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Download a PDF of Kentucky Living’s June 2012 Biggest Winners.

When you write a magazine story, you hope it will entertain the reader, and tell him or her something new. You don’t imagine outcomes like this.

Last November, Kentucky Living ran a health feature I wrote on improving your health by changing your behaviors. (You can find a copy of that story at Kentucky Living Road to Better Health.)

A few months prior, Kentucky Living brought together health experts from across the state in an effort to get to the bottom of our state’s poor health ranking—43rd out of 50 states in 2011—and to figure out what information would help to bring about change—real change—in people’s health.

During the discussion we identified all the usual health diseases affecting the state, but experts told us that Kentucky’s greatest health problems were chiefly the result of correctable behaviors—smoking, not exercising, eating too much of the wrong foods.

We invited readers to share their own health success stories, and they became the voice and encouragement to other readers in the November feature story—a pass-it-forward sharing and motivation, if you will.

Then we challenged our readers to do something about it by setting up the Kentucky Living Health Club. We asked participants for a four-month commitment, from the beginning of last December through March. Participants were asked to send in a health goal and at least three action steps they would take toward attaining it. We encouraged them to send in monthly progress updates to the group’s private Facebook page (a few others e-mailed us their progress). In all, 144 Kentuckians signed up.

The reward? The chief one, we hope, will be improved health for everyone who participated. But to sweeten the pot, anyone who participated to the end would be entered in a drawing for $500 worth of health equipment of his or her choosing.

Marsha Wilkerson, a member of Salt River Electric Cooperative from Shepherdsville, read the November piece and something clicked. “I don’t think that I would have ever done this if it had not been for the article…I never would have decided it was time.”

If only my kids would listen to my words so carefully.

Wilkerson started drinking water instead of sweet tea—which had been a staple in her household—and working vegetables into her meals. And actually, she started eating more meals. Before, she’d gotten into the habit of eating only once a day, and hardly drank anything either. “I realize (now) my body was storing that, because it didn’t know when I was going to eat again.”

She started walking a 3-mile loop in her neighborhood and reactivated her YMCA membership. “The days that I don’t get to exercise” because of other obligations, Wilkerson says, “I miss it. It finally became a part of my life…not something I had to do, but something I want to do.”

And that transformation of her outlook might be Wilkerson’s most impressive change. “I stopped looking at things negatively,” she says. “I stopped looking at things like”—her voice takes on the drag of obligation—“‘I have to drink water, I have to eat a salad.’

“Instead of looking at it that way, I look at it as ‘Man, look what it’s doing for my body now.’ I feel healthier.”

Three months later, Wilkerson has lost 30 pounds, some of it in places she never imagined: When she started, she bought a pair of size 7 shoes for exercising. Since her weight loss, she has to wear two pairs of socks. Her hair and skin are healthier, and she’s sleeping more soundly. She participated in 5K and 10K races as part of a first-timers’ team sponsored by Louisville’s WHAS TV. When she crossed the finish line for the 5K, she posted to the Facebook Health Club group that she was in tears.

A few weeks afterward, she told me, “To stop and think about where I was four months ago, I was amazed that I had come so far already.”

Wilkerson’s transformation, and her participation in the high-profile WHAS team (which has included an appearance on the Great Day Live TV program), made a big impact for the Health Club members.

The Facebook group was a lively spot. The prevailing attitude was “supportive and nonjudgmental,” says Lisa Capehart, a member of Blue Grass Energy Cooperative. An exercise physiologist and certified wellness coach from Foster, she signed up as an active participant and mentor. Kentucky Living staffers were excited and appreciative of Capehart’s expertise and guidance in the group.

People shared favorite workouts. The Latin dance-based Zumba had a number of followers. Some learned about C25K, a program (available free on the Internet) that guides you in nine weeks from a sedentary state to readiness to run a 5K race. It chiefly uses interval training, in which you alternate walking with increasingly long periods of jogging.

People chimed in with Web sites and applications that helped track their progress, some of which we shared in the magazine during the challenge. People shared recipes; offered advice on where to find used exercise equipment. They shared progress, perspectives, and problems. Many also posted that it was the first time they had made it through the December holidays without gaining weight.

Shortly after Wilkerson started with the group, she posted that one of her dogs had died. The stream of people expressing sympathy made her realize “this doesn’t have to be one of these moments that make me stop. I could lie in bed and think, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t want to get up.’ But I realized stress can’t get the better of me.” She also saw that other members had stress in their lives and that they used walking and exercise to help deal with it.

Seeing all the activities being undertaken by other participants also served as a kind of “peer pressure,” in the words of Joe Cochran of Richmond and a member of Blue Grass Energy Co-op. And it ended up accelerating a transformation in his entire family—his wife and adult children joined him in trying to track their calories with the Lose It! application. They’ve all “had different levels of success,” Cochran reports, but he and his 25-year-old-son Chris have lost around 30 pounds each.

Beth Hans Payton of Union had recently begun a weight-loss regimen after an alarming September doctor’s appointment: she had developed diabetes at age 27; there was neuropathy in her left leg. And her father had just died the year before, from complex health problems that included diabetes.

She found the Facebook group to be a congenial and effective atmosphere for the changes she was already trying to make. Her home environment wasn’t entirely conducive to weight loss—her husband is 6’7″, with a fast metabolism. “He can eat anything and it doesn’t affect him; I look at food, and I gain weight.” As a result, “he supports me, but he’s not fully on board”—as he doesn’t make an effort to eat vegetables or to exercise with her.

