Until I turned 40, the closest I had come to doing regular physical activity was participating in the school marching band. I never would have imagined myself on a bicycle, much less racing across the country. I put my career first and quickly climbed the ladder as a medical technologist. But my weight also climbed.
Too exhausted to cook after working 10- to 12-hour days, I'd stop at Burger King for dinner. Then I'd plow through an entire bag of tortilla chips while watching TV. I rarely stepped on a scale, but I probably weighed 200 pounds. I tried to hide it with shapeless clothes, and when I went out with friends, we'd go to the movies so I could sit in the dark and eat popcorn—without being seen or judged by anyone.
That changed 10 years ago. When I was walking down the hallway at work one day, I suddenly felt a pop in my left foot that stung so much I could barely take another step. I had fractured a bone in my foot because, at 240 pounds, I was too heavy for my 5-foot-6 frame. I was devastated. I thought, How did I let things get so bad? That's when I knew I had to change.
My Diet Overhaul
I joined Weight Watchers and learned that I had been eating too many refined carbohydrates. I've never been much of a cook, and I hated vegetables as a kid, but when I began cooking broccoli and Brussels sprouts, I found out I actually like them.
Filling up on vegetables and including healthy fats in my meals helps me control my hunger. But here's what really works for me: I map out my meals for the week and grocery shop so I have the ingredients ready—that way, when I get home from work, I know what to cook. I need to have a plan so I won't fall back on old habits.
How I Got Moving
I tried running but had to quit when I got painful arthritis in my knee. I thought maybe I just wasn't cut out for exercise.
Fast forward to 2006: I had lost about 40 pounds on Weight Watchers but still wasn't active. Then in April, my company launched a wellness challenge: Get to work each day for a week without driving. I lived 15 miles away—too far to walk—so I decided to bike. I didn't even own a bike, so I bought a basic one from a local shop. That Monday morning, I was filled with dread. The first mile was tough, but then I got in the zone. When I arrived at work, dripping with sweat, I loved how energized I felt.
With all the extra weight I was carrying, I couldn't move fast or go very far on foot—but on a bike, I could. It was almost like flying. I felt free. And I was having fun.
After the challenge ended, I kept biking to work. Within a few months I was stronger and another 30 pounds lighter. It was exhilarating to see what my body was capable of, and soon I craved more of a challenge. I saw listings in bicycling magazines for century rides—100-mile events where the goal is to finish, not to race anyone. After mulling it over for months, I finally signed up for one in May 2007. My feet and legs cramped up like crazy during the ride, but I finished. I was so proud of myself. It actually makes sense that I could go for long distances. When you're overweight, daily life—just going up stairs or moving through a crowd—is an endurance event.
Going the Distance
I've been at a healthy weight of 140 pounds for four years now. And I've biked in more than 50 events, including the Race Across America, a nonstop ride that's longer than the Tour de France. My team of four women came in first in our category! That was way more exciting than watching Law & Order marathons.
Last year, I had an even bigger goal (an 860-mile solo race!), but I injured my hip. The first doctor I saw said, "You're almost 50. Act your age and give up this dream of being an athlete." Instead, I got a second opinion and had a hip replacement. Eight months post-surgery, I was racing again.
I come from an inactive, overweight family with a history of heart disease and diabetes, and for years I was on the same path. Cycling changed my life, and I bet it will lengthen it. It's been rewarding to share my story and inspire others to take charge of their health. I didn't start until after 40—it's never too late to change.
Hannah's Get-Healthy Plan
- 20: Minutes I make myself ride when I'm tempted to skip a workout. I usually feel better by then and want to continue.
- 120: Minutes it took me to finish my first 15-mile bike commute. Now I do it in 52.
- 45,848: Miles I've biked. That's the equivalent of riding around the earth almost two times!
Breakfast, Dinner, and Dessert Then:
- Burger and fries
Breakfast, Dinner, and Dessert Now:
- Oatmeal with banana or apple
- Grilled chicken and vegetables
- Brownie ("I still enjoy a treat now and then.")
This story originally appeared in the March/April 2014 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.