Apalachicola Mayor Van Johnson is half the man he was a year ago, and he’s proud to share it.
In captivating and inspirational remarks that highlighted a Health and Fitness Expo June 17 at the Battery Park Community Center, Johnson told of his journey that began shortly after 2 p.m. on April 21, 2016, when he suffered a heart attack while at work in his office at the city complex that bears his name.
About four months earlier, his physician had told him that being a pre-diabetic, weighing more than 500 pounds, with high blood pressure, was a recipe for disaster, one which came painfully alive to him as a Weems Memorial Hospital ambulance rushed him to Gulf Coast Regional Medical Center, where Panama City cardiologist Francis K. Le performed a cardiac catheterization and inserted a stent into Johnson’s right coronary artery, on a table that had to be specially configured for the enormous mayor’s girth.
Johnson lost forever about half of his heart function, but what he gained was of immeasurable value, the desire to shed the weight he had carried for too many years.
“I heard the voice of God,” he told the audience. “It was a spiritual awakening as well as a physical awakening.”
For a time, Johnson considered possible weight loss surgery, but his wife Gail helped talk him out of it, persuading him that diet and exercise was the way to go. And she held him to it.
“My wife is so bullheaded about it,” he said.
At first, Johnson started out doing laps around his own house four days a week, about 125 each time, but he soon moved his regimen to the Matchbox, the former Apalachicola High School gym, across from the football field where years earlier he had played offensive line and defensive end, and later fullback, for Sharks Coach Pop Wagoner.
Along with his wife, their friend Betty Davis was a constant walking companion, and recently they have been joined by Mike and Robin Vroegop, and Elizabeth Perkins.
As it stands now, Johnson does 35 laps, the equivalent of 1.75 miles, on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and on Tuesday and Thursday, he’s lifting weights in the high school’s former field house, now the Apalachicola Police Department weight room.
It hasn’t only been exercise but it’s been a complete change of diet, to where he now eats a primarily a plant-based diet, comprised of fruits and vegetables, with the exception of white potatoes, rice and breads that would spike his blood glucose levels.
“I do eat chicken and turkey but I eat more seafood than anything,” he said. “My primary beverage is water, maybe a hot cup of tea sweetened with honey, and no soda or juices. If I eat bread it’s wheat bread.”
The weight training, which Johnson hadn’t done since Wagoner’s strict requirements of his players, has paid off as well.
“I feel myself getting stronger, with more and more energy,” he said. “I anticipate going, I can’t wait until tomorrow.”
But really, what else does Johnson have to show for all his hard work and dietary control?
Let’s see. He’s not pre-diabetic anymore; his blood sugar is consistently in the low 80s.
His blood pressure has dropped to 116 over 68, considered well within the acceptable normal range.
The oxygen levels in his blood have increased and his resting heart beat has slowed, to well below the 80 beats per minute it used to be.
His weight, when he last looked, was 260, about half of what it used to be. And the 66-inch waistline that he once sported, it’s dropped about two feet in circumference,
“I can wear a 44 comfortably,” Johnson said.
‘Did you feel better?’
Another segment of the Health and Fitness Expo, which was organized by Tasia Jones and Alisa Hendels, was a talk by personal trainer Erika Pender, a fitness instructor at the Forgotten Coast Fitness and Wellness Center.
Pender underscored Johnson’s dietary message by commenting that “If you grow it and kill it, eat it,” stressing that processed foods and unnecessary carbohydrates were poor choices.
“Let’s get our hand out of the box,” she said.
Pender’s primary message was of the importance of exercise that blends a healthy dose of strength training.
“No amount of treadmill is going to get you that lean and toned body,” she said. “Let’s get off that treadmill and into the gym.”
She said the important thing is to exchange fat mass for muscle mass, which is denser than fat. What that weight training can do is boost your resting metabolic rate, making it easier to burn fat, as well as bolster bone density, she said.
“Whatever your goal is you’re going to have to have strong bones to do it,” said Pender. “When I feel stronger about myself, I’m going to stand up taller,”
Pender opened her presentation by having the audience of about 40 people do basic movement exercises where they sat, including getting up and sitting back down.
“Don’t you feel better?” she asked. “Because we’re moving. That’s why I work out every day, I feel better.”
She said regular exercise can lower blood pressure, alleviate joint pain and signs of diabetes, decrease stress, boost restful sleep and help formulate a firm sense of wellbeing.
In addition to her work at the fitness center, Pender has been busy this summer working with the summer program at the ABC School, as well as with parents of the school kids in evening classes. She also conducts a group fitness class on weekday mornings, except for Tuesday.
‘We can’t always be strong’
After a healthy lunch, including some items from Mangia850, a caterer of healthful foods, Jones and Hendels shared their thoughts on getting back into shape.
First to speak were two representatives of the Morning Light Wellness Center, which offers “a holistic approach to mental health care.”
Kay Land, an advanced registered nurse practitioner, stressed that “without good mental health we can’t have good overall physical health. You can’t separate one from the other; they go hand in hand.”
She said that common mental health disorders can lead to a progressive illness that can be more difficult to treat. “Any part of our body can get sick and that includes our brain,” Land said.
She outlined common symptoms of depression and anxiety that particularly affect women, and that can surface during pregnancy, before the menstrual cycle or in menopause. Land said signs of problems can include a change in eating habits, problems with sleep, weight changes, a lack of energy or fatigue, mood swings, excessive worrying and anxiety, and irritability, social withdrawal and even suicidal thoughts.
Land said women can be prone to ignoring these signs, because as caregivers they often put others’ needs before theirs. “I don’t have the luxury of time to deal with this,” they often say.
She urged women, particularly black women, to resist the stigma often associated with admitting mental illness, and to become more “culturally competent” when it comes to addressing those issues.
“We need to stop thinking that it’s some kind of moral weakness, that we need to keep that in the family,” Land said.
Tandra Burns, a case manager at the center, bolstered that message, reiterating that “we often see it as a weakness to go out and seek treatment.”
She told of a fashionable, 30-something single mother who tried talking to her parents about her parents, only to be told she need to pray. Later she committed suicide.
“We have to stop hiding,” Burns said. “We have to go admit we have a problem. It’s okay to be weak; we can’t always be strong.
“We take care of everybody,” she said. “But we got to take care of ourselves.”