When COVID-19 forced chef and restaurateur Michael Schulson to halt his always-on-the-move schedule, the 61-year-old had no choice but to find a change of pace. Here’s how he lost 35 pounds in two and a half months.
When your entire career revolves around food—creating dishes, prepping, cooking, taste-testing—it’s not easy to maintain a steady weight or healthy habits. Especially when you factor in the hallmarks of the restaurant biz: long, tiring days spent on your feet; wonky work hours that turn your sleep patterns haywire; and a limited selection of healthy late-night eateries (not to mention waning energy to cook your own meal).
While that might paint an oversimplified, perhaps stereotypical picture, chef Michael Schulson, CEO and founder of Schulson Collective, a network of Philadelphia restaurants (with a few other outposts on the East Coast), admits much of that rings true.
“We’re constantly tasting food every single day, all day long,” says Schulson, of his work schedule prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. (He was preparing to launch his newest restaurant, continuing a streak of near-constant openings of more than 10 spaces over the last decade.) “So before I knew it, I was up to 210 pounds.” Even still, he says, it wasn’t until seeing a photo of himself with his friends after a day spent tubing on a trip to Costa Rica that he realized something needed to change. “That was totally the aha! moment,” he says.
As fate would have it, that was around the beginning of March, just as the novel coronavirus was picking up steam in the U.S., so the subsequent self-isolation was exactly the push he needed to enact the necessary changes to his lifestyle.
How Michael Schulson Made Sustainable Healthy Habits
During the first few weeks of this health journey, Schulson was still able to be in his restaurants, doing tasting meetings to get the menus just right, but with one big difference. Previously, “we could taste 10 dishes three times a day, and I would take four, five, or six bites of each, but I cut that down to one bite each,” he says.
On top of the need to perfect meals, Schulson and his crew would often bounce around to places like L.A., New York, and Italy researching ingredients and dishes in order to get the finished product just right. But when COVID-19 hit, that kind of jet-setting was off the table.
While isolation forced some changes on Schulson, he also had to enact a gameplan of his own. He says he learned a lot from previous (failed) experiences with dieting that he needed to find a sustainable solution. In the past, he would try restrictive diets that included everything from specific soups to drinking aloe water and apple cider vinegar. While he lost weight as a result, “it was just really hard to maintain on a daily basis, especially for someone who likes to go out to eat and have fun,” he says.
He knew this time it had to be different: “I said to myself, ‘I’m done with these diets.’ I needed to eat healthier and cleaner, and pay attention to the size of my portions. I needed to come up with something that would work seven days a week, 365 days a year, so I can maintain that lifestyle.”
This translated to a light breakfast after a morning run, a turkey sandwich or salad for lunch, and a simple, healthy meal for dinner (something that would also easily appease his two kids). Oh, and that dinner? It happened at a normal hour, like 6:30 or 7 p.m. instead of his typical 9:30, 10, or even 11 p.m. dinnertime pre-pandemic. The lesson: No extremes—just small, actionable tweaks.
Adding Training to the Weight-Loss Equation
When it came to exercise, that came a bit easier to Schulson. He was always a bit of an athlete—he enjoyed indoor cycling classes and even dabbled in CrossFit—so he was able to tap into those roots for motivation.
Luckily, Schulson also has a well-appointed home gym filled with a large cable machine, TRX suspension trainers, resistance bands, medicine balls, dumbbells, kettlebells, and a barbell with weight plates, as well as the Peloton Tread and Bike.
He started most of his mornings with a mile run on the treadmill. With a bit of an aversion to cardio, this quick burst of work made the most sense for him, Schulson explains. After, he would typically do a 30-minute strength-training workout focused on targeted muscle groups (i.e. back, shoulders, legs), followed by a 10-minute core workout from the Peloton app. He’d often take a long walk most afternoons—getting as many as 18,000 to 20,000 steps in a day—capping off the evening with another mile-long run His workouts were quick (how he liked them!) but effective and, most importantly, manageable. Some experts find squeezing in short bursts of activity like this throughout the day is optimal for health and fitness—especially for working parents.
Lessons Learned That Will Stand the Test of Time
The best thing about all of the practices Schulson has put into place during quarantine to better his health is that they can also easily be maintained long after the world goes back online and his daunting schedule begins to pick back up. And, frankly, that’s exactly how he knew it would need to be if this were going to stick.
“I’m always getting emails; I’m always getting text messages; I’m always getting calls—so for me to carve out an hour and a half in the morning to do a spin class and work out, that just doesn’t always work for me with kids and work,” he explains.
One beneficial side effect from the COVID-19 pandemic is Schulson actually gets to enjoy cooking at home now. While simple, healthy meals are still the name of his family’s game, he found that he was more eager to cook at home since he wasn’t spending all day in his restaurants.
However, the biggest takeaway from Schulson’s journey to reclaim his health and the quarantine that came long with it is learning to enjoy the change of pace. Pre-quarantine he admits he was always the first one at work in the morning, even when he really didn’t “need” to be there. Now, he says he understands “it’s okay if you spend more time with your family. It’s okay to find some time for yourself.”