The notion that I was suddenly going to get healthy as I approached my fifty-eighth birthday seemed farfetched at best. After all, getting fit isn’t as simple as turning on a light switch. For me, it would require significant changes in diet and exercise. Could I develop the self-discipline and commitment that such a goal would take?
I’ve been overweight my entire life. The earliest family photos of me are pictures of a happy but chubby toddler. I can’t blame my weight on genetics. Mom and Dad had regular builds, and my three older brothers are not heavy.
My parents exemplified healthy living. Dad walked to work if the weather was decent and the distance was reasonable. Mom walked daily on the hilly terrain of Sunny Brae, a section of Arcata, where I spent most of my high school and college years.
My brothers and I were encouraged to get outside by our parents. To promote physical activity, Mom and Dad had strict rules about the use of television. Sometimes they limited us to one program per day. That wasn’t a big issue with me—I was an active kid who enjoyed playing with all of the kids in the neighborhood.
My parents were not the type to offer extra helpings of dessert. One of the house rules was that sweets were not permitted unless we had first eaten a portion of everything. Mom paid extra attention to healthy foods with low-fat content.
Despite my parent’s efforts at setting a good example, I adopted some questionable eating habits as a child. Sugar was my drug of choice when I was in elementary school. I used to spend my meager allowance on trips to the Dairy Queen. It was a half mile away, and the distance provided cover from my parents.
When I couldn’t afford my favorite treat, a chocolate ice cream cone with nuts, I used my leftover coins on bubble gum. I developed the ability to cram twenty pieces into my mouth at once. I shoved them in as fast as I could unwrap those Bazooka Joe treasures. If I wanted to impress my elementary friends, I put on a legendary bubble blowing exhibition. Nothing grabs the attention of fourth-grade boys like a bubble so big it covers your entire face when it pops. Who said I didn’t have talent?
Soda and sugary cereals didn’t exist in our house. That is, they didn’t until my three older brothers all became employed by A & W during high school. I thought I had died and gone to heaven when they would bring home extra gallons of this sugary wonder. The sheer size of the large brown gallon jugs left a soda-deprived nine-year-old like me in awe.
I’m surprised that root beer made it past the quality control efforts of my parents. My saving grace was my dad didn’t believe in throwing things away.
The only way I was going to get my lips on that delightful, sweet liquid was to move into full spy mode. It was virtually impossible to sneak into the kitchen during the day, but what was to prevent a scheming boy from a late-night visit? I had to make sure there was no evidence left behind, which meant not leaving a used glass in the sink. I tiptoed down the hall in the dark to raise that monster bottle directly to my lips. The dark-colored glass prevented anyone else from noticing how much the level had gone down overnight. Did I feel guilty sneaking to the refrigerator? Nope. Well, not enough to stop me.
After I became an adult, I paid more attention to what I was putting into my body, but I still had some bad habits to break. One of those was the late-night snack. Rationally, I knew it made no sense to eat right before bedtime, but I found myself rummaging through the kitchen cabinets in the evening.
Another huge key to fitness is regular and sustained exercise. I’ve always enjoyed playing sports, so this wasn’t as big a challenge for me as my diet. Don’t get me wrong—I’ve never liked to run for the sake of running. On the other hand, when I’m competing at any physical activity, my adrenaline kicks in and I forget all about the exercise.
Sometimes I played in organized leagues, and at other times I enjoyed individual sports. I was a pretty good athlete although I don’t ever remember being the best one on the team. I threw a no-hitter in little league baseball before there was such a thing as a limit on the number of pitches kids could throw. The individual sport I dominated among my friends was racquetball. I played for hours until blisters would form on my feet.
As a young adult, I liked being outdoors. After I moved out and came over to visit, it was a safe bet that Mom would propose a walk. I pictured the weatherman saying, “It’s going to be a beautiful day in Humboldt with temperatures approaching seventy degrees. There is a 100% chance that Virginia and Pete Springer will be taking a brisk walk in today’s sunshine.”
