Changing Her Story
As she neared her 60th birthday, former ABC News reporter Jackie Judd decided to take charge of her health. She's lost 85 pounds and never felt better.
I had lived a life-time of Mondays.
A Monday would arrive and with it another promise, another plan to begin dieting. I was lucky if I made it to Tuesday before quitting. And so the cycle would begin again: another Monday, another promise, another failure. On the two occasions when I made it through many consecutive Mondays—once in the 80s by living on home-delivered food that was barely edible, another by consuming only liquids—failure returned, accompanied by even more pounds than I had lost.
Weight, too much of it, has been my lifelong struggle. The irony is that I flourished in a profession focused on appearance. I was on television for 16 years, working out of the ABC News bureau in Washington, D.C., and reporting for World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, Nightline and Good Morning America. As my weight fluctuated, the considerate cameramen and women would frame their shots of me depending on where I was on the scale: tight shots during the weighty years, wider shots during the leaner years. Watching footage of my stand-ups later, I sometimes fooled myself into thinking that poor lighting made me look haggard and big.
After leaving television in 2003 and beginning a second career, I did—plain and simple—let myself go. The scale tipped at new heights. Even though I remained a busy professional, working in health policy communications at the Kaiser Family Foundation while raising twin boys, I was sedentary. My family understood my struggle and supported me whenever a new Monday arrived. But old habits stuck. A health club was the last place you would find me. I preferred taxicabs over a brisk walk. Cooking healthy was something I watched others do on television as I ordered from a favorite Chinese restaurant.
This was my life—until I decided it could not go on. As my 60th birthday approached, I was filled with dread. Sixty seemed like such a big number, one that marks the symbolic end of middle age and a move into the senior years. I knew with an absolute and powerful certainty that if I did not get myself healthy now, it was never, ever, going to happen. The thought of always feeling sluggish, seeing the number of pill bottles slowly multiply and not fully enjoying older age, was too painful to contemplate.
My husband, Michael Shulman, has a business coach who believes that most of us can perform two of what she calls “life’s three big buckets” really well. It is rare to find a person who scores big on all three at the same time. For years, I raised my sons well and worked well. That was two. The third, taking care of myself, did not go well at all. But now, with my children off at college and a radical downsizing of my second career, the balance—I hoped—could shift, with a greater focus on me.
And so I began. I thought deeply about how to eat less, eat healthy and get moving. The goal was to create a sensible plan to carry me through weight loss and then into a permanent way of life. The first step was to identify my food triggers, which were whites and sugar. So I resolved to eliminate bread, pasta, rice, cereals, crackers, chips and sweets. As daunting and unimaginable as that seemed, I also knew I did not have the discipline to eat small amounts of those foods, so I would eat none.
The second big step involved a stroke of good luck. Through a friend, I found a trainer who works specifically with mid-career and older women. Jean Simons, a 56-year-old former lawyer and mother of three, created Wellness for Women because she was “sick of all the messages women get, making them believe they are inadequate.” She wanted to shift the focus from how women look to how they feel. While I very much wanted to fit into a smaller size, more important was feeling and being healthy.
Jean is a certified personal trainer and health coach who has a real sensitivity to the unique issues facing postmenopausal women. We discussed my goals and setbacks. She had heard it all before—the endless diet fads, the yo-yo of the scale, the unrealistic hopes for a future as a string bean—and through her questions, I was able to articulate what I wanted. Jean’s down-to-earth approach was exactly what I needed as I faced down my 60th birthday. She encouraged me to “own my own health” by setting goals and measuring myself against them. Walk around a track. Find non-meal-related activities to do with friends. Think through a balanced Thanksgiving menu.
On Nov. 2, 2012 (a Friday, as I did not dare risk starting on a Monday), I began what I fervently hoped would be something real and permanent. Other health clubs I had joined got a 100-percent return on their money—I would sign up and never return. This time I joined the gym where Jean works. Rock Creek Sports Club in Silver Spring is a neighborhood gem, tucked away on Grubb Road, where about half of the members are over 55. As an overweight, older woman without a firm muscle in her body, it was the kind of place I could walk into and not feel too intimidated. (Besides, as Jean often reminded me, no one was interested in how I looked. They were only looking at themselves in the mirror.)
