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A Couch Potato Runs a Marathon: Small Changes to Big Success

Updated on February 28, 2013

From Couch Potato To Marathoner in Two Years

Steve Joseph crosses the finish line of the Miami Marathon in 2013, and looks back at 25 healthy years of life.
Steve Joseph crosses the finish line of the Miami Marathon in 2013, and looks back at 25 healthy years of life. | Source

Big Success Can be Done With Small Changes

I'm a big fan of New Years resolutions, vision boards, and personal transformation. But it isn't for everyone. And we can change our lives in big ways without making any big changes - just a series of small ones.

No one illustrates this better than Steve Joseph, who went from being a 240-lb couch potato to being a 160-lb marathoner in two years just by making small changes one at a time. A friend of mine introduced me to Steve this year (2013). Steve was flying down from New York City, where the marathon was cancelled after Superstorm Sandy. He needed his marathon fix. and was coming to Miami to get it.

Steve has a refreshing approach to life changes. We don't need to create New Years resolutions. We don't need to learn the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. We don't need to worry about how to break bad habits.

All we have to do is pay attention to what we are doing, and do something different.

But we'll come back to the method later. Let's start with the story. Here's how Steve lost 80 pounds and ran his first marathon. It all started back in 1987.

Steve the Couch Potato, 1987

In 1987 - Steve had a lot to lose, and a lot to gain by losing it!
In 1987 - Steve had a lot to lose, and a lot to gain by losing it! | Source

A Couch Potato Gets Motivated

Back in 1987, Steve regularly spent Christmas with his girlfriend. So he got a shock when she told him someone else was coming over instead. He figured it was over. If he got depressed, it didn't last long.

He looked at himself, and saw, maybe, why he'd been dumped. (Actually, he'd just assumed he was dumped.)

He wanted to change. And he started with just two small changes.

Steve looked at what he normally did.

Steve normally ate a pastrami & chopped liver triple-decker from his local deli. Looking at his waistline, he decide that that had to go. He remembered how much he liked tuna as a kid, and replaced his giant pastrami sandwiches with reasonable-sized tuna fish sandwiches.

Change number two was that he went to the gym every day, no matter how tired he felt.

At the beginning, he could only do a lifecycle (standing bicycle) at the lowest setting, level 1, for three minutes.

But he did that 3 minutes, every day, until he could do more.

Changes Start to Happen

The first thing that Steve noticed is that he could do more at the gym. His routine got easier. Instead of three minutes on the lifecycle, he could do ten. Then he could do thirty.

Then a big thing happened. He started to like going to the gym.

Steve did this without a coach, all on his own.

I Can Relate

I can relate to this part of the story because the same thing happened to me in 2003. I had spent six months living on my mother's livingroom couch caring for her while she had cancer. I'd done well for her, helping her to live another two years. But it was hard on me. I reached my highest weight ever, 210 pounds, and my back was out.

I started walking. At first, I could just make it 100 feet to the house on the corner and back home, and I was done in for the day. Slowly, I increased that. I did just a bit more each day.

Before long, I was walking two miles a day. Feeling healthy, I reached a point where I could walk 7 miles a day, or 10 miles if I really pushed. And I liked the feeling!

The Changes Snowball

Once Steve began to like how he felt during his workouts, other changes came easily. He left behind the buy-one-get-one-free Big Macs; two to three bags of potato chips every day; over-sized fried burgers; and the pizza and beer he ate at football games.

As he got in shape, exercise became easier. He shifted from the lifecycle to the stairmaster. In the spring, about 3 months after he'd started exercising, he reached about 200 pounds (down 40 from his top weight). He started to run. At first, he ran on an indoor track, but then he realized he enjoyed running outdoors.

Steve didn't plan any of this. He didn't set out to become a marathoner, or even a runner. He just went from one enjoyable change to another, and changed very quickly.

Rapid Changes, Few Worries

Steve himself was feeling better and better. But others were worried.

A note: Steve was overweight, but had no health problems. He did all this without seeing a doctor. That was his call. And, as a responsible author, I need to insert the common-sense notion: See an appropriate health professional before engaging in any new exercise program or dietary change. And if you do have a medical condition (or discover one) this is very important. Dietary and fitness changes can work well for anyone, but it's important to choose the right changes for where you are starting.

