Meet Ben Stark – a dude with one of the coolest names in the history of nerds, and our next member of the Nerd Fitness Hall of Heroes. He’s a 40-year-old social worker and mental health program coordinator for the VA.
Ben’s story is one of my favorites for a very specific reason: it’s real. Ben is not much different than Deadpool – finding inspiration and a path forward when you get dealt a bad hand. Although it’s often not our fault for where we are, it’s our responsibility to dig ourselves out of it.
And that’s exactly what Ben did.
Where we are RIGHT NOW is a combination of things that are within our control and things that aren’t. And often it feels overwhelming, which leads us to inaction, anxiety, and “I’ll start when I’m ready” mentality. We give an excuse. We read articles and never take action. We collect underpants. There’s always another reason, or problem, or setback we tell ourselves is the reason we haven’t cracked the code yet to a healthier, happier life.
Not Ben the Rebel.
When he started his journey, he was about 420 pounds. Perhaps more importantly, he was very sick, had a great deal of pain from herniated discs, and also had facet joint arthritis his back. As if this wasn’t enough, in true Deadpool fashion, in the summer of 2013, he learned he was pre-diabetic, had high cholesterol and triglycerides, gout, and sleep apnea that would soon require bi-pap therapy.
This is when most of us give up.
But Ben didn’t. In fact, he found a way to keep looking forward, and I can’t wait to show you how he has made such incredible progress.
Steve: Hey Ben, thanks so much for being here and for being willing to share your story with the Rebellion. You’ve overcome so many different obstacles to get to this point, and I’m so proud that you’re a part of this community. To start, let’s talk about the “old you” – what was a day like back then?
My typical day in the past included me getting up in the morning and getting ready for work. Then on the way to work, I would stop to get breakfast that typically included a bagel sandwich, hash browns, and coffee with sugar. Once I got to work, I would spend all day at my desk, avoiding all movement except to hit the vending machine. Then lunch. When I finished work, I would head home, often stopping to get something to eat on the way.
I ate a ton of sugars, breads, grains and little or no vegetables. Although I exercised sometimes, I avoided movement and really thought that 40 minutes of occasional biking would make up for a bad diet and sitting for 12 or more hours a day. My sleep habits were horrible. I would go to bed at 11:30PM or midnight and wake up at 5 or 5:30AM.
Steve: When was the moment of change?
September 2013 .That is when I was told about being pre-diabetic. Earlier that summer I was also diagnosed with herniated discs (L3,L4, and L5) along with facet disc arthritis after suffering with back pain and numbness down my right leg for almost a year. I was told was to be considered for surgery to fix those issues my BMI would have have to be 30 or less.
Being told I was pre-diabetic really scared the crap out of me. Besides a desire to regain my health, an additional motivation for me was my nephew. He is following in my footsteps as a wrestler and I want to be healthy enough to go along on this voyage and not embarrass him.
It took a while to fine tune and start getting the results I wanted, but I started to make some changes. In December 2013, I found Nerd Fitness and discovered the Paleo diet.
Steve: Wow, that’s quite a starting point. And what about a typical day today?
My typical day now involves getting up a bit earlier than I had in the past. Every day but Saturday, I work out on my rowing machine after I let my two dogs out. Then I get ready for work and go into work. I still stop on my way to work but I only get coffee. When I get to work, I make a point of parking as far away as possible so I have an excuse to walk more. While at work, I actively look for excuses to get up and move. Go up and down the steps, walk around, and walk to different buildings instead of drive. I eat my lunch (that I bring with me from home) around 2 or so so I have a long period of fasting. I don’t eat on my way home any more and I pretty consistently hit the gym every night and get to bed earlier.
Steve: It sounds like some small changes early on led to some big changes. How did you approach your exercise strategy?
My overall strategy is stay active and moving as much as possible. Lots of slow steady movement with episodes of hard movements to build me up.
