Mike Huckabee:
The First "Health President"?

After Mike Huckabee, the two-term Governor of Arkansas, lost 110 pounds he
became a champion of health and proper nutrition with an almost missionary zeal.
As he considers a possible run for the White House, Huckabee talks to
Energy Times about how the nation’s health care system should focus more
on disease prevention through diet, exercise and supplementation.

By Patrick Dougherty

January 2007

After serving his maximum two terms as Governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee didn’t have a political race to run this past November. But on the eve of the 2006 election, Huckabee was running anyway—in the New York City Marathon. Hobbled by a sore knee that would have sidelined most runners, the former Governor managed to finish the 26.2-mile race. Huckabee’s accomplishment is even more impressive considering that less than four years ago, he was dangerously obese and out of shape, dragging around 300 pounds on a 5-foot-11 frame.

In 2003, at the age of 48, Huckabee was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and realized that his obesity could threaten his life. He vowed to change his habits and through exercise and diet modifications, he lost 110 pounds. Huckabee wrote about his journey in his 2005 book Quit Digging Your Grave With A Knife and Fork (Center Street), describing his first tentative running strides as pure exhilaration; he was leaving his demons in the dust and propelling himself to a new exuberance for life. These days, Huckabee offers a refreshing philosophy on the benefits of significant weight loss. While many would view a 110-pound drop from obesity to svelteness as mainly cosmetic, Huckabee steadfastly speaks of his weight loss in terms of how it brought him back to health.

Since becoming a paradigm of healthy living, Huckabee has launched and participated in a number of health programs: the Healthy America initiative through the Governors’ Association of America (of which Huckabee is also chairman); Healthy Arkansas, which addresses health concerns in his home state; the ARKids First program, a nationally recognized initiative that provides health insurance to tens of thousands of children who previously had no access to health insurance; and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation that he launched with former President and former Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton.

Today, at age 51, Huckabee is healthier than ever. He rocks out regularly, playing bass in his aptly named band Capitol Offense. With four marathons under his considerably looser belt, Huckabee continues to run, logging 35 miles per week despite his busy schedule. But Huckabee’s greatest race may lie ahead, as he considers a run for the Republican Presidential nomination in 2008. “It’s a distinct possibility,” he told Energy Times.

Has his energized, active lifestyle boosted his political aspirations? Perhaps. But for Huckabee, whether running a marathon or running for office, all roads must lead to health. Energy Times recently spoke with Huckabee to get his unique take on weight loss, wellness and the direction of health and nutrition in America.

Energy Times: It was a program at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences that helped you get healthy. What was that all about?

Mike Huckabee: It was a comprehensive program that helped me to not only change behaviors but to understand nutrition; which foods trigger appetite, which ones help to curb appetite and really how to maintain a healthy lifestyle. So rather than just being a weight-loss program, it was a nutritional and health program supervised by a physician. It was very instrumental in helping me learn how to eat right after years of bad habits.

ET: After you completed this program you were able to stop taking several prescription drugs. What was the connection?

MH: When I started the program I had type 2 diabetes, but when I started losing weight and exercising, I no longer had any diabetic symptoms. My doctor hasn’t considered me a diabetic for almost 3 1/2 years. So instead of taking prescription drugs to control blood sugar, now it’s controlled with diet and exercise. That’s money in my pocket every month instead of giving it to the pharmacy. So there’s not only a health issue involved but an economic issue as well.

ET: In Quit Digging Your Grave, you said: “Our goal must be to transform the health-care system from one that simply provides care to one that also promotes healthy lifestyles.” Does the pervasiveness of symptom-treating pharmaceutical drugs bother you?

MH: I’m not opposed to medications that help people live a healthier life, but the critical thing is that healthy lifestyles often preclude the need for many prescription medications. We should manage our own health so we can avoid taking a lot of prescription medications.

ET: One of the hurdles, however, is the ways these medications are marketed. For example, in the book you talked about restless sleep as an important body signal for health problems, which you overcame once you started exercising and got healthy. But restless sleep is now being promoted as a condition that automatically warrants a pharmaceutical solution. Is that a problem?

MH: I think it can be a problem when people self-diagnose and self-prescribe. Often I think the power of suggestion from drug commercials can cause people to say, “Hey, I think I have that syndrome, and I think I’m going to ask my doctor for a specific drug,” rather than saying “Doctor, I have some symptoms that are contributing to some problem, tell me what we can do.” The doctor’s prescription might be to start a walking regimen or change your diet.