Steve just went ahead living his new life. But some of his friends started to worry. Seeing him lose weight so quickly, his friends would ask him if he had AIDS. His parents had the hardest time. He relocated for career reasons and stayed with his parents for a while. They'd never seen him thin and healthy. His mother said, "eat, eat, eat" all the time, and, as he was skinny and losing his hair, his father teased him by calling him Gandhi.

Some of this was a bit hard to take. But the joys of running and marathoning and simply feeling good more than made up for the minor hassles from family and friends.

The Man Becomes a Marathoner

Steve now has a six-pack to show off, not a belly to hide!
Steve now has a six-pack to show off, not a belly to hide! | Source

From Runner to Marathoner

Once Steve started running, it wasn't too long until he could run 3 or 4 miles at a stretch. Then he was ready for a big change. Steve lived in Pittsburgh, about four miles away from the University of Pittsburgh campus where he went to school. When he felt ready to run four miles twice a day, he started running to school every day, and running back home.

He simply changed the way he commuted to school every day. He ran, instead of driving.

Once he was running 8 miles a day, a marathon didn't seem like such a bad idea. So he ran one.

It was that simple: Small changes, no plans, just one thing gradually growing into another.

And yet it was a pretty big change: Steve lost over 80 pounds. He went from being out of breath in 3 minutes on a cycle to being able to run 26 miles in a day. And the long-term benefits for his health are things we all know: reduced risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. And since he moved to a more natural diet with fewer fried foods, lower risk of cancer, as well.

All this started over 25 years ago, and the big change took just two years. And it stuck. Steve has run so many marathons that he can't count them all. Love, marriage, and a daughter came along, and he's still running.

How Much Have You Changed?

Looking back at the last 10 years, or, if you're over 50, the last 20, how much have you changed - maybe without realizing it?

See results

We're all going to change what we normally do sooner or later. So why not choose the changes?

Small Changes: The Concept

Steve's idea is this: We have our normal routines, the way we normally do things. And those change over time.

For example:

  • When Steve was a boy, his mother made him tuna fish sandwiches, and he ate tuna fish sandwiches.
  • When Steve was in college, his friends drank beer, at pizza, and devoured whole bags of potato chips. So he did the same.
  • When Steve enjoyed working out, he stopped eating foods that made him fat.
  • When Steve became a dad, he naturally started to finish everthing his little girl didn't eat. He became her garbage can. He started to gain weight.
  • Eating with his little girl, he ate more candy and ice cream. He gained more weight.
  • Steve's marathon time went up. Time to change again - he cut out the plate-cleaning and ice cream.

The essence of Steve's method is this: We're all going to change what we normally do sooner or later, so why not choose the changes?

Don't Think About Habits

The key is to change habits, and not to think about them. Many words have a lot of baggage that come with them. Here's some typical baggage: Habits are hard to change. A diet is a big deal. No one ever keeps their New Years resolutions.

To avoid this baggage, Steve doesn't think about habits, diets, or New Years resolutions. He calls his normal routines his "normals." Other people call them "routines." I call them "set points." I see it like a thermostat. I set my thermostat to 72, and the house stays at 72. If I lower it ot 68, then the thermostat and the furnace adjust, and the house stays at 68. We can do the same with our weight, with the length of our daily walk or run, or with anything else.

Let's take a closer took at how to make big changes in small ways!

Miami Marathon, 2013

Steve Joseph enjoyed his run at the Miami Marathon this year.
Steve Joseph enjoyed his run at the Miami Marathon this year. | Source

Steve's Tips

Steve's whole approach won't work for everyone. But he has a lot of good ideas. So I'll give you his tips first. Then I'll add a few cautions and tips from my 30 years experience as a life coach.

Change one thing at a time

Don't think, "I've got to change my whole diet." Instead, pick one item, like Steve did. First, he chose to replace pastrami with tuna fish. Many years later, he chose to drop ice cream.

Replace the old with the new

When you drop something, you can pick up something else. Now, you don't have to. If you're just stuffing yourself, as Steve was with potato chips, just drop the old normal. But if it's lunch, think in terms of replacements.

Enjoy the new

Steve didn't pick tuna fish at random. He picked tuna fish because he had liked it as a child. He called forth those memories,, and he soon found he enjoyed it as much now as he had when he was a kid. That made it much easier to give up the pastrami and chopped liver.