My goal for fitness is to build a bit of all fitness attributes. In Nerd Fitness terms, I think the term Ranger would best fit me. I want a bit of everything. In my past life, I used to wrestle and that pursuit required all aspects of athletic ability.
- Right now, I lift three days a week. My lifting workouts are 5 to 7 compound lifts (deadlifts, squats, bench press/incline bench press, press, pull-ups, chin-ups, rows, dips) then a few sprints. I will do sprints on the bike, rowing machine or jump ropes. The days I don’t lift, I bike for 40 to 50 minutes at the gym constantly alternating my speed.
- Every morning, I work out on my Concept 2 rowing machine I bought about two years ago. Three days a week, I do a long distance workout and three days either a fartlek style workout or intervals. The rowing machine was a big investment for me, but it was well worth it.
But I didn’t start there. Over time I increased my rowing and workout time, moved to compound lifts, and became very focused during my workouts.
Steve: Wow, it sounds like it was quite a learning process for you. Now, we all know how important nutrition is. Can you give us an overview of your diet?
My diet is a very a low carb paleo(ish) diet. I say paleoish as I eat some high fat dairy foods. My goal is to make every food choice I can as low carb as possible. It took me a while to zero in my choices and diet plan. I have also been doing intermittent fasting to help speed up my weight loss.
I have been refining my diet by figuring out how to best add carbs to my diet for recovery. Also, I added intermittent fasting to help improve my weight management. The refinement was moving from low carb to a whole food low carb diet.
Steve: Intermittent fasting, Paleo(ish)… we’re two peas in a pod! So happy that you found something that worked for you, and even better that you are experimenting and not taking any nutrition dogma too seriously! Was diet the hardest obstacle you faced?
Yep – diet, diet, diet. I love me some pizza, pasta, and mashed potatoes. Also it was hard to learn to love vegetables. But I also had a hard time incorporating movement into my life. Despite always liking to workout, I tended to be pretty sedentary in my life. It takes real effort for me stay walking during the day.
The big most recent obstacle was my partner of 14 years ending our relationship. One of the big reasons was “I was getting too skinny.” Needless to say that was a kick to someplace. Losing such a long-term relationship hurts and hurts like hell. I refuse to dwell on those feeling or ignore them. Rather, I try to live the life I want now. I am using my extra time to train more, pursue new activities like the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu class I just signed up for, reconnect with old friends and catch some more movies.
After thinking about my relationship a bit I realized a few things. I guess some people have a hard time adapting to change. They fall in love with one person but as that person grows and changes they can’t handle it. That’s what happened to me. I realized that my ex really like the overweight person I was and could not learn to be attracted to the lighter person. In some ways, after the pain of losing the relationship passed, life got better. I felt much freer. The four months leading up to the break up were rough. In some ways this was a relief.
Steve: Wow. Firstly, thank you for sharing this part of your life with us. I’m sorry things didn’t work out, but I love your attitude about it; I know a lot of Rebels in similar situations that will love to hear things get better, and improving yourself is always a great thing.
Back to the questions. You’re down a few hundred pounds. Did you nerd out about the process? Did tracking play a major role? Did you weigh yourself regularly?
I weigh myself weekly. I monitor my clothing size – especially my pants. I have moved from a 52 pant size to a 38. Finally, I log my workouts pretty diligently. Every workout gets an entry. I take advantage of the online log book for my rowing workouts and rankings for workouts. Currently working up the ranking in several distances.
Steve: You sound like you are putting the nerd in Nerd Fitness. I love it when someone takes tracking seriously; It makes such a HUGE difference. How about your support system – did you have people in real life or online helping you out?
My family has been super supportive. I think they missed the old me from when I wrestled as a younger man. I have several friends that are not interested in fitness but we each have our own issues. I think we each get some thing from each other even if we aren’t following the same path. Also, I have several coworkers who have noticed my changes and provide a lot of supportive feedback.
