In the spring of 2001, my husband, Al, and I were driving home in the unforgiving, teeming rain – typical for a winter night on Vancouver Island – when I spotted her. She was a woman in her early thirties, about my age, out for her nightly jog and completely unfazed by the harsh weather. She looked like a gazelle, her long, trim legs rhythmically sailing along the pavement as we drove past her. "Look at that lady," I said. "She's got to be crazy. But boy, does she ever look good."
The image of that woman, soaked to the bone and still enjoying every stride of her run, stayed with me long after we got home that night. I could fill a book with all the excuses I used for not getting fit over the years: I was a busy wife and mom to my daughter, Emily; the weather was too cold or too hot or too rainy; I didn't have the time; weight loss was too much of a commitment. But that woman out running on a rainy night made me realize that I could surely do something, too. I didn't have to set huge goals; I just had to start somewhere.
A couch potato lifestyle
Al and I were couch potatoes and routinely ate unhealthily, dining out at fast-food restaurants several times a week. Our portion control was, well, out of control. After our usual Friday night movie at home, our couch looked like a junk-food graveyard, scattered with empty pizza boxes, chip bags and pop bottles.
At five foot two and 165 pounds, I was overweight and seriously out of shape. I was also chronically tired. At my annual checkup about 10 years ago, I had complained to my doctor that I was lethargic almost every day. She looked me square in the eyes and said bluntly, "You're overweight, Rose."
That should have been my wake-up call, but it took a stranger running in the rain a few years later to open my eyes and make me envision the woman I could become.
After that evening, I was so inspired that I was soon reading everything about healthy living I could get my hands on. I bought low-fat recipe books, downloaded Eating Well with Canada's Food Guide and subscribed to piles of magazines for busy, active women (including the one you're reading right now).
I didn't want to diet; I had seen the stress it caused my friends. No, I was after a longer-term solution to finally kick the old me in the butt.
Page 1 of 4 – What's the very first thing Rose did to begin her healthier lifestyle? Find out on page 2.
My first step was taking short walks after dinner, once or twice a week. They were just leisurely strolls, and I never went very far. I set the smallest goals for myself: I'd get to one telephone pole, then try to make it to the next one.
After a few weeks, Al noticed a difference in my body and in my spirit. I'd walk through the door refreshed and invigorated. Emily, then seven years old, noticed a change, too. She had come to see her parents as largely sedentary. When she was a little girl, Al and I would sit in the backyard and watch as she ran circles around us. She was always scampering around the house and it was hard to keep up with her. By the time she was five, she was doing gymnastics and running at school while Al and I sat at home. Thankfully, our idleness didn't rub off on her. I think she just thought all parents were overweight, sedentary folks.
One day, after I had been doing these walks for a few weeks, Al got up from the dinner table, put on his shoes and said, "You know, I think I'll join you."
Al knew he had to do something about his health. He's only five foot seven but weighed as much as 210 pounds. He also has a family history of heart disease and diabetes; his dad died of a heart attack when he was just 52. I remember Al saying he didn't want to end up that way. But the idea of eating well and exercising daily seemed impossible with his busy schedule (he is a counter representative, which keeps him away from home for up to 10 hours a day).
Two for the road
When Al decided to join me, I knew our routine would stick. The walks went from potentially boring to adventurous. We'd challenge each other to go up a hill, tackle a rougher trail and go a little farther each time.
I needed that challenge. I have Usher syndrome, a genetic disorder that gives me severe tunnel vision and moderate hearing loss. But with my husband by my side, it's impossible to think of it as an obstacle.
In those first few months, Al and I gave each other the fuel to keep going when it was sometimes difficult to get motivated. It would have been so easy to just flop on the couch. After work, Al would sometimes lie down and say, "Honey, let's just forget the walk today." So I'd remind him how great he feels after he gets out there. And he often pushed me when I'd feel especially drawn to the couch.
We were making small, tangible strides every week: I never bought a scale, but I could tell by the way my clothes fit and by the increasing level of energy I had every day.
And Al started looking like the boy I fell in love with decades ago. Al and I met when we were in the same high school in a small logging town on the west coast of Vancouver Island. We've been here – and together – ever since.
