Jill Levenhagen

…faith, creativity, humor and real life

How I got healthy, and one miracle day 7 years later.

I’ve been unfit and overweight my entire life. And now at age 52, I am healthy. I would love to tell you about my journey to healthy if it would help even one of you be inspired, motivated, or get ideas for your own health.

Let’s just start with an overview of my life regarding health and my feelings of being overweight:

  • In the 7th grade was the first time I felt overweight as I compared myself to other girls.
  • I was not “fit”. I was not in any sports and hated physical activity.
  • In college I put on some weight and I felt overweight.
  • After college I put on another 50lbs and I was really upset about it.
  • In my late 20s I did a quick diet/exercise thing and lost 35lbs in 6 months. But it was not a lifestyle that I stuck to.
  • I gained most of it back in a few years.
  • In my 30s, my weight problems started leading to body problems.
  • I also found out that I was prediabetic.
  • The prediabetes was enough for me to not let my weight get more out of control. So I was able to maintain, but I was considered obese and I was not happy nor did I feel good.
  • My body was miserable and falling apart more and more each year.

Being overweight and unhealthy has been something that was always a negative, toxic presence in my life and thoughts.

Fast forward to today:

I feel better than I have felt my entire adult life. I have energy. I am strong. I am consistently losing weight.

My journey back to health began 8 years ago. At 45 years old, I was at my lowest. I had suffered bad feet and ankles for 15 years. My muscles were completely unused and failing me. And although I had made efforts here and there along the way to exercise or eat better, my body just slowly went downhill over the 27 years of my adulthood. And I was 80-100 pounds overweight.

I realized that something was very wrong. I would go out in public, like at a theme park where people are walking and standing all day. I would see people much older than me and wondered, “how are they doing this”? I realized my body was deteriorating. It wasn’t even about gaining weight anymore, it was that my body was making me unable to do things. I could look back and see the layering of my physical abilities worsen.

At 30, I had never had foot problems. I went to Washington DC with 7 fit friends. I made the mistake of wearing sandles. And we walked and walked and walked…as you do in DC. And the next day I was blistered everywhere and could not manage the pain it took to walk anymore. This incident led to plantar fasciitis…a heel spur on one of my heels.

Because of the heel spur, my efforts to workout were minimized. I spent a year and a half wearing gel inserts in every shoe until it finally went away.

But wait. Our bodies have a way of compensating for pain. Sometimes it turns out okay, but many times it just shifts pain to some other part that is carrying the new load. So, my ankles, both of them, started to hurt.

I went through years of trying to fix this problem with everything that might fix it except for what my body needed: fitness. I went to a podiatrist. He gave me orthotic inserts. I wore tennis shoes for the next 15 years. In the summer I had one brand of sandals, Mephisto, that mimicked my orthotics and got me through summers.

I went to a chiropractor. He would give me adjustments for a pelvic tilt. He said I had one leg that was about 1/4 inch longer. This made me decide that my leg length problem must be the issue. I tried using lifts in one shoe for awhile.

One day, I leaned over to pick something up and my right leg gave out. I had bursitis. I could barely walk for days. In physical therapy, I was faced with the truth that my body could not perform even the simplest of exercises. In the past, when I did “workout”, it was usually the treadmill or the elliptical. These are mostly walking motions. Most of us can walk. That is usually the last thing to go. But I could not balance on one foot. I could not squat down. I could not even hold my stomach in as in a good posture position. It was too hard. It was actually painful to try to hold my abs in. My muscles had no strength.

I was 45. My weight was long past my main concern. I needed to be healthy. I knew I needed strength training.

My husband was using a gym and group classes and loved a particular group coach that he loved. I hired her to be my personal trainer. It was like rehabilitation. I could do almost nothing. She had to make everything easier just to get me started.

I committed to doing it 3 times a week. And I lost 2 pounds per month. This kept me going. I could not manage a diet at that point because it took monumental effort just to do this. And I knew that if I was going to choose one, that strength training was what I needed more.

