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Last summer, the health and fitness editors at Experience Life invited readers to tell us about their most stubborn health challenges.

Dozens of you replied with your stories, and a common theme became clear: The first steps toward healthy change are often the most challenging and mired in doubt.

It can be hard to know where to start, or how to overcome years’ worth of inertia. But one thing is certain: It’s a whole lot easier if you don’t have to go it alone.

With that in mind, we selected three readers and paired them up with a variety of top-notch health and fitness experts.

Our readers provided the willingness to change. Our experts offered them inspiration, accountability, feedback and wise counsel.

The results were impressive. And what worked for them might just work for you.

There’s only one way to find out . . .

Challenge 1: Beating the Sugar Habit

Lisa Maley Chatlain’s transformation began during a lunch break last summer while eating a solitary meal at her desk and reading Experience Life. When the Dallas-based marketing specialist saw that the magazine was asking its readers to share the health challenges they’d been putting off, she quickly tapped out a plea for help on her computer.

“I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I want to break my Mountain Dew habit,” she began. “Larger than that, I want to break my sugar habit.”

We paired 46-year-old Lisa with nutritional psychologist Marc David, MA, the founder and director of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating in Boulder, Colo. They spoke on the phone seven times within the first two weeks of their partnership, and then David continued coaching her once a week by phone for three months.

David began by asking Lisa lots of questions and listening deeply to her story. “I really wanted to know what’s going on with her life, what’s important to her, how she spends her time and where she thinks she’s going,” he says. “When someone has a sugar or other addiction, my feeling is that there’s a good reason for it. I thought about what function this habit served. Before I try to get rid of something, I try to accept it.”

He asked Lisa to start keeping track of the kinds of foods she ate in a day. It was an eye-opening experience. “I was a carb addict!” she says. “All day, I was drinking Mountain Dew, getting chips or pretzels from the vending machine, and helping myself to a coworker’s candy bowl.”

David didn’t respond to this inventory with a list of foods to avoid. Instead, he advised Lisa to start eating more high-quality whole foods and, in particular, increase her protein consumption.

“People often crave the opposite of what they need,” he explains. “She was low in essential fats and low in protein, especially at the beginning of the day. When people eat sugar and carbs at the beginning of the day, they tend to want them all day long.”

He also advised her to eat more slowly and savor her food, not just bolt it down as if it were fuel. No eating in the car and no more eating alone at her desk. “He said he wanted me to practice enjoying each bite — from now on, for the rest of my life,” Lisa says, laughing. “I have plenty of time to perfect this.”

As Lisa and David began to discuss the underlying reasons for her sugar and carb addiction, their work went deeper. David explained that addictions usually have their roots in the traumas and misunderstandings from our past. We learn as children, for example, that sugar can make us feel instantly happy, even during painful times. David believed it was important for Lisa to understand this tendency so that she didn’t constantly berate herself for lack of willpower or stew in self-loathing for being overweight.

“When you understand why you eat sugar — really, you do it to love yourself — then you can embrace the problem instead of attacking it,” David says. “Then we can start making lists of other ways to make yourself feel better.”

“Some of this sounded hokey at first,” Lisa admits. “But I decided to go into it with an open mind.”

She struggled with one of David’s first assignments: to make a list of ways that she could show her body that she loved it. She winced when he suggested that she stand in front of a mirror and compliment herself — that sounded really hokey — but he explained that she had to learn to love herself as she is now to be successful. Partly, this is because negative self-talk creates stress, which triggers cravings and provokes weight gain.

“Whenever we tell ourselves we’re ugly or fat,” David explains, “we create the kind of stress that signals our bodies to create cortisol and store fat.

Lisa and David came up with additional ways for her to help her body feel good. She groaned at the idea of exercise, but, as they talked, she recalled how much she liked riding her bike and swimming. David suggested that she think of these things as movement, not exercise; she should do them because she enjoys them, instead of viewing them as a burden. He also suggested she call upon friends to support her as she worked on making these big changes. Three of them immediately responded, buoying her spirits with daily, upbeat messages.

