Denise Morth can’t remember ever being fit. Overweight as a child and teen, the life-insurance case manager from Coon Rapids, Minn., continued to gain weight in her 20s and 30s, eating slice after slice of greasy pizza — and whatever else appealed at the moment — while avoiding all exercise. “I just liked to eat and didn’t like to move,” she recalls.
At more than 300 pounds, Morth was painfully self-conscious, yet she couldn’t find the motivation to make any changes in her life.
In 2003, though, she hit rock bottom. Riding the bus to work, she realized she could no longer fit in a single seat — and that she wouldn’t fit through the emergency exit.
As a result, Morth, now 40, began avoiding social situations and turning down invitations to plays and other events she and her husband, Mike, received. “It’s one thing to inconvenience yourself,” she says, “but I realized I was also dragging my husband down. It wasn’t fair to him.”
So in late 2003, with 390 pounds on her 5-foot-3-inch frame, she pleaded with her doctor for gastric bypass surgery. She was desperate: Walking even short distances had become a struggle, and her health was suffering (she was diagnosed with prediabetes, as well as high cholesterol and high blood pressure). But her doctor strongly discouraged surgery because of the risks, such as leaks, infections and psychological challenges. “I went into that appointment with the attitude that I was going to do whatever she suggested, and what she suggested was Weight Watchers,” Morth recalls.
Well aware that if she didn’t make significant changes she’d quite literally be killing herself, Morth was ready to do more than lose weight — she was ready to transform her life.
Discipline and Rewards
With her doctor’s warnings fresh in her mind, as well as a sense that she could no longer ignore her health, Morth joined Weight Watchers in early 2004. She began limiting the foods she’d come to rely on — chips, hot dogs and other prepared foods — and controlled her cravings by occasionally treating herself to small portions of favorites.
She was pleasantly surprised, though, by how much she enjoyed whole foods. “It might have been easier to order pizza, but I realized that I really liked fruits and vegetables when I prepared them,” she says.
In addition to improving her eating habits, Morth incorporated a small amount of physical activity into her daily routine, such as getting off the bus a few stops earlier and walking. Her efforts soon began to bear fruit.
Morth dropped 10 pounds a month, and by year’s end, she weighed 277 pounds and could move more easily. She and her husband celebrated her success with a trip to New York City, and she discovered that she could once again fit into plane and theater seats.
In January 2005, she was ready to challenge herself again. Knowing she needed to exercise more regularly, she joined the Life Time Fitness club near her home and signed up for the T.E.A.M. Weight Loss program. The 12-week regimen, which combines exercise, education and nutrition, not only pushed her physically, but also encouraged her to think about the health benefits of the foods she ate. (A muffin and a bowl of oatmeal might be worth the same number of points, for instance, but the fiber and nutrients in oatmeal made it a far better choice.) By the end of the program, she’d lost another 23 pounds, down to 254.
From Treadmill to 26.2
Morth had begun doing treadmill workouts during the T.E.A.M. Weight Loss program, starting at a slow walk and eventually speeding up to a jog. Once the program ended, she stuck to the treadmill, using inclines and heart-rate training to further improve her fitness throughout 2005.
It was during a workout in early 2006 that Morth learned about the club’s six-week training program for a 5K run. Intrigued, she signed up.
Jackie Liu, the Run Club coordinator and coach at the Coon Rapids club, remembers that Morth was slow but determined. “The first day we went out, she ran and walked a 23-minute mile,” Liu recalls. “But she was very coachable. She took in all the information like a sponge and just did it.”
The three-times-a-week training sessions soon had Morth running confidently. By the time race day rolled around six weeks later, she finished the three-mile race at a 14-minute-mile pace.
She was exhilarated and decided to stretch herself even further. By now a member of the Run Club, Morth began increasing her weekly mileage to prepare for longer races. Soon, she was running five to six days a week.
In October 2006, she ran the Twin Cities (TC) 10 Mile race, clocking a 13-minute-mile pace. She also joined a second T.E.A.M. Weight Loss program and slimmed from 237 to 210 pounds.
By then, it wasn’t just her friends and family who were noting her dramatic progress. “People on the bus and in the grocery store came up to me and said, ‘Hey, I’ve been watching you, and you look great,’” she recalls.
In October 2007, she again ran the TC 10 Mile race, this time at just under an 11-minute-mile pace. That’s when she knew she was ready to take on an even more ambitious running goal: a marathon.
Morth joined a marathon training class and continued increasing her daily mileage and weekly long runs. And in January 2008, weighing just under 160 pounds, she completed the Disney World Marathon in Orlando in 5:10.
Enjoying It All
Morth’s marathon experience was a deeply satisfying one, but she says it’s the everyday little things that make her appreciate how powerfully her new level of fitness has improved the quality of her life.
Each day, she says, she feels the difference. “I feel like I’m really living now, not just existing,” she says. “I can move. I can breathe.”
Her husband feels the difference, too. “We go to baseball games, we go to movies, we go to plays,” Mike says. “We even run together. But the biggest change has been Denise’s attitude — the way she carries herself and how she relates to others. It’s been such a positive thing.”
Above all, the four-year odyssey also has helped Morth understand the power of persistence. “I just keep moving,” she says. “As long as I keep doing what I’m supposed to be doing, I know I will get there.”
Meet: Denise Morth, 40, a case manager for a life-insurance company in Coon Rapids, Minn.
Big achievements: Losing more than 230 pounds and running her first marathon.
Big inspiration: Wanting to enjoy life’s simple freedoms. “Before, I couldn’t go to plays or baseball games because I couldn’t fit in the seat,” she says. “Now I can.”
What worked: Taking things a step at a time and staying committed. “Embrace where you currently are and make the changes you can make now,” she says.
What didn’t: Hoping for an outside fix, such as gastric bypass surgery, to change her life.
Words of Wisdom: Face your fear. “I always avoided stepping on scales or looking in the mirror — I was living in denial,” she says. “But you can’t change anything until you realize it’s a problem.”