Losing 10-15 pounds was easy when I was in my twenties, but by the time I was fifty, it was a different story. I poured everything into being a teacher, and I was exhausted by the end of the workday. I became more sedentary as I aged. While getting out and exercising sounded good in the morning, by the end of the day I was coming up with excuses to avoid it. I’d go through brief exercise phases where I’d overdo it and quickly burn out.
Fast forward, and suddenly I’m approaching sixty. I’ve gone through a few weight swings over the years, but I’ve never been what anyone would call trim. I’ve made so many attempts at losing weight that I should be co-hosting a TV show with Oprah. She’s made a living out of describing her struggles to the world.
There are certain times during a school year that are extra challenging for teachers. The days before winter break are a particularly stressful period. Not only are there a lot of things going on at school, but your classroom becomes a germ factory. Everywhere you turn it seems there are runny noses, persistent coughs, sneezing fits, or children with their head on their desk because they’re running a fever. Many teachers limp to the vacation at the point of exhaustion. Each day we were counting the days down looking forward to the two weeks off. Unfortunately, more times than not, I seemed to get sick as soon as the break started.
For some, the thought of considering retirement is a gradual process. For me, it was an avalanche. I lay in bed sick for the third Christmas in a row feeling sorry for myself, but I was hardly an innocent victim. I finally concluded that I couldn’t keep doing this to myself. My wife and son were gone to my mother-in-law’s house to celebrate the holidays. After three years in a row, my wife’s family decided I must not like them. They were all together, and I was in bed hacking away with my usual winter sinus infection.
After I let the idea of retirement creep into my head, there was no turning back. I loved being a teacher right up until my last day, but it was time to either retire or make some significant life changes. I decided to do both.
Shortly after retirement, I discovered the sport of pickleball. I thought this was the gateway to improving my overall fitness. What a great game! Pickleball is similar to tennis and racquetball. The object of the game is to hit a plastic ball over a net with a racquet into a designated court. I loved the combination of power, finesse, and strategy.
I took to the sport right away. I started playing a couple of times per week. I was enjoying both the game itself and the social aspects of playing with many other people. Most people play doubles, and players regularly switch partners.
One day I was in the middle of a game and suddenly felt a twinge in my bad knee. I’ve had two prior knee surgeries, but I have generally been injury-free over the past two decades. My main symptom for the previous fifteen years was that my right knee was weaker than the left. I was able to finish the game without too much problem, and I decided to call it a day. I did not realize the severity of my injury at the time.
By the next day, I could hardly put any weight on my leg. It was a difficult situation. On top of it, one of my good friends was getting married outdoors later that day. My wife and I attended the wedding, but I was hobbling on crutches. We left early and went to Urgent Care to have an x-ray.
A week later I was still limping. Even though the x-ray had revealed no serious injury, I knew something was not right. Perhaps an MRI would show something. The test results indicated I had the beginnings of arthritis. What? I thought that only old people got arthritis.
I spent the next month not being able to do much. I began with crutches, moved to a cane, and eventually got back on my own feet again. There were many setbacks as my knee would hurt after any physical activity. If I worked out in the yard, I had to take the next week off.
My wife convinced me to go to an orthopedist, get a second opinion, and take a more proactive approach. The doctor looked at the MRI and gave me some encouraging news. He had me do some bending exercises and tested my range of motion. He said, “The good news is your knee is still in relatively good shape. I would categorize this as an early form of arthritis.”
I was looking for ways that would allow me to return to my usual, more active lifestyle. The orthopedist told me the best thing I could do was to lose fifty pounds. He also suggested it might be time to try a cortisone shot.
I’d been reading about cortisone in the weeks leading up to my appointment and had spoken to friends who told me about their experiences. Everything I learned indicated that results differed significantly from person to person. Some people enjoyed a great deal of relief for up to a year, and others saw virtually no change.
