My name is Karen Lake and I am a 28 year old Canadian, teaching in the UAE. For the past 2 years or so, I have been on a journey to improve my overall health, level of fitness and to get to a healthy body weight. I think it is first important to note the use of the word 'journey.' I did not call it a diet or a workout plan because those things are temporary. They are usually unsustainable because they do not fit all patterns of life. We go on vacation and 'blow our diet' by eating at the buffet 3 times a day. We fail in our workout plan, because we lose that spark of motivation we had at the start of the new year. The journey I am on leads me in my everyday life. Every time I make a decision to lace up my shoes and go to the gym, my journey is leading me. Similarly, every time I decide to stay home and sit on the couch, my journey is leading me. There is no giving up or crashing and burning on this journey, as there would be with fad diets or exercise challenges. There are certainly times when I have felt strong, accomplished and right on track, and times when I have felt tired, discouraged and like I was failing myself. The reason why I got back up after failing to exercise or after making bad food choices is because I have made the decision to change not only my body, but my whole life. Before I explain how I have done this, I think it's important for me to step back a little bit, and explain what led me to this journey.
From the time I was very young, I remember always being overweight. I didn't have a very active lifestyle in terms of sports (because I was told I wasn't good at them while at school-likely because of my weight) and I loved sugar and all kinds of junk food! My parents led me the best they could in terms of nutrition but there were always vending machines, variety stores and other kids around to give me junk food. Being overweight, or the biggest kid in my class, was always a reality and a constant for me from the time I was about 7 years old. I don't really remember even being a healthy weight as a child. I remember looking back at childhood school photos of myself, when I was in my teens. Comparing school photos from grade 3 to grade 4, it was as if someone had replaced the thin little child that was once me, with a ballooned version of Karen. I do think that that was an unfortunate growth spurt or hormonal surge, but other kids took advantage of the fact that I gained so much so quickly, and I got my label as the 'fat girl.' I lived that label from then onward. Despite teasing and difficulty with this label, I was able to maintain a positive self-image and good self-esteem. It wasn't until my teenage years that I really started to want to lose weight due to peer pressure and the desire to look like what the media (and other kids) told me I should look like.
At my highest weight ever recorded, I was 295 pounds. I am fairly tall at 5ft9, but this still put me well above a healthy body weight and into the 'morbidly obese' level on the BMI scale. I reached this weight around 19 years old after moving away for University. The "freshman 15" was more of a "freshman 50+" for me. In 2008 I decided I was really frustrated with being sore, overweight and tired and I joined Weight Watchers. I managed to lose about 50 pounds in about a year and a half. I did not really change my eating habits with Weight Watcher's, I simply just ate whatever I wanted until I got to my daily points value. Sometimes, this meant starving myself by the end of the day because I had blown all my points on a pizza lunch. As with any diet (which is not also a lifestyle change), I slowly started gaining the weight back once I lost my motivation to use the points system. Weight Watcher’s really works for some people, but didn’t for me because it taught me to ‘budget’ my food, not to unlearn bad habits.
My weight fluctuated up and down between 250 lbs and 270 lbs for the next several years. When I moved to the UAE in August 2011, I gained about 30 pounds back, living the hotel/buffet, sedentary life. I stayed around this weight for a year, living in denial. I finally started to think about how I was really sick of being 'too fat' to do things like ride the roller coaster at Ferrari World, or sit comfortably on a plane. During the summer of 2012, I had "the moment" which really changed it all for me. Sometimes we can ignore things like weight problems by making excuses, looking at the other positive things about us or building up walls to criticisms about our weight. Then, it is only when we are slapped in the face with our unhealthiness that it really means something.
I was travelling across Europe with a friend and we booked a night sleeper train for our 9 hour journey. We were supposed to be given the bottom bunks, but they mistakenly gave us the top bunks. When I walked in to the room my heart sank, because I knew the flimsy looking top bunk was never going to hold my 280+ pound self. There was an elderly couple on each of the bottom bunks. I went to speak to the car supervisor and he told me there were no open bunks. I remember him saying "Ma'am those beds are tested to hold up to a 250 pound grown man, so they should hold you…" Little did he know how much I weighed! I went back to the car and attempted to get onto the bunk, watching the fear in the poor man's eyes as he sat underneath it. As it turned out, I couldn't fit into the space between the bed and the ceiling, to even find out if it would hold me. I left the room in tears, resolving I would have to sit in the hallway of the car for the next 9 hours. When I came back to tell my friend that I would be sitting somewhere outside, the elderly man had moved all of his things and was lying on the top bunk. He assured me it was fine and smiled, telling me he didn't mind. Taking that man's spot beside his wife on the bottom bunk was one of my most humiliating moments. I decided right then that everything was going to have to change. I didn't how, but it HAD to.
When I got home from my vacation I messaged my friend to ask her about the outdoor Boot camp class she had been doing in Al Ain. She gave me Simba's contact info so I could message him, asking about joining Boot camp that September. I still remember writing the message and just sitting there, staring at it before I sent it. I was honestly terrified to try Boot camp. I had seen people working out at Simba's class on the cornice when I was walking there before and I remembered thinking "they're crazy!" I sent the message (which was apprehensive in itself-asking if he thought I could handle it, being so overweight and unfit). Simba assured me that anyone who put in the effort could do Boot camp and that it would be at my level.
I went to the first class, which was the fitness test, consisting of several exercises and a one-mile run. I was terrified of the run, because at this point I could not run for more than 20 seconds at a time. I was the very last person to finish the mile and it took me over 14 minutes. I walked/ran the mile, hyperventilating and crying almost the whole time. Simba ran beside me, encouraging me simply to finish. Two years later, I recently ran the mile in 9:59, I run at least 5km a week and I have run a 10k race without stopping. I have lost over 85 pounds, several sizes and can honestly say I am fit now, even if I have a little weight left to lose.
The real change came when I not only decided to exercise, but to completely overhaul my eating habits. I learned that I, in fact, did not know how to fuel my body properly. I did know what I probably should NOT be eating, but really had no idea what I should eat. I struggled very hard to learn this, with the help of Simba as my personal trainer and Boot camp coach, my fit-inspired friends around me and a lot of trial and error on my own. The secret? There isn't one! You have to find out what works for you, but you will never know until you suspend your fear and put yourself out there to give it a try.
I truly believe that losing this weight, improving my fitness level and learning healthy eating, has literally saved my life. I have reduced or eliminated my risk of countless illnesses related to obesity and inactivity. The important thing to note is that I am not particularly special or amazing at any of it. I am a regular person who refused to give up and continues to fight for the health, life and body I want, every day. Ultimate failure is impossible if you simply never give up. The wonderful thing about committing to this journey and lifestyle change is that it never ends. There is always a way to be a better you.
Follow Karen's inspirational journey on her facebook page.