Carole Carson was nearing her 60th birthday, stepped on her bathroom scale and realized it had broken. What happened next catapulted her from self-loathing to a healthy new life as a national fitness advocate.
Carole is a grandmother of nine, and one of her passions is being a role model to them. In 2004 she led a “Community Meltdown” in which participants lost a total of 7,509 pounds. Carole is now the coach of AARP’s Fat 2 Fit community online, where she can do on a huge scale what she does best: cheering on others to fitness.
GRAND: Carole, as I read your story in your book From Fat to Fit, I was so taken with your bravery and the humor in your writing about finding yourself on the front page of your local newspaper being weighed and measured at your peak weight.
Often it seems that even when we know we need to do something to improve our lives, no matter how much we want to, something keeps us back; and then suddenly it seems like the stars just align and we’re able to make these improvements we’ve been talking about for years.
Carole: Sort of that moment of epiphany.
GRAND: Yes, an epiphany, but sometimes these things just click and sometimes they just peter out. So my question to you is what do you think made the difference once and for all in your life about your ability to start and stay with your transformation?
Carole: I look back because after 40 years of trying and failing, you can imagine nobody’s more surprised than I am that I finally followed through. I think I did three things differently:
One, and I summarize them in “F.I.T.”: I made it fun [F = Fun]. I knew myself well enough that if it wasn’t fun, I wasn’t going to stick with it. So I had to find foods that I really enjoyed eating that wouldn’t make me fat-and that meant eating different foods and maybe cooking my old favorites in different ways. And finding exercise that I would do just because it was fun.
The second thing I knew was that I’d better do what was right for me [I = Individualized/Integrated] because I couldn’t go on a crash diet like I could have at 25. I was approaching 60; I had a torn hamstring at the time-I sure couldn’t go out and do jogging. I had to figure out what would work for me personally…. Remember the cabbage soup diet? I just abandoned everything that I had tried but that was other peoples’ ideas, and said why don’t you design something that’s just right for you?
The most profound thing I did and the thing that may be the most critical is I didn’t try to do it alone [T = Together]. I teamed up with other people-a lot of other people. My husband supported me, my trainer for my torn hamstring, I talked to my doctor.
The newspaper accidentally made me into a case study, but I was going to go through with it anyhow. I think that teaming up with other people is the most critical. In the Fat 2 Fit community I’ll say that over and over to people: Don’t try to do it alone; it’s too hard, and there are too many temptations and too many reasons to backslide. You’re going to have to team up with other people.
Those are the things I did differently.
GRAND: Did this come to you all at once, or was this just something that started clicking together? Was it just filtering through your brain or was it done consciously?
Carole: It was very conscious. Because when I stepped on the scale and it broke and it’s like that’s it, we’re going to have to do something, and I knew that if I just did the same things I’d always done in the past, I’d fail again. I didn’t have the neat little acronym FIT, but I did have those three ideas that I came up with: I was going to make it fun, and I was going to do what was right for my body, and I knew I’d need help.
I think, too, that although I didn’t know it at the time, I found out later that I was at risk for medical problems. I probably wouldn’t be alive today if I hadn’t made the changes.
GRAND: On the theme of backsliding, do you have any tips to push through or start over if you’ve really made a mess of things?
Carole: Every day’s a new day and you’re deciding every day-it’s not as if you can make a decision and that’s it and you never have to make a decision again. Every day you get up and say, am I going to exercise today, what am I going to eat today? And it does get easier to make healthful choices the more you make them because then it’s like, this is what I do, this is my routine.
The first three months I think are kind of tough because you’re developing new habits, but it does get easier. It’s never over. I mean, I got up this morning a little extra early because I wanted to have my hour of exercise done by the time you and I talked.
That meant maybe not sleeping in as late as I want to on a snowy, cold morning and getting up in the dark, but it’s my choice because I know I’ll feel better the rest of the day if I get up and go through that little routine. And I’ll figure out what I’m going to eat today and when I’m going to cook, so it’s always an ongoing process.
There is an excellent reference on this subject in the LEARN program-Dr. [Kelly] Brownell’s program at Yale [http://www.liebertonline.com/doi/abs/10.1089/obe.2005.1.217]. It’s the definitive educational program for people wanting to make lifestyle changes. He describes relapse, a prolapse and a collapse. A relapse is you went out to a party and really ate like a pig and you feel bad that you overate so much, but you get back on track the next day. A prolapse is when it goes for two or three days. And a collapse is when you’ve abandoned your program.
He says it’s really important to recognize when you’ve had a relapse and jump back on, and not let it progress to the next stage, which is the prolapse, and then progress to the next stage. A lot of this is monitoring yourself, witnessing yourself, coaching yourself, but surrounding yourself with people who are going to give you a little backup when you need it, like a husband or a doctor or a trainer. I’ve got a friend who says c’mon, let’s go walk, and I may not feel like walking, but she makes me.
