Mike Huckabee – How He Won by Losing.

Allison J. Cleary

Mike Huckabee – How He Won by Losing.

At 4:30, in the blue dark of early morning, you can hear the steady beat of a man's running footsteps skirting the 9-acre grounds of the Governor's mansion in Little Rock, Arkansas. It is Mike Huckabee's sweatiest hour of the day.

Five years ago the Governor of Arkansas wouldn't have dreamed of taking a run. In fact, he might not have survived it. At age 47, Huckabee had aching knee joints, lost his breath walking up porch stairs and, according to his physician, was on his way to an early grave.

The 280-pound Huckabee had a history of dieting, losing weight and gaining it back. But he took note when his doctor sat him down during an annual checkup, gave him a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes, and told him, "At the rate you're going, you've got another 10 years left."

Skeletons in the Closet

"I had parents and grandparents with type 2 diabetes," Huckabee says. "I knew that I was predisposed and that I was moving in that direction, but I kept thinking, ‘Well, that will happen to me when I'm in my sixties. By then there'll be some sort of magic medicine that will take care of this and I won't even feel the consequences.'

"I was shocked that it happened to me instead at age 47. Like so many people, I lived with denial."

So between gubernatorial events and legislative meetings, Huckabee attempted to take back his health. Modest changes like eating fewer pastries and walking when he had time didn't take him far. "I was still struggling with weight and the reality that I had to exercise regularly." Then Huckabee had another wake-up call. A good friend, former Governor Frank White, died of a heart attack a week after he stood in Huckabee's office telling the younger man how much he was looking forward to retirement.

Ultimately, says Huckabee, "I just finally got sick and tired of being sick and tired."

Facing the impossibility of making real progress on his own, Huckabee sought help at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Weight Control Program. There doctors prescribed meal-replacement shakes that totaled 800 daily calories. Three months later and 40 pounds lighter, he graduated to 1,600-calorie meals loaded with vegetables and lean proteins like chicken and fish, and he earned the green light to walk for exercise. As the weight came off and his health improved, Huckabee found walking too slow and began to run. In the spring of 2005, he completed the Little Rock Marathon in just over 41/2 hours.

Unlearning Bad Habits

The same man who ate deep-fried Twinkies and gravy-drenched fries at the State Fair switched to a cooler filled with apples, string cheese and lean turkey as he travels from one event to the next. "Instead of doughnuts, I now crave apples." His daily diet and exercise regimens have become routine. "This morning, I had some hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes and some melon," Huckabee recalls, explaining that he typically eats a high-protein breakfast. For a midmorning snack, he'll chomp on an apple, a handful of nuts or a bowl of strawberries. "I've made the practice of not going long periods of time without eating something," Huckabee says, citing his doctor's explanation that metabolism improves when you eat small portions regularly throughout the day rather than eating large meals three times a day.

In Arkansas, where 25 percent of the population is classified as obese, avoiding fried, fatty foods takes constant vigilance. The cuisine is born in part from long traditions of poverty in the South, Huckabee says. "I grew up in a home in which we were just a few pockets full of change above the poverty level. We ate foods that stretched our food dollars but were not necessarily nutritious. Potatoes added bulk so you could serve more people; gravy added volume to a meal. We also ate a lot of foods that had a long shelf life, which meant they were probably loaded with partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. It preserved the food, but took from my shelf life."

As an adult, Huckabee consequently sought out fried chicken, chicken-fried steak, fried anything-zucchini, okra, potatoes. He ate burgers on the run because of the ease that drive-thru allowed. "My motto is that if it comes through the car window, it isn't food. If what you eat creates a greasy sack, eat the sack and throw the food out," he laughs. "At least the sack has some fiber."

The New Regime

Huckabee cooks many of his own meals when home, but more often than not he's on the road. At events he declines meals, depending instead upon his cooler. At restaurants he requests lean meats, heaps of steamed vegetables and salads with salsa rather than dressing.

Just as he had to rethink food, Huckabee changed his attitude toward physical activity. "The very thought of health and fitness added guilt to an already frustrated life." Put off early during grade school by "sadistic football coaches who didn't want to teach P.E.," Huckabee's attitude continued to deteriorate in adulthood until he convinced himself that exercise was something he was physically unable to do with bad knees and joints. Besides, he reasoned, as Governor he couldn't find the time.

"Now, instead of finding the time I make time," Huckabee says. "My life is as important as a speech, so I book exercise into my schedule." If he isn't running, he may put 35 minutes into a cardiovascular workout on the recumbent bike (where he can also catch up on the newspapers) and spends another 30 minutes training with weights.

The results have been tremendous. Over two years, Huckabee, at 5'11" dropped 110 pounds-but even more telling, his blood sugar now registers in the normal zone. "My doctor says it's almost as if I never had diabetes. I no longer need medication, but not everyone will be able to get to that point."

Inspiration Trickles Down

His transformation has inspired changes in others at the statehouse. Sneakers are tucked under desks for walking breaks around the capital, a ritual Huckabee started because he was disturbed by unhealthy smoking breaks. Instead of doughnuts and pastries, staff often bring fruit to share as treats. And dinner events at the Governor's mansion now feature vegetables, lean proteins and sugar-free desserts.

Arkansas's health-care policies have changed as well. "Government shouldn't be the grease police, but it should create incentives," Huckabee says. In his newfound evangelism Huckabee has built 24 new diabetes-education centers and the state now offers employees who take health assessments a discount on their health insurance.

When people tell Huckabee they are going on a diet he wishes them luck but warns them they'll probably fail. Diets, he says, by their very nature stop when a weight-loss goal has been met. Instead of weight loss, Huckabee says, set a goal in life span. "Health and fitness take the rest of my life. There's never a point at which I can say, ‘Boy, I've gotten healthy, now I can coast,' anymore than I can say, ‘I've been breathing for quite a while, I can stop now.' My life depends upon the next breath, and I have to look at health and fitness in the same way."

-Allison J. Cleary

A Governor's Tips for Changing Lifestyle

* You won't find time for exercise, you must make it.

* Start small. "You ate the elephant one bite at a time, you'll have to get rid of it one bite at a time."

* Rewarding yourself with food is a "great cultural bugaboo." Instead, reward yourself with a CD or go to the movies.

* Don't let others determine what you eat.

* Don't put off starting a healthy routine.

The Governor's book about his experiences has just been published: Quit Digging Your Grave with a Knife and Fork: A 12-STOP Program to End Bad Habits and Begin a Healthy Lifestyle (Center Street).