Harvard Health Publications

Change: One man’s steady struggle to become healthier

Posted By Patrick J. Skerrett On September 9, 2011

It isn’t easy to get rid of a harmful habit like drinking too much, or to make healthy changes like losing weight and exercising more. Media stories about people who run marathons a year after surgery to bypass cholesterol-clogged arteries or who climb Mt. McKinley after being diagnosed with diabetes are interesting, but they don’t resonate with me. Mostly it’s because they often leave out the hard work needed to change and the backtracking that invariably accompanies it.

I ran across a truly inspiring story the other day in the American Journal of Health Promotion—one that shows how most of us ultimately manage to make changes that improve our lives. The journal’s founder and editor, Michael P. O’Donnell, wrote a moving essay about his father, Kevin O’Donnell. Once an overweight workaholic who smoked and drank heavily, ate mostly meat and potatoes, and didn’t exercise—and who eventually needed a double bypass—Kevin O’Donnell gradually made changes to improve his health. Now, at age 85, he has the cardiovascular system of a 65 year old and is working on a house-building project in North Korea.

How did Kevin O’Donnell engineer such a remarkable transformation? By being aware of his habits and lifestyle and how they were affecting his health and relationships. From that starting point, he took advice from others and asked for help. And he kept at it.

O’Donnell quit smoking, though it took five tries over 16 years. He stopped drinking when he realized that alcohol was becoming a problem. He began changing his diet and started exercising at age 49 after a doctor told him he would begin facing serious health problems if he didn’t get in shape and lose some weight.

There was no monumental struggle, no epiphany—just a regular guy doing his best each day to become healthier for his sake and for his family. The changes Kevin O’Donnell made might not seem like dramatic accomplishments. But they have given him the time and health to do the things he wants to do and be with the people he cares about.

To me, that’s an inspirational story.

(You can Michael O’Donnell’s essay about his father here.)

Related Information: Simple Changes, Big Rewards: A practical, easy guide for…

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