The amazing story of how one TSheets employee shed physical and emotional weight to survive
Riley Zahm has been a TSheets employee since 2013, and since then, he’s made a big impression. At TSheets’ Boise headquarters, he’s known for the Friday high-fives he gives to every person at the company — all 400 of us. He knows TSheets’ metrics by heart and shows up to nearly all our We Care & Give Back volunteer opportunities. And most recently, he’s achieved some monumental weight-loss goals.
Twelve months ago, Riley weighed 438 pounds and was in a physical and mental state of discontent — feelings even the most confident among us experience from time to time. We don’t like how we look. We don’t want others to judge us for how we look. And we want to look and feel a certain way. It’s why eating better and exercising more are consistent New Year’s resolution chart-toppers, and gyms depend on January sign-ups to carry them through a year’s worth of business.
This desire to get healthy — whatever “healthy” means to each of us uniquely — resonates with our mission at Intuit: to power prosperity around the world. We believe prosperity doesn’t always mean financial happiness but simply living the life you want.
That’s why a year after Riley started his get-healthy journey, we sat down with him to talk about his experience.
‘You’ll die in five years,’ find your motivation
Half of Planet Fitness’s 6,000 Manhattan members never end up going to the gym. More than 80 percent of people with obesity who lose weight gain it back. And today, according to Time magazine, the weight-loss industry is worth $66.3 billion.
Let’s be real: Losing weight is hard. It’s a mental and physical battle. And nobody knows that better than Riley.
“I tried different diets over the years,” he says. “Like the Atkins diet, all vegetables, going straight vegan [or] vegetarian. But I always found that if you said do this diet, but you can’t have these things, my brain’s like, ‘That’s immediately what I want now!’ So all the diets always failed for me because I would do it for a couple weeks or maybe a month or two, and then I would jump off the bandwagon.”
Riley says the key, for him, has been redefining “diet.” “The word ‘diet’ is actually misconstrued,” he says. “It’s what you’re eating, but it’s not something you start and stop. It has to be a lifestyle change — a commitment.”
But making that commitment, for most of us, isn’t as easy as flipping a switch. For Riley, it would take a pretty massive wake-up call, part of which took place around last Christmas. He was sleeping over at his parents’ house when he woke up and realized he was sore all over.
“I’m like, I didn’t do anything yesterday, why am I sore?” he says. And that’s when it hit him. “Literally, my body was crushing itself by sleeping on it. That’s all it was.”
Two months later, that wake-up call came again. At the time, he was already “sort of on the bandwagon” when he began to experience bad chest pain. So he went to the doctor.
“I’m a big guy. Chest pain means go to a doctor,” he says. “I did, and [he] said ‘Your heart’s fine, but I’m worried about you. And I’m like, ‘Just give it to me straight. I can take it. What is it?’ He’s like, ‘You’ll die in five years. Your body can’t keep up. You need to change something.’”
A will and a way: Riley’s 8 tips to success
Luckily, it was around that time that Intuit offered Riley something of a lifeline, a program called Retrofit. The program offers a nutritional coach who Riley says didn’t judge his decisions but helped him restructure his eating habits and form a few new ones over time. For the last year, he’s been following their advice.
1. Set micro-goals.
Riley always knew he wanted to lose 200 pounds. He hopes that someday, with weight-loss and exercise, he might look like Khal Drogo from “Game of Thrones.” But while everyone has those big goals, he says it’s important to set and celebrate the small victories along the way.
“One of my favorite micro-goals was being able to sit in a restaurant booth and not have to adjust the table,” Riley says. “Seeing my muscles is pretty cool, but I’d say even smaller stuff like my friends being able to put their arms all the way around me were bigger ones.”
2. Write down what you eat.
“When you write down what you eat, you kind of visualize what you’re actually consuming,” Riley says. For him, recording what he ate was an important part of limiting the snacking he’d do while he was bored.
“When you’re bored, when you eat to cope, you don’t realize how much you’re eating because it’s just something that you do. You could put a whole package of Oreos in front of me while I was playing computer games, and an hour and a half later, it would be gone. I didn’t realize it, but I would eat all of them.”