As kids, both Al and I were pretty healthy, but by the time we graduated from high school, we were both heavy smokers – sharing about three packs a day for more than a decade. We quit cold turkey the day we decided to start a family in 1993. Quitting smoking together taught me that Al and I were capable of doing great things when we worked as a team.
Page 2 of 4 – Find out what junky foods Rose stopped buying and what she now likes to eat on page 3.
Then after getting the ball rolling with a fitness routine, we slowly started making simple changes to our diet, too. We knocked out one bad habit at a time, first substituting honey for sugar in our morning coffee and then taking on bigger vices. Salty foods, such as potato chips, were the hardest to kick, but we eventually did it. Plus, we started cutting down our meal sizes. Emily jokes that moderation has become our favourite word, but it's true – portion control is something we monitor. I use my fist as an idea of what a portion should be, and try to stick to it as much as I can.
The important thing is we don't deny ourselves anything – we still have pizza now and then, and Fridays are still movie nights, but with butterless popcorn instead of heaps of chips. Al has developed a passion for veggies, but being part Italian, he loves his spaghetti. And he still gets to eat it; we're just smart about how much we eat, and how often.
Now Emily rolls her eyes in typical teenage fashion when I come home from the grocery store, thrilled about a new flaxseed bread or nonfat probiotic yogurt.
Our evening walks were bringing us closer together. We had designated "us time," and it was magical. The romantic evening walks turned into morning jogs, and soon regular exercise was something we couldn't live without.
Over seven years, we have lost more than 100 pounds combined. I never would have imagined it, but it only took a series of small changes to turn our lives around. And then came the last lap on our journey to a healthier lifestyle. In 2004, I signed us up for the local running club and there she was – the club's president. She was the woman I had seen running in the rain.
It was running at the club that inspired Al and me to aim higher: October 2007, Al and I completed our first marathon. We trained for only 18 weeks for that 42-kilometre run in Victoria.
I almost didn't make it. With just a few kilometres to go, I felt myself dwindling. I started sobbing. Whose idea was this, anyway? I wanted to quit, but then I heard a voice. Although he wasn't anywhere near me at the time, I could hear Al say, "Look at you, you're fit and you're strong!" That filled me with new energy. We had joked at the starting line that we would probably be crawling at the end, but we both finished upright and smiling.
Page 3 of 4 – Discover why Rose credits small actions with her big lifestyle change on page 4.
People who knew Al and I in our "before" days don't recognize us anymore. And when they do, we usually hear, "I don't know how you did it!" The answer is simple: We supported each other and for years made baby steps each day toward becoming the people we wanted to be.
Al and I both qualified for the Boston Marathon this year, and Al wants to do some road cycle racing. New activities – kayaking and hiking – are also on our itinerary. We still run together, no matter the weather. It just feels so good to be out there with my best friend. I especially love it when it rains, because I like to think that in any one of the passing cars, there's a woman thinking I'm crazy.
How to make small lifestyle changes work for you
Through the small, simple changes they made in their eating and exercise habits over the past seven years, Rose and Al Sarkany have morphed from idle overeaters into active, fit marathon runners.
Diana Steele, a registered dietitian in Vancouver, says the Sarkany family was smart to go slow and steady. "You have to think about how long it took you to put on your extra weight," she says. "So many people want a quick fix, but it won't last unless you look at it in the long-term perspective."
Here's how you can make small changes in your life and reap the rewards.
• Keep a journal. Making a record of what you eat, how you feel and how much you exercise each day will keep you motivated. "Plus, it gives you something to look back on to see just how much you've progressed," says Rose.
• Shop smart. To avoid temptation, "I avoid the junk-food and frozen-food aisles altogether," says Rose. A list of the ingredients you'll need for the week's meals is crucial to staying on the right track.
• Start small. Going from inactivity to daily intense gym workouts won't usually last, says Steele. Instead, make a plan of activities you enjoy and ease into an exercise workout that's doable. "If you want to run, start with nightly walks and go from there," she says.
• Get a partner. "It doesn't have to be your spouse," says Rose. "But I think sharing the same wellness goals with someone else is so key." Make dates to exercise together and go grocery shopping with your partner. "You'll be inspired by the people you surround yourself with, and you'll inspire them, too."
Page 4 of 4 – Need inspiration to get yourself on track with a healthier life? Read about what motivated Rose to turn her life around on page 1.