Finally, David asked her the really big questions: How long did she want to live? What did she want to do with her life? “These are spiritual questions,” he says. “Who cares if you drink Mountain Dew or are 60 pounds overweight? What really matters is why you’re here, what kind of gifts you have to give and who you want to be. Once you understand that, you have a reason to be healthy.”

After only two weeks of working with David, Lisa was delighted with the changes in her body and approach to life. She had stopped drinking Mountain Dew — previously, she drank can after can from morning to night — and after a few cranky, low-energy days, felt she might be able to set it aside for good. She had already lost 5 pounds and was confident that she was on her way to her target weight loss of 60 pounds.

“I can’t believe how different I feel,” she says. “I have an incredible amount of energy, and I’ve discovered many resources through Marc that will help me keep growing. If this much growth is possible in a few weeks, the next few months are going to be almost overwhelming — but in a good way.”

Challenge 2: Self-Care Through Stress

Not so long ago, Robert Koski, 42, was a contender. A four-sport letter winner in high school, he ran, lifted weights and played sports in college — and for many years after.

Last year, though, when some friends challenged him to participate in a triathlon, Robert became painfully aware that his fitness had deteriorated. Having virtually no time to train, he nonetheless succeeded in completing the sprint-distance event — but felt so miserable afterward that he reached for a cigarette and a glass of whiskey, two favored crutches in times of stress.

And over the past decade, stress had become more the rule than the exception in Robert’s life. A strategist at a Minneapolis marketing agency, he has to cope regularly with long hours, tight deadlines and frequent business travel. Because his wife suffers from a chronic illness, Robert has also been on point for many household chores, such as shopping, cooking and laundry, as well as managing his teenage daughter’s busy schedule. With little time to prepare meals, Robert relied on takeout for many family dinners. And exercise? That was just a wistful thought when he looked out of his office window.

In describing his challenge, Robert characterized it as “getting back in the saddle.” To do that, he needed to find a better balance between his responsibilities to others and his need to take care of himself. And that started with getting a clear-eyed view of his current health and fitness status — something he’d paid very little attention to over the past decade.

We began by introducing Robert to Alex Jordan, MS, program manager for fitness technology at Life Time Fitness in Chanhassen, Minn. Jordan arranged a whole spate of health and fitness assessments through the company’s myHealthCheck program, including body composition via a bioelectrical impedance machine; cholesterol, triglycerides and glucose levels via finger-stick blood draw; resting heart rate and blood pressure; cardiovascular fitness; and a body-age assessment, which compares physiological age with chronological age. Jordan also had Robert complete a comprehensive blood screen and a saliva test that indicates how well the body is responding to stress.

Following his assessments, Robert discussed the results with a team of Life Time Fitness experts. In addition, we asked David Katz, MD, MPH, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, to review the results and offer his observations about Robert’s current state of health.

The results — which Robert described as “a major reality check” — showed that despite being in apparent good health, he had a cluster of higher-risk factors, including lower-than-optimal HDL (good) cholesterol (44 mg/dl) and elevated LDL (bad) cholesterol (165 mg/dl), elevated total cholesterol (250 mg/dl), elevated triglycerides (155 mg/dl), slightly elevated blood glucose (100 mg/dl), and slightly elevated body fat (19.8 percent). But Robert’s resting heart rate, blood pressure and cardiovascular fitness were good, and his “real age” score put him at 35.

The first group of scores showed early markers for a variety of inflammatory diseases, suggesting that Robert needed to improve his lean-muscle-to-body-fat ratio, and upgrade his diet by cutting back on inflammatory factors like sugar, alcohol and processed foods. The second group of scores showed that Robert had a good foundation of strength and vitality to overcome his health challenges.

“Robert almost certainly has early insulin resistance, a state that is a precursor to metabolic syndrome and then to diabetes,” says Katz. “But, the good news is that he’s still borderline, and he’s getting this information early. If he’s willing to cultivate healthier habits, he can watch all those numbers get better without too much effort. It’s all a matter of what he does with his feet and his fork.”

