Mission Accomplished

These three people took on BIG FITNESS GOALS this year, and actually arrived at the finish line! Here’s how they did what they set out to do.

If you set some weight-loss, fitness or healthy-lifestyle resolutions last year, you’re in fine company. About a gazillion other people did the same. By now you’ve probably gotten a pretty good sense of how your own personal plan fared. But do you ever wonder how some of those other folks’ resolutions worked out?

On the one hand, it’s nice to know that other people encounter the same sorts of obstacles that you do – silly excuses, surprise set-backs or even just the occasional, inexplicable stall-out. On the other hand, there’s no better guide than a real person who has already successfully made the journey down a road that you yourself are treading. By pointing out the briar patches, slippery spots and jagged drop-offs, they can save you a lot of time and trouble. They can also give you a helpful dose of faith.

So here are three individuals who reached their fitness goals – from losing significant weight to discarding a lethargic lifestyle to getting back a former body – all while confronting real-life ordeals, such as lack of time, exercise boredom and physical limitations. All three approached their health and fitness challenges by investigating what was working for them personally (and what wasn’t) in order to determine the best path for success and then course-correct along the way.
It wasn’t always easy, but each met his or her goal by year’s end – in some cases ahead of schedule. We hope the lessons they learned along the way can inspire you to do the same.

Name: Dave Werner
Age: 42
Home: Seattle, Washington
Mission: Losing 30 pounds of fat
Obstacle: Chronic back pain from surgery
Plan of Attack: Work within his physical limitations
Lesson Learned: “The excuses are all nonsense. It’s just a matter of changing old habits.”

Two years ago when Dave Werner, then 40, looked at pictures of himself in a bathing suit, taken during a family vacation, this is what he saw: “Fat hanging over my waistband, a sagging chest, double chin, and jowls. It was a rude wake-up call,” he says.

It was definitely not the lean and muscular physique typical of U.S. Navy SEALs – the elite special forces group of which Dave was a member from age 18 to 31. Back then, it was routine for him to swim up to five miles in the ocean, ski 20 kilometers carrying a heavy pack, and kayak up to 25 kilometers. All that wear and tear, though, gradually took its toll.

About 10 years ago, he underwent back surgery that in essence ended his SEAL career. Dave became a civilian, studied engineering, and soon settled into a different kind of routine: slumping at his desk for up to 10 hours per day, staring at a computer screen, and then coming home grumpy and tense from his tender back.

“For 10 years I basically did nothing physical,” Dave says. And in the photographs from that time, it showed. But Dave admits that even those snapshots didn’t translate into immediate action. When the New Year rolled around, though, he spoke to his wife about his health and, as he puts it, she “kindly hinted that I should lose some weight.”

At the time, Dave, at 5-10, weighed 195 pounds – 30 pounds over his self-described “fighting weight” – and he had 28 percent body fat. He grew determined to get back to where he was physically 10 years earlier.

Dave had a clear goal: Lose 30 pounds of fat. Dave’s back, however, was literally a bit of a sore spot.

Weightlifting? Out of the question, his doctors said. Aerobic classes? No way. Even the treadmill was too painful. But instead of getting discouraged, Dave focused on what he could do rather than what he couldn’t, and ended up alternating between two activities that did not aggravate his back: swimming and the Stairmaster.

Dave’s “30 pounds of fat” plan was simple from his viewpoint. “I figured that I needed to burn 500 calories a workout, five days a week, and I would lose my fat in eight months,” he says. “That was the plan – just burn the calories.”

Dave joined a local YMCA, but almost from the get-go it became apparent that his Navy SEAL ego didn’t sync up too well with his out-of-shape body. “It was rough at first,” he says. “I couldn’t do a 500-calorie workout. I got 300 at the most. In the pool, I could complete just five or six laps, or about 200 to 300 yards continuously, before I’d have to take a break.”

