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Portrait of Jason Sweetnam

In my mid-20s, I was so busy taking care of my entrepreneurial businesses that I neglected to take care of my health. We’re talking zero exercise, lunch meetings over burgers and beer, and pizza delivery for dinner. I often went days without eating a vegetable. Over two years, I gained 100 pounds without really noticing.

Then one day in 2010 I was looking at photos from a friend’s recent wedding, and I hardly recognized myself in them. It had been a long time since I’d stepped on the scale, but I was shocked that the number had risen to 260. Soon after, my doctor diagnosed me as pre-diabetic.

At 28 years old, I had sky-high cholesterol and 50 percent body fat.

Work pressures were also taking their toll on my body. I owned a brewery and managed a couple of local bands, and though I loved the challenge of juggling several businesses at once, the stress was getting to me.

One evening, my girlfriend, Eva, and I decided to stroll along the river, only two blocks from our house in St. Paul, Minn. As soon as we got to the water, I had to turn around because my back hurt so bad. I felt so deflated; I knew I was letting both of us down.

I’d been ignoring my health. Combined with all the other factors, it made me realize I had to change — and I had to do it immediately.

Reversing the Course

Soon after my wake-up call, Eva and I joined Life Time. She wanted to get healthier, too, so we decided to overhaul our lifestyle together. We didn’t get too fancy; we made just a few common-sense changes and stuck to them. For instance, I vowed to do an hour of cardio five days a week on the elliptical, the lowest-impact machine at the club, so I wouldn’t hurt myself.

I remember hating every minute of that first workout. Back in high school and college, I’d played sports and lifted weights, but my body had changed a lot since then and I had no stamina or self-confidence. Halfway through the session, I got off the elliptical to avoid throwing up.

As I sat in the locker room waiting for my head to stop spinning, I wanted to quit, but knew I couldn’t. Because I’d hit rock bottom, I had to get back on the machine — and 10 minutes later, I did.

About the same time, Eva and I switched to a two-week vegetarian diet in an effort to jolt ourselves out of our fast-food habit. Overnight, we went from eating zero veggies to platefuls of them. We gradually started cooking whole-food meals, including lean protein and fresh produce.

Changing my lifestyle took a lot of self-assessment. When I was tempted to skip a workout or order pizza, I reminded myself that I wanted my life back. I wanted to be able to ski, swim, and run. I didn’t want to be the guy who lounged by the pool while my friends went hiking or biking. (Full disclosure: I still love pizza, but now I know I can’t eat it every day.)

Having Eva’s support made all the difference. We went through both the discomforts and rewards of shifting our habits together. In the first year, I lost 80 pounds; she lost 20. In 2011 I got much fitter and shed another 20 pounds.

But losing weight was only part of the story. My back pain disappeared, and I felt more confident in my ability to sustain healthy habits. I slept better and stopped snoring. Best of all, I felt happier, which made me realize I’d been experiencing low-grade depression.

I also rediscovered my love of strength training, which I’d started as a kid by lifting weights in the basement with my dad. As muscles emerged on my arms, my self-consciousness about my appearance faded and I began wearing sleeveless shirts. Instead of dragging myself to the club as I had before, I looked forward to workouts. I felt proud of my progress and even became friends with other gym regulars.

I did have a setback soon after I began strength training. Having already lost 30 pounds, I felt ambitious as I got situated in the low-­cable-row machine. In college I had pulled 180 pounds, so I decided to start there. A minute later I heard a loud pop, and suddenly my back was in agony. The pain lasted two weeks and was followed by almost two years of minor irritation. I learned later that I’d probably fractured a vertebra.

That was the hard way to learn a valuable lesson: Start small and work your way up. After that injury, I could have blown off my workouts because I needed to stop resistance training while I healed. Instead, I remembered my debilitating back pain the day of the failed river walk — the result of overwork due to weak glutes and tight hips — and I returned to the elliptical machine the next day for low-impact exercise that didn’t jar my spine.

When I finally resumed strength training, I started with 30 pounds and gradually increased the load. Today, my back is pain-free and strong enough for competitive deadlifting.

Changing Careers

The healthier I became, the more dissatisfied I felt with my stressful, unhappy work life. I kept staring at a sign at Life Time: “Have you ever thought of making your workout your career?”

In late 2011 I decided to reinvent my professional life and enrolled in Life Time Academy’s personal-trainer certification course.

I eventually sold the brewery, got out of the music industry, and began focusing on the business of helping other people reach their fitness goals. Since December 2012, I’ve been a personal trainer at Life Time Highland Park in St. Paul. I’ve also become certified as a weight-loss coach and a specialist in corrective exercise, fitness nutrition, and per­formance enhancement.

Having been 100 pounds overweight makes me a better coach because I can relate to more of my clients’ difficulties. I know it’s not easy to create space in your busy life for exercise and healthy eating. I’ve been there, and that can put clients at ease. Truth be told, even personal ­trainers struggle to maintain life­style changes — we’re all human.

Looking back, I now realize how much I was missing by being out of shape, depressed, and low on energy. Since getting fitter, Eva and I have found the time and energy to do things like ski in Colorado, hike in St. Maarten, and enjoy the beach in Jamaica.

I used to say no to so many experiences because I physically couldn’t do them. Fitness opened up new possibilities — including ziplining, Tough Mudder events, and Drug-Free Powerlifting competitions (which I’ve won).

Exercise brought back a part of me that had been missing, and now I get to share my passion for health with others.

Jason’s Top 3 Success Strategies

1. Start small. “My first step was eating vegetables at every meal,” Jason says. “The second was budgeting time for grocery shopping and cooking at home.”

2. Choose exercise you enjoy. Getting fit is easier if you have fun doing it, he says. “If the treadmill doesn’t excite you, try a Zumba class, or go for a bike ride with your kids.”

3. Recognize your victories. Weight loss wasn’t the only shift in Jason’s life. “We saved money by eating out less often,” he says. “We also watched less TV and started reading more.”

This originally appeared as “A Healthy Living” in the November 2019 print issue of Experience Life.

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