By Justin Koh, 17, Cleveland HS (Reseda)
Print This Post

When I was 13, I stood at 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighed 180 pounds. I thought I’d always be the fat kid in my group of friends. When people asked me how much I weighed, I would subtract 25 pounds. I wanted to lose weight but I thought it would be too hard.

I was skinny until my love of fast food started in second grade. Every day after school my dad and I would stop at Carl’s Jr. or Wendy’s. I usually ordered a half-pound burger overflowing with guacamole with a side of large fries and a milkshake. It was the best stuff ever. By third grade, I weighed 120 pounds. My mom had to buy adult pants and cut the legs so they would fit me. My dad called me doongboh, which is Korean for “fatty,” but I knew he was just teasing. But when my classmates would poke my stomach and call me “marshmallow” I’d get insecure and try to convince myself, “I’m not that fat.”

Things didn’t change much in middle school. I would grab a bite to eat with my friends, whether it was a Mucho Macho Burrito from the Burrito Factory or three slices of pizza from Ameci. At home I ate Korean food, which wasn’t as unhealthy, but because I was used to eating until I was stuffed, I would eat two or three times more than my dad. My mom loved feeding me and said I was a “growing boy” so she always made extra food.

I didn’t like to exercise. The worst thing about middle school was PE. I hated Tuesdays the most because I had to run the mile. I would walk more than half of it because I couldn’t bear the pain on my knees or my heart pounding against my chest. The fastest mile I ran was 11 minutes, and those 11 minutes were long and painful. After every mile, drenched in sweat, I would sit down on the handball court. When I got up everyone would make fun of the giant wet butt prints on the ground. One time I overhead someone whispering, “Why is he running so slow and panting?” “It’s because he’s fat.” I brushed off the comments, but inside it really hurt.

Justin age 10.

The summer after eighth grade, my friend was having a pool party (with girls) and the boys were playing a game where we would jump up and down to see whose belly waved the most. I happened to be the winner. Even the girl I liked laughed at me. I knew she wouldn’t like me, but it felt like a slap in the face. I usually laughed the jokes off, but this time the jokes hurt more than usual.

A few weeks later, I was at my friend’s house and I forgot to take the sticker off the new pair of jeans I was wearing that read “38×32.” As I was leaving, my friend pointed it out and he and his mom started laughing. It was embarrassing. That night, I looked at myself in the mirror and I saw what I didn’t want to see. “That’s it,” I thought, “I’m going to do something about it. I’m going to lose weight.”

I struggled doing pushups

I didn’t know where to start so I took small steps. One night while I was watching TV with my dad, I decided to do some pushups. I could not even do one complete pushup. My dad said, “It’s OK. If you practice every day you’ll be able to do it.” I had to go on my knees and it took all my strength to do 15 and I was breaking a sweat. I’d do them while watching TV. There were times I wanted to give up. A few weeks later when I did 10 full pushups, I felt great. That small accomplishment made me realize that I could do it.

During the spring of that year, I practiced with the football team during the off-season as a lineman. My sophomore year, I took swim class for PE credit. I realized it was good exercise. I felt better about myself, but I didn’t see much difference when I looked at the mirror because my eating habits were still bad. At school I’d eat nachos. They’re really unhealthy, but I didn’t have anything else to eat. I’d say, “A bite is OK” but I’d end up eating the whole thing because I was so hungry.

After school my friends and I would stop to eat on the way home. If I suggested something healthier like Subway, my friends would laugh at me. When we would eat at McDonald’s, I would choose healthier options, like a grilled chicken sandwich with no mayo and a Diet Coke. My friends would call me “pansy.” I’d say “I’m trying to lose weight” and they respected that. But they’d still tempt me, “Don’t you want a fry, Justin?”

After a semester of swimming, people started to ask me, “Justin, did you lose weight?” and that motivated me to keep it up. I can’t stop now, I thought.

Sophomore year I got my first membership to a gym. Every day after school, I would go straight to the gym. For the first month, I had no idea what to do. I ended up just bench pressing and arm curling.

During the summer I went to my sister’s house in Riverside for a week. She goes to the gym every day. I met her friend, a huge guy who was a personal trainer. I asked him, “How’d you get so big?” He said, “You have to work specific muscles every day.” We made a schedule. I would do chest and triceps one day, back and biceps another day, legs and shoulders another, have a day of rest and then repeat. He showed me the proper techniques. He said I should eat chicken, lots of protein, and less fat and carbs. I wrote everything down and when I went back home I worked out six days a week with my buddy, Josh. At first it was tiring but after a month, my body got used to it. It was fun. It was way better than being bored at home.