So Dave grudgingly lowered the bar and focused on gradually building momentum. His initial ambition for swimming was to do a quarter of a mile – no matter how often he had to take breaks. Then he worked up to one-half mile and then finally one continuous mile.

“From there I worked on my time,” Dave says. “The first time I could swim a mile without stopping it took around 50 minutes. Then over the next few months I got it down to just over 30 minutes.”

He took much the same approach to the Stairmaster. “I began at level four for 15 minutes and thought I was going to die,” he says. “Now I can do level 15 for an hour straight and burn more than 800 calories in a session.”

Of course there were setbacks along the way, but Dave embraced each one as a unique challenge, and learned how to go with the flow. “If I pulled something in my shoulder and couldn’t swim for a few weeks, I’d switch to doing a wider variety of stairclimbing exercises,” he says. “It was the same if I pulled a calf muscle and had to stay off the Stairmaster. I just did more swimming.”

Dave reached his 30-pound goal in six months. His double chin melted away, his body fat percentage nose-dived, and the constant chronic back pain that plagued him is now a distant memory. His reborn enthusiasm for fitness has even jump-started a new career. Last year, he became a certified strength and conditioning coach. He now provides strength coaching for the University of Washington ice-hockey team, and also serves as an Olympic weightlifting coach. Meanwhile he continues to hone his own physique with kettlebell workouts and other challenging fitness technologies.

Dave is happy with where he’s landed, but he acknowledges that getting started was the toughest part. He says there were several reasons for his fitness inertia. “For years I didn’t think I could afford a gym membership, but I just squeezed stuff until I found the money,” he says. “And then there was the time factor. When you add in commute, work, dinner, family time, there usually isn’t any time left in the day to work out. Yet, it got to the point where I wanted it badly enough that I just started making time. Once you start making working out a priority, it fits into your day just fine.”

Dave says he ultimately found the extra time the same way he found the membership money – by trimming here and there. He went to bed sooner so he could arrive at work a half hour earlier, and then shortened his lunch, which allowed him to leave work an hour sooner. “So I got to the gym and did my workout and still arrived home at my usual hour. The time was there, but like many people, I had to convince myself that it was there.”

Looking back, Dave is matter-of-fact. There’s more than a little Navy SEAL in his voice when he says: “The excuses were all nonsense. It’s just a matter of changing old habits.”

Name: Janet Clark
Age: 45
Home: Petaluma, California
Mission: Winning back her health and vitality
Obstacle: Schedule-killing commute
Plan of Attack: Finding a right-place, right-time yoga class
Lesson Learned: “Compassionate self-examination can help you see where you need to go.”

Last year Janet Clark visited her doctor because she was constantly feeling fatigued. All the blood work and disease-focused tests revealed nothing unusual, but when she stepped on the scale as part of the examination, it told a very different story. She weighed more than 200 pounds. It was the heaviest she had ever been, “even when I was pregnant with my children,” says Janet, 45. “I was completely shocked. It was a big red flag.”

Her physician told Janet “in a very nice way” that her inactivity and excess weight was the cause of her tiredness. His prescription: “Be more active.” That was it – no direction or advice on how to go about it. So Janet began the New Year with the same lofty aspiration as millions of other people: lose weight.

But Janet wasn’t really interested in trying to drop a few quick pounds or squeeze into her high school jeans; she wanted to take control of her health. And for that, she knew she needed some new skills and direction.

Her initial step was to join a Weight Watchers group to address her eating habits. Next, she examined her exercise options. This turned out to be the biggest hurdle, because, at the time, Janet’s professional life was built around the ultimate killer commute.

Janet worked as a legal assistant in a San Francisco law firm, but lived in the town of Petaluma – 38 miles to the north. A typical day could last 12 hours. It began at 5:30 a.m. when she hopped a bus to the city so she could be at her desk between 6:30 a.m. and 7 a.m. She worked mostly nonstop until 3 p.m. when she took another bus – often creeping through the molasses-like traffic – that got her home (if she was lucky) by 5 p.m., just in time to switch into mom mode. Stop off at a health club? Ha!

