By Peg Carmack Short
Mike Huckabee is a man used to running races. Though he lost his recent bid for president, he was successfully reelected twice as Arkansas governor, leading his state for 10 years. But there was one area of his life where this politician and former Baptist pastor constantly met with failure—the battle to control his weight. At one time, Huckabee weighed more than 300 pounds, until a dire prediction from his doctor gave him a wakeup call.
“One day, my doctor sat me down and he said, ‘Let me tell you you’re a diabetic, and if you don’t change your lifestyle, given the stress factors you’re under, you’re going to be entering the last decade of your life.’”
His doctor went on to describe what would happen and the things he could expect to experience if he didn’t change.
“He just gave me a simple little plan of what’s going to happen to all the functions of my body, and I realized that I wasn’t going to live a pretty decent life and then just drop over one day. I was going to have chronic health problems that were just going to get worse and worse, and I wasn’t going to feel good. I was going to be limited in the things that I could do. Finally, I wouldn’t just run to the finish line, I would be dragged to the finish line and barely make it over. I knew that I didn’t want to live like that and die like that.”
But it wasn’t just a simple matter of saying, “Okay I’m going to do this.” Like most people who are obese, Huckabee had tried to lose weight over and over. He had tried a variety of weight-loss methods, including liquid diets and weight-loss drugs. None was successful in the long term. He also hated exercise and was a self-described couch potato who lived to eat rather than ate to live. So what was he going to do that could really make a difference?
“I came to understand that diets don’t work because diets have a beginning and an ending. I needed to change my lifestyle, and that doesn’t really have an ending,” says Huckabee. “That means that, for the rest of my life, I’ve got to do some things that are really tough for a Southern boy.”
One of those things was giving up sugar and fried food—staples of the Southern diet. Huckabee knew he couldn’t do this on his own. He had failed at so many diets previously, and he knew he needed help. He decided to enroll in a weight-loss program at the University of Arkansas. Although concerned about whether this would work or not, he decided he would either succeed or die trying.
It was a process, but Huckabee says he learned a lot along the way. “What I found is that I couldn’t build good new habits until I had identified and eradicated the bad ones. It’s sort of like 1 Corinthians 7 when Paul says, ‘I have this internal conflict that things I would do I can’t and the things that I wouldn’t do, I end up doing.’”
Huckabee learned the reality of that spiritual truth as he worked at losing the weight. “You have to realize what makes you reach for the ice cream or the Snickers bar that gives you the comfort from it,” he says. “If you don’t do that, you can take all the diets in the world and you will never be permanently successful. When I started understanding that, it was a breakthrough for me.”
Still, diet alone wasn’t enough. Huckabee learned that another healthy habit he must establish was to get up off the sofa and start moving. This combination of healthy eating, exercise, and learning what caused other previous attempts at permanent weight loss to fail made the difference. A little more than a year after he was told he had Type 2 diabetes, he had lost 110 pounds and he was getting ready to run the 26-mile Little Rock Marathon. That was quite a change for a man who confesses he once couldn’t make it up the stairs of the state capitol building without running out of breath.
Yet the pressure was still on. When you’re a public figure, everyone is watching you. Throughout his training the media was filming each step along the way. One TV station had followed Huckabee through six months of his training and every week offered a report on how the governor was doing. So when the day of his first marathon came in March 2005, Huckabee says, “There wasn’t a camera in the state—television or news photographer—that didn’t show up. I think office pools were set up to see at what mile I would choke.”
Still, despite this added attention and stress, Huckabee was determined to make it. He did—running the marathon in 4 hours and 38 minutes.
“The day of the marathon was a day of sheer joy and ecstasy,” he says. “It was a day I’ll never forget as long as I live. Crossing that finish line will rank up there in my memory as much as the birth of my children, getting married, or graduating from college—a great milestone.”
The transformation from sofa spud to marathon man was a long and difficult journey, and Huckabee admits it was a lot of work.
“People ask if it is hard to run the marathon,” he says. “It’s not hard to run the marathon, it’s hard to train for the marathon.”
Now a reformed “foodaholic,” Huckabee has run a total of four marathons and is in training for a fifth. He’s written the book, Quit Digging Your Grave with a Knife and Fork, to encourage others to make similar lifestyle choices that will improve their health and longevity.