I know people would rather take a pill. One of the reasons that I put off any type of health initiative in my own life for so long was because I kept hoping there would be some magic pill that would either help me lose the weight or to overcome any kind of negative health factors the weight was creating. The truth is it really does come down to a healthy lifestyle, good nutrition and exercise. There is no shortcut for that.

ET: Let’s say, hypothetically, that a pharmaceutical company developed a weight-loss drug. Would people miss out on the active journey of natural weight loss?

MH: The goal for every person should not be weight loss but better health. There are a lot of skinny people who aren’t healthy. There are some people who might be somewhat overweight and are not that unhealthy. If weight alone were the only factor in determining health, then a person who is anorexic would be considered extraordinarily healthy. The truth is, the focus in America has become this obsession with weight. Our obsession needs to be tempered. A person cannot be healthy without being active. It’s simply not possible. That’s why the focus needs to be on health and not weight.

ET: What intangible benefits did you derive from your journey to wellness?

MH: Not only have I been physically renewed, but it has been a spiritual renewal as well. I feel better about myself and have a more optimistic outlook. I think that if a person has a physical sense of well-being they also tend to start having a spiritual sense of well-being. Activity releases endorphins into the system. A person’s serotonin level is raised so that you’re not as apt to feel depressed and moody. You just have more energy, you’re more alert. . .there are so many benefits beyond just the normal markers of health that are part of an active lifestyle.

ET: When Energy Times spoke to you last year for a story we were doing on childhood obesity (September 2005), you and Bill Clinton had just launched your Alliance for a Healthier Generation. What kind of progress have you made since then?

MH: The most important development has been the agreement with the soft drink industry to voluntarily pull all sugared soft drinks out of public schools across the country and replace those beverages with low-fat milk, pure fruit juice, water and sports drinks. In addition, the Alliance announced in October another voluntary agreement to reduce the caloric content, fat and sugar content of products offered in school vending machines.

ET: The American Academy of Pediatrics recently said that good old-fashioned playtime is essential for the healthy development of children. You were already championing that with your Worldwide Day of Play initiative (a joint venture between the Alliance for a Healthy Generation and Nickelodeon). What is that all about?

MH: Once again it’s important that there is a restoration of children being able to enjoy recreation time that forces them into physical activity. It’s something that many of us grew up taking for granted. But today, entertainment for children so often involves video games or computer activities that require little or no physical exertion. Every human body was made for activity, and what we hope to encourage is a sense that there’s a real natural peer pressure to be active.

ET: Adults, of course, need playtime too. But at home and at work, people are succumbing to the sedentary lifestyle. How do you suggest that people overcome this syndrome?

MH: The key is to make exercise as much of your routine as brushing your teeth, combing your hair, taking a shower or eating a meal. We do what we do because we think it’s important. The reason that we bathe and eat regular meals is because we think it’s important. When we realize that exercise is an important factor in keeping us not only healthy, but keeping us alive, we’ll build that into our schedules like we do with everything else.

ET: When do you find the time to exercise?

MH: People ask me that all the time. My answer is, I don’t find time—I make time. My schedule includes meetings, ribbon cuttings, giving a lot of speeches and other events. The reason they’re all on my calendar is that I made time in the schedule for them. When exercise becomes important, we put it on our calendar, just as we would a dental appointment or a meeting or a job interview. My own running schedule is on the calendar. It occupies a sacred position so my staff knows not to encroach on that training time that I’m committed to doing every day.

ET: Can you explain why you talk about people “stopping bad habits” as opposed to a more common approach of “starting good habits” in order to get fit?

MH: I had gone through numerous weight-loss programs in my life. I would lose weight, but I would always gain it back. One of the things that became increasingly evident was that I intellectually knew what to do, but motivationally I found it impossible to stick to it. I kept asking myself, why is it that as a college graduate, I can’t seem to overcome these bad habits? Because I knew the ones I needed to start—why couldn’t I stop the old ones? Once I started understanding why those habits were there—as part of a long-standing condition from my childhood—it was this enormous breakthrough; it was a turning point, and it’s what made my return to health possible.

My book is not intended to suggest a substitute for any specific diet like Weight Watchers or low-carb or any of the others. The point is that what goes in our mouth is not as critical as what goes on in our minds. For me, I had to identify and stop bad behaviors before I could start good behaviors. Lots of people are more miserable fighting within themselves over their good and bad choices so they finally succumb and say, “Heck, I’ll eat the entire cheesecake.” And that was my experience. It was finally easier just to say “I can’t live with this internal battle all the time. I know how to live as an overweight person, so that’s what I’m gonna do.” Once I realized that I needed to know why those bad habits were so strong in me, once I identified them, I could finally confront them. Then I found that the good habits weren’t that hard to install.

