Having grown up as a sedentary, chubby kid, Paul Nowak knew he wanted his own kids to embrace a more active lifestyle. But as a long-time couch potato with 100 extra pounds on his 5-foot-11-inch frame, the dad of two wasn’t setting a great example.
Drained from long days at the office, Nowak came home each night to the joyful but demanding responsibilities of his young family. Instead of being active together, though, the family settled in front of the TV to unwind — often with heavy meals and fattening snacks.
“I knew I needed to change my habits so I could be a good example to my kids, and so I could run around and play with them,” says Nowak, 38, who lives with his wife, Stephanie, and children Emily and Austin, ages 7 and 5, in suburban Phoenix. “I didn’t want us to be another one of those overweight families that just sat around.”
Competing demands for his time kept Nowak’s health and fitness on the backburner for years. Then an active getaway opened his eyes to just how far he’d let himself slide, and convinced him it was time for a real, sustainable change.
A Downward Slope
Nowak had carried an extra 30 to 40 pounds since the mid-’90s, but it didn’t bother him because he could still participate in his favorite activities. A self-proclaimed weekend warrior, he enjoyed sailing, biking, snowboarding and occasional runs. Though he didn’t work out consistently, his construction job kept him moving.
Nowak’s priorities began to shift when he became a dad in 2003, and again when he and business partner Matt Waltz founded their construction management company in 2004. As vice president, he found himself in a less active but more stressful position that left him with little time for himself. His weight began to spiral out of control. “I had my family and my business, but my health and fitness always came last,” he recalls.
Nowak’s diet didn’t help. He often started his days with fast-food breakfast sandwiches and entertained clients over drinks and rich meals. And he and Waltz regularly treated their employees to pizza, beer and chicken wings to build team camaraderie. Meals at home were few and far between.
To combat his growing weight problem, Nowak periodically began diet and exercise programs, but he always stopped before lasting changes took root. “I made a lot of excuses, like, ‘I know I’m out of shape, but I can still do anything I want to do,’” he says.
But that changed in March 2008, when the 275-pound Nowak joined some of his friends for their annual snowboarding getaway to British Columbia. For the first time, he found himself struggling to keep up with his pals in the deep backcountry snow. “That was probably the worst time I ever had snowboarding,” Nowak says. “I was physically tired to the point where it was hard to enjoy the trip.”
Making a Comeback
Nowak returned home and began to take a hard look at his health and fitness — and he didn’t like what he saw. He began working out sporadically at the local gym, but lacking a specific plan or goals, he didn’t make much progress. So in June, Nowak enlisted the support of Waltz to help him step up his exercise regimen. The two of them and a few other friends began meeting at 5:30 a.m. four to six days a week, either hitting the gym, running sprints at the local track, or practicing Brazilian jiu jitsu, a martial art Nowak had dabbled in for a few years.
Though it wasn’t easy getting started, Nowak kept coming back. He felt accountable to his workout buddies, and he finally had a clear goal: to be a fit dad.
“I didn’t start working out for fun,” Nowak says. “I started because I had committed to making a change. I decided enough was enough, and I was going to make it a priority to get healthy.”
Nowak initially went at his own pace, doing two to three laps up and down the bleachers while his buddies did 10. Or he would run/walk for alternating half miles, speeding up over time as he gained more stamina. In a few short weeks, Nowak had built his endurance, and the pounds began melting off. He started looking forward to beginning his day with exercise, knowing that he could then give more focus and energy to his work and save evenings for family activities.
By the end of 2008, Nowak had dropped 70 pounds; he felt stronger, lighter and more flexible. When training in jiu jitsu — which had grown into a passion — he felt unstoppable. His new regimen helped him shed another 30 pounds in the first half of 2009.
On the annual snowboarding trip to Canada that spring, Nowak felt like a new man. “That was about the best time I ever had snowboarding,” he says. “I could physically do so much more; we rode four days straight, and I had no problem in the deep, deep snow and backcountry terrain.”
Results that Stick
In combination with a healthier diet — including smarter on-the-go meal choices and more homemade meals, including plenty of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and lean meats — those regular, variety-packed workouts helped Nowak trim down to a lean 175 pounds and gave him the confidence to push his limits. He entered his first Brazilian jiu jitsu competition in 2009 and placed third. In 2010, he placed first. In January 2010, he completed his first marathon, then ran a second one in May.
While Nowak is energized by his own success, he’s also excited about his company’s commitment to making health and fitness accessible to its employees (the company now pays for employee health-club memberships). He’s also proud of his healthy family. He’s thrilled that exercising and eating right are a way of life for Emily and Austin, who both train in jiu jitsu and enjoy swimming and bike riding. His wife, Stephanie, has also caught the exercise bug. Their dedication inspires Nowak to continue making his own health and fitness a priority.
“I feel really good now,” he says. “I keep feeling better and stronger, and I just want to keep moving forward.”
Suzy Frisch is a freelance writer in Minneapolis.