There is an incredible amount of passion residing within me. It seems obvious that I would have such strong infatuation for animals and nature, given my career of choice. A hankering for these particular areas were awoken and nurtured from an early age. Growing up, I jumped at every opportunity to increase my knowledge and experience with wildlife and their environments. As my admiration for nature grew, so did a third, very prominent obsession: conservation. The more I learned about my favorite animals, and the more I studied nature, the more I wanted to do everything in my power to protect both. More than one person can relate to this story, I’m sure.
As an adult, I found new subjects for my enthusiasm. Nothing that replaced my originals, but being such a passionate person, it was only a matter of time before I found other outlets. Listing and discussing all my nerdy obsessions will take too long, but I will tell you about one of my latest passions that began early 2014. It’s important to mention because it converged my zeal for animals, nature, and conservation into one of the most meaningful ventures I’ve ever discovered.
In January of 2014, I had had an epiphany of sorts. Pinpointing the exact event is difficult, as there were a couple incidents that led up to an awakening. I was not satisfied with my appearance, my health, my fitness, my job, or my life, really. This was confusing because, let’s face it: I was living the dream! Why shouldn’t I feel I was on top of the world?
My knees and back were in horrible shape. I often woke up in pain and went to bed with throbbing muscles. Working out was difficult because it hurt too much to try running, squatting, or any kind of high impact. Plus, with a job like zookeeping, working out wasn’t all that necessary, right? We practically work out for a living!
I also didn’t eat well. My eating habits were justified, though, with rationalizations like “I’m too busy to fix healthy meals”. What I truly meant was “I’m too lazy to eat healthy.” The funny thing was, I would preach to the public about the environmental dangers of consuming palm oil, and there I was munching on donuts, pastries, cakes, and cookies whenever I had a hankering. So, rather than change my behavior, I shrugged everything off, dismissing my pain, my weight, and my diet as just some of the hazards of the job.
Ironically, as zookeepers, we ensure the animals in our charge want for nothing. We are their nutritionists, their nurses, their personal trainers, companions. We provide a healthy diet, exercise, enrichment, and exemplary care to our animals. I did everything I could feasibly think of to provide an incredible life for “my girls”. Everything, except, taking care of myself. Why was that? Why wouldn’t I consider taking care of myself as a part of taking care of my animals?
That was it. This wasn’t just a vanity or self-conscious act (although, I admit, those played a major role). It was an animal welfare act. How could I expect to give great care to my animals when I didn’t provide even decent care to myself?
I knew it was time to put my money where my mouth was. I didn’t mess around with finding a fad diet or big gym. I joined a small community gym and signed up with a personal trainer and a weight loss challenge. And Bob’s your uncle, my new passion ensued.
Maybe this goes without saying, but I won the challenge. I lost over 50 lbs. total, dropped from a size 16 pants to size 6, and decreased my body fat by 10%. The big question everyone kept asking me, “How did you do it?”
Smiling, I would reply, “Conservation is my motivation and inspiration.”
Practicing what I was preaching to the visitors, processed foods were eliminated from my diet. By avoiding all processed foods, it was my own small part in my own small way to conserve Asian rainforests. Coincidentally, cutting the consumption of processed foods was also fantastic for my waist and weight! The challenge ran through two huge candy consuming holidays, Valentine’s and Easter, but there wasn’t any temptation to cheat because I viewed the act of giving into temptation as a sign of giving in to the palm oil industry.
My diet isn’t the only thing I cleaned up. I worked on reducing my carbon footprint as well. I started driving places less, and biking or walking more. I biked to work. I biked to meet-up places. I biked to the gym. The more I biked, the better I felt. Riding was a great cardio workout. It gave me an opportunity to be alone with my thoughts as I raced down the bike trails. And it connected me back to being outdoors. The more I biked, the more I wanted to be outside. I wanted to not just bike, but get even closer to nature. I started spending my weekends outdoors more. Hiking had always been an enjoyable pastime, but now there was a stronger connection between my health, fitness, and my connection to the earth. Spending time outdoors made me appreciate nature even more, and the importance of conserving it, as well.
