March 22, 2016

Managing Diabetes, One Day at a Time: How Tommy Opliger Turned His Health Around

Before retirement, Tommy Opliger was an over-the-road truck driver. While he enjoyed his profession, he admits it wasn’t conducive to a healthy lifestyle. “I ate at a lot of fast food restaurants, a lot of truck stops and a lot of buffets,” he said. “And there was very little exercise. I rode in the truck all day, and the only activity I got was walking to and from a restaurant.”

It was while he was a truck driver that Opliger was diagnosed with diabetes and a host of other health problems. At age 69, Opliger had a routine Department of Transportation physical. At that time he found out he had a systolic blood pressure near 200 (a normal reading is around 120), a hemoglobin A1C rate of 10 percent (the normal range is between 4 and 5.6 percent) and a body weight of 320 pounds.

“The bottom line is that I did not pass the physical,” said Opliger. “I knew I was overweight, but I was in denial about the other stuff. I didn’t even realize I had become diabetic.”

This was a reality check for Opliger. His doctor laid out some lifestyle changes he needed to make immediately — and he did. When he went home from that visit, he stopped by a gym near his house, talked to a trainer and signed up for a membership. That was a year ago. Now, he is down nearly 70 pounds and has a systolic blood pressure of 120 and a hemoglobin A1C rate of 5.5. In addition, he has been able to go off all of his high blood pressure and diabetes medications.

Those aren’t the only positive changes Opliger has noticed. He went from a 54-inch waist to a 36-inch waist. And he has a lot more energy. Opliger said he used to sleep and lie around all day when he wasn’t working. Now, he spends time working in the yard, hiking, tackling his “honey do” list and taking his Harley- Davidson out for rides.

The Role of Exercise in Managing Diabetes

Opliger has made a number of lifestyle changes, including a shift to a healthy diet, but exercise has been one of the most important components of his approach. Valerie Garrett, MD, hospitalist and Medical Director for The Diabetes Center at Mission Health, said exercise can help many people maintain a normal weight, which in turn reduces the risk of diabetes.

“If you are overweight, the good news is that, even modest weight loss (10-15 pounds) can reduce your risk of developing diabetes,” said Dr. Garrett.

The experts at The Diabetes Center recommend cardiovascular exercise, as it has the greatest benefit for people with diabetes. “In other words: Get your heart rate up, break a sweat and, ideally, maintain the activity for 30 continuous minutes,” said Rob Luka, Certified Diabetes Educator of The Diabetes Center. “If you can’t last 30 minutes, you can break that up into two 15-minute workouts.”

For people with type 2 diabetes who require several medicines to control their blood sugar, weight loss will likely lead to dose reduction and possibly elimination of some medications.

“Remember, high blood sugar is the leading cause of blindness, kidney failure and loss of limb in the United States,” said Dr. Garrett. “The goal is good health and good glucose control — not necessarily avoidance of medicine. For most people, a combination of healthy eating and exercise coupled with appropriate diabetes medication is best.”

For both exercise and nutritional advice, Opliger relied heavily on the information he received through the Mission Health Diabetes Education Program. “They covered everything,” he said. “They taught me about food portions, reading labels and comparing carbohydrates to protein. They helped take the guesswork out of these lifestyle changes.”

A New Start

At age 70, Opliger feels like he has a new lease on life. He’s enjoying activities he hasn’t enjoyed in years, and has more energy than he’s had in several decades. He has also retired and is now working part time as a driver for the LaZoom Comedy Bus in Asheville.

“Life is too short to go around being miserable and grumpy and not feeling well,” said Opliger. “If you’re going to really make a difference in your health, you’re going to have to do it for yourself and you’re going to have to do it from your heart. Yes, there will be work and there will be sacrifices. But you know what? I like life. I enjoy life every day of my life — and I want to keep on enjoying it.”

If you’re ready to get your diabetes under control and turn your life around like Tommy Opliger, contact the Mission Health Diabetes Education Program at (828) 213-4700.

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