Podcast: Matt Abernathy's Life Changing Journey
In this episode of the Well-Being Experts podcast, we’re discussing how participation in the company wellness program can drive behavior change and change your life. We sat down with Matt Abernathy, Regional Service Coordinator at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, to hear about his experience adopting a healthy lifestyle. We discuss Matt's story, behavior change, and how he eventually was able to share his story in front of a congressional committee.
“I was the guy that thought they couldn't do it. And maybe somebody had started many times and couldn't sustain it, couldn't stick with it, because they couldn't find the right motivation. I would encourage that person to dig a little deeper. Ask yourself ‘Why?’ a few more times until you find that right motivation.”
Want to dive deeper into this Well-Being Experts podcast? Here's the full transcript from our discussion with Dustin Graham, Health Coach at Onlife Health.
Matt: You know, I was the guy that thought they couldn’t do it. And maybe somebody had started many times and couldn’t sustain it, couldn’t stick with it, because they couldn’t find the right motivation. I would encourage that person to dig a little deeper. Ask yourself why a few more times until you find that right motivation.
Host: This is the Well-Being Experts podcast and you just heard from Matt Abernathy, Regional Service Coordinator at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. Matt is a member whose participation in the company wellness program completely changed his life.
Matt: For a number of years I just participated in it, and I did what I had to do to get my gift card, in short. I did what I had to do to meet the requirements and still be a participant in the program. It wasn’t until I encountered a motivator that really made me engaged.
Host: On our eighth episode of the Well-Being Experts podcast, brought to you by Onlife Health, we’re discussing Matt’s story, behavior change, and how he eventually was able to share his story in front of a congressional committee.
Matt: So I walked in. We were trying to figure out, “Where does my wife and kids go?” They had saved three seats right up front, sitting right behind me. So there’s this big room full of people from all over and my wife and kids get to sit right behind me. It was pretty exciting. We got to meet senators and so forth.
Host: You’re about to hear the full story, but for more content like this, be sure to go to onlifehealth.com/resources. Enjoy the conversation!
Matt: My name is Matt. I work at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee and I’m a regional service coordinator.
Host: Matt, welcome. I’m really looking forward to talking with you. This episode on the Well-Being Experts podcast series, it’s a little bit different, because we’re talking about your story as just an example of how one person, they found an intrinsic motivation to take advantage of the opportunities of a corporate wellness program. We’re going to look at some of the milestones that you’ve achieved and why it all matters to you and why it matters to someone else out there who is considering making a lifestyle change.
I would love for you to take me back to the beginning, when you were at a moment in your life where wellness, health, it was just something that was not a priority. It was something you did not want to have anything to be in your life, so where are you at today and then we’ll rewind it back.
Matt: Before, I was ignorant of what is health, what is attainable. I used to be an overweight guy, terrible diet, and just didn’t think I could be somebody who ran and exercised and things like that. So there is an ignorance to it. Where I started, I was probably about 250 pounds. I had high cholesterol, high blood pressure, high blood sugar. My doctor said at 21, I was at high risk for a premature heart attack and I was pre-diabetic. He said, “You’ve got to change, you’ve got to drop some weight, change your cholesterol, change all of this stuff. Come back and see me in a number of months, and if it’s not changed, I’m putting you on all these different medicines.” He said specifically, “These medicines will fry your liver, but it’s better than staying this way.” I just decided, “Well, I’m just not going to go back to the doctor. That’s probably my best course of action.”
Host: Why go back when you know there’s bad news?
Matt: I’ll just stay here. I continued like that for many years, and I know that looking back on it, they say, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” I did not realize what I did not know about nutrition and about diet and about exercise and about healthy lifestyle. And it’s just that – not crash dieting or not anything else, but just a healthy lifestyle.
Anyway, a few years go by, my daughter’s born and I look at the shape I’m in. I look at what the future looks like and think, “Hey, if I stay on this path, I’m not guaranteed anything, but I am guaranteed some….” Well, we’re not guaranteed anything, but you know what the results are if you’re a high risk for all these things and so I decided to change some stuff.
Host: So you’re 21 years old, you get that news. As most 21-year-olds, you feel pretty invincible still.
Host: But how many years was between that and your first child?
Matt: Five years. I was 26.
Host: Okay. So five year difference. Then there was a moment. Now was it just like a general moment, “You know what? I should probably change.” Or was there, in your mind, like, poof, everything changed?
Matt: I guess it was – anybody with children will be able to tell you that having kids changes your outlook – changes your view of everything. Changes your perspective of absolutely….
