This story is part of our ongoing “First Steps” series, where we share extraordinary stories of men who transformed their bodies, minds, and lives with a focus on the first steps it took them to get there (because, after all, nothing can change without a first step!). Read all of the stories here.
Andrew Merritt, 36, is a mortgage banker in Jacksonville, Florida. His first step followed a weigh-in at 395 pounds. He’s now at 258 and loves his healthy lifestyle. Here, Merritt tells us in his own words how he got to where he is now.
I HAVE BEEN the ‘big guy’ my whole life. I was a classic childhood overeater turned gluttonous party guy in college, then suddenly an adult who never considered reasonable portions for anything. I dabbled with some distance running in my 20s and shed some good weight, but the moment I stopped, I regained it all. I was fearful of most chairs, terrified I’d be kicked off an airplane for not fitting, and thought I’d never be able to ride roller coasters with my kids.
Most of the health issues I had directly resulted from the excessive weight I was carrying. I would be out of breath climbing stairs. I couldn’t chase after my kids. And I would break a sweat walking the short distance from my office to my car. I probably had sleep apnea, but was undiagnosed. (My wife always complained about my snoring, which has since resolved.)
My turning point came on July 15, 2021. I was 34 at the time, and my wife and kids were returning from a vacation to see family (I had flown back early for work). I was eating one last hurrah meal with my best bud, Mat—a huge portion of fish and chips and a Tito’s to wash it down. I had weighed myself that morning, and was nearly 400 pounds. It was a milestone that I hated being that close to. With a mouthful of fried fish, I told Mat that it didn’t matter what it took, or how uncomfortable I had to make myself, I was going to finally lose the weight properly.
My First Step
THAT JULY I started a 3-day-a-week cardio regimen. My long-unused gym membership got dusted off and I found my way to the ARC Trainer. I remember begging and compromising with myself to just hit 17 minutes. I was way too intimidated to touch the weights or make eye contact with anyone, so I just found my machine and then battled to add a minute every other session.
Andrew and Shea
I researched and started some light intermittent fasting. Skipping breakfast for some might not be much, but for me that was an immediate 600 to 800 calorie loss. I remember changing lanes on the highway so I would be further away from when I used to turn in for fast food breakfasts. I got a better understanding of my true appetite, and started developing enough endurance to eventually look into a variety of exercise opportunities.
What Kept Me Going Back to the Gym
IN MAY 2022 one of my closest friends, Shea Peck, insisted I come to her 100th CycleBar ride. I had shed some weight and was dabbling in any type of exercise people were hyping up. At first I just thought it would be funny for a guy my size to be strapped into a thin stationary bike trying to keep some semblance of rhythm. But friendship prevailed, and I just tried not to embarrass her or myself. The heavy breathing and sweat were expected, but the experience was unlike anything I’d done before. Dark room, heavy beat focused music. And just when any negative or limiting thoughts could creep in, an instructor shouting affirmations. I wanted to laugh it off and pretend like me spinning was ridiculous, but I felt challenged. I wanted to get better, to be become proficient in something athletic that no one would really expect from a guy like me.
“I’ve LEARNED that you can’t HATE yourself into a BETTER body.”
So I sought out a few more classes, a theme ride here, a milestone for a fellow rider there. Then Shea became an instructor. I think it’s hard for anyone to leave their comfort zone, but being a hype man for a friend is always a great reason to venture out. Plus, I had plenty of friends hyping me up on my journey. In the past year, I have developed the best cardiovascular endurance I’ve ever had, my core is stronger than it was in high school, and my lower kinetic chain is pretty developed. But more than that, I’ve got cardio brain. My mind is sharper earlier in the day without over-caffeinating. I fall asleep easier at night, and my stress response is so much more stabilized.
I’ve been married for 13 years and am a father of four. Part of what I love about CycleBar is being off the grid for 45 minutes, no cell phone, and all-out focused on your body. But with responsibilities outside of that room, I had to find a schedule that worked for me as a family man. My studio, Gateway Village in Jacksonville, offers a very early class and an opportunity to double up with an express class all before the sun comes up. With plenty of weekend options, I was able to make it work. As a family of six, there’s a lot of chaos in my household, and starting a few days with exercise and positive affirmations has had a tremendous impact on how I approach the grind. Plus, now I can chase my kids around and have even done some 5k training with my older kids.
