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Starting over


Last modified: 10/14/2012 12:00:00 AM
In January 2011, I was 36 years old, 6-foot-2 and 462 pounds. I was hardly exercising because any activity left me short of breath and my joints aching. I'd been battling high blood pressure for about five years and obstructive sleep apnea for three years. At my annual physical that year, my doctor told me he was increasing the dosage of my blood-pressure medicine.

I knew if I didn't do something for myself soon, it was only a matter of time before I was resting in my casket.

So I did do something - a lot of things, actually.

I had bariatric surgery and sweated through a few months of Jazzercise. And, finally, I found a gym I look forward to going to. Now, less than two years later, I no longer suffer high blood pressure or sleep apnea. My joints don't hurt when I exercise, and I don't get out of breath just going up my stairs.

Today, I'm nearly 200 pounds lighter than when I started. At 265 pounds, I'm just 5 pounds from my goal.

I'm hiking and camping with my family. I can keep up with my nieces and nephews, something I couldn't do before. My big hobby these days is geocaching - a treasure hunt through the woods guided by a GPS.

I've switched jobs, too, from doing computer work at home - where it was easy to cheat on my diet and exercise plan - to wrapping meat at BJ's Wholesale Club.

My secret? Finding a gym where I felt comfortable.

But getting there took a try-just-about-everything journey.

After that physical in January 2011, I started researching weight loss, exercise and healthy eating. The process was very emotional; my feelings ranged from utter embarrassment at having let myself get so heavy and unhealthy, to sheer excitement and wonderment at what life would be like as a thinner person.

My doctor suggested I start with weight-loss surgery.

On a recommendation from my best friend, I decided to go to the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Mass. I chose a vertical sleeve gastrectomy, a procedure that removes a large portion of your stomach so you feel full after eating small amounts of food. But before the Lahey Clinic would operate, I had to lose 50 pounds and keep it off until my surgery date.

I used a strict diet in combination with 45 days of the clinic's prescribed diet of vitamin-enhanced protein shakes, sugar-free Jell-O, Popsicles, pudding and broths. Bon Appetit it wasn't, and sticking with that diet proved to be one of the hardest things I have ever had to do.

In the beginning, I dealt with what they call head hunger, where you're hungry only in your mind. I quickly learned there was a huge difference between what your body actually needs to live on, and what you end up consuming each day.

When I walked into the clinic on June 22, 2011, for my bariatric surgery, I was down to 401 pounds. I'd cleared the 50-pound hurdle, but not by much.

 Five-hour surgery

 

The 90-minute drive down to the Lahey Clinic was a long one. Many emotions ran through my head, including the risk I was taking. But after already losing more than 50 pounds, I was determined to make this work. I knew it was time for me to finally improve my quality of life, or rather, the lack thereof.

The surgery, during which doctors removed 80 percent of my stomach, took almost five hours. I left the clinic and progressed slowly, starting with liquids, and three months later, moving to a normal diet. Despite wanting to cheat, I didn't - even though I had days where I would have paid to eat sawdust instead of drink broth.

As the weight quickly started dropping, I knew I had done the right thing and my excitement and determination only grew stronger. It was time for the next step - my fitness plan. Surgery was not going to be the end of my effort.

My goal was to increase my physical activities more and more, the better I felt. This was challenging. I had my own treadmill and elliptical machine at home, but I knew I'd fail if I tried to work out at home, alone.

Even going to a big-box gym, where I could work out beside others, didn't work. I had had a gym membership with a one-year contract that cost me $99 and I went twice! I felt too out of place and uncomfortable to return.

I asked my doctor for advice and he suggested I "think outside the box." He urged me to do things that got me moving and things I enjoyed enough to do over and over again. Sounds easy right? It's not!

 Cardio set to music

 

Thanks to the suggestion of my neighbor, I tried Jazzercise, 50 minutes of cardio exercise set to music. It incorporates a mix of exercise and dance, and let me tell you, you can work up a great sweat. It was just what I needed to get started.

After all, I love music and dancing, and Jazzercise of Concord quickly became a part of my fitness plan.

I went to classes three to four times a week. My instructor, Laura Tewksbury, was awesome, and even though I was the only man in the class, the women there made me feel super comfortable and were a ton of fun to exercise with. It was just enough to keep me going back for more.

Unfortunately after a few months, my weight loss hit a plateau. I'm not sure what caused me to suddenly stop losing weight, but it was frustrating. I had gotten down to 362 pounds, losing 100 pounds in just under a year. And then it stopped.

I thought losing the first 100 pounds was so easy, that losing the next 100 would be easy, too. Not so much. Frustrated beyond belief, I began experimenting with my diet and exercise routine.

My cousin Jessica had been going to "boot camp" classes at the Fun Intelligent Training gym in Concord for several months, and she suggested I try it. I watched the club's introductory videos (funintelligenttraining.com) and didn't think I was ready for what I saw.

Boot camp is an intense cardio, strength and conditioning class done with a variety of exercises and techniques like flipping a giant tire for 45 seconds, pushing a weighted "sled" around the building and weight-lifting while also doing squats.

But I also knew the reason I was doing so well personally and physically was because I had kept trying things until something worked.

 Boot camp

 

In December 2011, a year after that doomsday physical, I walked into Fun Intelligent Training with my cousin for a boot camp class. This was going to be completely new for me and, I knew, the hardest workout I'd ever tried.

But I felt comfortable as soon as I walked in. I saw people of all ages, shapes and sizes.

This was different from my prior gym experiences at places where the clientele already seemed fit and trim.

My trainer that day was Eric Marsh, the owner of the gym. He reassured me that he'd help me modify the exercises so that I could start slowly. If I decided to return for more, Marsh told me we would work together to build up my strength and stamina. Fair enough I thought. Let's do this.

I sweated more than I ever had. I survived the warm-up of stretching, body-weight squats, crab walks, jumping jacks. That was followed by the boot camp portion, which consists of everything from laps around the building, shaking heavy rope, and various kettle-bell exercises, most of which I had never done in my life.

I was still alive after the hour-long session. But more important, I loved it so much I did come back. Over and over again, and I'm still going a year later. I weighed 360 pounds when I started. Now I'm down to 270.

My workouts aren't easy. What is easy: getting myself to the gym. I actually feel myself craving the exercise, and despite frequent days of soreness, I can't get enough. I feel great!

I am also seeing the results. I look better physically. Not only am I slimmer, but I have added muscle and definition throughout my body. Most important, I feel better. And I know I am maintaining a healthier lifestyle.

My agility, strength and stamina are all at new all-time peaks, and I can do more now physically than I have been able to do in a long time.

We're told that healthy eating and exercise are the remedies for America's obesity epidemic. My own life proves it. But I think it's more than that. You need to find what motivates you enough to stick with a routine over and over.

Some people can drop the pounds at home, running on a treadmill. Others can find inspiration at a gym, working out alone beside dozens of others. Neither worked for me. I needed a gym that challenged me and held me accountable but also rooted for me.

I keep coming back, too, for the camaraderie.

We celebrate one another's successes - and birthdays. We run races together, like The Tough Mudder and Renegade Challenge. Every few months a photographer sets up a studio at the gym for anyone who wants a visual of their fitness success. At Christmas, we'll have a potluck party and celebrate those who've met their goals.

If your goal is to drop some weight, feel better or get stronger, start with what works for you. It can be a tough journey, but it's worth it.

(Eric Merriam lives in Pembroke.)


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