Within about 6 months, I was able to go on my own. I tried some local group training classes. It was difficult. Most group sessions use a combination of actual dumbbell weight exercises, and bodyweight exercises. The leader would have us run a lap around the track at the beginning of class to “warm up”. I could not run. I literally could not run. I haven’t ever been able to run. Let alone my ankle problem and my balance and no cardio training. Then, when it came to the exercises that used bodyweight, I realized that I was lifting twice as much as all the stick figures in class. PSA to Group fitness class leaders…don’t use bodyweight training when you have overweight people in your class. It is demoralizing. Group classes were not working for me.

I ordered some DVDs. I tried about 4 different instructors before I landed on one that really fit me. Her name was Kelly Coffey-Meyer. Her program is called 30-Minutes-to-Fitness. That was something I could handle. It took me almost an hour with rests to get through it. But I did that 3 times a week. (I bought 6 of her DVDs and rotated through them. They worked for me. A few years ago, she added a subscription for her fitness programs. I think it is more for advanced than the DVDs. I would start with the DVDs if I were you.)

So those DVDs are what I did for the first 6 1/2 years. There were weeks I missed here and there. I usually couldn’t keep up in the summer when the kids were off school. Over the first 2 years, I lost 24 pounds. We had some big family happenings after that time and so over the other 4 1/2 years, I went up and down and ended up gaining about half back.

Now, first, let me tell you: After I had worked out for ONE YEAR, I felt better than I had felt my whole life. I knew that strength training was necessary for my life. It still takes time to make good habits. And let’s be honest, I still had not incorporated a change in my eating.

I would say that I overate in my 20s. In my 30s, I was diagnosed pre-diabetes, so after that I ate things I loved, but just didn’t overeat. I certainly didn’t want Type 2 Diabetes.

Last year in the Spring, I was finally diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes. I just didn’t care at this point. I had been keeping it at bay for 20 years. Just give me the medicine and I will just keep doing what I am doing. At this point my efforts over the years were fine but I was tired. It had been a lifetime of dealing with all of this.

A few things happened in the next 6-9 months. I mention these because they contribute to the “miracle day” that we are about to get to.

One is, I started getting obsessed about posture. I have no idea what brought that up. I think it was a combination of seeing something in social media or YouTube…all that self help stuff that you see in reels and it draws you in. So I worked on better posture all fall. I found some physical therapy suggestions online, and began doing some exercises, as well as daily trying to improve my posture. I started thinking about holding in my abs when I was sitting. I could actually hold in my abs without pain after 6 years of strength training!

Also in the fall, I knew that my follow-up Diabetes appointment was coming up, so I decided to do more to control my glucose. It wasn’t a diet really. I just was more aware. And I was taking my blood sugar readings, so I did eat less because of the timing of taking my readings. I lost a little weight. Which was nice. Remember when I lost 24 lbs in 2 years? I was finally back down to that weight. Still 70+ pounds overweight though.

And the other thing I did was started walking. I know that seems odd. This is usually the first thing people to for exercise. I had walked my treadmill some in my early 30s, before we got an elliptical, but I had NEVER walked outside. Didn’t like it. Didn’t think it did any good. I started walking early that year. It was still a struggle. My block is 1/2 a mile. Sometimes I would come inside after just one time around. I would usually be huffing and puffing at the 1/4 mile mark when there was a slight incline. And I was slow. It was hard. I kept doing it. But it was not feeling right.

We haven’t mentioned God in any point up to now. God is the center of my life. But…the story up to this point did not include Him. At all. I tell the story exactly how it went without a thought of God in the story. Because I had never asked God to help me. I felt like being overweight and unfit was my problem, that I made. I knew that I was making bad choices. I didn’t feel like He should help me out of this mess I made.

But that’s exactly what God wants. No matter how we get into our messes, even if it is SIN that got us there, He want to help us through it. He wants us to reach for Him. He needs us to know that we need His strength for the journey.

I asked God to help me. Maybe I felt like if I was willing to make the good choices, and if He would help me, something could change. I needed His strength.

It was on vacation after Christmas. We were at a theme park and I was having terrible pain in my legs. I was really upset! I prayed. I wanted to feel good on this trip. I didn’t want pain to get in the way. On our second night of vacation, I prayed, sitting on the floor of the hotel stretching in the dark. I asked forgiveness for this mess. I asked forgiveness for not coming to Him. I begged for His help.