Host: Is it instant? Because I don’t have kids. Was it an instant?
Matt: It’s pretty quick. You start looking at everything differently, “Hey, that could kill me,” or, “That could – you know, they could choke on that,” or, “No, they shouldn’t see this movie.” The other day, my wife and I were talking. We’re like, “ET is a great movie. We’ve got to go watch this.” And then we put it in for the kids and we’re like, “This movie is depressing. It’s terrible.” So it’s not appropriate for six-year-olds.
Host: Right. You know what, it is. I think back to that movie. And there’s….
Matt: It’s a heavy movie.
Host: But you see everything different.
Matt: Through different eyes. Yeah. And you look at your health and your mortality with a different mindset of, “Hey, this little person here depends on me and I’m not doing the best for that little person. I’m not doing everything I can to ensure that I’m going to be here as long as I can for this little person,” if that makes any sense.
Host: Right. When you decided that you wanted to make that shift in your life – I love the way you described that just now, just this little person in your life. So when you decided “All right, I’m going to change,” what were the first steps, when in your mind, did it feel really daunting? Did it feel like it was clear what you needed to do? Where were you in that moment?
Matt: You know, at the time, I had an old book. It was published in, I want to say, ’85. It was this old running program and calisthenics program, and I just kept it for years with good intentions of one day maybe I’ll have the ability to follow through on that. I got that book out because I knew I needed to do something. I needed to get healthy. They say exercise works. So I started running and it was a slow program. It starts you out run, walk, like run for a few minutes, walk for a few minutes longer, repeat that times 10, and just do this every day for 12 weeks and I started that program.
I started educating myself on diet. I know that in the past, before my little girl was born, I’d kind of decided, “Well, I should look at – I’m overweight, what do I do about it? Let’s crash diet. Let’s lose a bunch of weight, let’s put it all back on.” So no real lifestyle change there. Cut your calories, stuff like that. I’d gone through the typical, I’m going to try this diet or I’m going to try that diet. It didn’t stick and looking back on it now, I know it didn’t stick because it wasn’t a lifestyle. I got to the point of unhealthy because of a lifestyle and I can’t get out of it without changing that lifestyle.
At the time, before my little girl was born, I tried different diets. Crash diet, cut your calories, this and that. You name it, it’s out there. You lose the weight, you put it back on. It’s not a lifestyle change, it’s a diet. When she got here, I realized I have to change my lifestyle. I need something to continue because here’s this – this little person’s here and she’s your starting point. It’s time for a new lifestyle.
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Host: When you were ready to lock in on the lifestyle change, what was that first step you took?
Matt: I think looking for an exercise program, something that’s structured, that says this is the way you can implement exercise into your life. That’s when I thought back, “I’ve got this old book. I’m going to read through that and exercise, start running, start lifting weights, things like that.” I think as most any young guy, you spend at least an hour in the gym sometime during your grade school, high school, like, “Okay, I’ll go back to what I know. I’m just going to try lifting weights. I know that works.”
But I think there was a desire to be healthy and that desire drives you to make choices. I’m going to educate myself on diet. I’m going to educate myself on exercise. I’m going to educate myself on proper exercise, the proper amount of exercise I should get. What training in a safe manner looks like, what a good diet looks like, as far as, not a crash diet, but what does a healthy diet look like? How many calories should I be eating? How much sugar? How much carbs? How much of this stuff should I be taking in every day?
Host: What did the role for you – in your own experience and your own walk on this, what did the corporate wellness program do, as an asset, for you?
Matt: It played different roles at different times. There was the constant availability of resources; if you wanted to read about good diet; If you wanted to read about proper exercise; how not to over-train. If you wanted to read about the effect of small changes daily, you could read about it. The resources were there.
The coaching was there. There was always – accountability is a big factor, so in the back of your head you’ve got, “Onlife is going to be asking me where I am. I need to be able to report.” Accountability outside of that, through a culture of wellness there at BlueCross, that was a big thing. So it was real easy to plug into that, between the gym being there, access, other guys who were working out there, who were in the same boat trying to make some changes in their lives, holding each other accountable. I know for marathons, we’d call each other at four in the morning, “Get out of bed.”
Host: So these are people who you’re working with every day, who you trust. They know you, they know where to find you, to keep you accountable. So you take that with the intrinsic motivation that you had to make all the changes. Then you have the access to a wellness program. Then you have a culture of health at your workplace that can nurture all of those things together, to help you reach your goals. You were saying just a moment ago about – I think it was just your family at home – of course they’re supporting you, but also, you’re getting them involved too because they see you as a role model and….
