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The Governor Is A Happy Loser

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is a successful loser.

In the past 18 months, he has whittled 110 pounds from his 5-foot-11 frame, going from 280 pounds (and a body mass index of 39 , which put him roundly in the ranks of the obese) to a trim 170 pounds and a healthy body mass index of 24.

These days, Huckabee finds himself talking as much about his healthy new habits as about his public policies. Earlier this year, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson invited him to address the Steps to a Healthier U.S. Summit in Baltimore. In June, he was a keynote speaker at a Time/ABC News obesity summit in Williamsburg.

Huckabee, who is also writing a book for TimeWarner about his personal health successes, didn't plan on being an icon in the war against obesity. He simply wanted to get healthy after being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in 2002. The condition, which afflicts an estimated 14 million Americans, is closely tied to being overweight or obese, and it significantly increases the risk of heart disease, kidney problems and eye ailments.

Huckabee's doctor handed him two oral medications and delivered a sobering message. "The doctor told me, the way you are living, your stress levels, the kind of job that you do and your health situation, you may have 10 years left, and that is being optimistic," Huckabee said. "Frankly, I was facing the fact that I was in the last decade of my life."

It was a turning point for Huckabee, then just 48, and one of the youngest governors in the nation. Huckabee, a Republican, has served in state office since 1993, when he won a special election for lieutenant governor. He became governor in 1996, when Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, a Democrat, resigned.

Huckabee doesn't pretend to have all the answers to weight loss. He's quick to note that the path he took involved commitment and hard work. In his weightier days, he recalls being offended by "buff gym rats" preaching their messages about getting fit. So he is cautious about offering a blueprint for success. "I try not to go around saying, 'Well, you ought to do this because I did it,' " he said.

Even so, Huckabee -- he says he was a chronic overeater who hated to exercise -- sees in his story a few nuggets for others. "To be able to see my whole attitude change so radically gives me hope that other people can make adjustments and change, too," he said. "I am just one beggar telling other beggars where to find bread."

Here are some of the lessons he learned:

Find the big picture. "This is a process," Huckabee said. "There will never come a day where you can say, 'Wow! I can wipe my brow, call it quits and go back to my ways because I have done this thing.' That is critical to know. Everybody wants a quick fix and something that doesn't require any change or any effort."

Small goals. Worried that he wouldn't succeed, Huckabee set the bar low. "My original thought was, 'Gee, I need to lose 30 or 40 pounds,' " he said. "And I needed to lose more, but I didn't think that I could set myself up for a big failure. I just said if I could lose 40 pounds, I'd be in better health. I'd be better off. I just wanted to get healthier."

No dieting. Huckabee said he tried nearly every weight-loss plan. They all worked -- briefly. "I would have periods that I would call temporary success," he said. "What I really had to learn is that there is a difference between going on a diet and changing a lifestyle. Going on a diet is typically going to result in failure, for two reasons. First, because the person is focused on losing weight rather than getting healthy. And when the weight-loss program has been completed, a person feels that the process is over. Well, the process is not over. The process is a lifestyle, not a program. . . . This thing will not work on autopilot. You can't just sit in the front seat on the passenger side. You've got to be willing to drive."

Go slow. Huckabee's doctor first advised against any physical activity. The reason? His weight was likely to damage his knees. So Huckabee dropped a few pounds, then started walking. "My first exercise routine was probably six minutes a day," he said. Even that was an accomplishment. "Walking a city block just about had me winded," Huckabee said. He gradually worked up to walking a mile and a half a day. "Then one day, I was walking and I thought, 'This is kind of slow. Let's pick up the pace.' And I was running. It just developed, you know, it wasn't a planned thing. Every step became its own reward."

Find a daily routine. Always an early riser, Huckabee still gets up at 4:30 a.m. These days, however, he spends the time working out instead of just working. First stop is the track that circles the governor's mansion in Little Rock. Huckabee walks a mile, runs three, then walks half a mile to cool down. (In bad weather he uses a treadmill indoors.) Then he spends 30 minutes on a recumbent stationary bike while reading the daily newspapers. "I love the recumbent bike because you can do something else while you're on it," said Huckabee. "I can be very efficient."

Biggest Changes. No food or drink with highly processed sugar or white flour. "I have pretty much just eliminated it," he said. "And I find that not only do I not need it, but I don't want it." He consumes plenty of fruit and vegetables. "A year ago, I'd just as soon eat lawn clippings as eat asparagus, and now I love it. I find that my whole appetite has changed, and I can eat asparagus or some other type of fruit or vegetable and enjoy it so much." Other food staples include poultry without the skin, lean meat and the occasional steak and pork ribs. "I am certainly more careful about portions than I used to be," he said. And he's cut out salad dressing. "I'd never tasted a salad, I'd just tasted the dressing," he notes. "Now, if I do anything I'll put salsa on it, which is great."

Make the Time. "People say, 'How do you find the time to work out?' I say, 'There is no such thing as finding time, you make time.' For 48 years, I never found the time. But I have the same 168 hours in the week that everyone else does. And I have as busy a life . . . virtually as busy as anyone. So, do I have time to do it? Not if I find it, but I do if I make it."

Be a Road Warrior. When he travels, Huckabee packs a small cooler with smoked turkey, strawberries, apples, bottled water and diet soda so he won't be tempted by higher-calorie foods. "It's easier for me to say, 'No' than 'not much,' " he said.

Know Your Weakest Time. "The biggest battle for me is late at night," Huckabee said. "Everyone else has gone to bed and I am catching up on the end of the day's work and [eating] is kind of a stress reliever. I don't drink alcohol, but I can always eat. Nobody minds. What I find is that I just have to be very careful. An apple is better than a bag of chips. I think the amazing thing is [my] changing appetite. . . . I actually crave the apple more than I do a candy bar. And that is something that I thought I would never experience."

Weight Loss Is an Effect, Not a Goal. Gradually but steadily, Huckabee's habits improved. When he'd lost 70 pounds, he stopped trying to lose weight. The remaining 35 pounds of loss just happened as his healthy habits continued.

Exercise Cravings. "If for some reason I don't exercise, I feel absolutely robbed," he said. "It is like I didn't get to eat that day. That's just incredible. The thing about that is that it's almost like I don't recognize myself saying that."

Life-changing benefit. At his last annual physical, tests showed that Huckabee's diabetes has been reversed. Blood levels of hemoglobin A1C, a substance used to monitor the health status of people with diabetes, are now in the healthy range. Huckabee hasn't taken any medication to lower his blood sugar for more than a year. "The doctor said, 'You are now as if you never had diabetes. You will have no long-term effects.' Now I am entering the first half of the rest of my adult life, as opposed to looking at the last 10 years of it winding down."•

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