Walking the Walk to fight diabetes

by Lenore Devore
Robert Weis knows one thing about diabetics: “There are two kinds: Ones who don’t care and ones who do care.”
It’s his mission to “turn the ones that don’t into ones that do,” he says. “Make your choice: sweets or your leg.”
Bold statements for a 71-year-old man who just found out in early 2018 that he has diabetes. He knows he can’t beat it, but he’s educated himself quickly, and now he wants to help others control their disease.
Weis, who spends the summers in Georgia, was living in a condominium in Cypresswood in Winter Haven when he got the news. Following a “fairly stressful” summer job at Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, where he says he ate about a box of Nutri Grain bars a day, he had to have a blood test to get insurance.
“I had downed a lot of carbs,” Weis says. “I wasn’t thinking about my pancreas at the time.”
When the insurance company told him it couldn’t insure him because he was diabetic, he responded: “Really? That’s not correct.”
But with 235 pounds on his 5-foot 8-inch frame, he quickly found out his BMI put him in the obese range. BMI stands for Body Mass Index, which is used to determine whether someone is underweight, within an acceptable weight range, overweight or obese.
“I didn’t even know what BMI was,” he says. “What was this diabetes thing all about? I thought: ‘someone has to be smarter. What do I do? Procedures? Process?’ I called Winter Haven Hospital and asked: ‘Can anyone help me understand?’ “
The hospital’s Center for Diabetes Education signed Weis up for classes and started teaching him about it. As the nation celebrates National Diabetes Awareness Month in November, Weis will be helping others conquer their disease — and their fears — as part of the Winter Haven program.
“The ladies over there are just magnificent with a capital M. It was the best thing I’ve ever done,” Weis says. “They bring in people with a lot of knowledge . . . I started learning about eating right. At that time i was certainly not eating right. I was eating ice cream, with all that sugar. Fried foods. I had been doing everything wrong.”
Tara Fleeman, certified diabetes educator and the coordinator of the diabetes education program at Winter Haven Hospital and Bartow Regional Medical Center, said Weis entered the Winter Haven education program and support group “determined to make a change in his lifestyle and health.”
“He really made an impact on me when he explained that he was in the community talking about diabetes,” Fleeman says. “Now he’s using that same focus to educate others about how they can self-manage the diagnosis of diabetes. Not everyone can come to our monthly support groups, so when we have motivated people like him who make the effort to educate others, it helps us meet one of our main goals – improving the health of our community.”
Weis learned his glucose number — 82 (below 100 is considered good) — and what the A1C test means (it measures your average blood glucose level for the past three months).
“So let’s start a turnaround,” he says he thought. “I started eating more veggies. More lean meat. No fried food. Since I can be very OCD about things, I built a spreadsheet and started trying to figure it out.”
The 21-year Air Force veteran who flew B-52s and retired as a lieutenant colonel found his ideal weight would be about 160 pounds, he says. He started exercising, almost obsessively, with another woman in Cypresswood. Then he found that walking doesn’t necessarily translate to weight loss.
“At one time we were walking 10 to 12 miles a day; three to four hours was not uncommon,” he says. “I started tracking my miles and they were piling up. Then we came up here (to Georgia) and I found out it’s what you eat.”
He started using the Under Armor app to count calories and Livestrong.com to shape up. “They are technical into how you make your system work well,” he says of Livestrong. “If I can maximize the system as efficiently as I can, that can help my glucose . . . It’s not really hard if you eat a carefully balanced diet.”
What helped him the most in his struggle to find balance?
His father-in-law once told him: “To be a really good fisherman, you have to think like a fish,” he says. “I need to think like a pancreas. Every time you eat something, how much sugar is in it and when are you eating it? Did you give it enough time to process the sugar/carbs? What is your target for the day? How will you manage it?”
Since that revelation, he’s been able to keep his glucose level to 85 to 90 and stop taking medication, he says. Lunch often is corned beef rolled up with a couple slices of Swiss cheese. “Beef has no carbs; Swiss has 1. I’m not overloading carbs,” he says. Dinner is often fish and vegetables.
As a country, we have to do something, Weis says. “We used to have 3 million diabetics; now it’s 30 million, heading toward 60 million. And it’s starting in the teen years.”
In Georgia and at Cypresswood, Weis’ goal is to get people moving, whether they walk together or take up jogging, as he has. “That’s the first step. And watch what you eat. You’ve got to get the system as tuned up as you can.”
At 156 pounds now, Weis says he has a way to jolt younger people into taking care of their bodies. “You want to see what this is like? Zip tie your hands or feet together because you’re going to lose them (if you don’t manage your diabetes). Then try to work and walk. What do you think about that? We’re talking serious stuff.”

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