3. Space out what you eat.
For many of us, it’s not just a problem of how much we eat. It’s when we eat it. There’s plenty of science around this, including benefits for your metabolism, blood sugar levels, and even productivity. Once Riley was recording the foods he ate, it became clear he wasn’t eating anything for the first two-thirds of the day. His coach pointed out that going home hungry led to lots of snacking at night before bed and challenged him not to limit his intake but to simply spread it out.
4. Throw in some green stuff.
To get his metabolism working properly, Riley’s coach asked him to take the next step by adding in a few veggies. “Not a lot, just throw some stuff in there and see what you like,” Riley says. “Boom. Did that. And over time, I was changing my whole diet and lifestyle choices to retrain my body’s metabolism, to retrain my habits to get to a point where I could actually maintain it and not lose the focus or jump off the train.”
5. Do what you can stick with.
Too often, people make the mistake of approaching a new diet like a temporary fix. They cut out sugar or bread, thinking “once I lose the weight, I’ll be able to have these again.” But unrealistic promises don’t work.
“Every night, every day, every three days, my coach suggested I ask myself, ‘Could I do this for the rest of my life?’ And if the answer was yes, I was on the right track,” Riley says. “If the answer was no, then I needed to change something, so I could say yes again. It didn’t have to be a huge change, but if I needed to have a treat, I threw in a treat. It made the change sustainable.”
6. Identify and replace.
The identify-and-replace tactic didn’t happen for Riley right away, but he says after a couple months, he found he was able to identify when he was hungry and when he was bored. “I started getting rid of stuff that I was bored eating and replaced it with good stuff that I could bored-eat.”
Riley not only lost weight from the foods he was replacing, but he felt full from the food he was eating. “Eventually, I was way less hungry, and I started tasting things again.”
7. Slow down and taste your food.
As the youngest of three boys, Riley says he grew up eating quickly so he wouldn’t miss out on seconds. Once he started eating the right foods, the next step was to slow down and take the time to taste what he was eating.
“I used to go to Subway every night for dinner. I would get new vegetables on a sandwich just to see if I could taste them, to make sure I wasn’t eating fast. I had to go slow and say ‘Oh, I can taste the olives in this,’ or ‘I can taste the spinach,’ instead of just eating it.”
8. Do it for yourself.
This might be the most challenging because as much as getting healthy is a personal choice, we tend to put more emphasis on others’ opinions. Maybe we do it for a loved one or love interest, for a family member, or for some other cause. But in the end, getting healthy has to be a decision you make for yourself.
“Do it for yourself. Everyone always says that, and there were times where I’d say ‘Yeah, I’m doing this for me.’ But I was doing it for a girl I had a crush on or because I wanted to go on some ride and was too big for it,” Riley says. “But this one really was for me. I wanted to not have heart problems. I wanted to be able to live long enough to enjoy my whole life. And the fear of that kind of helped, but committing to change was the biggest challenge.”
From 2,000 steps to 46,000: How Riley walks the walk
They say the first step is the hardest. Try the first 40,000 … all in one day. Riley, like many of us at TSheets, logs his steps on the fitness hub Virgin Pulse, and those results feed into all of Intuit, so employees can see who’s tracked the most steps out of all 8,000 employees, globally.
For the record, most people average between 5,000 and 7,000 steps a day. “I’d see people at 10,000, 30,000 steps, and I’m like ‘How are you doing that?’” Riley says. “I’m struggling to get 2,000 in a day. I thought that’s not real. You’re putting the fitness tracker on your dog and walking your dog.”
But then, Riley says, he started trying to get more active himself. “I would just watch the leaderboard, and as I was able to do more activities and go out and be more active, I was like, oh, that’s how they get all those steps. They’re actually doing things.”
From there, Riley’s competitive spirit took over, and he began to increase his step count, little by little. “I would be like, ‘Well I want to beat this person, so I’m going to go out for 10 more minutes and keep walking today.’”
