Forget Fifty Shades of Grey. If you want real masochism, work out for six hours a day while sticking to a 1,200-calorie diet devoid of coffee, alcohol, and sugar.
That's what I signed up for with Mountain Trek, a hiking boot camp held in Baja California and British Columbia. I'm not fat or out of shape, but I've put on a few pounds over the last three years. And though I hate the idea of dieting, I like a challenge. I also figured that not having constant access to food would help me separate real hunger from the fake kind that tends to pop up when I'm bored or stressed. So, I packed my bags for California with the hope of gaining energy and losing weight. Here's how that went, and what I learned.
Lesson 1: There's nothing like working up an appetite on a long hike only to sit down to a big plate of...four shrimp and some lettuce. The food was delicious, but the portions were too small for me. So I requested the 1,400 calories the men get to eat. Supplemented with a piece of fruit pilfered from the spa every other day or so, this actually ends up being enough. Shocker.
Lesson 2: It is possible to make walking a workout. If it's mostly uphill, and the hills are steep, and you're walking so fast you can't talk, your heart rate monitor will threaten to explode. Especially if you don't stop to snap a single selfie or fix your hair or even take drink. (To stay hydrated on the go, I sipped out of a hose that dispensed water from a bag in my pack. CamelBak sells them, and so does Platypus.)
Lesson 3: I'm not as fit as I thought. After a couple of days with the fastest of four groups of hikers, one of whom was in her 60s and still kicked my ass by a lot, I downgraded to the second-fastest group. And on day four, the third. It turns out that while I can run five miles without stopping, I don't have the stamina or glute strength to power up mountains for four hours with the best of them. Especially after a morning yoga class and an after-dinner workout. (Related: I used to think I had to wait at least an hour after eating to exercise. But it turns out I can devour a piece of sea bass 15 minutes before cardio dance class.)
Lesson 4: I need less food than I think. I never felt stuffed, but I felt full for a couple of hours after each meal. By the third hour, it was almost time to have a snack, which usually—and surpringingly—held me over to dinner. The snacks were just five or six almonds with some jicama slices, a small orange, or a paper cup of green juice. At home I "snack" on yogurt with cut-up fruit, granola, and nuts. By day five, after what the guides refer to as Toxic Tuesday and Wacky Wednesday, my appetite downshifted. Sometimes I felt hungry at night, but for the most part, I felt satiated. The hikes started to feel more doable too. I stopped fantasizing about cheesecake and started chatting more with the guides on the downhills. I discovered that one used to be a federal agent and is quasi-obsessed with The 5 Love Languages. I also learned that stopping to pee on the trail is called taking a "biobreak." I saw a Buddhist monk running in sweatpants and take comfort in the knowledge that even the most Zen among us exercise.
Lesson 5: Maybe there's something to this. By day seven, it was time for my weigh-out. I stepped on the scale, willing myself not to cry if all this hard work hasn't translated into less body fat, and learned that I lost 5.2 pounds! I felt elated, but also worried I won't be able to keep the weight off after fat camp. The guides have come up with a pretty reasonable regimen for after we leave, since the rigorous one we've been following isn't sustainable. They suggested cardio three to five times a week, and strength training twice a week. Also, eating every three hours, chewing thoroughly, and allowing ourselves two "cheat days" a week, by which they mean having a glass of wine or dessert, not going hog-wild.
They say that if I keep this up, I should be able to maintain my weight loss and maybe even continue to drop 1/2 to 1 pound a week until my body hits its happy point. But even if I gain the weight back—and God knows I will probably never eat only five almonds like I did back at fat camp—I've gained perspective. I now know I'm strong enough, mentally and physically, to hike for eight miles a day, six days in a row. That I can be a little bit hungry without the world crashing down. And that while food is still one of the great loves of my life, I've probably been over-romancing it.