With the assessment results establishing a baseline for improvement, Life Time Fitness life-balance coach Mary Farrell, MS, CWC, encouraged Robert to create a vision of his “best self.” After some discussion, he imagined himself getting up early with his daughter to prepare a healthy breakfast and maybe exercise together, having better focus and mental clarity during the workday, and leaving his job behind at 5 p.m., arriving home having already stocked up on healthy ingredients and making a simple but nutritious dinner. After dinner, he imagined having enough energy left to play tennis or read. One motivating insight: He realized that by taking care of himself, he would be setting a good example for his daughter.

Farrell worked with Robert to help him establish goals for the next three months. This was challenging for someone with so many responsibilities, and Robert found himself somewhat conflicted about scheduling time for his own fitness. “It can seem selfish when you think about your other responsibilities,” he says. “But it really helped to be part of this team with Alex and Mary. I was inspired by the idea of feeling really good again.”

Robert settled on three broad goals, and Farrell helped him identify small steps that would help him reach them. He needed regular exercise, so he decided that he would walk up and down the four flights of steps at work instead of using the elevator. He would also get outside to walk or ride his bike during lunch breaks two or three times a week.

Robert also planned to make simple, healthy meals every Wednesday and Thursday. Farrell helped by showing him how to make better choices at the grocery store. She also sent him a selection of quick-and-healthy recipes. “That was really helpful,” Robert says. “There are a million recipes online and I get overwhelmed.”

Finally, Robert realized he needed more focus at his job so that he didn’t have to work overtime or bring work home. Farrell asked him a series of clarifying questions: What are his most productive hours at work? What projects does he like to tackle first? What are his biggest time-robbers? Pondering these and other inquiries provoked a number of important insights, which in turn empowered Robert to devise an action plan for keeping his job confined to eight hours.

Within the first few weeks of his work with Farrell, Robert wasn’t quite back in the saddle, but he was getting closer. “I’m absolutely energized,” he says. “I’m also a little bit scared, but I think that’s because I’m headed for a real lifestyle change.”

Challenge 3: Healthy-Eating Makeover

Last summer, Sara Skulec was reading over some journal entries from 10 years ago. She was horrified to see how frequently she wrote about her struggles with weight — struggles that continued right up to the present day. “I looked back and wondered what else I could have accomplished during all those years if I hadn’t been spending my time and mental energy worrying about my weight,” she says.

Like many women, the 40-year-old Sara put on weight after the birth of her children, now 13 and 14. She dieted off and on — and during the “off” periods, she often gained back more than she lost.

A number of factors made it hard for her to lose the weight for good. The Seattle-based accountant has a hectic job. Because Sara’s husband is the primary cook and grocery shopper, she felt she had little control over the kinds of meals she and her family ate.

In addition, she also tended to have an all-or-nothing approach to her food choices. For instance, she tried a raw-foods diet a few years ago, after she became a vegetarian. She lost weight and felt good, but ditched the diet after a month because it was too difficult to make special meals for herself. “I thought that if I couldn’t do the diet perfectly, there was no point in doing it at all,” she says.

Sara also applied this all-or-nothing approach to her food choices after she was diagnosed with a number of food allergies. When a dietitian gave her a list of very strict guidelines for what she could and could not eat, she rushed off immediately to McDonald’s — a food detour she rarely takes. The idea of making a huge dietary change was so daunting that she decided not to bother.

To help Sara achieve her healthy goal of losing weight through better food choice and preparation, we paired her with functional-medicine nutritionist and registered dietitian Julie Starkel, MS, MBA, RD, at Green Lake Nutrition in Seattle.

Functional-medicine nutrition integrates alternative and conventional therapies, looking at nutrition from a holistic perspective. It utilizes a blood workup and other physical and lab tests to help identify nutritional deficiencies and priorities.

