Everyone knows exercise can help you get fit and lose weight, but there are benefits that go far beyond those physical changes. Families like these three have discovered that the road to a healthy lifestyle can be a bonding experience for parents and children. The journey itself offers an opportunity to grow closer – one step at a time.
The Road to Wellness
Priscilla Millefolie and her 14-year-old son, Ben, have come a long way since March 2007 when Ben, then 9, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. An active young man before the diagnosis, Ben lost almost 20 pounds during his first few weeks of chemotherapy. His energy level plummeted.
“The chemotherapy did a whole lot to his system. He had some severe reactions to [it],” Priscilla says. “He had to use a wheelchair and couldn’t even attend P.E. classes at school because he was so weak.”
Ben lost muscle mass because he wasn’t able to exercise. “It was difficult for him to keep up with his friends and his activities,” Priscilla says. During Ben’s illness, his mother became his main caregiver. “We leaned on each other,” she says. “I needed him and he needed me. We needed to push each other to a healthier place. We had to think of ourselves and get healthier and better together.”
Ben, who lives with his family in Chesterfield, was able to start rebuilding his strength after his cancer was in remission. His family had heard about the YMCA of Greater Richmond’s Moving Forward Program, available to cancer and sickle cell anemia survivors who are between the ages of 9 and 18. The program gives the family a free membership to the YMCA, as well as support from a personal trainer and a dietitian. “The program doesn’t only treat the child, it includes the entire family,” Priscilla says.
Ben began his YMCA training in March 2010. His mother saw an immediate difference. “Ben slimmed down after working out at the YMCA,” she says, noting that his medications and inability to exercise had caused him to gain weight. “When he completed his chemotherapy treatment, I thought he would bounce right back. He did not. Through weight and aerobic training he was able to regain strength and his self-confidence. It’s been fantastic for the whole family.”
Priscilla was as determined as Ben to find that healthy balance. “I would go on the treadmill and ride the bike,” she says. “We would try to do intervals together. I found out how bad I was, and how much he had improved.”
Today Ben lifts weights and can run a mile with ease. “What we have accomplished in one year is amazing,” Priscilla says. “He’s stronger than I am. I’ve started running again and we’re eating healthier.”
She finds that Ben is willing to try new things now. “That is what I was going for,” she says. “He has no plans to run a marathon, just to rejoin life.”
Ben’s positive attitude during his illness and recovery served as an inspiration to his mother. “He never gave up on himself,” she says. “He always gave me a simple smile that I could do more and I didn’t want to let him down.”
A Kick Out of Fitness
David Harris didn’t realize that finding an alternative to traditional childcare for his 10-year-old daughter, Gabrielle, would lead to a shared passion for martial arts. “I wanted a program where my daughter would be productive in the afternoon and get the care she needed,” David says.
David enrolled Gabrielle in Martial Arts World of West End. A month later, he enrolled. “It hit me that I could be taking classes too,” he says.
He found that Martial Arts World was a great fit for his daughter. “It not only met my specifications, but it also improved Gabrielle’s self-discipline and helped her learn self-defense,” he says. “The school had a mental and moral curriculum built right into its program. Before students can move on to the next belt level, they must show an understanding of not only the physical techniques but the life fitness curriculum as well.”
Three years after starting classes, David and his daughter together tested for their black belts along with more than a hundred other students from around the country. David believes that training together helped the two develop a strong relationship. “We practice together at home, which has given us some great quality time,” he says. “It has also given us a shared lingo of martial arts philosophy that we use every day. For instance, just in choosing what to have for dinner, we’ll joke about it being a healthy choice. Or sometimes we will be leaving a store and I’ll ask if this looks like a trouble spot, something they teach at the school regarding ways to keep safe.”
Physical fitness is now a lifestyle for David, who is now certified as a personal health and fitness trainer and an instructor at Martial Arts World. “Having my daughter as a student keeps me on my toes,” he says. “We both have to work to maintain the line between Instructor Harris and Instructor Daddy while in the school. I feel that’s just another challenge that we will overcome and continue to gain a better understanding of each other in the process.”
Seeing Gabrielle continually rise to meet new challenges inspires her dad, who says it’s about more than just attaining goals. “Whether it is learning a new breaking technique or public speaking, it’s knowing that she understands that she has to go through the internal fight and not quit in order to meet those goals. Knowing that she is getting prepared for life inspires me to continually challenge myself to be a better person and parent. I also think that when she sees me improve it makes her want to do better.”
Mother-Son Time to Shine
Terri Roberts of Henrico couldn’t believe the number that was staring her in the face when she stepped on the scale at her doctor’s office. “I weighed 190 pounds,” says the mother of six boys. “I have never weighed that much before.”
When her 11-year-old son, Patrick, brought home a flyer from school on Simply Fit Boot Camp, Terri signed up and encouraged Patrick, who had been teased about his weight, to sign up as well. “It was for us to help each other,” she says. “It was something for us to do.”
Terri, who was 44 when she started the program, hadn’t exercised in 20 years. “I had joined the Army in 1987 and was active-duty for two years,” she says, noting that her weight at that time was around 145 pounds. Since starting their Simply Fit classes, Terri has lost 46 pounds and Patrick has lost 17. “I went from a size 22 to a size six,” Terri says, adding that she has also stopped smoking. “That was my hardest class.”
Going through the experience with Patrick “was the best thing we could of have done to grow closer,” she says. “I will forever treasure the lessons we learned about ourselves and continue to learn. I do think we lucked out in finding Tommy (our trainer). Patrick and I had self-esteem issues, and Tommy helped us – both more than he will ever know – in fitness, both inside and out.”
Terri says her son’s perseverance was equally inspirational. “Patrick reminds me of myself when I was his age in that we were both the biggest kid in our school and we were both considered chubby. Thankfully though, Patrick just keeps trying in everything he does. He inspires me to just keep going.”
She’s noticed that Patrick has more confidence now than he did when he began classes. “He is noticing that he can do more,” she says. “He has learned that exercise is good for you and he’s learned to go about things in a different way,” Terri says, noting that the classes also were educational for her. “I learned that I like being 44 and looking like I am 25 again. I have more energy. Some of my kids can’t keep up with me now and that is a nice feeling.”
The classes were a bonding experience for Patrick and Terri. “We have more to talk about,” she says. “It’s not something the other boys have to talk about. It’s just Patrick and me. It’s something special that we have together.”