Alene Schwartz weighed 265 pounds in 2008 when she embarked on an exercise and diet — or as she says, “live it” — program. “I just decided that as I got older, I wanted to have the strength to pick up a grandchild, bend down to get something, and take care of myself,” says Schwartz. “Basic needs made me do it.”
Now 63, she weighs 137 pounds. But it’s about more than losing weight, she told the AJP. “I changed my belief system about who I was. The journey itself became powerful for me.”
Schwartz has worked with a trainer for the past three years. She started out doing five to 10 minutes of daily exercise. At first, she says, “my trainer had more faith in me than I had in myself. I didn’t want to disappoint him.” But Schwartz learned by working out at the gym that “I needed to be successful. One perfect push-up kept me going.” As for food, “I had already tasted everything delicious in the world,” she says, “which helped me be able to give up too much food.”
“My hand and my nosh would have a small talk. Do I really need this?” Ultimately, her answer became “nope.” In social settings people eat, Schwartz points out. “Our society is predicated on food. The only venue to get together is going out to eat, or coming over for coffee.” Sticking to a commercial high-protein, low-carb, low-fat food plan she started in 2009, she’s able to avoid extra eating.
Schwartz was nominated by a neighbor to be on the KVOA-TV channel 4 “Tucson’s Biggest Loser” segment; a two-minute clip about her aired on Oct. 26. Although she had lost more than 100 lbs. in three years, her personal struggle with weight had a much longer history.
In 1979, Schwartz underwent an older version of today’s popular gastric bypass surgery. The operation went fine, she says, but the aftercare didn’t. A University Medical Center surgeon found that she was dropping brain cells and was seriously deficient in vitamin B-12. Although an injection of B-12 stopped the degenerative process immediately, says Schwartz, she still experienced double vision, imbalance and speech problems. Diagnosed with a condition known as brainstem encephalopathy, Schwartz spent a year at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital where, she says, “they turned a team of 40 doctors on me for research and development. I’m the only one I know [with the condition] who survived, other than a case later documented in Greece.”
Schwartz began taking a drug that was not yet on the market, and it stabilized but didn’t improve her condition. “I still have no balance. They can’t correct that,” she says, but doctors “feel some of my neuropathways may be regenerating. Every day is exciting.” After having no core control for more than two years, Schwartz can now walk with her trainer’s help and walk by herself in water.
Overcoming the double whammy of obesity and later, disability, has not been easy but it’s definitely been satisfying, asserts Schwartz, with Bryan, her husband of 45 years, by her side. “It’s been a combined effort. He’s my chef,” she notes, adding that he’s lost 60 pounds.
“Something that’s given me so much pain my entire life, overcoming it has given me so much joy,” says Schwartz. She admits that the hardest part of staying slim is maintenance: Her workout schedule includes weight lifting with her trainer three days a week, yoga two days a week, and Pilates two days a week.
Schwartz has always been involved in the community, and hasn’t been inhibited by her weight or disability. She’s currently assistant treasurer of Congregation Anshei Israel’s Women’s League and volunteers at the Pima Council on Aging. She was the first woman assessor in Arizona while working for Pima County in 1972.
Perhaps more than anything else, Schwartz says she now enjoys social activities that “I never did as a teenager, [such as] trading clothes with girlfriends. I went shopping finding clothes for them but I couldn’t find anything for myself.” These days it’s a treat to go shopping with friends, she says, smiling. “My girlfriends decide what styles I need now. These are tiny pleasures. I shopped for my first belt in the past year,” after going from a size 28 three years ago to her current size 8.
“I’m just happy,” says Schwartz, “to let people know that they can see themselves differently.” She is still working on her own transformation. “I have a new project. I want to start writing my memoir. It’s all very humbling. If I do something that 30 to 40 years ago I couldn’t do,” she told the AJP, “I say ‘just a minute.’ I have to process and start crying.”