And as a stay-at-home mother, she didn’t have frequent contact with friends who were trying to have a healthier lifestyle.

But the KL Health Club Facebook group helped encourage her to push through a day of discouragement, when she didn’t want to go to the gym. She learned about the role of strength training in helping increase the rate at which you burn calories. And knowing that there’s a group she needs to report back to “keeps me on track,” says Payton.

“The support you get is priceless, because without it, this is so much harder than it has to be.”

Payton has been making healthier food choices, exercising portion control, eating more meals at home instead of at restaurants. She’s learned how to read the nutrition information on food labels and about proper portion sizes. She’s greatly increased her activity, exercising five or six days a week—a combination of strength training, cycling, an elliptical machine, and Zumba, among others. (She was running, but a knee injury forced her to stop.)

As a result, she has lost 60 pounds and gone from a size 24 pants to size 12. She no longer needs to measure her blood sugar daily.

“I’m trying to convert my whole life—I’m not just going for fast weight loss,” Payton says. “These are things that are going to stick with me forever.”

And she’s resolved to have what she’s learned influence the way she raises her 6-year-old son Spencer: “He’s not going to grow up out of shape.”

Jennifer Reeder, a member of South Kentucky RECC from Whitley City, is another, like Payton, who had already begun a health plan before joining the Kentucky Living Health Club. She was walking daily—she’s now up to five miles—and substituting water for the eight cans of soda she used to drink. But comments in the group made her realize she also needed to add strength training to her regimen.

She also found that posting in the group allowed her to express a spiritual transformation going on within her that was even more dramatic than the physical one—and she’s lost 75 pounds since August.

Her size used to curb a personality she describes as naturally outgoing. She would take a back seat to thinner women at both family events and public ones.

“I speak at women’s conferences, and I would go and automatically compare myself, size-wise, to every other person there,” she says.

Now, even though she still describes herself as “plus-size,” that is not what determines her self-image. “There are no comparisons anymore,” she says. “It’s just, ‘This is who I am’—I’m confident in that. And I’m confident, just as you are, that you’re enough.

“I’m finding that I’m just now starting to see (the person) who God has always seen me as.”

Capehart mentions Reeder, along with Wilkerson and Payton, as being among a number of women in the group who have made the leap past simple fixation on weight loss and into an understanding that healthy eating and exercise are essential aspects of self-care.

“A couple of the women have started to come to the realization that this is about process and less about ‘goal-oriented-ness,’” says Capehart. “Those are the women who I felt this kind of cheer down into my soul like, ‘They’re gonna do it.’ They’re gonna be happier with themselves. They’re gonna reach their goals, but they’re gonna realize that once that goal is reached, that it’s still a lifetime thing.”

Congrats Health Club winner
Karen Day of Clarkson was the lucky winner of $500 toward exercise equipment, drawn by random from active members of the Kentucky Living Health Club.

Day says she has enjoyed all the different ideas and encouragement the group has shared over the last few months. “It motivated me to go out and find something that would help me get healthy. I am in my eighth week of doing Zumba classes locally.”

The Kentucky Living Health Club challenge was so successful that we have decided to do another one. Check back in the November issue, when we focus on children’s health specifically, but it’s definitely a family affair, so anyone can join.

Kentucky Living Health Club participants spent four months making changes in the behaviors that most dramatically affect their health.

But how do they keep it going for the next four months—the next four years—and the rest of their lives?

David Susman, a psychologist at the University of Kentucky Department of Psychology and Eastern State Hospital in Lexington, says that behavioral research shows that it takes about 21 days for a new habit to start to take hold, and for most people it takes six months to reach maintenance—the point where a change becomes established.

“Somebody who’s made it four months already, that’s a great sign you’re going to continue,” Susman says. “Most people don’t make it past the first week.”

Susman says one key sign that you’ve moved toward maintenance is when the action no longer seems externally controlled and rigid (telling yourself you must strictly adhere to a particular, limited exercise, and food regimen), and it becomes a more internalized behavior, “something you just sort of do on autopilot.”

Susman also mentions that it’s important for social support to continue. Often it’s strong at the beginning, but then “as the support begins to trail off, the behavior change also begins to trail off.” But if a social group is part of your new behavior, such as a bike riding club or exercise group, the behavior is more likely to sustain itself.

He says it’s also important to think intelligently about the stage beyond maintenance—relapse. “It’s important for people to know that relapse is really common. So it’s not if it’s going to happen, it’s more like when the relapse is going to happen.” The key point, he says, is, “You have control over how long it’s going to last. The way you make it shorter is by quickly getting help from your supportive network.”

He also points out that the good part of a relapse is “you learn from it,” examining what went wrong. “You use that knowledge to fine-tune your plan and put it back in action.

“The other cool thing: there’s a ton of research, which is sort of counter-intuitive, that the more relapses you’ve had, actually your odds for future success keep getting better, not worse,” because each relapse teaches you more.

Download the survey taken from Facebook Kentucky Living Health Club members.

Moments of victory
You can just hear and feel the vividness and emotional power of the support members provided each other while reading some of the private posts (yes, with permission to share) on the Health Club Facebook group. Go to health victories.

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