The next day at the park, same thing. I started thinking…What is wrong? Am I walking wrong? Maybe I am not rolling my feet or having the right stride. And standing…the standing in line was hurting. I was constantly stretching my legs, my calves, whatever I could while standing in line to try and help.

Late that morning, my family went off to ride a roller coaster. I sat down and opened up YouTube and searched “Walk correctly” or something like that.

I watched two videos about walking. Some of it had to do with posture. Interesting since I had been working on that. So I decided to try 3 things from the videos…walk with my abs held in, my shoulders up and back, and my glutes engaged. And one thing not to do…don’t think about what I did with my feet.

And then, a miracle. That is what it felt like after the life I have lived. It was my miracle.

December 30, 2022. I need to write down the date for history.

I got up and walked as if I had been healed. I had no pain that day or any day of the vacation. And standing was easy. I actually went into the videos thinking I needed to concentrate on foot placement and movement, but it was the posture things that I needed to shift my weight distribution.

God just took all of the things I had been working on, and converged it all into one miracle day. It was like He was just waiting for me to ask so that He could click it all into place.

I got home and did my walk around the block and it was so different! I was walking different. I was walking pain free and faster and further!

And food converged as well. Before Christmas I had some bad reactions to some carb meals and it became really clear to me how eating carbs was affecting how I felt on a daily basis. I had been taking medication for the diabetes, but it wasn’t enough.

So during vacation, I took every kind of protein snack I could and managed through vacation okay. Then I came home with a new idea for eating. I had to focus on protein, but protein is a problem, right? You can’t just eat protein bars and nuts all day. I needed meat and eggs. But those things take cooking and prepping. Or, you can make meat in advance and freeze it, but meat is hard to get right the first time, let alone after frozen. Dry? Tough? Tasteless? I love meat though.

So my new idea was meatballs. I decided I could make meatballs and a flavorful sauce. I don’t love BBQ sauce, so I had to get creative. I started with Italian meatballs with a homemade marinara. No pasta! I made the meatballs and froze them 3 in each container with some sauce. This was to be my lunch. At this point I have about 6 meatball recipes that I use and keep in my freezer for options.

Here is what it does for me:

  • I have good protein readily available.
  • I have no cooking or prep for my lunch.
  • I have satisfaction in the great taste of my food.
  • It is enough for me. 3 meatballs is all I eat for lunch.

I eat breakfast at around 7:00am. I have eaten a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios pretty much my entire life and it is healthy. Protein in the milk. Whole grains = complex carbs. It works.

I eat lunch when I am hungry, usually around 11:00. With my new diet, I always eat something when I am hungry. I just never eat much. I only eat enough to not be hungry.

I get hungry again in the mid-afternoon (I’m eating about every 4 hours). That is when I eat nuts or a protein bar.

Then for dinner I cook what I usually do for the family, and I just modify for myself a bit. I eat less for sure, and very little carbs.

For exercise? It changed too. After doing the DVDs for 7 years, I realized that I knew all the exercises and how to do them correctly. I was tired of watching the DVDs. So I was able to plan out a workout with picture cards, and then watch my favorite TV shows while I did strength training. It reinvigorated my workout time. And, instead of only working out 3 days a week either walking or doing strength training, I started doing strength training M-W-F and walking T-T. I added a few days a week and it felt great!

This has changed my life.

From the first month, it felt like it was my new lifestyle. Not just a temporary diet or exercise plan. It felt good and right.

And I lost 5lbs every month through July. In July we went on an extended vacation that paused things, but I got right back to it when we got back.

This is forever. And I am in the best shape of my life. I am just so happy and thankful every day for how good I feel.

It was and is truly a miracle.

I wrote all this out for myself, for posterity, and for you. I hope that somehow this will be an inspiration for you to try something new, but mostly for you to ask God for help. He will.

Here is another article I wrote about this at LUTHERWOMAN.

And here is a before and after…a year ago, and today 45lbs down…my first before and after that I have ever posted anywhere:

I am a work in progress and only by the strength of God.

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