One spring day, a moment of truth shocked Niva Retimanu into action. The award-winning radio newsreader explains, "I reached a point of no return, really. I bent down to tie up my shoelaces. I could barely see my feet and my stomach piled over. I was by myself and the flood of tears came. It was an amazing release for me. I could hear my raspy breath, and I thought, 'If I carry on like this, it's not going to be good.'
"I thought, 'I've lost two parents, and if I continue going down this road I'm going to be six feet under.' That's what hit me. It was life versus death. For me, it was never about looking beautiful or getting back to a smaller size.
"I decided enough was enough. I had hit a really dark stage in my life and I was depressed but probably didn't know it. I didn't like myself. I was big and I couldn't fit my clothes. I was in denial and I didn't know anything about healthy eating. I was living off takeaways and didn't do any exercise. I was a heavy smoker, having over a packet of cigarettes a day, and I was drinking alcohol, and that was getting out of control.
"At the basis of that depression was the loss of my parents. I hadn't dealt with it. That's when I thought, 'I've got so many issues, so many problems.' At the same time all of this was happening, I learned I had two uteruses, one kidney and two bladders. It wasn't a death sentence, but it was something unusual that I didn't have my parents to talk to about.
"Now, I feel special because of this. But at the time, I thought, 'Oh my God, I'm a freak of nature. I'm not dealing with anything.' I had been in denial for a long time, even though clothes couldn't fit me. As a baby, a child, a teenager and in my 20s, I was actually quite slim. I was always a size 12 to 14. I was never obese back then. But the weight exploded over my 30s and 40s."
Niva would buy size-22 shirts and take the labels off. It was all about avoidance.
"I was depressed and that whole dark cloud was over me. I hadn't actually seen how bad I was. I didn't look at myself in the mirror. So I was doing everything I possibly could to stay in denial."
She saw others struggling with health issues and knew she wanted to be a positive role model, particularly for others in her culture.
"I'm a Pacific Islander and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to know the statistics. Also, being in the media, I thought, 'Who am I to judge others? I'm supposed to be a role model as a newsreader.' And even though I don't have my own children, I have lots of nieces and nephews. I wanted to be active with them."
That spring day, she decided to prioritise her health, so she went to her local doctor for help and was advised to start by quitting smoking.
"I was terrified that if I stopped smoking I would put on weight. But the doctor said, 'You have to stop the smoking, and then we'll deal with the obesity.'"
This is an edited extract from Balance: Food, Health and Happiness by Rachel Grunwell (Beatnik Publishing, rrp $40).
Niva realised she had to quit seeing some friends who liked to party – at least for a while. She knew if she drank alcohol it would lead to smoking.
What kept her on track was thinking of that shoelace moment, that moment of truth, and remembering the loss of her parents – her dad from cancer and her mum from heart disease.
Adopting an attitude of "steely determination" and stopping the binge eating, drinking and smoking, Niva was ready to try exercising. She was also seeing a counsellor to heal some unresolved grief.
Next on her journey was boot camp. "That was the scariest part – turning up to that. I was worried I would be the only one over 100kg and unfit. I wore black because it was slimming, from head to toe, and I looked like a burglar!"
Niva drove 30 minutes to attend a boot camp with other Pacific Islanders. "I knew I would be with other big people, so I would blend in. Here, I could see others that could feel my pain. There were others who were overweight and smokers too."
It was a battle, but after a few weeks she could breathe more easily. Gone were the days of huffing, puffing and laboured, loud breathing.
"My short-term goal was to get up and go, survive the day and see if I could get up tomorrow. My goals have always been simple and that has been a key to my success. It was a slow process and that's how I got through it. I never tried to deal with all five or six problems at once. I did it over a six-year period. You do have to be patient through this process. You have to be ready. You can't tell someone to change – they have to find their time to change."
After two years of boot camp, Niva needed a fresh challenge. She began walking, then jogging, and finally started to run. She has since conquered marathons throughout New Zealand, Rome, Chicago, New York and Beirut. It doesn't come easy to her and she has literally come last at some events and taken up to eight hours to finish some marathons.
But Niva's journey has inspired many to become fitter, healthier and happier. In her 2016 book Leading from Behind, she shares her health journey and adventures.
The book has inspired many couch potatoes to change their habits and she's proud.
The most important life change came last – nutrition. Learning about the health benefits, or otherwise, of some foods was a revelation. This knowledge is now something that's second nature and informs all her food choices. She doesn't always make perfect decisions, but she knows now she can have some bad days and still get back on track.
Over the years, Niva has lost 30kg. Every time she runs a marathon, she thinks about how far she has come – not just the length of the race, but how far she has come on her life journey.
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