Since she was already tired and worn down, Janet instinctively knew that forcing herself to do more, more, more was not the answer. But instead of admitting defeat, Janet got practical. “I asked myself: What do I like? What can I do? What would work for me?” It turned out that yoga fit the bill on all three counts.

The next week, Janet attended a weekend Ashtanga yoga class in Petaluma and found what she was looking for. Ashtanga is an intense and often physically demanding yoga style, which provided the rigorous activity Janet was lacking. But the instructor happily offered beginners all sorts of modifications and options for challenging poses, so Janet could work within her limitations and not feel restricted or discouraged.

“For me, the yoga was more than just exercising,” Janet says. “It relieved a lot of stress. The benefits were more than I could have gotten at any health spa.”

Soon, the single hour-and-a-half class on Sundays didn’t seem like enough, so Janet explored Ashtanga class schedules in San Francisco in hopes of finding something that could fit into her crazy-commute routine. She searched yoga studios online until she found one that offered a regular 4:30 p.m. class – and also happened to be near her bus stop.

It was the ideal scenario. “I’d finish class at 6 p.m., jump on the 6:15, and often the traffic had lightened up enough by then that I got home in no time,” she says. “Plus I always felt so relaxed from the yoga, it made the commute much more enjoyable. It was a total win-win situation.”

Sticking to the one-two punch of Weight Watchers and a three-times-per-week yoga class, Janet soon dropped the 45 pounds she wanted, but by then, yoga had inspired her to stay the course. “I’m at a good place now, physically and mentally,” Janet says. “But there are some more advanced yoga poses I’d like to do, so I want to lose a bit more weight to see if it makes a difference in my practice.”

Looking back, Janet believes her success stemmed from how her yoga taught her to focus on the issues she needed to work on. “In yoga, it’s a lot of centering – where you are and how much you can do. It’s not a team effort; it’s a personal-growth thing,” she says. “There are poses, like backbends, that I struggle with, but I’ve learned to focus on myself, where I am right now, and what I can do at the moment. And this has carried over to other aspects of my life.”

This approach has helped Janet deal with a variety of obstacles as they’ve surfaced. For instance, she reached a plateau after losing 25 pounds and suddenly found herself challenged to keep going. “Instead of getting frustrated, and perhaps giving up, I studied my routine to see if I should change anything,” she says. “I asked myself, ‘How was my diet?’ Once I looked, I saw I was eating the same foods every day, so I switched it around. I kept asking questions: ‘How am I progressing in my practice? What can I do to keep myself motivated?'”

Janet says that more than any other single lesson or skill, it is this habit of calm and compassionate self-examination she learned in yoga that has helped her reach her goal of winning back her health and vitality. “Once I discovered where I was,” she says, “it was much easier to figure out where I needed to go.”

Name: Natalie Young Lee
Age: 33
Home: Phoenix, Arizona
Mission: Jump-starting a lethargic lifestyle
Obstacle: Recurring start-stop workout cycle
Plan of Attack: Joining a motivating fitness group
Lesson Learned: “Good health and a good life go hand in hand.”

At the tender age of 33, Natalie Young Lee felt like she needed a complete life makeover. A Phoenix attorney specializing in labor and employment law, Natalie, as she describes it, had suddenly become “extremely lethargic.” She had adopted poor eating habits, rarely worked out, and had drifted 20 pounds away from the weight at which she felt the most comfortable. As in most similar cases, the impetus for this sudden physical change was related to another problem.

“A lot of it had to do with not being pleased with my job,” says Natalie. “I was frustrated with it, and that started impacting the way I was treating my body,” she explains. Natalie was increasingly feeling drawn toward helping children, and her current practice in the area of labor and employment wasn’t very motivating. “I couldn’t wake up and feel excited about going to work anymore,” she says.

Once Natalie realized the source of her trouble, she switched her law practice to an area that allows her to work more closely on children’s issues. “It’s much more fulfilling,” she says, “and instead of being a drain, my work has become a natural source of energy.”