I also looked up articles online and took advice from people on workout forums on what to eat and how to lift weights. I read that eating healthy, getting a good amount of sleep and working out correctly were key factors in getting a great body. I felt great. I didn’t have to suck in my belly to put on my favorite pair of jeans anymore! And I was getting stronger too. I kept on swimming, and by the end of summer I could swim 100 laps in a row.

When my junior year started I got more serious about working out. My friends and I would look at videos of Mr. Olympia on YouTube. They were my motivation.

I made nutritious, low-fat meals

I started to pack my own lunches. I took brown rice, boiled eggs, chicken breast and broccoli to school every day. My friends would be eating school food or sandwiches with ranch and bacon. They told me they wished they could have the discipline that I had.

Running is one of Justin’s favorite ways to stay fit and healthy

I also joined the wrestling team at my school and the Students Run L.A. program. It was on the wrestling team where I started to lose a lot of weight. I had to have my body composition measured, and I weighed 175 pounds with 18 percent body fat. After two months of hard training I lost 11 pounds and I could slightly see a six-pack! The great thing about wrestling practice was that it was at 6 a.m. every morning, which made it easy to fit into my schedule. I also learned that doing cardio (exercise that keeps your heart rate up like running and swimming), in the morning before eating was a great way to burn fat because this is when your blood sugar levels are the lowest.

Races with Students Run L.A. took place once a month on the weekends. In December I ran a half-marathon. Halfway through I thought, “Oh my gosh, I’m only halfway done and I’m going to die.” Then I got a burst of energy and I was able to keep running. Sure my legs hurt after, but I was too proud of myself to notice. The next day, I wore the shirt I got to school to show that I ran it. My friends said stuff like, “Wow! I can’t believe you ran that!”

I felt that I was too skinny and I wanted to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger. When wrestling season ended in February, I picked up Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, a martial art based on ground fighting. The studio is in the same plaza as my parents’ dry cleaning business, which makes it easy to get there. I love jiu-jitsu because it is a good way to burn fat. I have lots of fun because I learn the moves I see in UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) matches.

Now I am 6 feet tall and weigh 185 pounds with a lot more muscle. My diet consists of two weight-gainer shakes a day, a lot of chicken and brown rice, and salmon and egg whites. However, I am not a robot and junk food never lost its appeal. I usually have a cheat meal once or twice a week to keep myself from going crazy. During summer it was a lot harder to stay healthy because of all the pool parties and barbecues. One weekend I had five hotdogs, three hamburgers and a bunch of pizza, mainly because I was hanging out at my friends’ houses and I didn’t want to seem rude or there was nothing else to eat. But I burned a lot of it off the next day lifting weights and going to jiu-jitsu.

Working out is part of my life

When I first started working out, I just wanted to lose weight. Now I do something every day. If I’m not at the gym, I’m doing jiu-jitsu. If I’m not at jiu-jitsu, I’m swimming or running. I want to get as big as I can without steroids. Having goals gives me a purpose and drives me to keep working out.

I don’t just look better, I feel better too. As a kid, I never thought that I could be in the military even if I wanted to. Now I hope to become an officer in the Navy because I want to remain physically active for the rest of my life. When I went to a summer program at the Naval Academy to check out the campus, one day we didn’t stop for eight hours. We did up-downs (going from standing to laying on your stomach) in the surf, rafting, swimming, running and an obstacle course. It was pretty fun. I could do it because I’d trained my body for it.

Seeing results made me realize that if I put my mind and effort into something, I can do it. And it’s not just my body, it can work with my academics, too. If you keep at it you can do it.

Justin’s tips for ways to be healthier now

• Choose the healthier options. For example, choose wheat bread over white, and drink water instead of soda or juice.
• Go for a jog or exercise at home in the morning. Your body will feel a lot better all day!
• It can’t hurt to do 5-10 pushups and sit-ups while watching TV. Work your way up to three sets.
• Drink water! It burns calories and is good for your body.
• Remember to not give up. You can’t get to where you want without starting somewhere.

Other stories by this writer:

A chance to say goodbye. Justin, 16, says he’ll always remember the days he spent with his grandpa before he died. (March – April 2009)

A different view of Mexico.
Helping poor people in Mexico gave Justin, 15, a new understanding of how difficult life is there. (May – June 2008)