It's a Saturday night in May, 2004, and my wife Kathy and I have returned home from an evening out with friends. Kathy's in the bathroom brushing her teeth as I busy myself getting ready for bed. Suddenly it happens -- bam! A pain shoots through my head like I've never felt before, as if someone has hit me with a hammer. Suddenly, a strong and persistent pounding begins and I realize it's my heart racing. I'm short of breath, I'm dizzy, and I feel nauseous. Somehow I gather myself and without saying a word to Kathy, I crawl into bed. A short while later Kathy joins me, kisses me good night, then leans over and turns out the bedside lamp and, oblivious to my condition, drifts off to sleep. I lay there in the darkness, scared and distressed. I know something has happened, I just don't know what.
That something, as it turns out, was a mild stroke. There I was, 43 and a stroke victim.
The road to recovery has taken years to complete. When the stroke happened I was a stressed-out workaholic, a former health buff who had neglected his physical fitness and over the years had gained a significant amount of weight. I was far too heavy and out of shape to sustain a healthy lifestyle, and the stress of life only compounded my poor health.
Following the advice of my doctor, I took several months away from work and focused on regaining my health. I began dieting to curb my calorie intake and bought a gym membership to work at getting into better physical condition. I signed up with a personal trainer and began attending a fitness boot camp program. Sure enough, the weight started dropping off -- I lost about 30 pounds. I seemed to be getting healthier with every passing week.
The problem was, I hated my life. The diet I had imposed on myself was ill-advised and the ballistic exercise program I had undertaken left my arthritic knees swollen and my out-of-shape body aching. Eventually, my inner spirit weakened and I slowly slid back into my old habits. Within a few years I regained all of the weight I had lost, and more. Every now and then I would get frustrated with myself and try some new, radical diet and involve myself in some over-the-top fitness push, neither of which proved sustainable long-term. Eventually I would give up and regain any weight I had lost.
Fast-forward to Christmas, 2009. Kathy's parents, her sister, and our three sons are all at our home celebrating the holidays. It's a sunny day and Kathy is bugging us to step out on the front steps for a family photo together. Finally we all gather outside to appease her and the picture is taken. Within a day, Kathy has uploaded the pictures from Christmas onto a digital picture frame that sits in the front entryway of our home.
As it turns out, I'm in the entryway one afternoon getting my coat when the family picture scrolls into view. I look at the picture and am shocked at the image of me -- I look like a house! There I am, standing on the front step with my family, and man... I look completely overweight and unhealthy.
I stared at that picture until the next picture scrolled onto the screen and I thought, "Tom Watson, what are you doing?" I took off my shoes and went upstairs to step on the scale in our bathroom. I hadn't checked my weight in who knows how long (because subconsciously, I already knew I wasn't going to like what the scale would reveal). I closed my eyes as I placed both feet on the scale, hoping the damage was not going to be as bad as I thought. Unfortunately, it was worse -- 264 pounds! The guy who had graduated from high school at 185 pounds, the guy who had played competitive football at 215 pounds, was now a bulging 265 pounds!
With the image of that Christmas picture bouncing around in my head, I decided then and there that I needed to make a life change. I had already had one smaller stroke, and I was heavier than ever. I had tried all kinds of fad diets and ballistic exercise programs to maintain my weight, but none of that had worked.
The fact was, my metabolism had slowed down and I was far less active than I had once been. Additionally, I was not eating or exercising in a fashion that would allow me to achieve sustainable health. With those realizations drumming around in my brain, I decided I needed to be involved in a program that I could sustain daily, one that would lead me to better results and better overall health.
I needed help to build that plan, so I met with a nutritionist who helped me learn more about the foods I should and should not be eating, and gave me strategies to deal with various eating habits. Then I met with a fitness trainer who helped me set up a sustainable fitness plan that included low-impact exercise, including brisk walking, cycling, and stretching. Not only did I learn about the importance of getting my heart rate up, but my new exercise program allowed me to continue my workouts daily because my body -- in particular, my wretched old knees -- could sustain the workouts without swelling up and becoming so sore that I just didn't want to carry on. Between the nutritionist, the fitness trainer, and the help of my wife Kathy, we set out to create a new Tom.
As I began to implement the new health and wellness plan for myself, I quickly gained confidence and realized that I could do this! The fitness plan was something I could sustain -- it was simple, in fact. All it required me to do was take 10,000 steps or more a day. Which sounds like a lot, but in reality is really only about an hour and a half of walking a day. I bought myself a pedometer and set out to achieve my 10,000 steps or more every day. What I found was that as long as I achieved those steps and stuck to a better eating plan, the weight dropped off. The more my weight dropped, the better I looked and the better I felt- -a nd people began to notice the weight loss and comment on how good I was looking, which just encouraged me more (not that I was doing this for anyone but myself, but the encouragement certainly helped keep me on track).
As time went on, I challenged myself even more. I entered the Ride to Conquer Cancer -- a two-day ride covering over 230 kilometres. I began to ride my bike (again another low-impact exercise), alternating days of that with walking. By the following June (six months into the "new Tom" initiative), I participated in the Ride to Conquer Cancer some 35 pounds lighter than I had been the previous Christmas. My son, Kelly, and I completed the Ride to Conquer Cancer that June and we did very well, I might add. With all of that success behind me, I realized I had taken a huge step in my life. It felt good to be on this path.
Fast-forward three years (which is today as I write this to you), and I have lost just over 80 pounds since that shocking Christmas picture was taken. It's been a great journey and one that I know I will be able to sustain for a lifetime. It's a gift I have given to myself, and a gift I want to encourage all of you to give to yourselves.
Many of you, like me, have struggled with your fitness and nutrition. Heart and stroke disease continues to be a significant contributor to the overall death rates across North America today. Don't let the next statistic be you. Live a healthier life -- start it today. Find a sustainable health and wellness plan that works for you. Make the choice to feel better, act on that choice, and enjoy the rewards of a healthier life! I want you to know that if I can make this change in my life and sustain it, so can you. Get your walking shoes on and take your first steps toward a healthier you!
The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada has an amazing video that reminds me of how important my choice to improve my eating and physical fitness has been to my overall life. I encourage you to visit their site and watch the video message entitled "Make Health Last -- Report Urges Boomers to Make Healthy Change."
I know my last 10 years are more likely to be better than they would have been had I not embarked on this new "healthy me journey."
So what do you say -- will you start your "new you journey" today? Make it sustainable and enjoy the rewards that come with a healthier, happier you.
This story first appeared on The Huffington Post