With her professional life in place, Natalie concentrated next on jump-starting her health. She knew the importance of consistent exercise but was notoriously sporadic in her efforts, stuck in a cycle of working out for a few weeks and then “getting derailed by life.”

“I was tired of being on this yo-yo where I’d get gung-ho for a while, and maybe drop 10 pounds, but never really go the full distance,” she says. “Once I lost momentum, I would fall back into old habits, and think, ‘Okay, what did I really accomplish here?'”

Natalie suspected that her past failings were a result of not exercising during her most productive time. “I had never looked at that before,” she says, “but I had to be honest with myself. I discovered that I needed to begin my day by working out. I couldn’t tell myself that I would work out after work, because in reality, I just wouldn’t do it.”

The next challenge was finding the ideal workout environment. Natalie asked herself, “Do I want to work out at home or find a different place to do it? What is most likely to motivate me?” She considered doing at-home tapes but concluded it would get boring fast. Next she considered joining a fitness club. Natalie suspected it would be good for her to be around other people, but she suspected that the stimulation of clanking weights, whirling stationary bikes and wandering fellow exercisers was unlikely to hold much lasting attraction for her.

“I thrive on being motivated by the people around me,” she says. “But it’s more than just having them around. I needed to be working with them. If I’m by myself, it’s too easy to say, ‘I’m too tired; I’m gonna cut it short today.'” Natalie knew that would be a lot less tempting if she had a workout buddy. “With someone else working alongside you,” she explains, “you’re going to complete your goal, even if it’s just committing to 25 minutes on the treadmill.”

Natalie solved her problem by joining a group fitness class that meets every morning at 6 a.m. for one hour, Monday through Friday. Her workout group consists of 15 people and the routine alternates between cardiovascular work and weight training. “A trainer stands in front of you as you do each exercise for one minute. Everyone does the exercises at one time, but even though we are working individually, we’re still working together.”

The group members all began on the same level and then gradually increased their resistance, time, or number of sets for each exercise. Once a month, participants can take a fitness test to determine if they have progressed enough to move up to the next level of the class. The initial test involves performing a specific number of pushups and sit-ups, and running 1 1⁄4 miles in a maximum of 12 minutes.

“When I began, I couldn’t do the number of pushups required, or even the running,” Natalie recalls. “But by the time I had my first test it was amazing to see the progress I had made.”

Natalie got used to hearing her buddies shout words of encouragement as she huffed and puffed, just as it became natural for her to lend verbal support to a colleague struggling to finish his or her reps. “We all share in the joys and pains of working out,” she says.

Even with the combination of the motivating morning time and a strong supporting cast, there were moments when Natalie knew she was close to calling it quits. “The first two weeks were the toughest,” she says. “I kept asking myself, ‘What did I get myself into?’ The workouts weren’t easy, and if you didn’t show up, the trainers asked you about it the next time in front of your peers. But my body quickly adjusted to getting up early and working out, and now I can’t imagine not being there in the morning with everyone. I look forward to it.”

Although Natalie didn’t have specific physical goals when she joined the group, she quickly noticed that this approach to fitness was paying off. She increased her muscle tone all over her body, and her triceps and biceps (“my weakest areas”) became much more developed. “Also, my clothes are now less tight around my waist,” she says.

Once she felt her energy coming back, Natalie, who values time outdoors, found a way to take fitness camaraderie on the road – or the path, anyway. She found a fitness buddy who liked to hike, and they began taking regular weekend jaunts through nearby parks.

Natalie is happy with the strong body she’s garnered through all her tough workouts. But she still feels that the greatest return from her efforts has been the ability to enjoy good health and energy. “If this experience has taught me anything,” she says, “it’s that the single most important thing in your life is your life. Good health and a good life go hand in hand.”


Matthew Solan is a health and fitness writer whose work has appeared in Yoga Journal, Men's Fitness and other publications.

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