Starkel’s work with Sara began with an extensive intake process. Starkel probed deeply into Sara’s life story, health history, symptoms and more.

After two meetings in her Seattle office, Starkel visited Sara’s home to assess her pantry before leading her on an educational grocery-shopping trip. Following these foundational steps, she and Sara planned to meet two more times, once for a cooking class and once for another face-to-face session.

Starkel wanted to help Sara become comfortable with the idea of making small, incremental steps toward realistic goals. Sara wanted to lose 40 pounds, but Starkel discouraged her from trying to lose the weight too quickly.

“A realistic goal is to lose 5 percent of your body weight in three months,” Starkel explains. “That’s the kind of weight loss that’s sustainable. Our bodies have a set point, meaning that all of our body systems are set to function at that weight. That set point changes slowly, so if you lose weight too quickly, every force in your body works to gain it back again.”

Sara’s biggest dietary challenges were a penchant for sweets and a tendency to underemphasize protein. She was also given to late-night snacking. Instead of prescribing a rigid diet, Starkel encouraged Sara to try a simple daily eating plan. She advised her to eat breakfast within an hour of waking and to eat a meal or snack every three hours.

Moreover, she suggested that Sara shape her daily food intake like an upside-down wedge: The greatest number of calories should be in the beginning of the day, with her intake tapering down to a point at night. Every meal should have the same healthy proportions: a quarter of the plate devoted to protein; a quarter to healthy carb-rich foods such as legumes and whole grains; and half to nonstarchy vegetables and fruits. Starkel especially wanted Sara to make sure she ate more protein at every meal and snack, and she gave her a list detailing the protein content of many foods.

“That list has been really helpful,” Sara says. “I thought all nuts had about the same protein content, but it turns out that they’re dramatically different. Same thing for beans.”

With those simple guidelines in place, Starkel visited Sara’s house for a pantry overhaul. “It was like my kitchen had a split personality, with the healthy foods right next to the junk foods,” Sara says. “I was afraid Julie would just start throwing things out, but she was very nonjudgmental.”

Starkel suggested incremental steps: Buy rice in bulk instead of packaged rice mixes full of additives; strive to work in more produce, such as dark, leafy greens. When Sara said that she often made smoothies in a pinch, Starkel suggested that she keep her kitchen stocked with protein powder to add to smoothies made with fruit, vegetables, and dairy or hemp milk.

Sara found the shopping trip that followed enlightening. Previously, she tended to zoom through the store grabbing convenience foods. Instead, Starkel told her to stick to the perimeters of her grocery store, because the less healthy, processed foods are concentrated in the middle aisles. She suggested that Sara try to buy local produce, which is fresher and more nutritious because it has traveled fewer miles to the shelves, then showed her how to determine from labels and signage where and how something was grown.

Starkel also pointed out healthy foods Sara had never thought to try, offering ideas for how she could use each one. For instance, she suggested putting edamame in her salads and roasting burdock root in the oven with other vegetables.

“I started to get overwhelmed, but Julie suggested that I just try one new thing a week,” Sara says. “She gave me some recipes and ideas for meal planning, and said that, over time, I’d build up a repertoire of good meal plans. It was a confidence builder, with no pressure.”

After nine weeks, Sara had lost 10 pounds. She was also feeling better about her ability to make healthy choices. The additional protein in her diet had cut her craving for sweets, and she had a better understanding of how to select healthier foods and rightsize her portions.

Her lessons with Starkel were influencing the rest of the family, too: They were eating fewer sweets, tasting some of the healthy recipes that Sara prepared, and her husband had begun buying healthier fare, like tempeh — without her even asking!

“Having Julie as my coach has been really helpful,” says Sara. “There’s so much conflicting food information out there that I was never sure what was right, and what I was doing clearly wasn’t working.”

Now that Sara’s on a more promising path, she’s excited to see where it goes. We are, too. So check the Web Extra! below for updates — and to tell us what reader health challenges you’d like to see us take on next!

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