Making a change to a healthy lifestyle often takes a swift slap on the back of the head. For Dr. Tamara Henry, a prediabetes diagnosis at 23 would forever alter her relationship with food and exercise. Now in her 40s, staying fit and healthy is like breathing air.
As a young girl, Henry realized early on that how she looked made a difference to others, not equating it so much with health. People remarked about her weight from age 10. She got accustomed to being referred to as a “big girl” or hearing that she was “solid.”
“I hated gym in middle school,” says Henry, an assistant professor who teaches Social and Behavioral Approaches at George Washington University . “I got tired of hearing about how big my thighs were.” Like so many households, her Jamaican family enforced the “clean plate” rule. Everything they made, she ate.
By the time she reached college at Howard University, Henry was determined not to be a part of the “Freshman 15″ crew. “I just wasn’t having it,” she says, firmly. “I found the free gym on campus and for the first time in my life, I took control of my weight and my body.” She maintained a slim physique in spite of what she freely admits was an oversized “sweet tooth” and a poor diet. That included sugary drinks (Mocha Blasts from Au Bon Pain were her fav), bagels, and pasta. “I rarely ate vegetables or meat for that matter.”
Diabetes? Say What Now?
But food would take center stage when her doctor stepped in with the prediabetes talk. Prediabetics are on the road to having full-on diabetes. “It was upsetting, but I knew it was preventable,” says Henry, who has 6 family members, including both of her grandmothers, who all passed from diabetes-related complications.
Following his recommendation, she cut out the junk, made smarter food choices, and was diabetes-free 6 months later. Today, her diet is nearly vegan.
Henry’s commitment to wellness has not faltered over the years. After a love affair with marathon running took a toll on her knees, she gracefully yielded to shorter runs but added swimming, Pilates, spinning, and barre to her routine. She acknowledges that her body at 42 responds differently to exercise than it did at 22.
“Exercise is therapy for me—it keeps me sane and whole,” says the early riser who knocks out her workout at 5 a.m. “In my 20s, it was all about looking good in that bikini. In my 30s it was about accomplishments: How many marathons could I run? What could I push my body to achieve? Now, I view exercise as the crucial connection between my mind and body.”
Spreading the Word
As fate would have it, Henry now consults with community-based organizations about health disparities in the African-American community. She especially pushes back against the prevailing acceptance of high diabetes and heart disease rates within the Black community. It isn’t a rite of passage, we just need to move our bodies and modify our diets, she says.
“Just commit to moving your body one hour a day. Doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated. Go for a walk, take the stairs, swim, ride a bike. Just get moving! We only get one body — why wouldn’t we take care of it?”
Mosi Tomilson is a fitness coach and freelance writer in Washington, DC.