The primary question: Where to begin?
Mary Beth Eckersley’s story has so many entry points, so many rollercoaster-in-the-dark ups and downs, that it’s hard to decide. But it’s harder still to distill an entire life into “entry points.”
That’s what you come to understand after hearing her story and learning about her total life transformation.
Losing weight is a side benefit. Fitness and diet are all about making the attempt and taking the best possible step forward.
A life is epic. A life has meaning. Mary Beth Eckersley’s life – even just the past 10 years of it – is worthy of examination. Why? Because she’s one of the most inspiring people you’ll ever meet…
Your Past is Not Your Future
Ten years ago, Mary Beth Eckersley weighed 400 pounds.
Okay, technically it was 395, but coming in 5 pounds light doesn’t have quite the same psychological effect as, say, pricing a vacuum cleaner at $395 so you don’t feel like you’re paying $400. At that level of obesity, your heart, liver, and pancreas won’t give you credit for five pounds. For Eckersley’s part, she puts it dryly: “I was exceptionally large.”
She had all the baggage that goes with that kind of weight: Lousy diet, no fitness, low self-esteem, the works. At her age – then 45 – she knew that when it came to her long-term health, it was quite literally do-or-die time. She made some changes and she dropped 100 pounds.
Wow. Huge, right? That’s like losing a set of Michelins. That’s worth celebrating. And yet … Eckersley didn’t feel as triumphant as she thought she would.
For one thing, she’d plateaued and couldn’t seem to drop any more weight. For another, deep down she knew something no one else around her knew.
“My weight loss was half-assed,” she says.
“It happened, but it felt like a lie. I wasn’t eating healthy and I was still lying to myself. ‘I’m making healthy choices.’ No, you’re not. I reached a point in my life where I really had to look at who I was and what I was doing.”
That moment of self-honesty – what addicts call the moment of clarity – was one of the biggest in Eckersley’s life because it finally got everything out there.
“Part of being exceptionally large is that you still blame other things,” she says. “It takes a while for you to come to that honest realization that, yeah, you’re fat. You need to do something about it. It’s truly affecting your life and you need to fix it. No one will fix it for you.”
The problem? “I knew I had to move forward but had no idea how to do it. You know how you can get stuck in a too-much-information-and-don’t-know-where-to-start kind of thing? That was me.”
She shopped around for a while, followed some fitness folks on the internet, and finally signed up with trainer Adam Bornstein for Born Fitness online coaching in May of 2012. All was well. She was ready. Now she had the coach she needed. Then, as she describes it, things “went sideways” three months later.
She was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“One of the worst emails I sent I had to send to Adam because I’d finally made it to the point where I wanted to fix my life and now I had this on my plate,” she says. “But Adam sent me the best response anyone could’ve sent,”
Today we get stronger.
The Only Choice: Live
Mary Beth and Adam decided to work together through all her treatment. You rarely hear of people who exercise through chemotherapy, but Eckersley was resolute.
“I decided I’d face breast cancer with the best possible attack plan I could and be as positive as possible. I did small workouts. For some people they might not even qualify as workouts. But if you have a port in your chest and are doing chemo for a year, it’s a workout.”
At the gym, she would warm up on a spin bike. The first time she tried it, she lasted 10 minutes. Eventually she worked her way up to an hour and a half. When the really hardcore chemo started, a friend would stand beside her so she wouldn’t fall off the bike.
She found a rhythm with treatment, which repeated 3-week cycles. Week one: Your body is inundated with drugs. Week two: Your body gets rid of the drugs (“You can’t do anything that week,” she says). Week three: You heal, then start over. Her workouts ran the same cycle.
“Every cancer patient should be given the opportunity to be in a gym,” she says. “It really does make a difference in your treatment and how your body can process the drugs and refresh itself afterwards. For me, it was huge. It doesn’t matter how fast you go as long as you keep moving. As long as you’re moving, you’re moving forward.”
As exhausted as she felt on chemo – and she literally felt physically done – she’d force herself to climb on that bike. And always, once she warmed up, she got that pleasant surprise; she felt like doing more.
She’d do some floor work, crunches, maybe a half-plank and some light kettlebell work. “Exercise gave me a positive place to put the stress,” she says. “And physically it gave me more strength and stamina to deal with the next treatment.”
Success is Part of Life…If You Pursue It
Today, now 55 years old, Eckersley is a cancer survivor. She’s also dropped another 100 pounds. “I’m 30 pounds away from where my doctor would like me to be, 170. I’m half the size I was.”
Her message is simple: Anything is possible. You can change your life. When necessary, you can fight for your life. The key is making the choice to start. And it is a choice, she says, no one will do it for you.
Most importantly, you shouldn’t let the fact that you may be obese keep you from getting out and doing the work. Take Eckersley’s advice and start slow. But start.
“When people see someone who’s really large, they say, ‘Oh, they should just exercise.’ Well, you can say that to a woman who’s 180 pounds. But say that to someone who’s just over 400 pounds? You can’t.
You can’t say, ‘This is a burpee and this is how you do it.’ It’s not gonna happen.. You don’t have the reaction time. It’s embarrassing for you and you could hurt yourself. So you need to find the space that lets you learn that reaction time, learn how to get up off the floor safely and without being embarrassed.”
Bornstein helped by offering encouragement along with the exercises and healthy eating plan. She used her own bodyweight to start. She’d use a wall for support and go slow. Then she moved up to using a table. Then floor work. She did her very first half-squats while holding on to a TRX suspension trainer. Now those days are a memory.
“I wrote Adam a note yesterday,” she says. “For the first time in my life I did a squat with a 20 pound kettlebell and did figure-eights with it around my legs. I thought, This is cool. I have proper form and I have the strength to DO this.”
As the saying goes, you can’t out-train a lousy diet, and Eckersley had to change her eating habits as well. Bornstein helped with that, but during her cancer battle, she found an unlikely ally: Chemotherapy. And no, not because it made her feel sick and unable to eat.
It forced her, amazingly, to eat healthy foods. “If I ate something that was made with chemicals, it tasted disgusting to me, like a filthy ashtray or a science experiment. I ended up with a bizarre craving for spinach. I couldn’t get enough of it. Even though chemo is the nastiest thing in the world, it gave me clean eating that my body craved. So I ended up with an appreciation for clean eating that I never had before.”
Once she beat the cancer, however, the crap-food-cravings returned. Those aren’t easy for anyone. By then, however, Eckersley had been able to make new food rules like “no drive-thrus.”
Much of her eating is now based on a simple change in attitude she learned from Bornstein.
“Now I remind myself that I’m worth a healthy meal. That I have the right to prepare a healthy lunch or dinner. A lot of the reason so many of us are overweight is that we have no confidence in ourselves. We don’t think we have any value. Now I see the value in myself. Now my lunch bag is filled with vegetables, protein bars, hummus, and fruit.”
It’s underselling it to say that Eckersley has a new life. Or that she is a walking inspiration not just to people who want to lose a lot of weight, but fight through a cancer diagnosis. It’s a matter of making your decision. Asking for help. And fighting every day.
“Even going through chemo I managed to get healthier and fitter than I’ve ever been in my whole life,” she says.
“Now my goal isn’t to lose weight. I want to be healthy and stronger. Losing weight is a side benefit. It’s all about making the attempt and taking the best possible step forward.”