Huckabee is concerned about obesity, which is a national health problem. “We are seeing something that didn’t exist 15 years ago. Kids that are now fifteen are developing Type 2 diabetes. A kid that develops Type 2, largely because of obesity, as a preteen will have vision problems in his 20s, a heart attack before he is 30, renal failure, and be on full kidney dialysis before 40, and be dead before 50.”
This frightening prediction has caused Huckabee to look not only at how he helped himself, but also to consider his responsibility toward children and teens across America.
“We are today seeing the first generation of Americans born who aren’t expected to live as long as their parents and grandparents. It’s that serious.”
In his book, Huckabee identifies several things that people should stop doing in order to combat the problem of obesity. Among these are: stop making excuses; stop sitting on the couch; stop expecting immediate results, stop using food as a reward, and stop neglecting your spiritual health, among others.
To successfully win this race, Huckabee believes we need to learn that it is less about losing weight and more about gaining fitness. Armed with this knowledge, Huckabee implemented several programs to help fight the childhood obesity epidemic during his tenure as governor of Arkansas. He says, “We changed school lunch menus. We started increasing the level of activity. We made it a community issue and a mom-and-dad thing.”
Involving parents in this issue is one of the things that Huckabee believes must happen. “[Children] aren’t dry cleaning. You can’t drop them off at school and pick them up in the afternoon well-fed, well-exercised, and well-educated. Parents have a responsibility. Parents have to get in the game.”
Through his efforts during his time as governor, Huckabee made Arkansas one of the first states to see the rates of childhood obesity start going down instead of up.
This concentrated focus on children’s health is one legacy that Huckabee has left the children in his home state. And legacy is important to Huckabee.
“So many times, people think that the greatest achievement that they had in life is that they had a big nest egg; that they had a lot of money; that they had a big name,” he says. “The truth is that it’s what you have left that goes on in the lives of your children and future generations that really matter.”
At the end of his life, Huckabee hopes that people will say, “He cared about others, he was unselfish, and, he left the world in a better place than where he found it.”
It is also important to him that the legacy he leaves his children is their respect for what he stands for. “I don’t care that they do what I do,” he says. “I’ve never encouraged them to get involved in politics, but I didn’t want [them] to grow up and say that the two things they hate the most are faith and politics because my dad was involved.”
Huckabee is happy to be able to say that his children have not rejected either faith or politics, and they are active in both. That means a lot to him because he believes, he says, “If you gain the world but lose your own soul what have you? You have nothing.”
The teachings of the Word are the precepts that Huckabee tries to live by, and by doing so he knows that he will leave a meaningful legacy.
“I think that leaving a legacy is the greatest, most important obsession that a person should have—especially at the age of 50 when we are starting to think through and realize, ‘I will never quarterback the Dallas Cowboys to the Super Bowl. I’ll never drive a NASCAR into the victory lane.’”
So what does he suggest for those 50 and beyond who want to leave a lasting legacy? For some he suggests they might fund a missionary that would present the gospel in some faraway place. For others, he says perhaps they might do something for their church—such as helping to furnish a prayer room.
“Everybody can leave a legacy,” he says. “It doesn’t even have to be physical. It may be that my legacy (or some person’s legacy) could be that every Saturday they went to a nursing home and brought cheer and encouragement to the people that no one else will visit. Legacy is not what we have or what we have obtained, it’s what we have become and what can be passed on that no amount of money can purchase.”
As Huckabee points out, everyone will leave a legacy, and they have a choice as to whether it will be good or bad. Huckabee hopes his legacy will come down to six words. “I tell people that I have a goal in life, and it is at the end of my life I’m going to hear this from my Creator: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’ If the God who created me will say those six words as I conclude my life, I will say, ‘I’ve done well’—no matter what the epitaph says; no matter what the editorial writers say; no matter how the cartoons portray me.”
Though his bid for the presidency is over, Mike Huckabee is still striving in the race of life. No matter what the future brings, he will continue to run the race faithfully.
The interview for this story was done by Jerry Rose and it is excerpted with permission from TLN’s Significant Living broadcast of “Dark Horse Running.”
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