Let me just say it outright: I used to be morbidly obese.
I don’t say fat – that’s one of those words that can be taken wrong. I want to be clear and medically accurate. I had a BMI of 48.7. My activity level was on the lower side of OK but my calorie intake was through the roof. And it just kept getting worse.
My turning point was a year after our first adoption when the very unplanned placement of our son turned our world upside down. For one of the adoption requirements I had to pass a medical screening. During the exam my blood pressure was found to be so high that I wasn’t allowed to leave the doctor’s office until it went down. I had to agree to take medication and come in for a follow-up screening in order to get my medical clearance.
Months went by of failed attempts at losing weight. The blood pressure medication added an odd level of exhaustion on top of an already stressful time. I sank to a level of self-loathing that could have developed into a depression had I not had a new and growing family around me.
I saw my own story played out in the words of an advanced copy of the novel “Skinny” by Donna Cooner, which I was reading for my job at a publishing company. I recognized myself, self-loathing and all, in the main character of Ever who steals away to guiltily eat candy and then detests herself for it. To combat her obesity, Ever undergoes bariatric surgery and, through a lot of work and support, she eventually conquers her demons.
As much as I hated to admit it, I knew I couldn’t conquer my obesity on my own. Soon after I finished reading “Skinny,” I went to see the doctors at the New Jersey Bariatric Center.
You see, I had something more than self-loathing in my life. I had a blossoming family – and they were everything to me. I knew that I could continue on as an obese dad and miss parts of my kids’ life that I would never get back. Or I could change.
And I did! I had my surgery three years ago on May 1 and have since lost half of my highest body weight. As a result, my blood pressure has come down and I have long stopped taking the medication I once so badly needed. For the first time in my life, I feel truly healthy. The surgery was a great tool but my ongoing health required permanent changes to more than my stomach. My mind and body have been transformed. I developed new healthy habits, and I’ve also realized that the gym is not nearly as scary as I once thought.
Beyond my personal health, though, I know I am a better dad today than I ever could have been three years ago. I have two very active kids. When my five-year-old daughter starts running, I can see her raw athleticism; I am convinced my son is destined to be a gymnast. These may be the daydreams of a proud father or they may be realistic visions of the future. Their abilities may be inherent, or they may be encouraged by my own good example. It could be somewhere in between the two; I can’t be sure.
The one thing I can be sure of, though, is that I can foster them. I can be fully present as they shape their own lives and know that their own health will not be risked by my bad habits.
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My bariatric surgery was a vital first step, the beginning of a journey that would teach me that by taking care of myself, I would become a better caretaker to my kids.
I think that we, as parents, don’t fully realize just how much we shape the eating habits of our kids. Our influence goes far beyond what we put in the shopping cart; it’s what we put in our mouths! The choices we make for our own snacks, drinks, meals and, yes, desserts are mirrored in our children.
It’s a logical consequence of sharing a dinner table. Our kids eat what we eat because, well, we all eat together! If I make a healthy dinner and eat with my kids, they will see a positive example.
That said, I don’t really share the same meals with the rest of my family. I have a restricted diet that is very high in protein. My eating habits are not ideal for kids, who need their vegetables. (I get a lot of nutrients through vitamin supplements, not from food.)
I eat quite a few Greek yogurts during the day and also carry protein bars for snacks. Only when my daughter flat out refused to have a yogurt in a packet shaped differently from mine, or when my son started to demand protein bars, I realized just how much they were paying attention!
While there wasn’t much I could do to change my own eating, I made subtle changes to what I talked about while eating. I also make sure that my husband serves as a good role model by eating lots of veggies. (After all, we are a team!) I’ll mention that I’m having banana yogurt or a blueberry protein bar to continue to reinforce the importance of a balanced meal that includes fruits and veggies.
I’m also careful to make sure the kids see food for what it is: nourishment. We can get very caught up in worrying about “good” foods and “bad” foods so I try to focus on the fact that the less healthy options really only become bad foods when they’re combined with bad habits. I don’t think an occasional ice cream is a bad thing and am happy when the kids put some thought into ordering it at our local creamery. They keep flavors in rotation and the decisions aren’t always easy. My daughter loves lemon but when it’s not there, we discuss alternatives. And yes, we discuss – sometimes it takes us a while – but there is something very empowering to letting the kids choose. They not only get to see value but also learn about what is in their food. We have them order for themselves at restaurants for the same reason. Generally, they make better choices and eat healthier and heartier when we empower them!
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I spent a lot of time thinking I was not an athlete – 36 years, in fact.
Gym class was terrifying. Organized sports were not interesting. And dance, which might have been interesting, was just not my forte. So how does an obese 36-year-old set on changing his health begin to embrace an active lifestyle? With the help of others!
Shortly after my gastric sleeve, I began commuting with a coworker who lived a block away. Our parking garage was across town and she was a fast walker. I began to match her pace. Our walks across New York City to get to and from work soon proved to be the jumping-off points for runs in New Jersey. As my endurance increased, so did my confidence. I would set off to run on my own, all the while getting encouragement from my friends and neighbors.
When winter hit and running became difficult, I decided to join a gym. This was actually a very difficult decision for me as I always feared gyms! I was never comfortable with my body, visually or athletically, so high school locker rooms terrorized me and I could only imagine that I would feel just as bad in a gym.
After some research and recommendations from neighbors, I went to a gym down the street run by a local family. The owner was a volunteer firefighter in town and his mom was the bookkeeper. There was something truly endearing about this – maybe it was my small-town roots, maybe it was bookkeeper Mom being so sweet on the phone. I dove in and soon I found out that a gym wasn’t nearly as scary as I thought.
I started by running on the treadmill, which I found boring. But I kept going back because I liked the people and it was an energizing environment. Then one night I happened into a spin class. I found a fantastic instructor and an activity that I really enjoyed! For the first time in my life, I excelled at something fitness-y. The energy from my fellow riders and my instructors made me come back and perfect my rides. (I’ve since become certified to teach spinning myself.)
My family moved and I immediately found a new gym near our new home. I’ve branched out into Pilates and I work out one-on-on with two different fitness trainers. Thanks to their work, I’ve not only improved my agility and strength, but I’m also building self-confidence. There’s a lot more to being fit than shedding pounds; I also needed to shed the stigma that was attached to being overweight. I needed to think like a fit person!
Finally, I want to acknowledge one very important person who has offered incredible help enabling, encouraging and cheerleading me along each and every step of this journey: my husband Vinnie. He nursed me through surgical recovery, watched the kids when I went running and continues to allow me to collect an inordinate amount of compression tights. Each step of the way, I have a partner. I am lucky beyond measure for his support and even more than my trainers, he has reshaped my mental fitness to allow me to achieve!
Now that I have come so far, I also know that my road ahead as a dad has become steeper! I need to be there to foster my kids’ fitness! I have to keep them moving – from the trampoline in the yard to the pool to the playground to the dance parties in the living room! I love being able to be part of this fit family and am thankful for all those who helped me along the way!
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