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A family that runs together gets fit together
June 26, 2014 - Andy Flynn
This week: 400 lbs.
Last week: 395 lbs.
Start (Dec. 17): 470 lbs.
Total lost: 70 lbs.
Looking through the results of the Biggest Loser 5K Run/Walk in Plattsburgh on June 1, a name near the top of my age group caught my eye because he lives in Lake Placid: John Flanigan, 44. I’ve never met him personally, but after a recent phone conversation, I was inspired by this man’s story.
Examining the race results from other age groups, I noticed a pattern. Four more Flanigans from Lake Placid participated in the event: 43-year-old Alison, 13-year-old Lily, 12-year-old James and 9-year-old Max. There was definitely a story here.
Come to find out, the Flanigans and other staff members from their family-owned business — the Lake Placid Animal Hospital — ran the Biggest Loser race to support their receptionist, Ruth Blakeslee, who is on her own health journey. Alison is the animal hospital’s veterinarian, and John is the office manager. Lily, James and Max are their children.
A family participating in a 5K race together sounded too good to be true, and it would have been three years ago. But since John began transforming his physique in 2012, losing 55 pounds in the process, he and his wife have nurtured a healthy lifestyle for their children.
“It’s sort of like the family that prays together stays together,” John said. “We look at it from a couple different points of view. One, first and foremost, is the health of our children and leading by example.”
Children learn good and bad habits from their parents. I can’t help but think how I could have turned out — health-wise — if my parents had nurtured an active lifestyle for me and my brother. I may not have topped the scale at 493 pounds in 2011. I could have even pursued a career as a forest ranger, which I was seriously considering in my freshman year of college. Instead of an outdoor job, I work at a computer desk most of the time, writing and editing.
John told me that the family is going on a yoga retreat in Vermont to support Alison, who shows her children yoga moves after her classes. John shares exercises — such as box jumps — with the children after resistance training at the Fitness Revolution gym. The kids learn the moves and challenge each other.
“They’re very competitive children,” John said. “They’ll line up, and one kid will get 21 (box jumps), the next kid will get 22, the next kid will get 23, and then the next kid’s crying because he can’t do 25. But it’s all in good fun. We encourage them not to be so competitive, but they can’t help it. It’s just the way they are.”
In addition to family fitness time, the children participate in school sports. In the process, they’re learning about the health of their bodies and minds, nutrition, exercise and meditation.
“I just preach to the kids, ‘You’ve got to take care of your body,’” John said. “For little things like diet and overall fitness, you can take care of that yourself. Just making wise decisions with what you eat, what you put in your body, not drinking, not doing drugs. That’s an everyday conversation we have in our house.”
But John and Alison aren’t just preaching. They’re putting words into practice as role models for their children. Imagine if more families did this together. It could radically change the U.S. health industry and have a profound impact on the lives of millions of Americans. The Flanigans are the epitome of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign (www.letsmove.gov) to raise a healthier generation of kids.
The defining moment
Like most life-changing decisions, John’s transformation to being a fit father didn’t happen overnight. It began with a conversation with his father-in-law about the side effects of medication, which John was taking for his high blood pressure. Alison’s father suggested John wean himself off the drugs with diet and exercise.
“I always thought this was what you’re supposed to do,” John said. “My father was on blood pressure medication. He was on cholesterol medication. He eventually died of a heart attack, and his father died of a heart attack. And I always thought this was genetic code. That’s what it is for me, so going on medication was par for the course. Now it’s my turn.”
But after reading the studies about the side effects of blood pressure medication, John decided that diet and exercise could be a healthier option. Plus, he was beginning to dislike his physical appearance.
“I was in the airport in March (2012) in Lake Clear,” John said. “My daughter was flying to Boston, and we took a selfie of each other. I looked at myself, and I looked old and I looked puffy. I was 230 pounds, and I was sitting next to this beautiful girl, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. Something’s got to give.’”
That was John’s defining moment. Two years later, he’s down to 175 pounds and is leading a fitness class five times a week at Fitness Revolution, an accomplishment he never thought would happen.
“Not in a million years,” John said.
In recent years, John has battled personal demons, the specifics of which he wishes to keep private. So getting healthy meant much more than looking better; it meant getting rid of some nasty bad habits.
“For me to go for a run in the woods, to go backcountry skiing ... is replacing a lot of bad old habits,” John said. “And it feels so good to be able to get that rush and have those endorphins.”
John and Alison both hail from Kinnelon, New Jersey, and they’re relative newcomers to Lake Placid. Starting in 2001, they owned a camp on Upper Saranac Lake and vacationed in the Adirondacks. At the time, John owned a wholesale food company at the Fulton Fish Market in New York City, working up to 18 hours a day.
“I made a really good living, but it was taking its toll on my health, my marriage and my kids,” John said. “With my high-paced job came high-paced habits.”
In 2008, John had a breakdown. Alison suggested moving away, and their fresh start led them north to the Olympic Village.
“It was the best thing we ever did,” John said.
