'Wake-up call': Albany commissioner embraces exercise, health diet after distressing checkup

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Jul. 17—ALBANY — After a 2020 medical exam showed he was on the verge of diabetes and also had other looming health issues, Jon Howard turned over a new leaf — a leaf of spinach, a leaf of greens — and eliminated meat from his diet.

The Ward I Albany City Commission member also embarked on a walking routine that he has kept up for more than a year without missing a day.

"I just feel great," he said. "So far I've lost about 33 pounds."

That was not the case last summer, when Howard got some stark advice from his doctor about his test results.

"What happened, last year I went for my regular physical checkup, which was in June of 2020," Howard said. "My doctor said he was not impressed with my (tests). My A1C was 6.4 percent."

An A1C level of 5.7 percent to 6.4 percent indicates prediabetes, and above 6.5 percent indicates diabetes in a patient.

"He said, 'I know you know what to do, you're educated and you work in the medical field,'" Howard said. "He challenged me. He said, 'What you need to do is exercise.'"

One of the first steps for the commissioner, who does not drink soda, was eliminating fruit juice, which his doctor told him was high in sugar.

"Fruit juice, a lot of times has sugar added," he said. "Friday, the 24th (of June), I had some lemonade. I said I will stop that; I will stop using white sugar entirely."

Howard, who did not eat pork and red meat prior to his diagnosis, also gave up lean/white meats, including chicken and fish.

"I only eat vegetables: spinach, cauliflower, greens and cabbage," he said. "I don't use salt on anything. Eating soul food is something in the past for me."

A year ago, Howard also went full Forrest Gump on walking.

"I started walking last year — July 21 last year — and I have not missed a day," he said. "And I walk a mile a day. Doctors will tell you you at least need to exercise 15 to 30 minutes a day."

Howard said some of his family members that tried to adopt similar habits have pushed back, pointing to grandparents who ate unhealthily but lived to ripe old ages. But Howard said that the earlier generation was much more active than people are today.

For Howard, the positive results were quick in accruing. A checkup in January revealed his A1C had dropped to 5.4 percent, and his glucose levels had improved to a healthy range.

Having seen the difference the changes made for himself, Howard said he wants to spread the message of adopting a healthier lifestyle. His east Albany ward contains zip codes 31701 and 31705, which have the most poverty in the city and predominantly minority populations. And the COVID-19 pandemic showed how devastating underlying health conditions can be for those populations.

Of the 312 Dougherty County residents who have died of COVID-19, the overwhelming majority are black and are residents of those two zip codes, Howard said.

"Underlying health conditions ended up doing this to people of color," he said. "Diabetes, high blood pressure and kidney problems. There's a lot of obesity. Once that virus hits your immune system, you just can't fight it off."

Last year, the city of Albany partnered with the Dougherty County Health Department, which is making snap visits to area businesses and communities to spread the message of healthy eating and exercise.

Howard also would like to see ministers push the issue from the pulpit.

"I'm hoping, as we begin to emerge from the coronavirus, they would try a trial sermon for their congregations, because COVID-19 showed what can happen when you have these underlying health issues," the commissioner said.

Churches also have members who are in the health field who can stress the importance of embracing healthier lifestyles, he said. A group of black physicians recently publicized recommendations for the community to get vaccinations, and Howard would like to see such efforts repeated.

"What my doctor said, it was a wake-up call," he said. "I would say to people, go to their physicians, have him do your lab tests, have him explain everything to you from vitamin A to vitamin Z."

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