SparkPeople member Carl Purvenas-Smith (CGPS1975) is no stranger to roller coasters. He's been an unwilling passenger for most of his life, watching helplessly as his weight went up, down and back again. This time, though, feels different—this time, he's down more than 200 pounds, and at 68 years old, Carl is finally ready to get off the ride for good.
The Clean Plate Club
Growing up in Sweden with his grandparents, Carl was raised to always clean his plate and never waste food. In his culture, chubby was equated with healthy. But when he moved to the United States in elementary school, Carl's extra weight caused him to be teased and excluded. "I was the last to be chosen in team sports. Nobody wanted the fat kid on their team, and that hurt."
The lose-gain pattern persisted all through high school. Due to some rocky family relationships, Carl was on his own at home a great deal of the time. "I was doing a lot of eating late at night while reading and studying, which didn’t help the waistline," he says. The weight gain continued during college, where the dining hall served foods heavy in fat and calories, and exercise wasn't part of the curriculum.
Carl eventually sought help from a doctor, who put him on a 1,000-calorie diet and gave him diet pills. Along with the pills came a surge of energy, and a dramatic, dangerously fast weight loss. Down to 171 pounds, Carl earned the nickname of "Twiggy"—and the concern of his family. When another doctor instructed him to stop taking the pills, the weight came back, along with the yo-yo dieting.
Topping out at Rock Bottom
In the 1980s, Carl reached his highest-ever weight of 460 pounds, with a 72-inch waist. He joined Optifast, a medically supervised diet program that included weekly weigh-ins, group sessions and bi-weekly medical check-ups. For the first time, Carl faced the fact that he was morbidly obese—and that if he continued along the same path, it could very well lead to death.
"I was one of only two men in my Optifast group. The other one was in a car accident, which he initially survived, but he died four days into his recovery," Carl says. "His heart just couldn’t take the additional stress that a person of a healthy weight would have survived with ease."
In an attempt to avoid a similar fate, Carl replaced his easy chair with a rowing machine and started walking with his dog for two hours a day. He was successful in getting his weight under 300 pounds, but still hadn’t made any significant lifestyle changes. "I was focused only on losing weight, not becoming healthy," he explains. "I hadn't adopted the permanent habits and strategies that would result not only in weight reduction, but also in good health, reversal of symptoms and improvement of the attitudes and behaviors that have defeated me in the past."
Sparked toward Success
In 2011, a nutritionist at Carl's diabetes education class recommended that he check out SparkPeople. He became a member and started tracking his eating, but didn't tap into all of the available tools. "I was still afraid of failure and felt unworthy of success," Carl remembers. It wasn’t until 2013, when his life partner became partially paralyzed by a stroke, that he was ready to pull out all the stops.
At that point, Carl was severely lacking in health and self-esteem. "I was an insulin-dependent diabetic, pending a double knee replacement and facing possible thyroid cancer," he remembers. "I wasn't able to walk 40 feet without getting winded." Determined to regain his health—both for himself and for his partner—Carl turned to SparkPeople in earnest.
Documenting his food intake and exercise became like a game, something he looked forward to each day. He discovered sections of the site he hadn't used before, like the local teams and challenge communities.
An Unlikely Mentor
As he became more involved in the SparkPeople community, Carl started a public blog on the site. It was a safe space for him to share the ups and downs of his journey, not only as a form of therapy but also to inspire others facing the same obstacles that had once seemed insurmountable. Carl was blown away by the supportive comments and insights he received.
In January of 2016, on a dare from a SparkPeople challenge to stretch outside his comfort zone, Carl attended his first Zumba class. "I wasn't the type to go to a gym, I certainly never wore shorts and, above all, I didn't dance in public," he says. In facing his fears, Carl realized he'd made a lot of mistaken assumptions. Instead of getting snickers from skinnier people, he was greeted with warmth and support. That first courageous step led to Carl ultimately becoming a Zumba instructor and a SparkCoach.
"I like the friendly competition at SparkPeople—not between the members or the teams, but all of us against a common nemesis, our 'fattitudes,' which is our attitudes about all aspects of our lifestyles," Carl says. "We're all learning together. Not learning to losing weight—we've all become experts at that—but learning to live healthy lives filled with joy and free of pain."
"The beauty of the SparkPeople program is the support, encouragement and accountability you receive, along with the ability to set small, manageable goals and a means of attaining them."
No Turning Back
Today, although Carl still takes insulin and thyroid medication, he's healthier than he's been in decades. His weight has gone from 460 to 247, his waist size has decreased from 72 inches to 44-46 inches and he's gone from zero activity to walking 10,000 steps per day.
More importantly than his physical transformation, Carl feels better than he ever has. He now enjoys going to the gym, taking his Zumba Gold classes and maintaining an overall active lifestyle. He hasn't just lost weight—he's also shed the self-defeating thoughts and behaviors that held him back for so long. "I’m not quite at my goal yet," Carl says, "but for the first time in many years, I feel that I’m going in the right direction."
Perhaps Carl's most surprising realization is that he has no desire to "graduate" from SparkPeople after reaching his goal. "That would be like expecting to graduate from breathing or eating," he says. "I need the accountability and support to maintain this new healthy lifestyle and to share it with others. I have come to believe that you don’t know what you have until you give it away."