I realized that the weight loss challenge had done so much more for me than just helping me reach my weight goal. I realized my true potential, and I had the energy and motivation to pursue it. My attitude changed. I was more upbeat and positive about prospects, even in the face of adversity. Things that used to pain me or were extremely difficult were much easier. I was even able pick up the elephants’ boomer ball, a feat I had sworn I would accomplish, but just could never gain the strength. My back didn’t hurt anymore when I woke up, and my knees didn’t ache as much either. I began to enjoy my job, my friends, and my life a whole lot more.
The ideas I started during the challenged continued on afterwards, even when my tiny community gym closed. I found new enjoyment in playing on outdoor jungle gyms. I worked out after work close to the zoo. Some fellow keepers, noticing my transformation and wanting a little of what I had, asked to work out with me. We started out calling ourselves “Zookeepers Keeping Fit” but after some time, we had so much fun with our workouts, we simply called ourselves SMF- So Much Fun. Our routines generally utilized body weight, but we also found great uses for broken rake handles, old enrichment devices, and other reusable objects to create dynamic exercises that tested us, challenged us, and improved our physical abilities. We worked hard on squats, lunges, and other skills that were utilized on a daily basis at our jobs. And we incorporated stretches and movements that helped us stretch out the muscles we often overuse.
Working out wasn’t the only aspect I continued to improve. I slowly cut even more foods from my diet, like sugars, pasta, breads, and most dairy. I found healthier, more sustainable alternatives. I called my diet “Eating Green”, because it went beyond just eating clean foods. I wanted to eat foods that weren’t just healthy for me, but healthy for the earth as well. I still avoid processed foods, and I’m slowly also becoming more aware of GMOs and ensuring that even my healthy foods that will help me stay fit are also good for the planet.
My habits evolved even further. I wanted to share my experience, strength, and hope with the world! I started incorporating tidbits from my experience into keeper chats, bridging something a large majority of the public is already motivated to work on (fitness) to something they feel inspired to improve (conservation). I found this to be an excellent recipe to hook an audience into listening, learning, and providing the necessary impact for action. Maybe they did forget all about what I said when they left the zoo, but in fifteen years of doing public talks, I had never had such a large percentage of guests stay for after my talk just to let me know how meaningful my conservation message was to them. All I did was correlate their fitness to saving endangered species. It made all the difference in the world.
What kind of difference could we make in our lives, our animals lives, and conservation efforts in our own lives if we bridged our health and well-being with an attitude for protecting the earth. Would you resist eating foods you really didn’t want to eat in the first place? Would you begin practicing what you preach about small behavioral changes being key to saving a species?
Every year, millions of humans make new year’s resolutions. How many of us make a commitment to save the earth’s wildlife or the environment? How many of us instead resolve to lose weight, or eat better, exercise more? What if, by eating better, and exercising more, you could also do your part to save the world, or your favorite animals? With EarthFit, it’s possible.
I have three main components of EarthFit.
Here I discuss some basics, delving into correlating conservation with fitness: the meat and bones of EarthFit. I have discovered how connecting to nature by getting outdoors can not only increase your physical and psychological fitness, but also help preserve the environment. Getting outdoors and exploring our world while getting fit! Connecting with nature has been proven to arouse all the senses, reduce stress, and improve mental functions. It has also been shown that those who spend time in nature, appreciate it more and do more to conserve and protect it. Conserve what you love!
Eating clean is one thing. Eliminating certain foods will help you lose weight and increase your health, but eating green takes the idea a step further and works to protect the environment as well. I talk a lot about palm oil, and why I avoid it for health reasons, ethical reasons, and environmental reasons. But also, just as important (to me) is eating locally, sustainable foods, avoiding GMOs and processed foods, and consumer best practices for our health and the environment.
Zookeepers Keeping Fit
This concept has been the most fun to develop. As I learned more about my passion, the more I realized this program was perfect not just for me, but any zookeeper wanting to get fit. I discuss how concepts in our job, like operant conditioning and positive reinforcement are important attributes to our health. I also have come up with several fun workouts incorporating either equipment we have on hand (like broken rake handles) or are zookeeper themed.
EarthFit isn’t a temporary change to reach a goal. It’s not a workout plan. It really is a way of life. It has inspired me to be the absolute best version of myself, and motivates me to share my passion with the rest of the world.
Are you ready to join me on my journey?