Rousing my muscles out of hibernation was a slow process. Weekly sessions with Jean centered on strengthening and cardio, and four or five days a week I would return on my own. Even if I biked only 20 minutes and then did gentle stretching, I viewed that as a victory. Jean became my exercise and nutrition guru, with a little needed drill sergeant mixed in. We still spar over how many times I really need to walk up and down the stairs to get my cardio going or why I need to use a strengthening machine I hate.
At the beginning, Jean encouraged me to keep a journal of what I ate and what I was feeling as I ate. The idea was to detect links between eating habits and emotional triggers. So I devised a code: “a” for anxious, “s” for satisfied, “f” for frustrated. In the early weeks, “sh” for “still hungry” showed up on a lot of my journal pages. When I was anxious or frustrated, I did not go straight for the bagel or honey bun, as I used to, though I occasionally ate too much cheese or too many nuts. Those foods were fine for me in moderation, not in excess. In the early months, I stayed away from restaurants as much as possible because of the hidden calories in some foods. The chicken Romano at The Cheesecake Factory, a favorite, is 1,860 calories. I nearly choked when I saw that number on a menu!
I rarely had a spontaneous meal. I usually knew on Tuesday what I would be eating Wednesday. I resolved never to troll in the refrigerator—I needed to know what I was going to reach for before opening the door. I searched for healthy dishes that would be so delicious that I would not stray into the kitchen later for something sweet, crunchy, starchy, or all three. Fish and chicken, grilled or in a healthy stew, homemade soups such as chicken, eggplant and chickpea or red lentil, and salads filled with everything healthy I had in the refrigerator, all became my staples.
Some days were excruciatingly hard. Weaning myself off refined sugar and refined carbohydrates felt like letting go of an addiction. I would get cranky and tired and feel a real physical need for what I was no longer putting into my body. At times, all I wanted to do was take a deep dive into a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream. And a few times I did. But something in my brain had shifted: I wanted to succeed more than I wanted to give in to my cravings. Having a game plan in place—three interesting meals and a good support system including Michael and Jean—made all the difference. My kids were in college when I was in the throes of this, and when we Skyped, they were visibly surprised by how I was shrinking. My weight never mattered to them (I think), but my happiness does—and they could see that as the number on the scale went down, my happiness quotient went up.
When I did stumble, a path existed for me to get back on track. Weekly nutrition sessions with Jean were candid assessments of what had gone right and wrong. She listened without judging, while reminding me that a setback did not have to be permanent. I will also confess that fear became a great motivator. The idea of reaching my 61st birthday still overweight scared me. Success motivated me, too. Feeling less winded during workouts and seeing changes in my body undoubtedly kept me going.
Over many months, much to my amazement, the rules I established became second nature. I now happily eat fruit, greens, fish and chicken daily, and rarely eat processed food. Do I slip sometimes? Yes, but I quickly hit the reset button. An irony of my healthy living program is that I am more interested in food and spend more time cooking than at any time in my life. The mindless eating and the stolen snacks have been replaced by considered choices about planning, portion size, balance and flavor. The reward? An 85-pound weight loss, a sense of physical and emotional lightness, and improved health. I sleep more deeply now and have more energy without those late afternoon food crashes. I have greater self-confidence. Though I must admit never feeling that euphoric high some people talk about after a good workout, I do feel better when I move. I continue going to the gym five days a week, including a weekly session with Jean who, as I am doing a plank or using the squat machine, joyfully reminds me of how far I have come.
There have been other, unexpected changes. The thoughtfulness about food choices has had a ripple effect. I am now a more deliberate person, and realize I can choose how to react and behave in other aspects of life. Something that previously would have aggravated me, and possibly led me to dig into a bag of chips, now does not. I choose for it to not get under my skin. I am more adventurous: I’ve taken a yoga class at a retreat and participated in a 5K walk to support research into pancreatic cancer.
Previously, when Michael and I traveled, we planned our sightseeing around cabs, buses and metros. Now we walk. During a trip to Budapest this year, I thought about how easy it would be—and frankly, sometimes tempting—to hail a cab. Instead, I chose to keep moving forward, walking 52 miles in a week.
Jackie Judd, a Chevy Chase resident, is a former journalist and health policy communications director who now works as a consultant. To comment on this story, e-mail email@example.com.