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In high school, it was hard to find Jeremy Coward anywhere other than an athletic field or court. He split his time between soccer, tennis and football, and when he wasn’t suiting up for the home team, he was often out skiing with his family. Then came college, and lots of late-night eating and drinking.

Coward stopped playing sports entirely and, over the course of his college career, packed 60 pounds on his 5-foot-11-inch frame, ballooning to 230 pounds. After graduation, he took a job in sales where he spent much of his time wining and dining clients. Not surprisingly, the work did his waistline no favors.

Fast forward to early 2007: Coward — married with two young sons — still weighed 225 pounds. Lethargic and depressed, he spent entire weekends in front of the TV, not moving from the couch. Andrew, his oldest son, always asked why daddy wasn’t feeling well, and Coward didn’t have a good answer. It was a stark shift for an outgoing guy who had once described himself as the life of a party.

The turning point came over Thanksgiving weekend that year, when Coward drove from his Denver, Colo., home to Kansas for a vacation with family and friends. Spending time with people he cared about made him realize that he wasn’t the person he used to be — or wanted to be. “On that car ride home, I had a lot of time to think about things,” he says. “I knew I needed to make a full-time commitment to changing my life.”

Ready to Run

Coward, now 35, tried diets and exercise for years, starting not long after he married his wife, Wendy, in 2001. He sometimes had moderate success, but he always found himself returning to more lethargic ways. “Every year or two, I’d get a spark that would inspire me to get into an exercise program, but I’d get discouraged or injured after a few months,” he says.

His high-pressure job as a commercial-real-estate broker encouraged him to work, not work out, and after an acute anxiety attack hospitalized him in 2007, he started taking antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications. But the drugs left him feeling numb, and he soon quit using them. The experience opened his eyes to just how much he’d let his health languish.

Ready to get back on track, Coward decided to go out for a jog shortly after his Thanksgiving road trip. He barely completed a mile, but he was determined to improve. So he kept at it, heading out a few days a week.

By early the following spring, he’d lost 30 pounds and could comfortably complete three miles. Better yet, he was feeling less stressed and more focused on his daily tasks, and had the energy to play with his young children. (Learn how exercise can improve your physical and mental health in “How Exercise Heals” and “Build a Better Brain”.)

In April 2008, the Cowards joined the Parker Life Time Fitness near their home, and he began adding three weekly weight-training sessions to his regimen. Meanwhile, Wendy registered for a sprint triathlon that summer.

Intrigued and inspired by her training, Coward signed up for his own triathlon — a half-Iron-distance race that November. He knew it was ambitious, but his “go big or go home” attitude encouraged him to tackle the race. “I bought my first road bike, and an instructional swimming video on eBay,” he says. “I liked the idea of mixing up my workouts.”

The race gave him a new focus: Each morning he’d either head to the pool to implement the techniques he’d learned on the video, take a group-cycling class at Life Time Fitness or go running. On weekends, he’d go for a long bike ride, run through the neighborhood or swim laps at the pool. His training program eventually grew to two-a-day workouts several times a week.

In November he took his place at the starting line of the SilverMan Half-Iron Distance Triathlon in Henderson, Nev. — a course that includes a nearly 5,000-foot vertical climb in the bike leg. Weighing in at 168 pounds, Coward felt more mentally and physically fit than he ever had in his life. He finished the 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike and 13.1-mile run in 5:49:55 — good for 41st place overall in the field of 291 and 7th place out of 30 in his age group.

The race inspired him in a way that no other activity had. “I had no expectations of performing well, but when I saw my time, I was stoked,” he recalls. “The next day, I got online and started looking for a second race.”

A Smarter Meal Plan

As Coward ramped up his activity, he also began looking more closely at his diet. While he’d always chosen fairly healthy foods, his portion sizes were out of control. “I was only eating two or three times a day, and I was probably eating enough for three people,” he admits.

He did some online research about diet and nutrition, and replaced his three heavy meals a day with several smaller ones, relying heavily on staples such as cottage cheese, yogurt and granola, small bags of carrots, turkey sandwiches on whole-wheat bread, and salads. “I only eat red meat once or twice a month,” he says. “Overall, I try to be very sensitive to what I’m putting in my body.”

The changes Coward made have had a dramatic impact on his family’s eating habits, too, says Wendy. Plus he looks better, he has more self-confidence, and he’s a better father and husband. “Now that he’s working out six days a week, he’s become such a good example,” she says. “He’s trying to teach our kids that an active lifestyle isn’t something you have to do. It’s just what you do.”

Tri-ing Times

Coward now maintains a healthy weight of about 170 pounds and says he’s never felt better — physically or emotionally. “I used to need eight hours of sleep, but now I only need six,” he says. “Even in this tough economy, I’ve got the confidence to go out and generate clients and new business opportunities. I have a bounce in my step.”

With specific goals helping him define his training — including another half-Iron-distance triathlon this past June in Lawrence, Kan. — Coward knows he’ll be able to stay on track. “When you set goals for yourself and figure out a clear path to get there, it’s so much easier,” he says. “I’d always had a general idea that I’d like to lose weight, but that’s where it ended. The important thing is to give yourself a goal and take the small steps you need to get there.”

Success Summary

Meet: Jeremy Coward, 35, father of two and a broker at a commercial-real-estate company in Denver, Colo.

Big Achievements: Losing nearly 60 pounds and getting into the best physical and mental shape of his life; completing two half-Iron-distance triathlons.

Big Inspiration: Being a role model to his sons. “When my 5-year-old comes up to me and says, ‘I want to be just like you,’ that drives me to set a good example.”

What Worked: Finding a group. “I’m surrounded by a group of triathletes who encourage me and inspire me. They aren’t going to let me fall back into my old ways.”

What Didn’t: On-again, off-again diet and exercise programs. “When you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, it’s easy to let it go to the wayside.”

Words of Wisdom: Start with your mind — your body will follow. “The biggest challenge isn’t the physical part. It’s the mental part. Our bodies are capable of doing great things if we can overcome our mental hurdles.”

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