Need a quick hit of inspiration? The stories behind these three local residents are certain to do the trick.
Story by Barry Kaufman + Photography by Mark Staff
Change. It’s been said it’s the only thing that stays the same.
There’s a unique power in transformation, in changing. Sometimes that transformation means growth, whether spiritually or personally. Sometimes that transformation is one of contraction, carving away the unwanted and unhealthy like a sculptor divining the art within a block of clay.
Each of the three people profiled here is a testament to the power of transformation. In the spirit of an issue dedicated to health and wellness, this transformation is largely physical, but under each physical transformation you’ll find a far greater metamorphosis. To simply call it a body transformation would be to minimize the immense amount of effort each took in taking charge of their own health.
Whether divesting themselves of bad habits, instilling new habits and redefining how they viewed their daily lives or upending their entire relationship with food and nutrition, each took a different path on their journey. And while none of them will say they’ve truly reached their destination, each knows that the path they’ve taken is one they’ve already traveled to a healthier present.
Dr. James Gigante
For Dr. James Gigante, there are two towering works that define his 50-pound journey of transformation.
The first is Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit,” which breaks down the subtle neurological changes that come with our daily routines, and the power that can be unleashed when we break them.
The second is the Bill Murray classic “Groundhog Day,” in which Murray’s sarcastic, self-centered weatherman becomes trapped in an endless loop, repeating the same day over and over: Feb. 2 in Punxsutawney, Pa.
“It’s a totally profound movie,” said Gigante. “We’re in our Groundhog Day. Your day is monotonously the same, if you’ll admit it. You get into the same routine, ‘When I do X, I will do Y.’”
Feeling somewhat hypocritical over being a physician tasked with monitoring his patients’ health while himself being overweight, Gigante started by looking over his own daily habits. The morning meant Starbucks: chocolate chunk scone, café mocha, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal. Then work: the high-stress world of healthcare. Then home: a beer and an evening on the couch.
“I just started making small changes,” he said. First, the morning Starbucks run just meant oatmeal and black coffee. Seven pounds vanished. Then he began adding some activity. Reading the Times at home, then taking a walk before work, and saving the Journal for the evening. Then his son wanted in, so Starbucks was replaced with a Keurig, and the time saved was spent at Breakthrough Fitness on a treadmill with his son.
“And it just started snowballing,” he said. Just as gradually as he’d introduced exercise to his routine he began subtracting unhealthy food. He reduced processed foods, introducing more fruit and vegetables and less meat. His personal interest in nutrition spilled over into his practice, so he hired a nutritionist and began taking a more rounded approach to healthcare.
“Just doing it is the hard part; just forming the habit. To change a habit, you have to do it a couple dozen times and then it becomes ingrained,” he said. “I got hooked on the Fitbit, and every once in a while the battery dies and it’s painful for me. I’m like, ‘Oh man, I’m not getting credit for this.’”
And so using the Power of Habit, Dr. Gigante finds himself 50 pounds lighter and filled with a new set of healthy habits. It may have taken a few years to get from there to here, but how long do you suppose it took Bill Murray to finally get out of Punxsutawney?
The ongoing evolution of Grace Wang is testament to the power of a good support system and relentless discipline.
While she was never by any means what one would call overweight, a year ago she realized that a lifetime of bad habits was starting to crop up in some ways she found herself increasingly uncomfortable with. Bartending on weekends meant late F&B nights and social smoking that was having a huge impact on her life.
“A friend of mine opened CycleBar. I was so excited and got into it, but smoking and cycling don’t go together,” she said. “By the second or third class I was going to topple over. That was the moment where I knew I had to decide between having to pursue improvement and cutting out what’s bad for me.”
Cutting out the bad meant quitting cigarettes, cold turkey. Not a small task for someone who works part time in food and beverage, where social smoking is generally part of the job. Next came taking control of her nutrition, which posed its own issues for a self-described fast eater who used to double up on footlong subs for lunch.
“I remember chefs watching me eat a burger, saying, ‘You eat like a man.’”
She began small, by reading labels and being more cognizant of what nutrition she was taken in, cutting back on portions and filling up on water.
Then, with the support and encouragement of her boyfriend Chip Colgary, she began running. From then on it was, pardon the phrase, off to the races. When she started, she was gasping for breath after a 14-minute mile. Then one inauspicious day, she realized she’d been running for two miles and could still go on. She recently did the “double pump” at the Savannah Bridge Run, combining a 10K and a 5K, beating her personal best.
Similarly when she started, she shied away from photos out of embarrassment. Then she bought a dress for Colgary’s military ball and realized how much she had changed. “The dress was shipped to me while I was out of town. It wasn’t until that night after I had my hair and makeup done that I put on the dress and realized it was big, not that it looked big, but it just felt too big for me.”
The photo of her in the dress accompanied another photo of her five years ago in a Facebook post where she finally opened up to the changes she’d made over the last year. The difference is extraordinary. As she wrote on that post, “It’s amazing what your mind and body can overcome with time, encouragement and a little effort.”
Today he’s known online as the “Whole Foods, Plant-Based Guy.” But 150 pounds ago, Jim Smith was a far different person.
Morbidly obese, he was feeding himself a diet of unhealthy food supplemented by a cocktail of medications for blood pressure, high cholesterol and an enlarged prostate. He attempted to keep his weight in check through low-carb dieting, but it was a diet more geared toward weight loss than overall health. And then, tragedy struck.
“What changed me was in 2013, my wife passed away from brain cancer. It was like everything was fine one day and then one day she just started bawling. I took her to the emergency room and she spent the next three months in the hospital before passing away,” said Smith. “I felt really strongly that one thing I wanted to avoid was ending up in the hospital.”
That feeling led him to the Eat Smart Live Longer Club in Sun City, a group that encourages a plant-based lifestyle (not, it’s worth noting, a diet). Despite the change in lifestyle being deeply at odds with his meat-heavy low-carb diet, and against his own confidence that at 66 he was too old to lose weight, he gave it a shot.
“I started doing what they were saying and the weight started to come off and my numbers got better,” he said. A year later, he was off his medications. Two years later, he’d lost 150 pounds that he has kept off ever since.
“It’s remarkable how much food affects our health,” he said. His typical day now consists of two meals, both rich in nutrition and consisting entirely of whole foods. In the morning it’s steel cut oats with turmeric and black pepper, maybe topped with flax seed, blueberry or walnuts, served with a grapefruit. Dinner will be a stew of sweet potatoes, beans and mushrooms with a salad. “Some of it sounds a little strange, but it works.”
Along the way he started being more active. He spent the first couple of years just walking, working up gradually to yoga a couple of years ago and pickleball and hiking in the last year. Three months ago, he started running, building confidence toward the Savannah Bridge Run, under encouragement from his daughter. “I haven’t run in 40 years, but I thought I’d give it a try,” he said. “The first day I went out, I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to do it. Now I feel pretty confident about it.”
Up next is the Tybee Island 5K, then a trip to Washington state where he’ll hike Mt. Rainier and Mt. Saint Helens.
“Before 2013, a 20-minute walk would have been a long walk for me. This is all part of the transformation,” he said.