A huge source of motivation for me is my nephew. He has always looked up to me and my achievements as a wrestler. I want to be someone he can continue to be proud of. My final source of motivation has been my doctor. She gave me the real and honest feedback I needed to motivate me to make the changes I needed.
Steve: If you had to tell someone who is just beginning their journey one thing, what would it be?
Look closely at your situation, identify what is your the core problem (hack the source code), find solutions, and take action. Don’t obsess over finding the “right” course of action. It’s easier to make changes once you are acting. What can paralyze any improvement is not choosing to do anything while trying to find the perfect course of action.
What are you working on these days? Any new challenges or difficulties?
Still working on losing the last few pounds to hit my goal weight. I want to hit a sub 6:45 2K on the rowing machine and a sub-36:00 10K run. Also, I have started to take Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu classes. I’m also working on pull-ups, chin-ups, and jump rope and climbing stairs without getting winded. Also, I want to deadlift 2x my body weight and do a rope climb.
I also found out that I will need back surgery; an MRI confirmed the spinal stenosis has gotten a lot worse than we thought. I am waiting to see the surgeon about what options I have; I guess the big challenge is how to have this done without losing the gains and progress made. Of course it’s scary too. I really don’t want to be cut open but I know it needs to be done.
Steve: Sounds like you have some serious goals and some new challenges… but you seem like you are approaching them with the right attitude. We’ve always said there is no “before and after” but a “before and during.” What else has changed about you, other than appearance?
I am more confident, especially around people. Even though I still suffer from social anxiety, it is far less debilitating than it was in past. Some of life’s other stresses I feel more confident dealing with. No more obsessing about packing everything I need if I travel, worrying about whether or not I can find a big and tall shop to buy anything I forgot. Also, I am no longer worried about finding a close parking space. Just in general I can say I worry less.
Steve: And that’s where the magic of the quest of health and fitness comes in; it ripples to all other aspects of life. Okay, on to the important stuff: Star Wars or Lord of the Rings?
Prior to Episode VII, I would have said Lord of the Rings without doubt. The Force Awakens changes the game. Still I think, I would give a slight edge to the Lord of the Rings. This is like asking a parent to choose which child they love more.
Steve: Any nerdy hobbies or interests?
Comic books! I grew up loving comic books and still do. Really love that they are coming to life in film and television too. Daredevil, Wolverine, and Batman are my favorites. Movies are my second nerd passion. I love film and even bad films are awesome to me. Finally, I love all things pug. I have owned by three different pugs over the last fifteen years and couldn’t imagine being without one.
Steve: Quote to live by?
“All you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given you.” -Gandalf
Steve: Tell us something interesting about you that we missed!
I am a profound introvert and at times I am really uncomfortable in large groups and lots of noise. To me that experience is really draining even if I enjoy myself, afterward I am just wiped out. I have turned that into an advantage for me. I have gotten comfortable with mental silence and repeated practice to get good at things. Whether that is the discipline to lose weight, learn to wrestle well, or become a good rower on the rowing machine, I don’t tire of the grind to get good at something.
Steve: Introverts unite! Thank you so much for sharing your story, Ben. And thanks for putting the words of Nerd Fitness into practice. I hope you’re proud of what you’ve accomplished, and I can’t wait to see what you’re going to do next.
Why Ben Was Successful
Ben is well on his way to becoming a real life superhero, and he was able to progress on this path not through shortcuts or tricks, but through hard work and discipline over many months – now years.
It can be simple as “put on your hard hat and go to work,” once you win the inner battle with your brain and overcome inertia. I realize this is easier said than done, and we all get there at our own pace, which is why so many of us struggle with forming these habits and getting the job done of creating a habit of fitness and health.
Your operating philosophy (mindset) is often a crucial, overlooked item to get the ball rolling. For Ben, that meant these four things:
Ben didn’t let his obstacles become excuses: If Ben wanted to find an excuse, he had a laundry list to choose from. He was overweight, facing spinal and back issues, a threat of diabetes, sleep apnea, and other troubling indicators. Instead of using these hurdles as an excuse to do nothing, he saw them as a challenge demanding action. He used them as inspiration to get started, the very thing justifying all the hard work he spent into building those habits.
