A man-to-man conversation on obesity

In a very touching article on August 27, 2012, St. Louis Post-Dispatch sports columnist Bernie Miklasz discusses his relationship with Rick Majerus, the head basketball coach of St. Louis University, who just took a leave of absence because of health problems related to obesity.

The article begins with an account of a dinner conversation Miklasz and Majerus had in March 2012. They spent two hours talking about a wide range of topics including basketball, politics, movies, restaurants, baseball, books, journalism and social media. As Miklasz says, in short, “we talked about life.”

Miklasz obviously knew of Majerus’ problems with obesity, which had led to five coronary operations. Majerus had been given the standard advice about reducing the chances of further heart damage. He needed to eat a more healthy diet with a focus on fruit and vegetables. He had to eat smaller portions and spread his meals throughout the day. Even though he was a basketball coach, he needed to get more exercise.

Majerus took the advice and applied it, much of the time. He is a man who enjoys a good meal, particularly when he sees one. His profession is in the sports arena, but his body weight makes it difficult for him to ask of himself anything close to what he demands of his players. He has been a sedentary coach whose effectiveness lay in his remarkable insight into the game. He knows how to outfox coaches who have rosters considered to be far superior to the players on his team. Last year, he took what was considered to be an ordinary St. Louis University team to a 26-8 record, including a much unexpected victory over  Memphis University in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

As Miklasz and Majerus talked, Miklasz looked across the table and in many ways saw an image of himself. More than twenty years ago, when Miklasz came to the Post-Dispatch from Baltimore, he was a very large man, way too heavy for his height. From time to time, he has referenced his weight issues, but not on a regular basis and certainly not to ask for pity. But this particular dinner conversation, as well as many others that Miklasz and Majerus had had, dealt with issues such as life, death and mortality.

Here were two men, both very intelligent, conversant on a wide variety of subjects, well read, and with strong wills, discussing their battle to overcome obesity. Both had done more than talk about it; they had gone on the diets and taken the doctors’ advice. But when you “do the right thing” long enough and the returns are limited, you tend to go back into old habits. Such had been the case with both of them.

In recent years, much has been said and written about the problem of obesity in the United States. The statistics are indisputable; the percentage of individuals who are significantly overweight has grown considerably over the past several decades. As obesity has escalated, so have the campaigns against it. So far, the growth of the girth is winning.

What we do know, and Michelle Obama has been a strong advocate of this, is that childhood obesity can be greatly reduced. The keys for children are the same as those preached for adults – a healthier diet and more exercise. Many children who follow this advice are able to avoid the travails of obesity or lose the weight that they may have gained while eating junk food and engaging almost exclusively in sedentary activities rather than exercise.

Once a youngster grows and reaches a certain age, the battle of the bulge becomes much more difficult, as Miklasz and Majerus have experienced. Steps that they might have taken when they were younger and been successful just don’t have the sustained effect now. They fight the battle, but it’s an uphill fight.

The issue of obesity received more attention during the Republican National Convention, when the keynote speaker was New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. He is morbidly obese, but to his credit, in spite of his weight problem, he was considered ready for prime time. However, he was the butt of countless jokes and is generally considered unqualified to pursue a higher office unless he can somehow win the weight battle, one that he has undoubtedly been fighting all his life.

As a society, we have a tendency to glorify those who are slim and fit. We demean those who are overweight. It is not for me to say “fat is beautiful” and “slender is ugly,” although there are some societies that look at it this way. What I can say is that many individuals who are grossly overweight are not slovenly and lazy. They work hard at losing the fat that encumbers them. Yet they are often the targets of jokes by those who are not overweight. They are seen as having character flaws by many individuals, including some who are health professionals.

As we all know, each person has his or her own story,  including those who are overweight. Before we condemn them, mock them, or shower them with advice, let’s remember that we don’t know their full stories and the battles they have fought. Rarely does the truth come out as openly and honestly as it did in the March dinner conversation with Bernie Miklasz and Rick Majerus.