GRAND: So now about the kids’ health aspect of your work. I really enjoyed the article with Dr Robert Murray [http://www.huffingtonpost.com/carole-carson/public-health-care-enemy_b_361583.html]. I was wondering what happened in your life that made this issue come to the forefront in your life. It’s an important issue, but what happened to make it your mission, your current mission?
Carole: I’m working with all ages. I’m concerned about kids; I’m also working with seniors, and I’m also working with families. The reason being is you have to work with whole groups. We are social animals, and if parents are overweight and they raise an overweight child, it’s something like an 80 percent chance that this kid will grow up to be overweight. You know you have to work with the whole system.
I don’t think I understood when I began this work how much we impact each other. The research that’s coming out from social sciences now [indicates] that loneliness is contagious. Friends can make friends fat; our outlook is contagious when we’re just in the presence of another person. So what I realized is that you have to change the whole dynamic for the family. The good news is that grandparents can have a huge impact on this.
GRAND: Dr. Murray said, “The word ‘obesity,’ carrying tremendous negative baggage, prevents the community, parents and clinicians from seeing the serious risk of chronic disease behind obesity.” So what you’re talking about in the family dynamic is that nobody wants to see their kids as carrying this burden around.
Carole: And they don’t want to address the issues in their own life. Not only that, the reason I used denial for so many years is, gosh, it works really well, doesn’t it?
GRAND: Yes, we don’t have to deal with it.
Carole: And some of the research I’ve read on the impact of denial on parents…. I read one study in a clinic that was treating children for diabetes as a result of their obesity, and a high percentage of the parents didn’t even see their children as overweight, even though the children had been transported hundreds of miles to a clinic to be treated for diabetes related to their obesity. That’s how powerful the dynamic of denial is. You really have to be gentle and compassionate in confronting that. What I do first and foremost is I set an example.
My daughter suffered cardiac arrest a few years ago, and I went to Missouri to take care of her three young girls at the time, my three granddaughters. They had the world’s worst eating habits; if it wasn’t junk food, they didn’t eat it….
So I went to take care of the three girls, hold them together, take my daughter to rehab every day. At night I set up Grandma’s salad bar, and everybody laughed at me. It’s like, yeah, you know Grandma, she has her salad bar. Pretty soon, guess what happened? People started joining me. And those three girls have visited me in summer-I’ve even had them teach classes on nutrition at the local Girls Club because that forced them to learn about it.
And whenever they visit me now, they have their own favorite dishes they want to fix. Like Dannie always says, “Grandma, can we make that fruit salad?” I know I’ve had a big impact on them, mainly through my example but also just hanging in there and fixing healthy dishes and bringing them into the kitchen-they all have their own aprons.
GRAND: I’m glad you told me. That’s a true-life example. You know it works. How many grandchildren do you have?
Carole: I’ve got to count: I’ve got three, and two in France, and then one, and then two, and then one. Nine.
GRAND: So, nine grandchildren, and you have how many children?
Carole: I remarried at 50, so between us we have six. Blended family. And I’m going to be a great-grandma in December.
GRAND: That’s wonderful.
Carole: I have one thing I wanted to mention if I could. Actually, a couple of things.
GRAND: Yes, of course.
Carole: The reason I sent you that picture of me in my pajamas in the tree fort-that wasn’t because it was a great picture, but that’s why grandparents need to get fit and set that example, so they can do these fun things with their kids. I don’t think before I lost weight I could have climbed a 10-foot ladder and climbed around in a tree fort and spent the night up there. I wouldn’t have been mobile enough to do it.
The other thing I wanted to mention-it’s back to the original thing about me: There was something about losing the original weight that allowed me to become the person I was supposed to be. I’ve often said it’s like losing 60 pounds of chains rather than just pounds, because the first thing I did was write a children’s book. Now, that had probably been in me a long time, but it never would have surfaced. All of a sudden I had this creative energy and…I think that’s an odd side effect of losing weight, isn’t it?
GRAND: I understand it completely, because I get stuck in what I can do right now, but there’s so much more to me.
Carole: There’s so much more. You know how I’m coaching the AARP Back 2 Fit community? It’s amazing that AARP, with, what, 43 million members, would pick an ordinary person to coach their community. And I’ve thought about that…first, my appeal is that I’m an ordinary, regular person. I’m not a celebrity with a personal chef…. I think the most important thing is that when I made my changes, I demonstrated what is possible for other people.
So, if I could demonstrate it here, in my community, with myself, then maybe I could demonstrate it with others online; that was kind of an experiment we started last year. And it’s happening. We’ve got 4,000 people that are engaged and working on their fitness; and now AARP is going to relaunch it in 2010 with a lot of fanfare. So my goal is to go from maybe 4,000 members to 40,000.