I’ve been one of the lucky ones. The day after I had my cortisone shot, my knee began to feel better. A week later I was able to resume some light exercise for the first time in over two months.
When I was able to start exercising again, I felt like I had a new lease on life. As the weeks passed, I felt better and better all the time. I returned to my gym (no pickleball) and began gradually rebuilding my stamina through cardio exercises. After a short time, I was able to start going five days a week. I began riding the stationary bike and swimming to add other activities to my workouts. A short time after that I added weightlifting to my regimen.
Now it has been over two years, and I am still going strong. I’ve also made significant changes in my diet. No more soda, junk food, or late-night snacks. After decades, I had finally found my groove. I’ve lost the fifty pounds that the doctor recommended and then twenty-five more.
I don’t like talking about my weight loss because it sounds too much like bragging. We all struggle with things in life, and it’s hard when you’re in the middle of those challenges, and someone starts preaching about all of the things you need to do.
I’m not going to pretend that I’m now a fitness expert because I’ve gotten myself in better shape. However, as someone who has battled weight issues, I would like to reveal some truths I’ve learned about myself in the process.
Truth #1 I don’t tie my weight loss to self-esteem. I was lucky enough to be raised by parents who taught me that I was a good person, regardless of my weight. I liked myself when I was severely overweight, and I like myself now. There are plenty of skinny people who are miserable. My weight is not going to define me or determine my happiness.
Truth #2 I understand it is normal to want to tell people about your success in whatever you’re doing. I’m not comfortable reporting my daily weight loss and trips to the gym the way some people do on social media. I think it sets a person up for failure when one makes everything so public. We all know those people who faithfully report each workout, weigh-in, etc., but what happens when you have a setback? I think it is better to remain humble and realize that there are going to be good and lousy days.
Truth #3 I look for mental tricks that help motivate me because no wonder drug is going to make this simple. If someone tells you it’s easy, they are lying or exaggerating. For me, it requires hard work and a lot of self-discipline. The same thing doesn’t work for everyone. I have another teacher friend who has lost more than one hundred pounds since he retired. Weight Watchers has been his ticket to success. One commonality that we have discovered about each other is a desire to be active and vibrant grandparents. Since retirement, I have been writing. My dream is to someday read one of my children’s books to my grandchild. If I don’t take care of myself, that isn’t going to happen.
Truth #4 I take inspiration from people around me. Watching anyone go after a goal with a sense of dedication and purpose motivates me. I find motivation from anyone who is giving up smoking, drinking, or making any healthy change. If someone is going to school at night after working fulltime during the day, how can I not respect this? It also inspires me when I observe people who are giving of themselves to their community. I think it is smart to use the successes of others as motivational tools. If they can do it, so can I. It is a mindset.
Truth #5 It is much easier for me to commit to exercise now that I am retired. Life is hard when you’re working full time, raising kids, and have a lot of other things going on in your life. I always made my students one of my top priorities, but how much can you help them if you don’t also look after yourself? I struggled with being a workaholic; teaching is a demanding job. I know it is possible to live a more balanced life because I’ve watched others do it. The kids will still be there for you tomorrow. I think it’s important to take at least thirty minutes per day to do something active for yourself.
Truth #6 I don’t beat myself up when I have an off day. When you fail at whatever goal you’re pursuing, look at it as a minor setback that all people experience. It works for me to think, “Oh well, I’ll do better tomorrow.” I like the concept of lifestyle changes rather than crash diets. I try not to step on the scale every day and let that affect my mood. It is healthier to remind myself how far I’ve come rather than being depressed because I’ve gained a pound or two back. I also treat myself occasionally to one of my favorite foods without any guilt.
The best part of my journey is feeling healthier and more energetic. I am grateful that my knee has held up, and I’m proud of myself for sticking with my exercise program and improved diet. I believe in living life with passion and going after the things I want. I feel lucky to have been given this second chance.