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And why the actor says he loves his body no matter what.
If you’ve watched the new
fourth season of Netflix’s Stranger Things, you’ve probably noticed a lot of major changes at Hawkins — especially for David Harbour’s Jim Hopper, the town’s burly police sheriff. In one memorable scene (spoiler alert!) opposite Joyce Byers (played by Winona Ryder), the fan-favorite character takes off his shirt to reveal a lean, toned physique — showcasing the aftermath of his character’s time spent locked up in a Soviet labor camp.
Editors’ Note: This article contains discussion of weight loss, and mentions calories, pounds, and/or other terms and external measures that people trying to recover from disordered eating or eating disorders may be seeking to avoid.
As he told GQ, David worked intensely with his personal trainer to go through eight months of training — including following an rigorous exercise and diet plan — to manage the dramatic, accelerated weight loss and better reflect the trials Hopper faced as a starved prisoner in Russia.
"My trainer [David Higgins] worked with me for 8 months to make the transformation, and then another year to keep it through the pandemic," he shared in an Instagram post posted in July 2022. "All told it was a difficult and exciting ride, changing diet and exercise plans (or lack thereof)."
Now, in a new interview with People, David is continuing to open up about his experience with weight loss and fitness — and revealing how he "developed a new relationship" with his body as a result of his Stranger Things role. Below, we’re exploring David’s journey with his weight loss and physical transformation, in his own words.
Growing up as a "really nerdy kid" who never played sports, David said that he "resisted athleticism" for most of his life — until he started to realize, in his 40s, that his body "was not going to sustain if [he] kept on the path [he] was keeping on."
"There was a moment where I was crossing the street in New York and there was a car coming and I thought, ‘Oh, I gotta sprint a little bit across the street,’ and I just couldn’t sprint," he told People. "And I was like, ‘Oh, I guess that’s gone. I guess I’ll just never sort of run across the street.’ And I just sort of thought that that’s the way life was, that was the trajectory of your body."
Thankfully, preparing for his role as Hopper in season 4 of Stranger Things helped him to jumpstart his fitness — and experience the start of a new, eye-opening relationship with his body as he began focusing on improving his health.
"It opened up a whole new world — [I’m] a lot more pliable and a lot more teachable, even in my mid-40s, than I ever imagined [I] could be. And it felt like a rebirth," David said. "It was really refreshing and really exciting to feel like after months of training, ‘Oh, now I can just sprint across the street if a car comes.’ Just simple little things like that that were really exciting for me."
David revealed to GQ that the main factor for his drastic weight loss was due to intense intermittent fasting, a popular weight-loss diet that involves restricting when or how much you can eat in a given period of time. In an Instagram Live, the actor called it the "fad diet of the moment" but added that it nevertheless worked for him personally when it came to sustained weight management — though it’s important to note that research hasn’t sufficiently proved intermittent fasting leads to long-lasting, healthier dietary habits compared to mindful eating or other tactics.
Explaining that it wasn’t a change in what he ate, so much as portion control, David said, “It wasn’t so much about what I was eating, it was about the how, and that was much better for my lifestyle."
The actor told GQ he ate his meals within a six to eight-hour window during the day and did two 24-hour fasts per week. In the beginning, he wasn’t changing what foods he ate — rather, he shared he was just limiting his mealtimes to specific time windows.
"I would not eat until noon and I would stop eating at 8 p.m.," he explained. "I would eat whatever I wanted; I would eat burgers and pancakes but I still lost weight because of the time window. As time went on, I would see results and I’d get excited about it."
Eventually, as sustained weight loss became more challenging over time, David cut out sugar and ate more vegetables to make his diet "cleaner." Now, even after finishing his transformation for the Stranger Things role, David said that he still tries to continue intermittent fasting, usually skipping breakfast — and also tries to eat a mostly vegetarian diet.
"[A vegetarian diet] is something that’s good for the longevity of the species and the earth and it just feels right for my body," he shared. "I also have my days where I just have to grab the Nutella from the cupboard and go in with the spoon. So, you know, I’m not a perfect person."
According to GQ, David’s exercise plan for Stranger Things involved mobility and activation exercises, kettlebell workouts, Pilates and steady-state cardio.