The Flanigans moved to Lake Placid in 2009 and opened the Lake Placid Animal Hospital in January 2010. While John was settling in to his new life, he gained a lot of weight. Now, about five years after the move, his decision to create a healthier lifestyle is leading to real results — for the entire family.
“I’m a better husband. I’m a better dad. I have more patience,” John said.
In March 2012, John began to exercise again, slow at first.
“The idea to go out and run was impossible for me because everything would hurt,” John said.
So he started exercising in 15-minute increments on an elliptical machine, increasing his time and effort each time.
“I did that until I got up to an hour on an elliptical machine, and I lost 20 pounds,” John said. “March turned into nice weather, so I hit the road and ran around the neighborhood probably a mile or 2 miles, and everything hurt.”
With the pain to his knees and legs, John got discouraged about running, so he went back to the elliptical machine. When he got down to 190 pounds, running finally became a viable exercise option.
“It didn’t hurt as bad, and I started to enjoy running a little bit,” John said. “I kept telling myself, ‘Just go out the door for 10 minutes and come back in 10 minutes, and there’s a 20-minute workout.’”
Then the Ironman Lake Placid triathlon came around. John read a news article about an athlete who lost a lot of weight before participating in the race, and he was inspired.
“I just went out, and I watched Ironman, and I looked at these people,” John said. “It’s incredible.”
John was on his high school swim team, and the last time he competed was in 1987. Watching the Ironman athletes inspired him to get back in the water, so he decided to go to the village beach on Mirror Lake and go for a swim.
“I got in the water, and I swam four buoys, and I thought I was going to drown,” John said. “I said, ‘Oh, my God. I can’t do this. This is insane.’ So I swam back to the dock and was happy holding on to the dock.”
John got discouraged again, but it didn’t last for long. He watched the Ironman athletes swim 2.4 miles in 40 minutes. True to his competitive spirit, John challenged himself.
“I said, ‘If they can do this, I can do this,’” he said.
John bought a wetsuit and swam half the course in the middle of the summer. By August, he was able to go the whole course, down and back.
“Taking the car down to take a swim turned into running down to the lake, swimming and running back home,” John said.
Then as the cold weather set in and the kids went back to school, John decided to join the local gym.
“I was losing a lot of weight, but I looked really flabby and skinny, and I didn’t like the way I looked,” John said.
John met with Fitness Revolution trainer Jason McComber and talked about his goals. Then he began taking McComber’s ADK Fit class and began seeing more positive changes to his body.
“All this time, the kids are seeing this transformation, and they are running more, and Alison is exercising more,” John said. “It was more like, ‘If Dad’s doing something, it’s got to be pretty cool, so let’s all do it.’ So the whole family started doing it.”
For John and Alison, the conversation about a healthy lifestyle is ongoing. Their marriage, the children and health are their top priorities.
The 5K in Plattsburgh was never a beginning or an end to the Flanigans’ journey to a healthier lifestyle; it was just one chapter. And it began with a conversation John had with his daughter, who is on the local track team.
In the spring, John took Lily out for a 5K run at an easy pace. She liked it, finishing the 3.1 miles in 30 minutes. Then James had to try it. He ran it a little faster.
“He enjoyed it so much that instead of playing soccer next year, he wanted to run cross country,” John said.
Then Max had to try it.
“I was really concerned about him,” John said. “I didn’t want him to get discouraged. I said, ‘We’re going to run this race in two months.’ ... I did the same thing I did with Lily ... and he did it in 30 minutes, too. He was like, ‘That was really easy.’”
On race day in Plattsburgh, John was nursing a bad knee, and he planned on going slower than usual. So he used his injury to help motivate James.
“I told my son, ‘You’re my rabbit. I want to chase you. You set the pace for me,’” John said. “So he set the pace, and I had to keep up.”
-John finished second in his age group (male 40-44) and 10th overall with a time of 21:19.
-Alison finished first in her age group (female 40-44) and 51st overall with a time of 25:30.
-Lily finished first in her age group (female 1-14) and 31st overall with a time of 24:15.
-James finished first in his age group (male 1-14) and seventh overall with a time of 21:08.
-Max finished sixth in his age group and 50th overall with a time of 25:30.
John and his children participated in a Halloween 5K/Fun Run at Mount Van Hoevenberg in October 2013 to raise money for the cross country team, but the Biggest Loser 5K in Plattsburgh was the first event they’ve done with all five members of the family. And that made for some gratifying car talk on the ride home to Lake Placid.
“The overall conversation was pride,” John said. “They were very proud of themselves. Me, too, and my wife. That was her personal record as well.”
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Staff and family members of the Lake Placid Animal Hospital pose at the Biggest Loser 5K Run/Walk in Plattsburgh on June 1. In the front row, from left, are Lily Flanigan, James Flanigan, Max Flanigan, Courtney Sullivan and Kristy Duguay. In the back row, from left, are John Flanigan, Danielle Brockway, Joe Brockway, Kathy Osgood, Alison Flanigan and Ruth Blakeslee (Photo provided)