Niki Steele signed up for A New Me with one set of expectations and finished it three months later with a whole new perspective, although she says the result matched the title of the program.
“I went into it thinking it was all about weight, but I left knowing that was not the only thing. There were so many. It is not geared just toward weight loss, but also mental health, stress, exercise, healthy eating,” Steele said of the program at Mayo Clinic Health System-Franciscan Healthcare.
Dr. Rebecca Scarseth recommended the program to Steele in 2016 after the Viroqua woman voiced concern about seemingly uncontrollable weight gain attributed to medications she took to control her hypopituitarism.
Steele was diagnosed with the condition, in which the pituitary and adrenal glands don’t fulfill their assigned duties, as a complication of childbirth after her first son was born 14 years ago.
Ideally, the pituitary gland controls growth and development, and the adrenal gland provides hormones. Medications used for treatment include steroids, a side effect of which is weight gain.
“I wondered, ‘What can I do?’” said the 44-year-old Steele, adding that she became increasingly frustrated with the answer that the weight gain was inevitable and insoluble.
“It was like doomsday — I couldn’t get over it.” She recalled her fear of failure, especially because she had been accustomed to an active lifestyle that included 5K and mud runs.
“For several years, I managed my condition fairly well, but as I got older, more challenges came up,” Steele said. “I decided I wanted to stop the trend before it got to the point where I could no longer easily do the things I enjoyed. I wanted to be proactive.”
Scarseth recommended A New Me, explaining, “The goal really is a lifestyle change, reaching a healthy balance. It’s not a diet aid or a quick fix.”
That’s one of the first things Steele learned, she said in an interview, adding, “I couldn’t cover everything on Monday. The main thing is education and realizing you’ve got to give yourself time to do things.”
She expressed gratitude that Anne Meyer, the program’s coordinator, with a background in exercise physiology and wellness coaching, “was good at setting up goals.”
“The part I really liked was that there was a large group and a small group,” said Steele, who began the program in September 2016.
The large group — about 20 during Steele’s class — meets weekly, and the small group, biweekly. Both offered comfort by showing her she was not alone, she said. Supportive friendships established in those groups continue with regular contact not only with group members but also with Meyer.
Activities included grocery tours, where Meyer pointed out nutritious foods and explained their importance.
“I learned the grocery cart should be half full of vegetables,” Steele said, laughing, as she glanced at Meyer.
“I still go by that,” she said.
“It’s also mindfulness,” Steele said. “I always thought I didn’t know how to meditate, but it’s not that. It’s being grateful — learning how to shut off the world, breathing. You don’t realize how much stress affects weight gain.”
Meditating and focusing on controlled breathing helped relieve the stress that sometimes arises from her job at Vernon Area Rehabilitation Center in Viroqua, Steele said, “where I work with a lot of different people.”
“All these pieces I’ve learned, but I still have ups and downs,” she said.
Regular exercise, lifting weights and drinking large amounts of water daily also play a part, Steele said.
Asked how much she could bench press, Steele looked thoughtfully puzzled for a few seconds before smiling and saying, “the weight of the world.”
Noting that the medications can reduce bone density, which can lead to osteoporosis, Steele said tests have shown that lifting weights has helped her restore and maintain bone density.
“That is the biggest result. This has been a long journey,” she said, tears welling in her eyes, as they did a couple of times during the interview. “Bone density was huge.”
“My energy level is completely different,” she said. “Steroids made me tired and puffy.”
Although previously it was “easy to feel sorry for myself. … I always try not to compare myself to other people — saying I wished I looked like she does,” Steele said, mentioning the saying, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
She cited the bonus benefit that her own behavior conveys healthy signals to her husband, Jason, and their children, 14-year-old Brody and 11-year-old Ryder.
“They know why Mom’s exercising and the importance of portion control,” she said. “They’re at an impressionable age, and I talk about it.”
The Steeles also have been able to maintain activities they like to do together, such as kayaking and tennis, Steele said.
For her part, Meyer said her job “isn’t work at all — to see people blossom in so many ways, with an overpowering transformation.”
The program, which costs nearly $400 but includes two biometrics screenings and other tests, began in 2011, and about 250 people have graduated, she said.
“Weight loss is not the end game, but it’s habits, such as fruit and vegetables, and outlook. Confidence is really, really important,” Meyer said.
So important that Steele confessed, “It takes a while, but I feel like I’m a confident individual.”
Steele, tearing up again, told Meyer, “I’m sure I’ve had tears in your office.”
To which Meyer replied, “My favorites are the happy tears.”
As for the weight, Steele said she has lost nearly 10 pounds, dropping from 225 to 215. But there’s no reason to cry over the slow pace, she insists.
For one thing, some of the weight has converted to muscle mass, but, more important, dropping even that much has disproved the claims of those who told her that the medications would prevent any loss at all.
“I would like to lose 40 to 50 pounds,” she said. “I feel confident that I now have the tools.”
“I went into it thinking it was all about weight, but I left knowing that was not the only thing. There were so many. It is not geared just toward weight loss, but also mental health, stress, exercise, healthy eating.” Niki Steele, about Mayo program