Meet Margaret O’Connell. She prefers “Peggy” with her friends. When Peggy’s eldest child left for university, empty nest syndrome hit her hard. Here, at the end of an era she knew so well, she felt lost. She started feeling like she was just going through the motions of daily life, struggling with depression and overeating as a result. “I never realized what I was putting in my mouth. I was just functioning,” notes Peggy.
When she started having headaches, she went to her doctor and was diagnosed with high blood pressure. This came as a shock to Peggy. “When I was younger, I was very active with my kids and my husband. We’d go out and do things together, like snowshoeing, so this happened very quickly.” The speed of the decline scared her, and Peggy realized it was high time to start changing her wellness story!
She asked her doctor to recommend a dietitian, who taught her how to eat well. “She really taught me to read labels, how to look for saturated fats, sodium—how to eat healthy. How to get my protein, my fruit, and my vegetables. Or when I was really hungry, instead of grabbing the wrong things, she taught me to reach for protein.”
Her sister Nancy, a cardiac rehab nurse, also stepped in and challenged Peggy to climb Sugarloaf Mountain with her. It wasn’t easy. “I remember walking those 4 kilometres around the mountain and almost crying because my feet hurt so much from the extra weight I was carrying.” But she pushed on, encouraged by her sister. To this day, Sugarloaf remains one of Peggy’s favourite forms of exercise—and it’s free! No matter the weather, she climbs the mountain year round. She just puts on as many layers as she needs at work and then heads out from there.
Peggy’s next big challenge came in the form of a gift she gave to her husband on Father’s Day: she vowed to quit smoking. “After years of smoking, I just decided I was done,” says Peggy, adding, “Nobody can make you do it.” She turned to Nancy again for help. Peggy tried the patch, Nicorette and even vapour cigarettes, finally opting to go for a really long walk any time a craving for a cigarette hit. “I never gained any weight because any time I had a craving, I would drink water and go for a walk. I’m sure I walked 10 miles every time I wanted a cigarette. When I had a craving, I would just go.”
With the support of her family, especially her husband, siblings and kids, Peggy got into the best shape of her life. She used the money she saved from quitting smoking to buy a paddleboard. Now it was her turn to introduce her sister to a new sport! Now she, Nancy, and Peggy’s daughter, Becky, regularly go out and hit the water together with paddleboards and kayaks. And she didn’t stop there. She now challenges herself with various activities including walking, snowshoeing, paddle-boarding, hiking, kayaking, biking, and canoeing. She finds doing anything physical outside helps her mental fitness as much as her physical fitness. “You can have the worst day and then going for a walk outside and it just makes you feel so good!”
People often ask Peggy to share her secret ingredient to losing 60 pounds. She’s always proud to tell them but is sometimes disappointed when people don’t believe it can be done without doing something fancy or complicated. “It’s hard when I try to educate someone and they just don’t buy into what really works. It’s really hard getting the right message out. But I have inspired some people, and I feel good about that.”
Because Peggy has seen firsthand how healthy changes have impacted her and her family, she is working to get the message out about healthy eating and exercising, especially in the outdoors. She has co-workers joining her at lunch for walks and she’s paddle-boarding with her daughter and playing outdoors with her baby grandson. Getting out in the fresh air is an excellent way to exercise and also relieve stress—all while enjoying the trails, mountains, waterfalls and beaches that are part of the beauty of New Brunswick.
As Peggy notes, “Once you get out there in the fresh air, you feel so good and there are so many beautiful places you can go –– it’s endless. Once I head out the door to exercise, I know I’m doing something for me today, and any problems or worries I have are gone. Life is great. My journey is slow but steady. To me, 57 feels like the new 37!”