By Jennifer Ackerman, "The Social Network Diet,"January/February 2012
The photo shows a beaming woman, lean, muscular and triumphant, with a medal around her neck, surrounded by a cheering squad of exuberant family and friends. Deanne Hobba has just completed the Chicago Marathon. There at the finish line are her mom, her two sisters, three cousins, an aunt and her best friend—“my support group,” says Hobba. “What more could you ask for?”
The end of this race is the capstone of a far longer, more arduous journey for Hobba. A journey that took her from poor eating, ill health and obesity to glowing fitness and well-being. A journey that reflects what it takes to transform one’s life, to lose weight or just adopt healthier habits.
In the past decade, Hobba, age 44, has completed three marathons, seven triathlons and more than fifty 5K-, 10K- and 10-mile races. At 5'4", she weighs 145 pounds and wears a size 8. She runs, bikes and swims three times a week and strength-trains twice a week.
But it wasn’t long ago that Hobba could barely dislodge herself from an amusement-park ride. At age 33, she weighed 268 pounds and suffered from high blood pressure, high cholesterol and frequent migraine headaches. “I had tried to lose weight with various diets, but nothing stuck,” she recalls. “I had horrible eating habits. Whatever was put in front of me, I ate—huge portions at meals and whole boxes of cookies. Food was my crutch. It was my cure for boredom. It was what I did with friends: we went out and ordered a lot of unhealthy food. Food was my emotional support. If I had a bad day, I’d go home and eat a pizza.”
That year, two things occurred that changed Hobba’s life forever. “It was summer , and I’d taken my nephew to an amusement park,” she says. “When we sat down on one ride, the safety bar kept springing back up again and again. Finally, the guy manning the ride whispered in my ear, ‘I’m sorry, ma’am, you’ll have to get off—we can’t close the bar over you.’”
Hobba was mortified. “I knew I was heavy, but this was devastating. I had to do something. Still, I kept putting it off.” That winter, while working as an X-ray technologist at Union Hospital in Lynn, Massachusetts, she encountered a string of patients who were morbidly obese. “It took five or six people to move them to the table,” she recalls. “It was clear they couldn’t take care of themselves.
I thought, if I don’t change, in 10 years or so this could be me.”
Hobba knew she had to revolutionize her life. She joined Weight Watchers with her sister and her roommate. This helped her restructure both her eating and her social environment. “Having two people on board with me really helped,” she says. Sharing her meals with her roommate was especially valuable: the two agreed to buy only fruits, vegetables and lean meats, and to avoid cookies and crackers and other packaged foods with added sugars and fats; if these temptations weren’t in the house, they wouldn’t eat them. Hobba measured out portions ahead of time so she wouldn’t go back for seconds. “As soon as I was done eating dinner, I’d decide what I was going to eat the next night and pull it out of the freezer so it was ready to cook,” she says. “That way, when I came home from work tired and hungry, I wouldn’t just call for takeout.”
After the first week of the program, Hobba had lost four pounds. “That small success really fueled my efforts,” she says. “I realized I didn’t have to starve myself to lose weight. I could do this.” She began to eat small, healthy snacks, such as fruit, every couple of hours so that she never felt famished. When she was tempted by food outside her planned meals and snacks—the doughnuts or bagels someone brought to the hospital, for instance—she learned to ask herself, “Are you really hungry?” More often than not, the answer was “no.” She started taking her lunch to work and stopped bringing money so she couldn’t buy a cheeseburger from the cafeteria. (At the same time, Hobba began a regular program of walking on a treadmill, building up to 30 minutes a day. She bought Strong Women, Strong Bones by Miriam Nelson, an expert on nutrition and physical activity at Tufts University, and started strength-training twice a week, first with cans of beans and soda bottles, and then with real weights. From February to November of 2000, Hobba took off 60 pounds.
Hobba kept eating well and exercising. By age 35, two years after she began her journey, Hobba had lost 120 pounds. Her blood pressure had dropped from 140/90 to 120/70; her cholesterol was reduced from 229 to 169; and her migraines vanished. Two years after that, when she had hit her goal weight of 145 pounds, she decided to try running the Boston Marathon. “I knew I wasn’t fast enough to qualify, so I thought I’d do it for charity.” She saw an ad for the Tufts fundraising team, joined up and, to her delight, met Miriam Nelson, author of the Strong Women books and director of the John Hancock Research Center on Physical Activity, Nutrition and Obesity Prevention at Tufts.
“Everyone around me—Miriam, my friends, colleagues, and family—became part of my support group, reinforcing my good behavior,” says Hobba. “If I had a bad day and was thinking of skipping the gym, someone would stop me on the way out of work and say, ‘Wow, you look great. How did you do this?’ And guess what, I went to the gym that day.”
In turn, Hobba’s efforts to transform herself rippled out to those around her. Her roommate and best friend, Lynda, not only took off 40 pounds on Weight Watchers but started exercising, too, and greatly improved her overall health. (She once walked with a cane because of her arthritis, but soon began to walk freely, 2 to 3 miles at a time.) Hobba’s sister, Tracie, who had been obese all her life, took a boot-camp exercise course at Deanne’s urging and then, in 2010, trained to run a 5K race. A colleague began working out and lost more than 100 pounds. Two other work friends joined Weight Watchers, one has lost 25 pounds, the other 65. Hobba’s mother began to walk regularly, and her father and his wife began to walk and ride bikes. “The whole family started thinking more about their dining habits and being smarter about what they eat,” Deanne says—a reflection of her own profound change in attitude toward food.