So often we want to curl up in a ball and tell ourselves that we can’t change. “This is just the way I am.” Or, “It’s not my fault, I have ___ condition.” Or “Other people don’t have these responsibilities/challenges, must be EASY for them!” Ben shows us that amidst difficulty, heroes rise. Harry, Katniss, and Luke didn’t suddenly become heroes or just fall into an easy path of saving the world. It’s this difficulty that makes the job worth doing. We all have different challenges before us – and yes, absolutely – some of us are playing a more difficult game than others. But establishing this mindset of personal responsibility is so essential. Only YOU can change you.
Will you heed the call?
Ben started slow and gradually fell in love with leveling up: Ben’s routine now might look pretty intimidating to someone hundreds of pounds overweight and just getting started. But he started with just a little bit of rowing, and experimented as he went. Eventually he found compound lifts were a great addition to his routine (psst, this is true for most people!), and started to add goals. His list of goals looking forward is HUGE! He’s losing weight, pushing forward on his rowing, running, and has a variety of strength training goals.
It’s clear he fell in love with leveling up. He’s looking forward, and that’s the most crucial thing. Think about a video game: Sometimes the first 10 or 20 levels aren’t as exciting as you might have hoped, but there’s still a thrill in moving forward – slaying rats and gaining experience points. Enjoying the grind is a fundamental part of our psychology, and Ben discovered how to use this to his advantage.
Ben used his strengths to his benefit: We all are our own unique character. We can’t change who we are or the challenge ahead of us. But we can modify how we approach the situation to make use of our strengths. One of my favorite answers in Ben’s interview was for a question I didn’t even ask:
I am a profound introvert and at times I am really uncomfortable in large groups and lots of noise… I have turned that into an advantage… I have gotten comfortable with mental silence and repeated practice to get good at things… I don’t tire of the grind to get good at something.
What are your strengths, and how can you capitalize on them to make this process a little bit easier? Like a wizard relying more on spells than melee combat, sometimes it’s easier to go with the flow of the game and find the path of least resistance. This might mean getting off the treadmill, because you secretly hate it. This might mean working out outside, not in a gym. This might mean no formal workouts at all; maybe you need to find a team sport, or dance for 30 minutes every day in your house.
Don’t play someone else’s game. Play yours.
Ben took action now: We can give you the best advice in the world, but everyone’s story – every hero – comes down to one thing: Acting, and acting now. If you are reading this and you have changes you need to implement, ultimately, there comes a point when you just have to start. I’d continue on this point, but Ben really says it best:
Look closely at your situation, identify what is your the core problem, find solutions, and take actions. Don’t obsess over finding the “right” course of action. It’s easier to make changes once you are acting. What can paralyze any improvement is not choosing to do anything trying to find the perfect course of action.
Embrace Real Life, Embrace Your Game
If you’ve been following Nerd Fitness for some time, you may have recognized that many success stories sound similar.
In fact, it almost seems as if there just are certain things that set most people up for success, and other things that increase your chances of failure.
We’re incredibly complex creatures, developed over millions and millions of years. Our brains and our bodies are these awesome things – things with so much potential to change ourselves and the world, or things that can be left unused… like a hero who never leaves home.
This is why success stories are so important – they not only show us glimpses into the larger “code” and give us the “how” but they also give us the inspiration and confidence to begin.
Ben, Ryan, Veronica, Bronwyn, Anthony, and others, all made incredible changes, and so can you. Start today. Whether it’s with our free beginner bodyweight workout, or The Academy which guides you through exactly what you need to do.
Learn from the heroes who have come before you, and lean on the heroes who are rising as you are.
In that spirit, what questions do you have for Ben?
Be sure to drop by and give him a note of congratulations, and wish him well on his next challenge!