Of course, going from mostly sedentary to mostly active wasn’t as simple as all that. “Originally, when I started the weight-loss journey, I would have to take three or four ibuprofen just to go walk on a treadmill for 20 minutes because it hurt so bad on my legs,” he says. “I did not want to do it, but I was like, ‘It’s 20 minutes out of your day. What else do you do? You’re going to go home and play World of Warcraft for five hours, so what is 20 minutes?’”
Over time, Riley increased the difficulty of his workouts, tacking on 10 minutes at a time or 1 or 2 percent more of an incline on the treadmill. “And then it just became, ‘Well, you did 30 minutes, let’s do an hour. Once a week, let’s do an hour.’ So I did that. And then it became, ‘Well, you did that, what’s the best you can do after that?’ And so I just kept adding more to my personal best.”
Today, Riley averages 20,000-30,000 steps a day, 156,898 steps a week, and has a personal best of 46,692 steps in a day.
A physical battle but a mental war: Where he’s going from here
Riley’s shed 227 pounds. He’s brought his blood pressure down from 158/90 to a much healthier 120/78, and his resting heart rate is now half of what it was one year ago. By all accounts, he’s achieved something incredible. But ask him where he’s going from here, and he’ll tell you the war’s not yet won.
“I do struggle with mental stuff sometimes,” he says. “And a lot of people who go through huge weight loss talk about this on their blogs or in their books. Basically, your mind is still the mind of a big person. I’ll go to department stores and go to the big and tall section first because I’ve done it for so many years.”
He points to the sliding glass doors of the conference room. “If I was standing there and someone came up behind me, I’d be like ‘Oh, sorry,’ and get out of the whole doorway. Because in the past, I was blocking it. Now people can walk by me, but I still don’t realize it. I feel like I’m still in people’s way.”
Riley says this feeling is something he felt for so long, the weight of those thoughts sticks with him today, even if, physically, he’s gone through significant change.
“As a big person, at least for me, I always felt like I was in someone’s way, like I was blocking something, breathing too heavy, making everyone uncomfortable. But I also felt like you watch so many stereotypes on movies and TV shows, it gets locked in your brain that’s you too. So that’s what happened to me. It’s still there.”
To tackle this new hurdle, Riley is looking forward to sitting down with a few good books and listening to leaders and motivational speakers. Here are a few of the items on his list:
- Battlefield of the Mind by Joyce Meyer
- Mastering Fear by Brandon Webb and John David Mann
- John Maxwell, author and speaker
- Paul Tsika, author and speaker
But while Riley’s looking forward to continuing down a path of healthy living, inspired by these speakers and books, he knows reading and listening aren’t what’s most important. “I can hear them all day. I can write notes down all day. But it’s about applying what they’re telling me. So that’s the part I’m still struggling with. When you think — when you’re as big as I was for so long and you always think the worst — you think everyone doesn’t want you there. Even though they do.”
What you can take from Riley’s journey
You might be wondering what Riley’s story is doing on a time tracking blog. But we’re just covering charted territory.
You might say it’s relevant because Riley was against the clock to achieve his goals (a little time tracking humor there, folks). Or maybe it’s that our mantra here is “We <3 employees” and we felt this was a subject many employees might relate to.
But the truth is, we wanted to share because we’re proud — proud to work at a company that empowers employees to live the life they want, proud of our managers, all the way up to the top, who’ve supported Riley since 2013, and proud of the man himself who’s inspired all of us to rethink our journeys.
“What’s really weird now is people come up to me and ask, ‘Hey, how did you do it?’ ‘What can I do?’ ‘What are some tips you have?’ I’m like, ‘Why are you asking me?’ Because in my mind, I’m still the big guy, but I’m not anymore, because I did it,” Riley says.
“And so it’s like, well, I want to help you too, so here’s what I did. And if you want to work out, I’ll work out with you. If you want to get some meal plans, I’ll help you meal plan. So it’s kind of fun to see that that was how I was five years ago, and how I’m doing it now for other people who want the same thing. And it’s because TSheets was such an encouraging environment to work at that I’m able to have that same mentality.”