It was life or death for Tammy Mahan.
Several years ago, life was moving at breakneck speed for Mahan, and it was taking a serious toll on her health.
She was a social worker, putting in between 60 to 70 hours a week. She was involved with a group she founded in 2005 called Elevate, comprised of youth from Iowa who had been through foster care or adoption. They were traveling nationwide, with the young people sharing their experiences and advocating for change in the foster care and adoption system.
The intense work schedule became too much for Mahan.
“I got up to 300 pounds,” Mahan says. “I was starting to get really sick and stressed out. So I quit social work. I retired. And I decided to start healthy living.”
Leaving behind a career in social work spanning some 20 years was a difficult choice, Mahan says, but her health was in “jeopardy.” She also needed to be around for her four children.
Four years later, her life has done a complete 180. As of mid-December, she had lost 96 pounds. She’s continued to improve her fitness level and is now a water aerobics instructor and wellness coach at the YMCA Healthy Living Center in Clive, where she began her journey to get fit.
“It was rewarding working with the young people, but it’s equally rewarding helping people make a lifestyle change,” Mahan says. “It’s wonderful seeing people get healthy.”
Mahan shares how she did it, and experts provide nutrition and fitness tips for living a healthier lifestyle.
A year devoted to getting well
Mahan was prediabetic. She had bad knees. She couldn’t carry a basket of laundry. Her core strength was so weak that she remembers falling out of a chair once, her body unable to support itself.
She was ready for a change. She stopped working for a year to focus on her health. She told her doctor what she was doing, and dove straight into exercise.
“I decided that nothing was going to happen if I didn’t take it seriously, so I was working out two to three hours a day,” says Mahan, who began going to the YMCA Healthy Living Center.
She found great support at the Y, with the staff adapting exercises for her fitness level. She went to a host of classes and worked with a personal trainer. She’s worked hard at building muscle and a strong core. And she’s utilized many resources through the Mercy Weight Loss and Nutrition Clinic, located within the Y.
She had long-range goals, like becoming a water instructor at the Y. But Mahan was first focused on achieving small goals along the way, such as exercising on the treadmill and weightlifting.
Her fitness feats, along with her numbers, have come a long way. Mahan now can go for an hour on the elliptical machine, something she couldn’t do last year, and is working on improving her speed. She’s still taking many classes.
In four years, she’s gone from a size 26 to a 16. And while her weight stayed fairly stable in 2012, she lost inches and improved her cardio endurance and efficiency.
Some of Mahan’s top tips for getting in shape include drinking plenty of water, and a diet high in protein and vegetables. She avoids her vices — fast food, sugar and salt. Also, the kitchen is off limits after 6 p.m.
“I think the important thing is to be patient,” she says. “You have to look at the small things as progress, and not just that number on the scale.”
Assess your diet, do your homework and plan your meals
Living a healthier lifestyle means taking a hard look at your diet, knowing your vices, getting educated about nutrition and planning meals.
Taking small steps can put you on the road to eating more healthfully, says Meghan Hansen, a registered, licensed dietitian with the Mercy Weight Loss and Nutrition Center. That can mean getting back to the basics and eating more whole foods, rather than processed.
Recognizing foods that you find tough to use portion control with and decreasing or removing them from your diet is also a good step, Hansen says.
Becoming educated about nutrition empowers individuals to make better choices. At calorieking.com, you’ll find nutritional information for a variety of foods, including restaurant items. At choosemyplate.gov, you can learn about serving sizes and more.
Your plate should be half-filled with fruits and vegetables, one-fourth lean protein and one-fourth starch (preferably at least half of your daily intake should be whole grains), Hansen says. You should also have three servings daily of low-fat dairy and drink 64 ounces of water.
Planning your grocery list and meals is also critical. For snacks, prepare fruits and vegetables ahead of time. Also, have items such as rice cakes, protein bars, 100-calorie snack packs, string cheese, yogurt or Jell-O handy, she says. At restaurants, eat a smaller portion or opt for a side of vegetables.
Eating after a workout can feed and repair muscles, and improve performance, Hansen says.
“I always tell people to eat a food combined with protein and carbohydrate within 30 minutes of their workout,” she says.
Eating fruits and vegetables post-workout, including bananas and grapes, can help refuel the electrolytes lost and alleviate stiffness and pain, she adds.
With exercise, start with baby steps
The first thing anyone should do before beginning an exercise program is to check with his or her doctor, says Trina Radske-Suchan, medical program executive at the YMCA Healthy Living Center.
Then, she stresses, individuals should think about setting small goals. At the Y, wellness coaches talk to people about their goals and develop a plan to achieve them.
What you want to avoid is the mistake many people make, she says, which is doing too much, too soon, which can be discouraging.
“We talk about baby steps and making sure they experience success early on,” Radske-Suchan says. “If they can experience success early, that can maybe give them the confidence to continue, maybe setting the next goal, and a feeling of security that, ‘Hey, maybe I can do this thing.’ ”
Change in people’s attitudes toward exercise can also help them be successful. For instance, rather than viewing it as punishment for your body, exercise should be seen as a way to nurture it, Radske-Suchan says. Also, progress should be more than just about the number on a scale. Focusing on things such as the healthy habits they’ve adopted are the small victories that can assist individuals in reaching their goals.
Radske-Suchan had these additional tips for beginning a workout regimen:
• Schedule exercise at a time you’re likely to stay committed to.
• Pick activities you enjoy doing, such as walking, biking, swimming or dancing.
• Have a workout buddy.
• People should begin working out three times a week, doing a certain exercise for 30 minutes, then increasing it to five times a week for 60 minutes, Radske-Suchan says.
Once you’re regularly exercising, one key to keeping it up is variety.
“After four to eight weeks of something, you might want to try something different or add something to your routine,” she says. One possibility: Incorporate yoga or strength training into the mix. (Find more tips in “Workout reboot.”)
“This makes exercise more exciting, and you’re working different muscles in different ways, which enhances your fitness level,” Radske-Suchan says.
Looking to the future
Mahan has been building muscle this past year, and her legs and core are strong.
But one result of losing so much weight is extra skin. She’s planning to have surgery in February to remove it but would like to drop another 20 pounds before then.
She also wants to participate in two 5K events this year and would like to do more core work, which Mahan believes is essential to her overall health.
As she gets older, her goals are to be able to delay any major illnesses, be a healthy and happy mom, and one day be a grandma.
Several years ago, that future was uncertain.
Today, Tammy Mahan is on the way to making it a reality.