By Pamela M. Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP
I’ve got a terrific story to share. I recently attended the annual meeting for Anytime Fitness health clubs here in Washington, D.C. It was a glorious warm autumn evening and my good friends, Anytime Fitness founders Chuck Runyon and Dave Mortensen, steered me over to meet “a very special woman.” There stood 71-year-old Betty Lou Sweeney looking trim and fit and glowing with good health. Beaming, she shook my hand and launched into her amazing journey.
Several years ago, Betty Lou weighed 220 pounds and was on 26 different medications for her arthritis, heart, and kidney conditions.
Then she ended up in the intensive care unit with a life-threatening infection and almost died. Her near-death experience was a serious wakeup call. “That’s it. I got the message and I’m going to get healthy.” She joined the gym in her home town of Steven’s Point, Wisconsin, and quickly bonded with a young trainer, Dave Candra, who initially said, “Frankly, I gave her two weeks — max.”
That was two years ago. Since that time, they’ve become inseparable. With a combination of mindful eating, consistent exercise, and a determination to achieve her goal, Betty Lou literally dropped half her original weight along with 25 of her original 26 medications.
Talk about a turn-around! “Exercise literally is my medicine!” she exclaimed.
Betty Lou never had it easy. An orphan and the product of 12 foster homes, she says she was always told, “You’re never going to amount to anything.” Despite these early challenges, she went on to become a nurse and marry a great guy.
When I met her, I could see she had a firm self-protective attitude. Like so many people who have dropped a significant amount of weight and kept it off, she made serious changes in how she now chose to live her life, from work to home to play environments. If someone was not supportive of her new healthy habits, she either dropped them or limited the amount of time she spent with that person. The National Weight Control Registry is the only ongoing study of people like Betty Lou who have dropped significant weight and kept it off. One of the main findings from this group of over 6,000 men and women is that to sustain their achievement it was imperative to change their living and working environments enough to support their new lifestyle.
As you know by now, one of my favorite sayings is a quote from Helen Keller, “Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing at all.” Well, when Betty Lou entered the gym that day, she didn’t realize what was waiting for her.
As it turned out, she had a talent she’d never known. She can hold a plank like no one. The plank (also referred to as an abdominal bridge) is a core exercise that involves holding the body in a push-up position with the body’s weight borne on forearms, elbows, and toes. It’s difficult, as you must maintain a straight back and legs without moving for an extended period of time. Many athletes cannot hold this position for longer than 3 minutes. I’ve done up to 10 minutes and it’s a bear. Betty Lou can hang in there for over half an hour. I didn’t even think that was possible!
Well, as it turns out, the world record of 33 minutes 40 seconds was set by 68-year-old Australian named Paul Drinan on May 11, 2011. Betty Lou decided to quiet her negative voices (“You’ll never achieve anything”) by setting a goal to break the record.
Her first attempt took place at the Mall of America. She was looking good and almost made it before collapsing from fatigue.
Never one to quit and filled with acid determination, she kept practicing. Then, on September 28, 2011 — cheered on by her husband, trainer, and club members — Betty Lou broke the world planking record by holding that position for 36 minutes 58 seconds. Smiling afterward, she told reporters, “Never, ever underestimate yourself.”
And that’s what she told me when I met her and we both kicked off our shoes and dropped to the floor to do a fun face-off plank and for the cameras. She’s a player!
It’s actually an exercise I really enjoy. The stronger the core, the easier the plank. Get those bicycle crunches cookin’ to see results fast.
So what are some of the lessons learned from Betty Lou’s adventures?
1) It’s never too late. Betty Lou had spent most of her life overweight and unfit. She was never an athlete, nor did she grow up in an environment that supported a sense of self-care and worth. Her wakeup call occurred in her late 60s and she ran with it. Be careful not to use age as an excuse not to start your own healthy lifestyle journey. Remember that according to the National Institute of Aging, many of what people have typically called the symptoms of aging are, in reality, the symptoms of disuse. That means mind and body. So stop wasting precious time and get started today.
2) Create a support system. Betty Lou was fortunate to have a supportive husband and friends. She then went further and created her own healthy lifestyle “tribe” including other health-minded friends such as her health club tribal members. That also meant eliminating people, places, and things that stood in the way of her sustaining her healthy habits. Be honest and make certain to take your own inventory of who is or isn’t part of your core support system.
3) Know your goal. When Betty Lou first walked through the doors of her gym, her only goal was to become healthier. She never wanted to revisit the nightmare of the hospital again. She kept that focus front and center in her mind. It was a driving passion to achieve better health that got her started. She never in her wildest dreams thought she would become so athletic and end up being the world’s top plank queen! What kind of surprises and rewards await you as you begin your own journey?
4) Vigilance is critical. I asked Betty Lou if she found it a challenge to navigate each day’s stresses and stay on track. She said adamantly, “There is never a day that goes by when I’m not being mindful of every mouthful. It’s never easy; it’s just easier with practice.” She’s right. A big mistake so many people make is to achieve their goal and then stop paying attention. The weight piles right back on if you’re not focused and organized. Like anything in life, once you achieve you need to keep practicing and staying focus to hold onto that achievement. Yo Yo Ma may be the world’s greatest cellist, but that doesn’t mean he stops practicing and refining his musical art form. Such is the journey, and that’s why vigilance is so critical.