How I Learned to Break Bad Habits at Age 54 | Michael Franti & Spearhead

In March 2019 I stepped on the scale and quickly jumped off as the number rose above 240 pounds for the first time in my life.

I felt exhausted most days but never lost my drive to outwork and out-hustle anyone around me. It’s how I was raised and how I’ve survived 33 years of being a professional touring musician. The only problem was that at age 53 I had two knee surgeries on my six-foot six-inch frame and no longer could bounce back the way that I did at age 23 or 33 or 43, for that matter. And on top of it all, I became a father again (after raising two boys who are now both out of the house) to an energetic baby boy who I knew was not going to ever say, “Go ahead dad sleep in, I’ll quietly sit here and read a book until you wake up after being up late doing a show all night.”

At the start of our summer tour in 2019 a fan messaged me online, said she was a trainer and would love to help me get in great shape. I was training a couple of times a week at this point but to be honest, I didn’t realize how “un-well” I actually was at this stage.
When I first talked on the phone with Christina Farias she told me that wellness wasn’t about dropping ten pounds, even though that might be a goal, but rather it was about creating great habits, and, at the time, I had plenty of bad ones. These habits had been with me for so long, I just assumed that feeling shitty a lot of the time was just how life was and that the extra middle I’d put around my gut was just part of being 50+.

My habits were to work 18-20 hour days, sleep 3-4 hours a night, and eat foods all day long that have tons of sugar in them to keep my body revved up when I was tiring. I’d practice yoga a couple of times a week when I wasn’t feeling completely exhausted, and in order to burn as many calories as I could, I’d run around on stage every night. I’d been a runner since high school, and I’d long given up on running ever since my doctor told me to lay off of it after my first and second knee surgeries. Since my late twenties, I had stopped playing basketball on a regular basis, even after having played Division 1 ball at the University of San Francisco in the mid-1980s. On top of all of this, I’d usually eat half a pizza and two margaritas after each show before going to bed on the tour bus.

Christina told me, “This all may feel normal to you because these habits are ingrained for years.” She told me it would take six weeks to create new habits, six months to make them feel effortless, and after a year of creating new habits they would stay with me for life. I didn’t believe her.

But on June 4, 2019, I told her I’d give her six weeks, and if I felt better after that time I’d work through the rest of the summer and see if I could meet some goals.

So here’s what we did:

First thing – we were going to change my nutrition. This didn’t mean going on a diet. It meant changing my eating habits. We went to a high protein, plant-based, green vegetable meal plan (I’ve been a pescatarian for 10 years after being vegetarian since 1992 and being an unhealthy vegan from 2003 to 2010 – I mostly ate pasta and French fries and candy that entire time). I created a food calendar and started doing weekly meal preparation to have on the tour bus. All my snacks were high protein and I cut out sugar, potato chips, and other junk foods. I ate four meals a day and got my daily calories to about 3600 a day.

I stopped drinking my calories. No juices, sodas, or kombucha. I moved to water and naturally flavored sparkling waters bought a see-through water bottle and started drinking 3-5 liters of water a day (not easy to do). The only calories I drank were protein smoothies (plant-based protein powder, blueberries, oatmeal, peanut butter, and water and ice), but these were more like a complete meal, so it didn’t feel like a beverage – by the time I was done, I was full. To make this all possible I had to make sure I was eating on a schedule so I never felt hungry throughout the day. Later in the process, I also started intermittent fasting, only eating between the hours of noon and 8 or 9 pm.

 

Second, I started training 5 days a week. HIIT training, dumbbells, resistance bands, Bosu ball, Pilates ring, and a medicine ball. A mini ‘carry-it-with-me gym’ on tour with a weight bench. I practiced yoga a few times a week, and most importantly I got myself a Fitbit to ensure I was waking 10,000 steps a day. The steps were the game-changer. Even on days when I didn’t work-out, I made sure I got my steps in, and on show days I was doing 10,000 before the show and 13,000 during the show! Before I knew it, the strength and mobility were coming back to life in my knee, and low back issues that plagued me for years were going away.

The Fitbit is a crucial tool because it also measures three super important things: heart rate, sleep, and fat burning minutes. It also keeps a log of my weight, but I soon found this was a less important number than the others.

I always prided myself on being able to do two hour-long shows that involved a lot of running around through the audience. I thought I wasn’t in good cardio shape, and in recent years I had actually been turned down for insurance because my blood pressure was too high. The Fitbit helped me to log how many minutes I was working out in an elevated fat burning zone. My initial goal was to do 30 minutes a day but by the end of the summer, I was logging well over a hundred minutes a day and even had one 300-minute day.

As the weeks went by, my resting heart rate began to slowly decrease from the high 60’s to the low 50’s, where it is now.

Resting heart rate is measured while sleeping and takes an average throughout the whole night as the Fitbit measures your sleep hours. As I mentioned when I first started measuring my sleep, I was sleeping 3-4 hours a night. My first goal was to increase it to 5, in 15-minute increments, to 6 hours 30 minutes. Christina told me if I didn’t sleep at least five hours, I was not allowed to work-out the next day because lack of sleep actually works against you when trying to get in shape if you work out when you’re exhausted. Your adrenal glands work overtime and you actually start to gain weight rather than lose it.

Sleeping was the greatest challenge of all for me. I worry a lot and part of it has to do with not being able to shut my brain down at night. Here’s how we fixed it: Number one, I cut my drinking back to two drinks a week, and then one, and then none. Alcohol put me to sleep at first, but about two hours later I’d wake up and couldn’t go back to sleep. Christina told me in addition to the sugar in it, it messes with your adrenal system and puts your weight loss on pause. Read that again, you can do everything right but if you drink alcohol it puts your weight loss on pause.

 

The next thing I did was turn my screens off an hour before sleep time. Screens emit blue light which makes your brain think the sky is turning blue in the morning and wakes you up, but also, all the stuff I was reading from emails, the news, and Instagram was stressing me out and keeping my wheels spinning all night.

Each week I’d check in with Christina and we’d discuss my habits. How was I eating, drinking, exercising, sleeping, number of steps, and how many fat-burning-minutes. Some areas I did great; some I had trouble with and we talked through them.

Every week I’d take photos of myself to compare and each day. I was required to weigh myself every morning to see how the things I ate and the exercise I did affect my weight. I had set a goal to lose 15 pounds and it wasn’t coming off. I was frustrated, but I found out what was really important: even though my weight wasn’t changing that much, my body composition was. My muscles were growing and my tummy was shrinking.

Eventually, the weight did start to drop, and by six months I had gone from 239 pounds to 214 — 25 pounds! But by that point, something much more important happened. I felt better.

I’m less tired. Less stressed. Lighter on my feet. I can walk effortlessly for miles. I run every day again on my knee. I play basketball for 5

days a week. I am stronger physically in every way. I’m more rested and I sing better because of it. My eyes are clearer and I look, fitter. My heart rate is excellent, but most importantly — I am happier. I feel like I have a new method of replacing bad habits with good ones that I can now apply to other areas of my life.

My whole mindset of what wellness is has changed. It’s not just about having an organic salad every now and then between eating like shit. It’s not about having a really mindful yoga class two days a week and never sleeping. It’s not about losing 31 pounds (I’m now down to 208). Wellness is about feeling great, knowing that each day you’ve done something to head in the direction of improvement. With that newfound mindset, I’m able to face the stresses of the world and feeling healthier and happier at age 54 than I ever have before.