Learning from Virginia

John McManamy Health Guide
  • One of my blog readers recently wrote to me with her success story that I want to share:

    In February 2005, Virginia weighed 306 pounds. She was 46, had been overweight all her life, and was not enjoying her life, even though she had a wonderful partner, a nice home and loving adult children. She happened to look at photos of herself from a month or two before and was horrified to see that her neck had totally disappeared.

    “Even though I had bought new clothes and was smartly dressed I still looked a mess!” she wrote. She decided that something serious had to happen. “I was going to have to change my whole lifestyle from one with a default setting of bone idle to something more active. I also realized that I was the only one who could make the necessary changes.”
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    She was encouraged by an earlier display in personal fortitude when she gave up alcohol after it became a life-threatening problem. She quit smoking and slowly she started exercising, with one class a week. Now she does a circuit training class, a salsa class, and an aerobics class, as well as walking the dog at least two miles each day. She also does toning exercises at home on days she doesn’t have an exercise class. During the weekends, she hikes between 10 and 15 miles at a time.

    Virginia eats a calorie-controlled, low fat and low other things diet, making sure she gets at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. She eats fish twice a week (divided between oily and white), and good quality meat twice a week. Whole wheat bread, oat-based breakfast cereal, a probiotic drink, low-fat yogurt, a salad with her lunch and at least eight glasses of water a day round out her daily staples. She admits she can’t resist a fizzy drink (decaf Coke) but “I try not to have too many, as they cause me to bloat.” Decaf tea and herbal tea are her other pleasures.

    Many of the things Virginia once craved – peanut butter, potato chips, salted nuts, chocolate, even butter on bread – became as rare in her house as ethics in an Enron boardroom. She keeps her diet to foodstuffs with less than five percent total fat. Sound stringent? Says Virginia: “I don’t actually like the taste of fatty foods anymore.”

    Take Virginia’s word for it: A healthy individual accustomed to a healthy diet tends to recoil in disgust over what was once a yummy fatty or sugary treat. Yesterday’s temptation becomes today’s gross-out. The palate becomes more subtle, more refined. Real food actually tastes better, becomes more enjoyable. It sounds crazy until you’ve tried it.

    Almost as crazy, Virginia wasn’t going crazy. As the weight came off she gained more energy. “I spent most of about 10 years of my marriage in the hospital and I don't want to be the hopeless manipulative person that I was then,” she confides. Yes, bipolar episodes are bound to recur, but “you can do something about the way you react to them and you can also make the in-between times better too.”
    Granted, “it isn't easy to keep going sometimes (like now) when the depression gets bad, and it certainly isn't easy to take responsibility and stop a manic episode while it is still fun and before it gets out of hand.”

  • But the stakes are way too high for her to turn back. “I’m determined that that is what
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    I'm going to try to do for the rest of my life. My attitude is that ‘I can’ rather than ‘I can’t.'”

    The last thing I would encourage readers to do is go for broke the way Virginia did, as most of us are simply setting ourselves up for failure. Baby steps and allowances for indulgences and backsliding, with modest gains is far more realistic. But please feel encouraged by Virginia’s example. Our illness – like any physical illness – feeds off of bad lifestyle habits. We can’t be perfect, but a little less bad is a good start.

Published On: May 17, 2006