“I used to think of food as a reward, something I thought I deserved,” she says. “Now I think of it simply as nourishment, as something to sustain me and enable me to do the things I want to do.” Deanne doesn’t deprive herself. She works hard to eat a healthy diet centered on fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and the occasional baked potato or serving of brown rice. Every once in a while, she splurges on ice cream or a cookie or two. “Everyone does,” she says. “But the key is realizing that one bad meal won’t pack on 25 pounds. If you have a bad meal, don’t make it a bad day of meals, a bad week of meals. Just stop it right there.”
Every week, Hobba works out with a triathlon training group near her home in Salem, Massachusetts, an “awesome” group of six women, ranging in age from 40 to 63. “We share coffee and bagels, all right, but first we run ten miles,” she says. “They are my friends, my workout partners, my motivators; they’ve become an integral part of my life.
“How do I feel now? Happier and healthier than I’ve ever been.”
“Deanne is a remarkable woman,” says Nelson, who has kept in touch with Hobba ever since the Boston Marathon, e-mailing back and forth, exchanging news and encouragement. “I find her story incredibly inspiring, but the way she changed her life is an example anyone can follow.” Nelson’s new book, The Social Network Diet: Change Yourself, Change the World, was in part inspired by the monumental life shift made by Hobba and women like her and the positive effect they had on the people around them. The book is about making healthy change in your life by doing what Hobba and other women have done—transforming your eating, your activity level and your environment. “The choices we make about food and exercise reflect our social and physical environments,” says Nelson. “When those environments change, so do our habits. So to change your life, you must change your environment. What’s amazing is that your efforts to change your own life will have a halo effect, just as Deanne’s did, rippling out to those around you, making healthy living easier for all.”
The three keys to making a lasting transformation are rooted in the science-backed elements of successful behavior change, says Nelson. The first is “flipping a switch” for yourself, she says, “finding a moment in time when you say, ‘Enough is enough. I care about my health, my fitness, my quality of life. I have to change.’” For Deanne, that moment came at the amusement park. “But if you look hard,” says Nelson, “you can find your own trigger or catalyst, the thing that really spurs you on.”
Once you’ve made this commitment to positive change, then you need to change your social environment by surrounding yourself with a network of supportive people, as Deanne did. “It’s really difficult to create change completely on your own and it’s especially hard to maintain it,” says Nelson. “In seeking a supportive social network, look around you. The people you need may be right in front of you. Or you may need to branch out. Adopt new networks around running, biking, hiking—with individuals or in organizations. The goal is to surround yourself with helpful, like-minded people.” There are also online social-networking sites and self-monitoring resources devoted to healthy change that can support your efforts.
Hobba’s successful use of a support network is backed by solid research showing that people are more effective at losing weight—and keeping it off—when they embark on weight-loss programs with friends, new or old. In a 1999 study at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, 166 people were recruited to participate in a weight-loss program—half of the people alone and half with a support network of three friends or family members. Of those who participated alone, only 24 percent maintained their weight loss after 10 months, compared with 66 percent of those who completed the program with the support of a friend or family network.
The same is true for adhering to exercise regimens: research shows that if you work out with friends or colleagues, as Hobba does, it’s more likely that you’ll stick with your exercise rituals. A 2009 study of 344 men and women at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine found that exercising with a partner boosted weight loss.
The third key to making lasting healthy change is addressing your food and physical activity environment, says Nelson. “Your home environment is especially critical, but your work and community environments matter too.”
In the fall of 2011, Nelson traveled 6,800 miles across the United States, from Alaska through the Heartland, the South, the Midwest, to the East, stopping at towns along the way to spread the message and launch “Change Clubs.” These groups of 12 to 15 women promote healthier lifestyles in their communities by encouraging healthy eating in homes and schools, arranging group walks and working with officials to make streets safer for biking and walking. In each town, Nelson visited several homes to identify and categorize the healthy and not-so-healthy food items stored in refrigerators and pantries.
“I did what I call a ‘scavenger hunt,’” she says. “I pulled out things from the refrigerator and cupboards to look for products with added sugar and solid fats.” These processed foods, which abound on our grocery-store shelves, carry hidden calories, amounting to 35 percent of our daily intake, about 750 calories. “Until the food industry changes its practices, we have to be the gatekeepers of the food in our own homes,” says Nelson. “You will eat what is easily accessible
in your house. So make the choices healthy. That means buying fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins, and staying away from foods high in added sugars and refined grains. This, in turn, will send a message to the food industry that we want healthier options.”
The changes you make in your own life—in your home, work and community—will make you healthier, says Nelson; they’ll also have a profound effect on those around you, just as Hobba’s life changes did. “The next thing you know, you’ll be at the center of your own positive, healthy social network, with others wanting to join your efforts. This new, constructive social and physical environment will, in turn, make your own healthy change stick by reinforcing and maintaining it.
“That’s what it will take to create an environment in this country that promotes health for all,” says Nelson. “If we work together, we can do it!”
Photography: Courtesy of Deanne Hobba.