When Kevin Gustafson gave up drinking alcohol in 2004, he knew he was in for some significant changes. With a clear mind and a renewed sense of purpose, he committed to making a new life for himself.
But his body didn’t reflect the dramatic change he’d already made by deciding to stop drinking. Weighing nearly 300 pounds, the 41-year-old felt sluggish and out of shape. His cholesterol level was 229 and his blood pressure 160/99 – both too high.
His doctor had prescribed cholesterol-lowering medication in 2003, but pills weren’t a cure-all; Gustafson knew he needed to tend to his overall health.
From Fast Food to Real Food
Overweight since high school, Gustafson had always eaten whatever was in front of him. And too often, that was unhealthy food like pizza. By January 2005, his weight crept up to 295 pounds – significant even for a 6-foot 3-inch man. He had once lost as much as 50 pounds, but his weight-loss efforts were always based on starvation diets.
“I ate salad three meals a day,” he says. “But I got bored eating like that, and I reverted back to my old ways.”
Then, in January 2005, Gustafson attended a nutrition seminar at the Life Time Fitness club close to his home in Brooklyn Park, Minn. He learned how to change his diet and started learning how to change his life.
He realized he needed more education and support. So after the nutrition seminar, he began meeting regularly with nutrition coach Mariah Ledin, who encouraged him to eat smaller meals more frequently and helped him build on the almost-healthy habits he had developed already, like drinking milk.
“Kevin drank chocolate milk two or three times a day,” Ledin recalls. The milk contained important nutrients, but being chocolate, it was high in sugar and calories. “I asked him to try sugar-free chocolate syrup or to go without it. Eventually, he decided he didn’t even need chocolate milk.”
Ledin says it’s common for people to eat or drink something every day without paying attention to whether or not they want it – and sometimes just paying attention helps break the habit.
In addition to cutting back on unnecessary sugars from chocolate milk and packaged foods from office vending machines, Gustafson began planning ahead. He browned ground turkey so he could bring tacos for lunch instead of eating a 600-calorie blueberry muffin from the vending machine or a sandwich and fries from McDonald’s. He began making recipes from an American Health Association cookbook. By eating smaller portions five or six times a day, Gustafson started to lose weight.
Snacking, Ledin explains, prevents the hunger that frequently causes people to overeat at meals, so while Gustafson ate more often, he was consuming fewer calories per day. He lost more than 30 pounds in two months, and his cholesterol and blood pressure numbers dropped.
Because Gustafson was learning to make good nutrition decisions, temporary setbacks didn’t frustrate him. “He might overdo it one week, but he’d get right back on track,” Ledin says. She also referred him to personal trainer Michael Diatelevi, who helped Gustafson add another healthy component to his new life: exercise.
Exercise by the Numbers
Diatelevi believes that his personal training clients should understand the reasons behind the program he creates for them so that they buy into it fully – and stay committed for the long run.
Gustafson had done cardiovascular work previously, mostly using stationary bikes at the club. Diatelevi varied the cardio routines to make it less likely that Gustafson would get bored and quit. He also added resistance exercises to build muscle and increase Gustafson’s fat-burning capabilities.
Diatelevi suggested Gustafson use more than just body weight as his benchmark. They measured his body fat, VO2 max (how efficiently the body uses oxygen) and anaerobic threshold (AT, the point at which the body stops burning fat for energy). His body fat was 37 percent, his VO2 max was 26.8 ml/kg/min (the “very poor” range for his age group), and his AT was 137 beats per minute.
All of these numbers needed serious improvement. First, Diatelevi added resistance exercises in the form of a machine circuit, which had Gustafson hopping between weight machines that worked his legs, arms and core. He also used a treadmill.
“Kevin followed through and had tremendous discipline,” Diatelevi says. Gustafson bought a heart-rate monitor to ensure that he was working out at the appropriate intensity, and he began training five or six days a week. As he gained strength, Gustafson added exercises that included a balance component, such as free weights, stability-ball work and core-muscle exercises.
Diatelevi and Ledin worked together to make sure Gustafson’s physical activity and nutritional plans were in sync. For instance, as Gustafson added more resistance exercise, Ledin created meal plans that included more protein to help build and repair his muscles.
In eight months, Gustafson dropped 77 pounds, cut his body fat in half, and improved his VO2 max to 44.1 and AT to 148. He looked better and was more physically fit.
Gustafson notes that his sobriety went a long way toward helping him stay committed. “Eating well and working out is a lot easier to do with a clear head,” he says.
Learning a New Way
By asking questions and following expert advice, Gustafson began to understand how diet and exercise fit together to help him achieve permanent body change. Before, he had seen these commitments as a means to an end; now he sees them as a way of life.
The changes improved Gustafson’s confidence levels, Ledin says; formerly reserved, he began cracking jokes and opening up. “I can just tell how much happier he is now,” she says. “It’s been a huge turnaround.”
Best of all, Gustafson’s blood pressure and cholesterol levels are now normal, which means he no longer has to take medication. While he initially believed that all he wanted to do was lose weight, he now realizes that weight is just one piece of overall health. And with that in mind, he has set new goals.
He recently finished an O2 heart-rate training class, and he’s considering running a road race this spring. “When I started, I never envisioned myself getting this far,” he says. “The advice and support Michael and Mariah gave me changed the way I look, but more importantly, it changed the way I feel about myself.”
Erin Peterson is a Minnesota-based freelance writer. She has written for Midwest Home and Yoga Journal.