ET: Do you have any other tips for cultivating a positive mindset when it comes to health?

MH: It really does help to build resistance. It’s not unlike resistance training, whether it’s lifting weights or building muscle memory when running—when you do something over a period of time, the accomplishment of doing something a little better is extraordinary. When a person starts piano lessons and struggles with every note they ultimately feel a sense of accomplishment the first time they play a tune all the way through. Learning to say no to unhealthy things takes practice. But as you continue to focus and get better and better at it, you’re going to do it with ease—and that’s an incredible reward within itself.

ET: You’re obviously interested in nutrition, but do you take any supplements?

MH: I take a glucosamine and chondroitin supplement for my knees and joints, a multivitamin, vitamin C, B vitamins, folic acid and omega-3 fish oil. I’m pretty much a staunch believer in taking supplements. I really believe that they do help. They certainly don’t hurt.

ET: In your book you point out the absurdity of the wave of lawsuits against the fast food industry. Now, the House and Senate are considering passing “adverse event reporting” legislation for supplements. [At press time, this legislation had just passed Congress and was awaiting Presidential approval or veto.] This might bring about more lawsuits from consumers who are linking supplements to adverse events like heart attacks or strokes. What do you think about this potential non-causal adverse event reporting for vitamins?

MH: No one is forced to take a vitamin or supplement. People do it because they believe that it helps them and they find the products to be useful. I take full responsibility for the supplements I consume, every one of which has been suggested by my personal doctor. I take them according to directions and I feel like the benefits that I gain from them outweighs any risks that there may be—though I don’t personally know of any risk.

ET: Do you feel the government should do more or less in terms of getting America healthy?

MH: I think the government should do more, particularly in trying to change the current paradigm of healthcare. This system we have today focuses on being sick. We need to put the focus on being healthy.

For example, we have sick days for employees. We need to have rewards for employees who don’t get sick. We have insurance reimbursement for people who have a heart attack, but we don’t have this insurance reimbursement for people who are going out and exercising and doing healthy things and eating healthy foods. Medical schools teach doctors how to diagnose disease but don’t necessarily teach doctors how to prevent disease. There should be incentives or a financial bonus for physicians who assist people in becoming healthier. Let’s give the doctor a vested interest in saying, “Hey, you’re not doing a very good job of managing your diabetes, so let’s get serious about it,” rather than the insurance company reimbursing the doctor for just continuing to treat a patient for being sick.

ET: What can we do about the fact that the unhealthiest foods seem to be the cheapest foods, while healthy organic foods can be cost-prohibitive for so many people?

MH: There are some things that we can do like buying more from local farmers’ markets and increasing our personal consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, and other foods in their natural form. I’m hoping that there will be a greater focus on making organic foods and natural foods more accessible. As the marketplace expands, prices will go down accordingly. Right now it’s a simple matter of supply and demand. But the question we ultimately have to ask ourselves is, “Why do I want a cracker that will live longer than me?”

I have a rule of thumb: if it wasn’t a food 100 years ago it probably isn’t a food now. That makes it simple. A lot of things we eat are highly processed, packaged things that did not exist 100 years ago and have been concocted from a chemical recipe. It really makes a difference. A handful of peanuts would’ve been a handful of peanuts 100 years ago, but a Twinkie didn’t exist; there was no such thing. So which one is better for you? It’s the handful of peanuts.

ET: You are becoming known as America’s “Health Governor.” What is your overall advice to Americans on getting healthier?

MH: Keep it simple. Realize that it is a process. People need to focus on health, not just because they want to look better and fit into a bathing suit, but also because they want to live longer and be able to enjoy the life that they have. I’ve never met a person who actually enjoyed being overweight and unhealthy. I’ve met people who resigned themselves to being that way and said “I can live with it,” but I never met anyone who felt it was the ideal way to live.

Don’t try to start out on an exercise regimen of 30 to 40 minutes a day when you’ve never done anything. That’s why I suggest 12 minutes of something you don’t hate. Don’t say “I’m going to do 40 minutes of something I love,” because chances are if you love it, you would already be doing it. You don’t love it. So forget that. You’re kidding yourself. Do something that you just don’t hate. For me it was a recumbent bicycle; I could read while I was on it. It became easier and easier to do, and now it’s a built-in part of my routine. Before that if I did something really challenging, chances are I would’ve said “I just can’t do this,” and given up and quit like I had done previous times.

ET: It’s almost Super Bowl time again. Will you sneak in any snacks while you’re watching the game?

MH: (Laughs) My Super Bowl snacks are nuts, strawberries, diet soda and sugar-free green tea.

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