Twenty Four and Obese
In the summer of 2008, I was twenty-four years old and obese. I had been active all my life, having played various sports throughout my school years and practiced martial arts in college. And yet, thanks to the Standard American Diet, I was twenty-four and obese.
Truth be told, I wore my weight well; you might even have mistaken it for muscle in those days but I certainly felt overweight. I remember getting winded while taking our dog on short walks across our apartment complex. I was physically strong and I liked the way I looked so I really didn’t notice that I’d been gaining weight until I came across a personal trainer who happened to be offering a free body fat assessment. Based on that assessment, I realized for the first time that I was obese. That realization hit me hard, I knew immediately that I needed to make a change and so – in July, 2008 – I made the decision to get healthy and run my first 5k: The Race for the Cure that September as a 25th birthday present to myself.
The rest, as they say, is history. Running that first 5k was a major accomplishment for me, one that took dedication, training and a permanent change in my relationship to food. I got myself to a healthy weight that summer but – more important than the number on the scale – I dedicated myself to making my health a top priority. I went from being winded on a dog walk to being able to run three miles without stopping. The goal of completing that first 5k was the start of a journey that I’ve been on ever since. I saw my 25th birthday as the start of a new life for me and each birthday after that gave me another opportunity to celebrate the positive changes I was making for my health. I’ve continued the tradition of doing a healthy activity for my birthday every year since I turned 25. I’ve gone on birthday hikes and run races as a celebration of the real changes I was able to make for my health that summer.
I want to pause here as a health coach and a supporter of all women to say, very clearly, that for me this was not about trying to look a certain way or fit some ideal. Given my family history, I knew that staying obese was a risk for me. It would put me at greater risk for other illnesses that I could already see my older relatives suffering from and I wanted to do what I could to avoid those illnesses for myself.
Like many African Americans, I come from a family history of hypertension, diabetes and other “lifestyle diseases” that are entirely preventable. Even at the young age of 24, I knew that staying obese was a risky proposition for me, given my family history. Realizing that I was obese was a wake up call. I felt strongly that I had to make a change, right then and there while I still had the benefit of youth on my side. I had seen older relatives struggle all their lives with their weight, never able to break the cycle of weight gain leading to illness and debilitation. I didn’t want that for myself.
I was well aware of my young age and saw it as an opportunity to turn the direction of my health towards the positive while things were still relatively “easy.” I knew that with age, my metabolism would only slow down and the going would get tougher if I waited to make a change. And so, for me, eating right and training for the 2008 Race for the Cure felt like a matter of life and death.
I had played and practiced sports all my life so following a couch-to-5k style plan was something I could do. But, for the first time in my life, I started making very conscious choices about what I was eating and changed my relationship to food for the better. Like many people in the US, I was simply eating the Standard American Diet without much thought to the nutritional value (or lack thereof) of what I was eating. I ate fast food for the convenience and reliable flavor, I drank soda (or pop as we called it growing up in Cleveland) without a second thought about the amount of sugar I was consuming on a daily basis. And so, as I trained for that first 5k, I also cleaned up my diet. With a combination of a better diet and regular exercise, I was able to lose the weight which in turn made cardio exercise easier.
Making a change like this – sticking to a fitness plan and totally changing your diet – takes discipline and dedication. Yes, I was able to reach my goals but I refuse to believe that I am somehow unique or special. I believe that anyone can do what I did if the motivation pushing them through the hard times is strong enough to overcome the temptation to give up. There were so many moments when I wanted to give up on my goal. There were days when I didn’t want to do my running workout and there were times when eating healthy felt so hard. I had to say “no” to the reward of immediate pleasure by keeping my mind and heart focused on the big picture. I cannot overstate the importance of having a strong why driving your goals, no matter what that goal may be. As a young Black woman in America, my why was that I wanted to do what I could to avoid the preventable diseases that are so common in our community. With that motivation pushing me, lacing up my running shoes on a rainy morning became much easier to do. The choice became: get healthy or descend into illness.
Getting healthy and staying healthy isn’t a destination, it is a journey that you explore and learn more along the way. I lost the weight in 2008 using, essentially, a calorie restriction food plan but from there I went all the way from a vegetarian diet to a paleo diet and many different styles in between. I’ve never been a fan of “dieting,” I wanted to find a nutrition approach that I could maintain as a part of my healthy lifestyle. This sent me on a long journey of exploration that I’m sure I’ll post more about in the future. I had to keep an open mind and experiment a bit to find a sustainable nutrition plan that helped me stay healthy and feel my best.
Back in 2008, getting my weight down made exercise easier for me and actually set up a virtuous cycle. The combination of an improved diet and cardio exercise made exercise easier and more enjoyable for me. But you don’t need to lose weight to enjoy your fitness journey. In more recent years, I’ve learned about amazing people like Mirna Valerio who is a great example of a plus-size ultra-marathon runner. Mirna is an inspiration for anyone who wants to be more active in their life. I’m sharing my own health journey in this post but I wanted to highlight Mirna as an example of another beautiful Black woman on her own journey of health and happiness.
Walking With Mom
I have fond memories of walking through the metroparks with my mother when I was a teenager. She suffered from rheumatoid arthritis but she loved to walk and the two of us would often go on walks together during those humid evenings of summer in Cleveland. I treasured those walks, they were a time for the two of us to spend some time together, just chatting and telling each other stories. Now I have a daughter and I want to continue that tradition with her. I want to be able to walk and run with her and share stories as she grows into the woman she is becoming.
I’ve come a long way on my health journey since 2008. I earned my Spartan Trifecta last year at age 35, completing a half-marathon obstacle course race ten years after running that first 5k. This year, with the COVID pandemic, I’ve switched to virtual events and have completed seven 5ks – that number actually surprised even me as I was drafting this post and counted through my events so far this year. But, as much as I love racing events for the medals (and especially for the t-shirts!) nothing brings me as much joy as being able to run along side my daughter as she practices riding her bike without training wheels for those first few precious times. That is why I train these days, to be able to fully enjoy my time keeping up with these kiddos!