I aim for four to five classes a week. That’s usually two early morning double up classes (one being an express ride) and a weekend ride. I also mix in some weight lifting three to four times a week if I can. I’ve done a few 5ks with friends just for fun. But the event I’m very excited about is Jacksonville’s Gate River Run, a 15k crossing over two major bridges. I ran it for the first time in 2022 and am very much looking forward to training and running it again in 2023. It’s easily the most fun I’ve ever had running.
How My Approach to Food Changed
I LIKE TO BELIEVE the Covid era got to all of us, but I really took it to the extreme. Fast food breakfast and late-night snacking sandwiched an already calorically-dense day. The Friday and Saturday happy hours became more of a Tuesday through Sunday thing, with the occasional Monday snuck in there if the mood struck.
After that Fish and Chips on 7/15/21, I knew I had to rewire my appetite, but knew if I felt like I was suffering I’d backslide. After some trial and error, I’ve wound up with a system that nourishes me but can still fuel pretty intense workouts. Water, flavored and not, replaced any calories I had been drinking. I made a portioned meal plan and made sure snacks like hard boiled eggs, tuna packets and almonds were always available. I strictly counted calories for a few weeks at a time and really upped my protein consumption.
Attending his friend’s 100th Cyclebar ride got Merritt hooked on cycling.
My alcohol intake was dramatically reduced because recovery and hydration became priority. I was pretty well motivated after a few hung-over workouts. I still enjoy some fries every so often, especially after a heavy cardio week, but it turns out most places can easily substitute them with vegetables if you ask. I mix in the occasional 18/26/48 hour intermittent fast when my workout schedule allows for it, just to experiment with really understanding my appetite and connection with emotional eating.
In Jacksonville, fresh fish is always available, and some grilled or blackened fish tacos are always on my menu. My love for sushi now mixes in more sashimi. Turkey burger patties thrown on top of a salad and sweet potatoes are staples.
I was told I could lose the weight but I’d be the same shaped guy, just a smaller version. I wanted to be masculine-looking. I wanted to wear the shirt I thought would look great in, I wanted to be able to keep up with my kids. Non-scale victories were the real motivations. Fall in love with a number on the scale if that’s your thing, but for me I want to build a look that’s intentional and an undeniable reflection of the work I’m willing to do.
Three Tips That Helped Me Most
Tip 1: Make Recovery Just As Important As The Workout
I REALLY HAD to focus on hydration before my workouts. Also, a full night’s sleep became more crucial. CycleBar is an intense 45 minutes, and weight lifting can really break you down. If I wasn’t properly hydrated and fully charged with a good night’s sleep, my workouts suffered.
Tip 2: Have Fun With The Workouts
IT’S NOT ALWAYS easy to get up early for a workout or sneak one in before the end of the day. I had to find motivation to make it happen at first. CycleBar is very much about community. You make friends because they’re doing what you’re doing. You get excited to see familiar faces or how your favorite instructor is going to mix it up that class. Whether you prefer cardio or weights, you have to fall in love with the process. Challenge yourself to reach some optimization and stay consistent. Take the progress pics, cringe or be proud, and just keep trudging along laughing all the way.
I’ve learned that you can’t hate yourself into a better body. I’ve tried it—a lot of negative self-talk and treating every workout like a penance for the sins of my appetite. I’ve lost weight through sheer brute force of starvation and self-loathing, but of course gained it back. It wasn’t until I decided I was going to do it and have fun with it that I was able to stop the dramatic weight swings. Then I started building a body.
Tip 3: Fine-tune Your Thinking
YOUR BODY IS dictated by what you’re conditioning it to do. I was sedentary for so long, I lost a lot of mobility and functional strength. I really have to focus on form and range of motion so I can truly benefit from my workouts. Outside of that, I like to really be intense for that 45 minutes of cycling or the hour and a half lifting session. I had to learn that a great workout breaks you down, and my soreness and energy levels were directly dictated by my protein intake, hydration status, and prioritizing a reasonable sleep schedule.
If I wanted to do athletic things, I had to live a more athletic lifestyle. Early on, I thought I was punishing myself because my body hurt, but I quickly learned it was just my body’s way of letting me know what I needed. My negative thoughts had to be trumped by optimism for any progress regardless of how little. As I learned to fine tune my thinking and recovery the progress became exponentially more evident and worth any sacrifice.