Greensburg gym helps Derry man honor pledge to his sick wife

| Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

In 2010, Bob Johnson weighed 306 pounds. He took blood pressure pills, his cholesterol numbers kept getting worse, and he was a slave to a machine for sleep apnea every night.

“Life was just so hard to do anymore, I didn't feel like getting involved in anything,” said Johnson, 60, of Derry. “I didn't want to produce any effort at all.”

His wife Rhonda, 58, agreed that even the simple task of putting on his boots left him out of breath.

Today, 105 pounds lighter, Johnson can outrun his 14-year-old granddaughter on roller blades.

When Rhonda was diagnosed with bone cancer in 2010, Bob Johnson had no idea how much it would change his lifestyle. After rounds of chemotherapy, Rhonda found she was losing weight because she wasn't eating or drinking.

“I asked the oncologist how to keep the cancer from spreading,” Rhonda Johnson said. “He said exercise and a low-fat diet.”

Bob Johnson wanted to be at his wife's side. But he hadn't been to a gym since he was in high school.

“I didn't go in with a good attitude. I was very skeptical,” said the public works employee for Derry Borough. “I doubted it would work.”

What Johnson found was that he was not an exception once he got in the gym. There were a lot of overweight people his age. So he began going to Anytime Fitness in Greensburg six days a week and got a trainer for three of those days.

Anytime Fitness helped him with the nutrition component and he changed his diet, cutting out sugar completely. He began eating six smaller meals a day and figuring out what he could and couldn't eat.

He set a goal to lose 50 pounds by Easter 2011 and when he made that 50, he decided to lose another 50.

“My body started to change,” he said. “The weight started to come off. It can be overwhelming and you have to get educated, but once it starts to work, you don't want to chance it.”

As a result, his cholesterol improved and his blood pressure started to come down. He also threw the Continuous Positive Airway Pressure therapy machine away and slept without it.

Johnson said the camaraderie and support he received at the gym aided his weight loss.

He suggests that anyone looking to lose weight in the new year should find a place where people can help, because it's too hard to do on your own.

“The hardest part is getting out of the car and in the door. It can be intimidating,” Johnson said. “Go with a friend, keep a competitive nature going. You see other people doing it and think, ‘I'll be damned, if he can do it, I can too.'”

After losing the 105 pounds, the trick, he said, is to maintain it.

His trainer, Erin Racchini at Anytime Fitness in Greensburg, said although Bob Johnson got off to a slow start, it wasn't long before he was forging ahead and dropping the pounds.

“I've never seen anyone his age commit so much, work so hard, or change so much,” said Racchini, who trained Johnson for 18 months.

The gym submitted Johnson's success story in a national competition. He became one of four winners among the nearly 2 million members of Anytime Fitness worldwide. The company flew Bob and Rhonda Johnson to Chicago for its national convention.

Mark Daly, national media director at corporate headquarters in Hastings, Minn., said the organization was searching for stories of inspiration, not weight loss. Daly said the gym wanted to find individuals facing difficult situations with poise and courage in a manner that could inspire others.

“Bob's story touched many of us at corporate because he had a lifetime of unhealthy behaviors,” Daly said. “He made the choice because his wife asked him to during a difficult time. Bob is someone who has overcome huge obstacles and did so to help someone he loved.”

Bob Johnson would be the first to tell you changing his eating habits was one of those obstacles.

Today, the closest thing to fast food the Johnsons will eat is a bowl of chili and a baked potato. He admits there are some foods he misses — such as hot sausage sandwiches from the Westmoreland Fair.

“I can walk by them today,” said Johnson, who is also a volunteer firefighter, another pursuit where being overweight got in the way. “After awhile, when you do feel better, you realize that's not the answer. You may feel good when you eat it, but then you feel guilty.”

He said the lifestyle change has been mind over matter. It's given him a brand new outlook.

“Sixty is the new 40,” he said with a smile.

Michele Stewardson is a freelance writer.

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