Don't make close substitutes

When Steve decide to give up beer, he didn't switch to light beer. He just stopped drinking beer. As he put it, "Lite beer just makes me want the good stuff."

Steve finds his approach is hard for the first two weeks. But then the old normal is gone from his life, and it's easy.

Let your joy guide you

Steve let go of cycling and the stairmaster. He liked running. He stuck with it. He paid attention to his running. Once he started to care about his running time, it was easy to drop anything that made him put on extra pounds. And this has served him for years. When he picked up the unhealthy routines of eating all his daughter's extra food, and sharing her candy and ice cream, he was able to drop them quickly to improve his marathon time.

Keep the friends, dump the junk

Steve still watches football with his friends. He just doesn't drink the beer, eat the pizza, or chew the chips.

Make new friends

If you replace Big Macs with salads, try to meet new friends at the local salad bar. It's always good to have friends who share your healthy normal routines. For example, Steve encourages runners to check out running clubs.

Steve celebrates near the end of his run in Miami.
Steve celebrates near the end of his run in Miami. | Source

A Few Cautions

Some things that Steve did wouldn't work for me, and might not work for other people.

It may not be safe to go back

For example, once Steve has dropped something, he can pick it up now and again. He can have a little ice cream or a piece of fried chicken once, and it won't bother him.

I can't do that. I'm addicted to the unhealthy foods I used to love. If I eat them, I crave them again, even years later. So, once I drop something unhealthy, it's best for me to stay away from it forever.

Now, everyone is different. Steve can handle going back briefly. My body says "no" to that. For other people, maybe an occasional food binge would work, but not alcohol or smoking.

You'll need to find that out for yourself. A recommendation: If you're not sure, don't test yourself. Play it safe and stay away.

Sometimes, we have to make lots of changes

Steve took it gradually, and, usually, that is best. But if you've just discovered that your blood sugar is off, and you're at risk of diabetes, you may have to give up sugar, caffiene, and artificial sweeteners all at once. Or if you learn you have multiple allergies, it's best to leave all foods you are allergic to behind at the same time.

Sometimes, we have to find a new crowd

Steve was able to hang out with his old football-watching buddies and join them in enjoying the game, but skip the beer and chips. Not everyone can do that. And not every bunch of beer drinkers lets their friend stay dry. Sometimes, it's better to leave friends behind to make your own healthy routines stick.

Advice can be a good thing

Steve found his own way, but you don't have to. You may want appropriate medical advice. Or you might want to read books about how to run a marathon, or even hire a personal trainer. It's up to you.

If You Like Big Changes

One thing I've learned as a life coach is that everyone does best if we do it our own way. If you'd rather try big changes, you can take a look at these two articles about starting and maintaining New Years resolutions. Don't worry, you don't have to wait until January! Your new life starts whenever you decide to make it happen:

It's Not Just About Running

In this article, I've focused on the big changes Steve made, which were about running and food.

But it can be about a lot of other things, too. In fact, a few years ago, Steve started to meditate. And he's into that in a pretty big way now.

Steve's approach will work with just about anything:

Be Yourself, and Change the World

When I talked to Steve about this article, I asked him if he had any last thoughts that he wanted to share with all of you. He told me a story that really touched my heart because it is an example of what Mahatma Gandhi meant when he said, "Be the change you want to see in the world." It also illustrates a lesson in A Course in Miracles: "You teach what you believe yourself to be."

Steve is a runner, and he knows he's a runner. At one time, Steve had a job in lower Manhattan, and he enjoyed walking to Chinatown on his breaks. He switched jobs and began to work at a New Jersey office complex. For the first two years, he was miserable because he couldn't walk to Chinatown any more. As he put it, "There was nothing to do at lunch except stand in line at the supermarket behind moms and their kids." He worked in an office park, an old IBM complex, and no one walked or ran at lunch. He started running at lunch, all alone. People saw him doing it. They got inspired and started walking or running at lunch. Now, this has gone on for years, and people are walking at lunch, and some are running.

Why? They just changed their normal routine, just like Steve.

Make health your new normal. Make whatever you love to do your new normal.

When everyone does that, it will be a different world.

Make a Difference

Steve doesn't just run for himself - running for charity is his new normal.
Steve doesn't just run for himself - running for charity is his new normal. | Source

Do You Think You Can Change?

People's beliefs about personal growth often limit how much they can change. What do you believe?

See results

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