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Chicago dad realizes he must change his life or die

On New Year’s Day 2012, Jack O’Donnell’s wife of more than 30 years fed him something different for breakfast—a distasteful newspaper story.

“Hey, read this,” Laurel said, tossing the paper at him.

The story profiled a West Loop gym called Downsize Fitness, 25 minutes from the couple’s home in the Sauganash neighborhood of Chicago’s northwest side. The specialty gym solely accepts members 50 pounds or more overweight, and it has frosted windows for privacy and custom equipment for bigger bodies.

“This is a gym for fat people,” Jack told his wife.

“You should call them,” she replied.

At 53, Jack weighed 260 pounds. His insulin-dependent diabetes was raging out of control. And he popped medication for high blood pressure like Pez candy. He feared amputation of his feet. He feared a premature death. More importantly, he feared not being around much longer for his four children, Jessie, 23, Jack, 21, Lia, 18, and Lucy, 15.

He often went to sleep at night thinking, “If I don’t do something, I’m going to die.”

So he finally did something. That morning, he called the gym.

A trainer told him, “Come on down and try it.”

He tried it that day, surprising himself.

“I would have rather got hit by a bus. It was that hard for me the first day,” says Jack, a Bostonian who moved to Chicago in 1982.

He kept at it, though, eventually attending six classes a week, including a 60-minute strength-based Downsize Total Body Conditioning class. Jack became a familiar face at the gym, typically in the early morning on his way to work.

Jack is owner and CEO of the OTECH Corp., a manufacturing firm in Rolling Prairie, Ind., 80 miles from his home. His already long commute became longer with his “workout detour” to that gym each day. He didn’t mind. He just woke up earlier, usually around 5 a.m. to get to the gym around 6 a.m.

“My morning workout is the most important thing I do all day,” says Jack, who lost 20 pounds, then 40, then 60.

“The hardest thing was the first 90 days when the weight wasn’t coming off very fast,” he says. “But after I lost 60 pounds, I started feeling great after the workouts. I was energized instead of dead tired.”

Jack continues to join the conditioning class, which focuses on completing between 12 and 20 repetitions of moves with free weights, including lunges, pushups, overhead presses and bicep curls. He’s also been prescribed a daily dose of jumping jacks and other cardio activity to keep his heart rate elevated and his blood pressure down.

He began eating more lean proteins and a variety of vegetables, and years of yo-yo dieting turned into a string of permanent lifestyle changes. At the same time, he relied on running and circuit training, at least four days a week.

“When I get home at night these days, I’m certainly more pleasurable to be with,” Jack says.

He recently hit his target weight of 175, losing a total of 80 pounds since Laurel showed him that newspaper story. Think of it as eight 10-pound sacks of potatoes that he no longer hauls around each day. Or 20 bags of sugar attached to his once obese body.

“It was the dumbest thing I could have ever done,” he says, admitting the typical rationalizations for overweight parents. “I’m too busy, too tired, and I have too many things to do instead of taking care of myself.”

“But is sitting on the couch at night as important as being around longer for your kids?” he asks. “Of course not.”

Jack no longer needs insulin for his diabetes. He’s off high blood pressure meds entirely. And he recently climbed all the stairs of The Hancock Building, with his eyes on someday running the Chicago Marathon.

His last day without a workout of any kind? More than a year ago.

“It’s more important to me than breathing,” he says.

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