Step By Step

Sometimes you have to start small to make a big difference.

Posted in , Oct 16, 2014

Jeannette Doyle Parr

You know how it is. You hit your 30s and the weight you put on between Thanksgiving and New Year's doesn't just melt off by swimsuit season anymore.

You have to work at it, but what with your job, your house, your husband and kids, who really has the time to plan and cook healthy, balanced meals and squeeze in the recommended 30 minutes of physical activity every day?

Five extra pounds here, 10 big deal, right? But the weight adds up. Every new year means a new diet, a new food diary. You declare, "I want my husband to look at me on Valentine's Day and see the woman he married."

You study the latest diet book, clip fitness articles (especially if you're like me, a freelance writer on the lookout for story possibilities). You get to be an expert on calorie counts, fat grams, good carbs and bad carbs. You order salads—hold the dressing—at lunch.

You check the food exchange list so often you can recite it like the Lord's Prayer. Except by Easter you've shelved the diet book and the food diary. You'll just burn off all those chocolate eggs and marshmallow bunnies running after the grandkids. That's what you keep telling yourself, anyway.

Your bathroom scale doesn't lie, though. The needle's more like a skinny red finger pointing accusingly at 167. 188. 203. 221. 258. A hundred pounds over your "ideal" weight ... after all these years of watching what you eat!

You get so sick of staring at that scale you throw the darn thing out. You'll just stay heavy. That's what you are. Never fat. You don't like wearing a size 24 1/2 (yep, that's what I got up to), but you sure do enjoy those deep-fried Twinkies at the state fair, every last crunchy, creamy bite of them.

State fair? State of denial is more like it. And you are in for a rude awakening.

Mine—part one, anyway—came at Wal-Mart. Not long after birthday number 63 last November, I was maneuvering my shopping cart through the checkout when my right knee buckled under me. The pain was intense. I had to lean on the cart to make it back to my car.

I thought having to catch my breath after blowing out the inferno on my birthday cake made me feel old. The doctor's diagnosis of collapsed cartilage and osteoarthritis made me feel absolutely ancient. Weak. Helpless. The only medication that touched the pain knocked me out.

Weeks of physical therapy and I still couldn't put weight on my knee. In March I tried joint fluid therapy, injections of a substance that lubricates the cartilage. That stuff did the trick. I was ready to waltz out of the clinic, pain-free.

Then my doctor said, "Now would be a good time to lose some weight."

That would be my rude awakening, part two. I cried all the way home. I pulled into our drive and turned to the rearview mirror so I could wipe away my tears. I stared into that sliver of silver and looked myself in the eye. "Jeanette," I whispered, "you're fat."

There it was. The truth that I'd sidestepped for so many years. That I'd never admitted to anyone, not even God. Right there in my car, I bowed my head.

Not that you don't know this already, Lord, I prayed, but telling you makes it more real to me: I'm fat. And with your help, I'm going to change that.

I got out of the car feeling lighter (in spirit, that is). Being fat—well, to be honest, "morbidly obese" was what my doctor likely wrote on my chart—wasn't a hopeless condition. I knew losing weight would reduce my risk for diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer.

I also knew how to do it: diet and exercise. All right, I stink at the diet part, I thought. I'll focus on exercise. I'd just read in the paper about the Patrick Henry Hayes Senior Citizens Center opening in town, with a track and a state-of-the-art gym.

The next morning, with my doctor's okay, I went to the senior center. Only $10 for a full year's membership—no excuse not to try it. The gleaming equipment in the gym intimidated me, so I laced up my sneakers and hit the track.

I huffed and puffed and got only a quarter of a mile around while the other gray-haired folks sped past me as if they were Olympic sprinters.

It took me a couple of weeks to work up the nerve to try the treadmill. There was a machine free between two older gentlemen, who were moving at a rapid clip and carrying on a spirited political debate. I stepped onto the treadmill, attached the safety line and peered at the control panel.

Words winked across the electronic ticker: "Select program ... speed ... grade ... distance ... calories." What? Thank goodness there was a button labeled "manual" with up and down arrows under it. That's it. I could set my own speed. Slow.

I tentatively pressed the up arrow. The conveyor belt moved under my feet. Whoa! I grabbed the handrails and took a step. Then another, and another.

"That's it, you got the hang of it!" the man running on the treadmill on my right told me.

"Thanks," I said, too afraid of falling off to turn my head and look at him.

He chuckled. "I'm 80 years old. And my friend on your left, he's 84," he said. "A young lady like yourself will catch up in no time."

Yeah, right. At no time in the next months did it seem like I would ever get up to speed, even though I went to the gym every day. Okay, I lost weight, but I still clung to the handrails and my leg muscles screamed. Meanwhile, my 80-something workout buddies ran on, arms pumping, feet blurring.

Lord, I am in serious need of some inspiration. Maybe that's why an article in the health and fitness section of the paper caught my eye at the end of May. Judy Hayes, an Iowa woman about my age, had walked her way back into shape—at least 10,000 steps a day. Ten thousand!

She lost weight, her arthritis improved and she never went anywhere without her pedometer. Then I got to a line about her heel spurs vanishing. Without surgery? Yeah, and she's probably back to her normal size four. Out of habit, I clipped the article anyway.

Several weeks later I dragged my aching self home from the gym wanting never to go back. Two months of self-torture on the treadmill and I still couldn't even do a 20-minute half mile! It was like living my dieting failures all over again.

"Why should I keep trying?" I practically shouted. "What's the use when I make so little progress?" How in the world did that woman in Iowa manage 10,000 steps every day? I wondered. Then it occurred to me, Why don't you call her and find out?

I dug out the clipping, looked up Mrs. Hayes's number on the internet and dialed. "Please, just call me Judy," she said. Heart disease ran in her family, and Judy knew she would be headed for the operating table like her brothers if she didn't lose weight and get in shape. So she took up walking.

Judy was so easy to talk to, I found myself telling her about my struggles, how I was ready to chuck my sneakers and my new fitness program in the trash. "Please don't give up, Jeanette," she said. "My first month I lost only two pounds.

"I would've quit, but my brother convinced me to pray while I walked. It worked! I guess God keeps me going." Judy laughed. "Just take it step by step. Before you know it, you'll be up to 10,000."

She said the pain from her heel spurs was gone, then asked, "By the way, you are stretching before and after you walk?"

"Stretching?" I said. "I've seen some of the women at the gym do it." Raising their arms, extending their legs. I'd never thought to try it, since my muscles were so sore I could barely climb onto the treadmill.

"Ask one of those ladies to help you," Judy said. "Meanwhile, I'll say a prayer for you on my next walk."

I took my new friend's advice and asked a woman at the gym to show me how to stretch. Boy, it was hard! I stuck with it, though. Sure, I'm still sore after my workouts. But a lot less sore.

And I can do a lot more. Guess how many steps I walk between morning and bedtime? Ten thousand. Just like Judy, who persuaded me to get a pedometer so I could see for myself how each little step adds up.

My treadmill partners better look out. I'm nipping at their heels, clocking a 20-minute mile. Believe it or not, I've changed my diet too. Now it's whole grains, lean meats, fresh vegetables and fruits ... and I'll admit it, the once-in-a-blue-moon deep-fried Twinkie (just a bite, though).

I'm down to a size 22, and I've lost 26 pounds.

Becoming fit is a slow process for me, but I'm getting there. Step by step, like Judy says. It took me a long time to put on the weight. It's only natural it will take time to lose it. That's okay. Like Judy, I can use my walking time to pray.

Prayer and fitness have a lot in common. You might not see results right away, but if you stick with it, you will. Commitment, that's the key, a step at a time.

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