enjoying it to a degree,” he said.

He also tracks his workouts on a habit tracking app, which he said gives him a sense of achievement. “It feels really good just to look at that thing and say, ‘Oh, I've done my exercise seven days this week,’ or ‘I'm done.’”

Now weighing in at 195 pounds, San Filippo said he is healthier, stronger, and has “a lot more stamina and energy.”

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