A woman raises her fist in the air as she basks in the sun.
A single goal can change an entire lifestyle. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

The doctors at Spectrum Health Medical Group and in our OB/Gyn practice are always encouraging our patients to be physically active.

The benefits of living an active lifestyle include keeping your cholesterol, blood sugar and weight under control; preventing cancer, type 2 diabetes and heart attacks; and improving your sleep.

Even better, regular physical activity also reduces falls, joint pain and depression. It helps you feel better about yourself.

Fitness is something that can be measured and improved, and it starts with having a goal.

When I talk to my patients about fitness and goals, I am always reminded of a patient I’ll call Cathy.

Cathy aims to get ‘hot’

While rushing from one room to another in my office one day, and I came around a corner too quickly. I almost ran into a woman I didn’t know, so I excused myself.

She stopped me and said, “You don’t recognize me, do you?” I confessed that I wasn’t sure who she was, and she said, “Then you probably don’t remember what you said to me last year, either?”Again, I admitted that I did not. She continued, “You asked me how I wanted to be in the next year when I turned 50, and I had to really think about it. I decided I wanted to turn 50 and feel ‘hot’. So, I decided I would do what it would take, and I just ran my first half marathon. Now I feel ‘hot’!”

We stood there in the hallway for a few minutes and talked about her transformation, and hers was such a great story of how a single goal could change an entire lifestyle.

Cathy’s story began about a year before our chance encounter in the hallway of my office. She had come in for her annual exam, and she was discouraged about her weight and overall fitness level. She left my office that day approximately 25 pounds over a healthy weight, had belly fat she didn’t like, and wore clothes two sizes larger than she wanted.

Like many women, Cathy had a very busy work life, and she barely had time for anything besides work and family. It seemed that after a long work day, her evenings were filled with preparing dinner, packing lunches and helping her kids with homework.

Cathy would try to take a walk on the weekends, but she didn’t have time to exercise regularly, and she got winded just walking up a flight of stairs. She didn’t do any strength training, wasn’t flexible and often complained of leg cramps.

And the list of bad habits went on, including:

  • Drinking too much coffee and not drinking enough water
  • Eating on the run
  • Eating very few fruits and vegetables other than an occasional salad for lunch

Cathy knew that she wanted to look “hot,” but she also knew she had a lot of planning and work to do if she was going to become the person she envisioned in her mind.

During her annual visit, I mentioned the Presidential Fitness Test (adultfitnesstest.org) as a way to find a general measure of how she compared to other women her same age. She looked it up, saw what she was up against, and created a goal to help her on her journey to better health.

Achieving her goal

Cathy’s goal: She wanted to be fit. More specifically, she wanted to be able to run at least three miles, be physically stronger and more flexible. She knew she would not only feel better about her appearance but also be stronger as she faced her next 50 years of life. Her goal kept her motivated when it would have been much easier to give up.

Of course, there were barriers that Cathy knew she would need to overcome—time, motivation, energy and knowledge. During her visit, we talked about starting small so she wouldn’t get discouraged and give up.

She took my advice and started taking walks whenever she had even a little free time—at lunch, after work (before making dinner), and after dinner. Cathy began doing sit-ups and push-ups in the morning before her shower, and stretching every night before bed.

As the weeks and months went on and she had increased energy, Cathy added more to her routine. Her walks turned into a walk/run combination, eventually running more than walking. She started with just 15-20 minutes of exercise at one time but gradually increased the time as she became stronger.

One thing that really helped Cathy stay positive was to measure her exercise by time instead of distance or speed. This proved to be very beneficial to Cathy and helped her keep working toward her goal.

It also helped that Cathy’s husband and kids supported her efforts to become more physically fit. Her husband would take walks with her at night after dinner, and her son rode bikes with her on the weekends. She even found herself wanting to go for a walk instead of grabbing coffee with a girlfriend.

Cathy’s hard work and persistence began to pay off. At that point, she had dropped one pant size, her belly fat started to decrease, and she no longer had leg cramps. More importantly, Cathy’s blood pressure improved, her cholesterol decreased, and her blood sugar made it to the normal range.

As Cathy’s activity level increased, her numbers continued to go down. She was encouraged to keep on her journey, and by the time I saw her, she had run a half marathon, gone down three pant sizes, and lost 35 pounds.

She said she’d never felt better in her life. Although it took almost a year, Cathy met her goal and turned 50 feeling “hot.”