We've all been there one time or another — working long hours, eating poorly and considering remote control operation a form of exercise. So what makes a person transform from a self-proclaimed couch potato, whose idea of exercise is a stroll in the park, to a triathlete? Mortality and tenacity. That's what inspired Denver resident Colleen Anderson to make major changes in her lifestyle.
In October 1999, Anderson realized it was time to reevaluate her life. Chronic heartburn was keeping her up at night, and a comment from her mother — "You're the ideal candidate for diabetes, Colleen" — was constantly in the back of her mind. Anderson, now 37, had a history of diabetes on both sides of her family, and she was beginning to see her parents' health problems mirrored in herself. At 5'8," she weighed 189 pounds and had high blood sugar and cholesterol. "I knew then that this long tributary of diabetes was flowing into me," Anderson says.
Her first step on the road to health was mental and emotional wellness: She resigned from an unsatisfying, high-stress job and found new employment. By good fortune, Anderson's new office was filled with positive role models — women striving for good health and supporting each other in their quest for fitness. During a lunch break one day, Anderson asked a coworker, "Is there anything you could not live without?" The reply: "Exercise."
Getting Off the Couch
Anderson was surprised and curious. "My idea of exercise," she says, "was dancing and cleaning house." Within a month, she started working out in a makeshift gym on the third floor of her office building. The equipment was old and the setting less than glamorous. "But I had no excuse for skipping workouts; the equipment was convenient and free," Anderson says. She started her exercise program slowly by walking for 10 minutes on the treadmill and working out for another 10 minutes on a Stairmaster. "When I started, I had real body image problems," she says. "There was no way I wanted anyone to see me." She gradually increased the frequency and length of her workouts until she was exercising five times a week for at least 30 minutes a session. "My lunchtime workout became a great stress reliever and took my focus off food," she says. "I really enjoyed the sense of success my noontime exercise gave me."
The next hurdle was changing her eating habits. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, Anderson's mother suggested she see a nutritionist. By December, she agreed and set up a schedule of regular appointments. "It's the hardest month of the year to diet," she remembers, but the scale was nearing 200 pounds and her size 18 clothes were tight. "The visits kept me accountable."
Anderson says it was no easy feat to go on the highly restrictive diet prescribed by the nutritionist. Dairy, wheat and coffee were off limits, replaced with foods and supplements Anderson had never heard of. "I had to go to a natural products store to find everything," she says. However, Anderson — still suspicious of the dietitian's advice — looked for dietary information wherever she could find it. That's where Delicious Living magazine came in. "I began reading the magazine from cover to cover," she says, "because I wanted to know why nutrition and exercise make a difference."
A turning point came when Anderson realized she was having fewer sinus and gastrointestinal problems. "I became aware of what was in my food," she says. In addition, Anderson took more time to prepare her meals because the diet required so many different food items. "I knew that if I didn't cook, I couldn't put variety in my diet, and I'd fall off the wagon," she says.
By January and February of 2000, Anderson was seeing results. "I could finally run in the park without feeling self-conscious," she says. Anderson also began snowshoeing regularly and entered a 5K snowshoe competition. She liked exercising so much that she let a coworker convince her to join a group that was competing in a triathlon at the end of the summer.
An ambitious goal to attain — a half-mile swim, 12.5-mile bike ride and 3.1-mile run — and not much time to train. But she did begin training, calling on friends for coaching and moral support. "My skill level was so rudimentary compared to my training teammates that I had to battle emotional discouragement," she remembers. "Yet each Friday night I would set out my clothing, gear and breakfast items for Saturday's workout with the group. I made fitness a priority and limited parties where alcohol and food would be a main emphasis," she says.
She also began weight training, which she believes boosted her metabolism. "I began to see a stronger and leaner self emerge from my previous body shape," she says. Perseverance prevailed, and by race day a few months later, Anderson was ready.
"Standing on the lakeshore before the race surrounded by all those athletic women was really hard. As the heats were called, I thought, this is the closest thing to mortality; this is like death — it's getting closer," she says. However, Anderson realized it was her life — the sense of accomplishment and empowerment — that was becoming more vivid because of her fitness. Her bigger race, the competition against her own unhealthy habits, had begun, and she was winning. The triathlon was simply a symbol of her efforts.
"Near the finish line were many of my female friends and supporters, those who helped me train, taking pictures and cheering me on," she says. Anderson finished the triathlon in 1:49:21.
"It was empowering. Becoming fit has given me confidence and better problem-solving skills. I'm so much happier than I was," she says. Anderson's doctor and family are also happier; her last physical showed a significant reduction in blood pressure, LDL (bad) cholesterol and coronary and diabetes risk.
Since the race, Anderson has continued to train and try things she never would have previously considered, including a canoe trip in the mountains. Her biggest challenge now is remembering that fitness is about good health, not about weight goals: She may never be a size 12, she says, but she has accomplished wellness.
Kimberly Lord Stewart is director of content for Healthwell.com and author of "Cooking with Kim," an internet column about organic cooking.