Host: What has that been like?
Matt: It’s great. My little girl, she’s run her first 5K here in Nashville. I think she was seven when she ran it.
Matt: Yeah, so, I know.
Host: That’s great.
Matt: It is. She ran a 5K with my wife. They ran one together. It was a neat experience just seeing, right, this is instilled early on. You know, they’re physically active kids. They’re healthy kids. So it’s not been a change for them, they just grew up in it. One of the big reasons I stick with this and one of the motivations I was talking to earlier – you have to have the right motivations. One of the motivations is: I have to model the right behavior for my children, so that they don’t have these obstacles to overcome. It’s the same thing with anything with children. What’s the old adage? Children learn three ways: modeling, modeling and modeling. I want to model the right behavior for my children, so that when they’re older, they’re not faced with obstacles of, “How do I lose this weight?” That’s one of the things that we don’t even focus on, I’ll just tell you that. At the house, we don’t focus on weight, we don’t talk about weight, because we don’t want it to be a negative. We don’t want that to be the focal point. We talk about being healthy and how you need to get healthier, things like that.
Around the house – and that’s another thing. Your eyes change when you have kids. You don’t want to instill, “Hey, I shouldn’t eat,” or, “I should eat,” or things like that. You don’t want to instill the wrong mindsets of food consumption, and exercise, and body image. You want them to see healthy. We’re very specific with our language at the house to make sure that the children understand healthy choices. There’s a little wellness culture at the house that’s built around a healthy, whole person. Sleep and food and exercise. Or not even exercise as a regimented thing, but just activity. “We’ve got to get out, we’ve got to move. It’s a good day, let’s not waste it,” type. The kids know physical activity, among other things.
Host: That’s great. So when you take the change at home, the change at work, the change in your own life; you didn’t just stop even after several marathons. There was a time – this was just last year, and you testified before a congressional committee about your experience and transformation with the corporate wellness plan. What was that all about and how does that fit into your whole story here?
Matt: I got to go to Washington and speak before the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. At the table there were people representing both sides of the Affordable Care Act about [the merits of] a voluntary wellness program, why we should have it, or why we shouldn’t have it. There were people there discussing the benefits of it and people discussing how it’s implemented. Then there was me, and I was there to basically be the real life representation of how a voluntary wellness program can actually affect somebody’s life. So I was there to share my story, going from unhealthy to healthy, in short, and to say, “I used the resources that were available. My employer has a voluntary wellness program, it’s run by Onlife, and this is me.”
Host: This is my story.
Matt: This is my story and I got to share it. What was exciting about it, I brought my wife and my kids with me.
Host: At the meeting?
Matt: At the meeting, yeah.
Host: Oh, yeah, nice. That’s great.
Matt: So we walked in. We were trying to figure out, “Where does my wife and kids go?” They had saved three seats right up front, sitting right behind me. So there’s this big room full of people from all over, and my wife and kids get to sit right behind me. It was pretty exciting. We got to meet senators and so forth.
Host: I love that. And you said earlier the way you can teach children is by model, model, model, and what a good example for them, like that is what they know. That’s really wonderful.
Matt: Yeah, absolutely. Modeling, yeah. It was exciting to have them there to see – really, that’s a big piece of the story of big changes, and big changes get noticed.
Host: Right. So you have this capstone, more or less, that you just accomplished, you’re sharing your testimony, you’re sharing your story, you have your family there. You’ve accomplished these huge lifestyle changes. And one of the final things I want to ask you is why do you think some people are held back to making a lifestyle change? And with that question, I’m really curious to hear your “why” in all of this.
Matt: One of the reasons that I wanted to come and do this is I wanted to share with people that maybe somebody will hear it or that thinks they can’t do it. You know, I was the guy that thought they couldn’t do it. And maybe somebody has started many times and couldn’t sustain it, couldn’t stick with it because they couldn’t find the right motivation. I would encourage that person to dig a little deeper. Ask yourself “why?” a few more times until you find that right motivation or really discover what the real motivation is. Because it’s there. You just have to keep asking “why?” until you find, “Why do I really want to make this change?” That will be what gets you out of bed or keeps you on the treadmill or sticks with you when you’re trying to make the right food choices.
Host: I really appreciate you sharing your story with me. I was really looking forward to this. It’s really inspiring. I’m hoping that maybe sometime in the future we can reconnect and we can get an update from you to see what else you’re doing.
Matt: Absolutely. Thanks for having me.