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'How tragedy and illness turned me into a fitness fanatic'

Statistics didn’t motivate me to stay committed to physical fitness, but they sure help.

According to the most recent numbers from the Department of Health and Human Services, 39.5% of adults 40 to 59 are obese.

From 2003 to 2012, the obesity rate among women 60 and older rose from 31.5% to 38.1%.

What’s worse, we’re passing our bad habits on to the next generation. The HHS statistics show that more than one-third of Americans between the ages of 12 and 19 are considered overweight or obese.

Rising obesity rates are nothing new, which only makes it worse. We’ve known for years that we’re out of shape and we still aren’t doing anything about it!

So what motivated me to get moving?

When I was a little girl, a doctor diagnosed me with a heart murmur and said I was going to be a sickly child. I would never be normal, my days would be spent indoors, and I could never be a mother because childbirth would be too taxing on my heart.

Those words definitely got my heart racing. I was determined to prove the doctor wrong.

As a youth, I played every sport imaginable. Later, I took an aerobics class with a girlfriend. The instructor told me I had rhythm and asked if I’d like to teach a class, so I started teaching, too. I fell deeply in love with aerobics, then found the weight room.

Soon after, I became a “certified Nautilus instructor” — the closest thing to a present-day “personal trainer” that existed at the time. I started competing in the Reebok aerobic championships in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

What began as a passion became my escape when my younger brother — my best friend in the world — died of a heart attack at age 23.

I stood and listened at his funeral as friends and colleagues from the Air Force remembered all that he accomplished in his short life. He had earned more medals in his life than I’d touched in mine.

“I’m his older sister and I haven’t done half of these things in life,” I thought. “What else do I want to be remembered for?”

Years later, my son Michael was killed in a car crash when he was only 19 years old. I still grieve his death to this day.

After each tragedy, I could’ve easily fallen into a hole of depression, turned to drugs or alcohol, or stopped taking care of myself when the pain became too much to bear.

But after I outgrew my childhood illnesses, it dawned on me that fitness and taking care of your body can change your life. Diet and exercise didn’t solve all my personal problems, but being healthy makes you feel better. Then, with proper upkeep, you can defy long odds.

Several years ago I committed to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, the largest freestanding mountain in the world, as a tribute to Michael’s legacy. The climb would benefit Child Legacy International, a nonprofit that provides access to clean water, healthcare and education to children in Africa.

Before the ascent, my body was infected with a dangerous parasite while I was helping drill water wells in Malawi. Unfortunately, I didn’t discover the infection until I was 15,000 feet up Kilimanjaro.

I thought I could fix myself with a little Imodium AD, but in the next 24 hours I got sicker and sicker. I was dehydrated and suffering from altitude sickness. Blood was coming from every orifice of my body and my temperature rocketed to 104 degrees.

In that moment, I prayed to my son. I needed him to give me my angel wings and help me reach the top. To this day, I’m convinced the only reason I didn’t die on Mt. Kilimanjaro was because of Michael. I somehow got to the summit and then back to base camp, where I was carried off on a stretcher. Afterward, a doctor told me there was no reason I made it off that mountain alive.

You don’t have to be near death at 19,000 feet for fitness to save your life. Life has shown me that fitness can heal and nurture. It can make you whole, like it did when I lost my brother, my son, and my biological father — my spiritual rock — as an adult.

Now I’m 54, but I can still stay in shape and take pride in how I look. Just because society defines you as “middle-aged,” that doesn’t mean you have to struggle with the same physical, mental and spiritual issues as your peers. You can fight the statistics and win.

Theresa Roemer is a health and fitness expert, entrepreneur and author of the recent book “NAKED in 30 Days: A One Month Guide to Getting Your Body, Mind and Spirit in Shape.”

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