by Pandora Williams
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“You need to lose weight or you will be dead before you turn forty.”
I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I heard those words come out of the mouths of different people in my life…doctors, family members, friends, etc. They all vocalized their concerns for my life.
I weighed more than 400 pounds – 420 at my highest recorded weight, to be exact – and everyone was worried that I wasn’t going to live to see forty! I heard it all through high school. I heard it all through my twenties. I heard it through the early part of my thirties. Somehow, the threat didn’t seem to really bother me.

There were nights that I laid in bed, short of breath, with my heart racing for no apparent reason. I hadn’t just walked around the block, and I hadn’t been doing anything dramatically active. In fact, I never really did.
“Active” wasn’t my method of operation. It never had been. I was the little kid that hated physical education class in school. I was the kid that got winded on the first lap around the football field when they told us that we had to run a mile. I was the kid that always got picked last for teams. Physical activity was something that was emotionally traumatizing to me because anytime it got pushed on me, I was embarrassed and I got teased even more by the other kids.

Almost everybody you talk to that has made a huge life change has had their “chicken little” moment – that moment when out of nowhere, someone or something brings you to your senses and makes you realize that some part of your life has to change. For me, that moment was when my elderly father came to me and voiced his concerns that, at 83 years old, he might just outlive me. “You’re digging a grave with a fork and a spoon. I’m worried that you aren’t going to have a happy and healthy life. I’m worried you’ll be dead before you turn forty.”

Last August, I attended the Obesity Action Coalition’s (OAC) annual Your Weight Matters National Convention, where I celebrated my 40th birthday. Guess what? I’m NOT DEAD!

It’s shocking, I know. I bet that tons of my old friends, distant family members and previous doctors probably think I am buried somewhere with a headstone that serves as a testament to an early death due to obesity. That is far from the case. In fact, at 40, I can proudly say that I’m living the happy and healthy life my father feared I would never have!

When I look back now, it’s hard to imagine a time in my life when I wasn’t active. Prior to my decision to have gastric bypass surgery, exercise was a dirty word in my vocabulary. If you had suggested running to me, I would have told you that if you ever saw me running, you should run too, because something invoking the fear of death was chasing me and you were also in the danger zone.

Pandora celebrates as she crosses the finish line!

These days, my entire mindset is different. A normal month in my life consists of a long run every two or three weeks (usually a half marathon), and somewhere between two and three small runs throughout the week – ranging in distance from three to six miles. Believe it or not, that is just what I do for fun! That doesn’t include teaching roughly six to nine hours of exercise classes that include weight-based training, cardio circuits and core workouts!

I am often now accused of doing too much when it comes to exercise and activity rather than doing too little. If I am being honest with myself, sometimes I am guilty of doing too much. However, since changing my life and taking my life back from obesity, I have been driven by this intense passion to help others do the same.

My journey all started after my gastric bypass surgery when I talked to my doctor about what kind of exercise I needed to be doing. I wanted to make sure that I was doing everything possible and that I was as successful as I could be in my weight-loss journey. Years before, I’d had the unfortunate experience of losing nearly 200 pounds and gaining it all back. I knew that, even after surgery, regaining the weight was going to be a big possibility for me if I didn’t make long-term preventative lifestyle changes. I also knew that I had to eat right and exercise regularly.

My doctor’s answer really didn’t give me the guidance that I needed, so I started looking for other professionals that could help me. I went to several gyms, hired several different trainers and found myself frustrated by the fact that most of them lived in a world where obesity had never impacted their lives. They had a plethora of information to give me on how to lose weight and how to exercise, but none of it really applied to me. They didn’t understand my bariatric diet restrictions, and most importantly, they didn’t understand how the weight that I carried affected my ability to do the things they asked.
I felt an instant disconnect to the people that tried to aid me in my battle against obesity because they had been thin, fit and healthy their entire lives. I felt that they lacked empathy and experience to deal with the fight I had ahead of me.

That experience sparked a desire in me to want to help others figure out how to handle fitness during their weight-loss journey. That spark led me to Dallas to attend the Inaugural Your Weight Matters National Convention hosted by the OAC. I thought I might be able to network there and come up with a plan. I was fortunate to meet people that would become my dearest friends at that first convention. As a result, I found a community full of all of the people that I wanted to help find the fun in fitness.

When I attended the convention and became a member of the OAC, it opened my eyes to something else that made me passionate right away…weight bias. Suddenly, like my fellow OAC members, I didn’t want to just help fight it. I joined them in pursuit of a loftier goal: the complete eradication of weight bias, shaming and stigma.

Life has a funny way of putting us in the right place at the right time, because attending that Convention led me to meeting several key people that pointed me in the right direction. Those people helped me get started and allowed me to pursue information regarding a scholarship that was available at the Cooper Institute in Dallas. I applied for the scholarship and ended up getting it! That opportunity allowed me to achieve course completion in Behavior Modifications and Weight Management Strategies.

Pandora poses for a picture at Run Disney

Throughout the course of the next five years, I continued to work toward my own personal goal of inspiring others in fitness by pursuing my own career as a Weight-loss and Wellness Coach, Group Personal Training Instructor, and Fitness Leader. I strived to bring fitness to others by hosting contests on my blog that enabled others who have fought obesity to accomplish the goal of running their first half marathon. My contest winners had the opportunity to train for their events, fly to the event locations, participate in “RunDisney” events and attend Disney theme parks.

My pledge to help grow the membership of the OAC manifested itself in securing the first gym to become a participant of the OAC Sponsored Membership Program – hosting several OAC vendor booths and spreading the word about the OAC by consistently distributing the OAC’s Your Weight Matters Magazine at my gym and to all the local bariatric surgeon offices.
My desire to fight weight bias, shaming and stigma led me to my position on the Weight Bias Committee for the OAC because I want to achieve all I that I can do to further our efforts in these areas. These are responsibilities that I take very seriously.

My passion for inspiring others into fitness has never wavered within this organization. For the last three years, I’ve been a part of leading the organized morning runs at the Conventions. Last year, I served on the Exercise Subcommittee for the 2016 Convention – helping to choose the activities of the exercise and fitness agenda for participants. I also served as the Fitness Instructor for two of the scheduled exercise sessions. For the 2017 Convention in New Orleans, I am honored to serve as the Chair for the Exercise Subcommittee. My ambition is to do all that I can to ensure that attendees have the time of their lives while actively participating in fun fitness-oriented events.

My life has changed in so many amazing ways since I made the decision to take my life back from obesity and make sure that I didn’t meet that dreaded fate of being dead before I saw 40. My choice to undergo bariatric surgery gave me back my life, but becoming a member of the OAC taught me that I had much more to do with that life. It taught me that I had a story that needed to be told and a voice that had to be heard. The OAC has given me a way to not only live the life that I reclaimed, but a platform to help others in their fight against obesity and their pursuit to take their health and lives back for good!