Change: One man’s steady struggle to become healthier


Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

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.)


  1. Jay

    An interesting story. I work closely with a top nutritionist and exercise physiologist. He has worked with more than 20 thousand patients in his private practice, many of whom were referred to him by their physicians, because of weight related medical conditions. These people know that they need to lose weight before coming to see him. They also know that in order to lose weight, and keep it off, they need to change the way in which they eat and they need to become more active physically. The work that he first does with a patient is to help them find their own personal motivation for losing weight. He does not begin work with them until they find this, because his experience has taught him that they will not achieve a permanent loss of weight if they do not have a compelling reason to do so.

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  2. Mark

    Great Post you guys!

    Cheers, Mark Watson
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  3. Christi Johnson

    I am doing all I can to lose weight and be healthy. I like that Kevin was able to make such a dramatic change to his body, but for some people (like me) the struggle is daily and seems to be impossible. It’s encouraging to read this.

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  4. Oliver Birnso

    It’s never too late to make these adjustments in lifestyle that are life-saving.

    The first thing to do so as to change for the better is to make an effort to acquire health knowledge that is currently available. Mild inconvenience in carrying out normal daily activities, which may initially be noticed, is often ignored. If early signs of health problems begin to show up then that becomes an added incentive for the still doubting Thomases.

    When action is taken, pathological changes begin to give way to healthy physiological and anatomical norms. This starts when what might have been considered ‘irreversible’ begins to reverse form.

  5. Allison O'Donnell

    You can find the original editorial from the American Journal of Health Promotion at:

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