"I would do a mixture of resistance work and cardio," he shared. "The cardio was a lot of running but with very low intensity over an extended period of time, around 60 to 90 minutes at a heart rate of about 165."
The actor even attributed that the exercise not only helped him physically but also helped him balance his own anxiety as time went on.
"It really helped with my anxiety and my breathing rate," he said. "You get about 40-45 minutes in and my breathing would just slow down and I just became more relaxed."
Maybe surprisingly, David’s fitness routine involved a lot of Pilates — a low-impact exercise that combines core stabilization, flexibility and balance with concepts like mindfulness and breathing techniques. The workout is popular among dancers — and as it turns out, David used to dance while he was attending school, as he revealed to GQ.
"I think [Pilates] is something where it allows your instrument to be strong but also expressive. I think that’s why dancers are drawn to it," he explained. "One of the things I’m always trying to do is push the boundaries of expression with my instrument … When I do weight lifting I feel a little more locked up. Like there’s armor on me. There’s something about Pilates that feels like you’re still exposed but you’re strong."
Despite all the benefits he received from training, David admitted to People that he didn’t quite love the process of working with experts to follow a strict fitness routine.
"When you’re training for something, you get experts around, trainers and nutritionists, and that’s really helpful, but also it gets tiring," he explained. "I am an artistic, creative personality who, in general, doesn’t love to be told what to do. I like to forge my own path. And so it gets a little tiring when you have all these people sort of telling you what to do and so you kind of want to go off and just do your own thing."
David then elaborated that he liked the more flexible nature of generally exercising on his own.
"When I’m not training specifically for something, general exercise can be much more playful, doesn’t have to be as grind-y or as serious or as right-and-wrong as some of the experts will tell you," he said. "But then of course when I’m doing too much of that, I long for that expertise and the intensity. So it’s a bit of the grass is always greener."
Even after finishing his training for Stranger Things, David shared that he still continues to exercise. On most days, per People, he likes to do a couple of days of weight training and tries to get in four or five days of steady, low-intensity running, during which he keeps his pace at a low rate — or about 65 to 75% of his potential heart rate.
In fact, the actor has recently partnered with performance running company Brooks Running for the brand’s new "It’s Your Run" campaign — which he described in a statement to The Drum as an effort to "celebrate every runner who’s out there finding their best run in their own creative way."
David revealed that he started running a lot more during the pandemic, largely due to stress, after a personal trainer advised him that slowly running for about 45 minutes to an hour would eventually help level out his breathing and heart rate.
"I did that for a couple weeks and after about the second week, I noticed a huge difference mentally and in my anxiety," he said. "It all sort of melted away. So it really is more about anxiety than cardio for me, although there are cardio benefits. It really is a mental, spiritual gain."
When speaking with GQ, he also noted the meditative nature of running — though he made sure to admit that he was not a "serious runner" who was "trying to push times."
"[Running] gave me this freedom from the phone and this freedom from constant stimulation and activity," he said. "You’re just out there and your breathing slows down. There’s just this meditative quality to it."
Even after losing the weight, David told People that he also enjoys when he’s in his "big dad-bod mode" — and that, for him, it’s all about being able to transform himself as an actor.
"I love my big body as much as I love my lean athletic body," he said. "Something about being an actor is you are allowed to live in different skin and I like being a chameleon in that way. I much prefer to be more of a chameleon, and figure out how it feels to be in different skin."
David also told GQ that shooting season 4 was "exciting" as he unveiled his character’s new look.
"There was something about me when I looked in the mirror that was me, but it was something that I’ve never seen before," he said. "I’ve never, as an adult… and so it was exciting to see Hopper having gone through this experience to see a different skin."
All in all, David shared that he learned a lot from his experience training for Stranger Things — specifically about his personal relationship with his body and what health exactly means to him.
"There’s health, and then there’s aesthetics, like how you look, and then there’s how you feel, and I think sometimes those are the same, and sometimes they’re very different," he said, per GQ.
He continued, "My whole relationship with my body changed… I felt I could trust this machine more, I could do things … It’s those little things I’m grateful for. I don’t have aches in my hip and knee anymore because I’ve strengthened my core. Those are the things that are really invaluable."
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