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It was July 2021, and Karen Westbrook Johnson, now 54, decided she wanted to lose weight and improve her health. She was watching the Today show when she saw a feature for the Start TODAY Facebook group, and it sounded like a good place to begin.
“It was just moving for 20 minutes a day. That was it. I thought I would see if I could just start a habit and keep up with it. I figured if I had to break up the 20 minutes, I’d break them up,” she said. She increased her time gradually, and by the end of the first month, she was walking for an hour a day. A year later, she’s up to at least four miles a day. And her efforts have paid off.
The Knoxville, Tennessee, resident is now 25 pounds lighter, and she’s down to a size 16 or 18 from a size 24. She tries not to obsess over the numbers she sees on her scale, so she focuses on other victories, too. “I was getting discouraged about the number on the scale. But all my clothes from last year are too big. Last month when I was cleaning out my closet, I came across my wedding dress, which I hadn’t seen in 19 years. I tried it on, and I could put it on,” she said.
She also found a ten-year-old University of Tennessee baseball jersey. “I could not part ways with it, even though I could not fit in it. I refused to give it up. I broke it out when I was cleaning the closet and I fit into it,” she said.
And after about a year of working from home, she had to put on scrubs when she returned to the office. “I was literally walking out of my scrub pants all day because they were so big. I had to go out and buy all new scrubs," she said.
Beyond the scale: Positive changes are showing up in her health
Johnson was seeing her doctor every three months, and now she can go every six months. At her most recent doctor’s visit all of her lab tests were normal for the first time in about 15 years. Her joints don’t bother her as much as they used to. “My knees don’t hurt nearly as bad as they did, and I don’t have as much back pain now either. Even losing just that little bit of weight is huge. I don’t have day-to-day pain anymore. I can mow the whole yard without stopping. Before, I had to take a lot of breaks,” she said.
She has seen changes in her mental health as well. “My moods are better, and I have more energy. Before, I could sleep for 12 hours at a time. I just had no energy,” she said. “I used to sleep in when I traveled, but the last two times I’ve gone out of town, I’ve brought my workout gear and walked or climbed the steps in the hotel — whatever it takes to get it done.”
She makes small, manageable changes and builds on them
Johnson said, “It’s about making one small change. Once you do that and make that a habit, then you can add other things in.” Here are a few changes she said she and her husband have made:
They don’t keep junk food or sweets in the house.
They stop eating at 8 p.m.
Their portion sizes have shrunk. “I don’t like depriving myself. I cannot do without my pizza, beer and chocolate. You can still eat the foods you like, just in moderation. We get two or three meals now where before we would eat the whole pizza,” she said.
They grill instead of eating fried food.
“My husband has dropped 10 or 12 pounds, so I’m rubbing off on him a little bit,” she said.
She gradually made changes to her diet
Fast food and sweet drinks were two areas where Johnson knew she and her husband could make improvements. “We were big fast-food eaters, so we cut down from the large value-sized meals to the mediums, and now we’ll just get a sandwich,” she said.
She moved their soft drinks to a fridge in the garage so it would take more effort to get them, and eventually gave them up at home altogether. “If we want one, we stop and buy only one. We pay more for it, but we want it that way to discourage us,” she said. They replaced soft drinks and sweet tea with water and unsweetened tea. Living in the South, she said going from sweet tea to unsweetened tea was probably her biggest challenge.
She’s noticed how changing what she eats changes how she feels. “I can totally tell when I’m eating well versus when I’m eating junk. I can really tell the difference in how my body reacts to food,” she said.
She’s committed to her workouts
Johnson makes sure she gets her walking in, even if she has to be creative. In the winter, when it was too cold to walk outside, she would walk five miles up and down the hallways of her house. And on the last day of her vacation in New Orleans, it poured. So instead of walking around the city as she planned, she and her husband walked down every concourse in the airport before her flight. “We walked about two miles in the airport,” she said.
And walking outdoors during good weather has brought an unexpected benefit — she’s gotten to know her neighbors better. “I see almost everyone at least once a week, and other people are getting out and walking more. We had a cookout together,” she said.
Johnson also added the Start TODAY core routines and weight-lifting workouts to her exercises. “I like how you can go at your own pace, and you have a little bit of structure. Every month they send out the workout plan, so you don’t have to do anything except make time to do it,” she said. “You can start with just one- or two-pound weights, or even cans of food if you don’t have any weights. And you can modify the exercises if you need to.”
She appreciates the support and camaraderie she’s found in the Start TODAY group. She’s made friends in the group, and even met a fellow group member in person when she visited New Orleans earlier this year.
She’s setting ambitious, but realistic, goals
Johnson has a goal to climb Mt. Le Conte in the Smoky Mountains this summer. To reward herself when she does it, she’ll buy a shirt you can only get if you hike to the top. She and her husband signed up for a 10k in November so they would stay committed to exercising through the summer. And she’s run a half marathon in the past, so she has her eye on a full marathon down the road.
“Little steps will get you where you want to go,” she said. “Maybe not as fast as someone else, but they’ll still get you there.”