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HEART Insight:
doi: 10.1097/01.HEARTI.0000363807.51412.4c
Features: Cover Story

Before He Ran For President, Mike Huckabee Ran Away From Diabetes

Pinkerton, James P.

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He Went To Great Lengths To Lose Weight, Get Fit And Regain His Health

For Mike Huckabee, the personal is political, and vice versa. The presidential candidate and former governor of Arkansas has had to walk his own health talk.

Huckabee had the surreal experience of working on serious public health issues as the chief executive of a state with a population of more than 2.5 million from 1996 to 2007, even as he grappled with — and eventually overcame — some of the same problems in his own personal life.

“On the political side, I was governor of a state, [overseeing] Medicaid — which enrolls one in four Arkansans — and an insurance pool of state employees, while trying to encourage all Arkansans toward prevention and fitness.” He adds, “On the personal side, my own health was deteriorating.”

Huckabee had been feeling a persistent numbness in his arm, and finally sought medical advice. After a thorough exam, his doctor, Charles Barg, gave him shocking news: He was very close to becoming diabetic.

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Huckabee's family had a history of diabetes, and he tipped the scales at 300 lbs. “Dr. Barg told me, ‘If you don't make changes, you are entering the last decade of your life.’ If he had just said, ‘diet and exercise,’ I would have thought, ‘yeah, yeah, yeah.’ A decade is a long enough time [for] a new drug or a cure.”

But then the doctor told Huckabee what his last years on Earth would be like: “I wouldn't be fine until the 10th year; there would be a progressive decline in my health. Heart problems, numbness in the extremities.”

Suitably alarmed — at the time, he was just 47-years old — in 2002, Huckabee enrolled in a behavioral modification weight-loss program developed by a University of Arkansas endocrinologist to help him, as he puts it, “detox” from his unhealthy diet, heavy on processed foods. He went on a drastic regimen of protein shakes and generous helpings of salad and vegetables. “I lost 110 pounds in 14 months.”

He also started exercising on a recumbent stationary bicycle, taking it nice and slow at first. “Many people start out trying to run three miles or going to the gym three times a week, and by the second day, they're so sore they can't go on.”

It was easier than he thought to incorporate regular physical activity into his busy day. “I always had a stack of things to do and couldn't justify taking time out to exercise,” he recalled. “But with the recumbent bike, I could read my briefing books. I was getting a workout without thinking about it — multitasking at its best!”

As his fitness improved, Huckabee started walking on the 1/3-mile track around the governor's mansion. After that, “I decided to run to a post that was 20 yards away — I hadn't run since the 8th grade. Well, it didn't kill me, so [next time] I ran 40 yards, then a lap on the track.” Huckabee's face lights up when he recalls running his first mile. “I thought I was ten feet tall.” On July 4, 2004, he ran his first 5K, and soon after began training for marathon running.

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Huckabee explains that there is “a rigid, specific training schedule that starts eight months out from the marathon — how far you run on a particular day, when to take off. I followed that training schedule as religiously as a Jesuit follows his vow. To. The. Letter.” He's not kidding: He was running on a treadmill watching President George W. Bush's second inauguration on TV at the hotel in Washington, D.C., while his wife, Janet, went to the ceremony alone. (She must have forgiven him, because they celebrated their 35th anniversary this year.)

“I ran 5 miles, then 6, 7, 8. I remember when I broke double digits — oh my gosh!” Three weeks before the marathon, the training schedule specifies taking a 20-mile run — the longest distance a runner will go before the Big Day. “If you can run 20 miles, you can run 26,” Huckabee assures.

“The training is hard, and lonely. I didn't run with someone else, because I had to run at weird hours — wake up at 4:30 am, go out at 5 am.” An accomplished bass guitarist, Huckabee compares training for a marathon with preparing for a show: “For a moment of performance, there are months of preparation. The level at which you prepare will enhance the ecstasy of your performance.” He calls finishing the 2005 Little Rock Marathon “the greatest day” of his life.

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Huckabee distilled everything he had learned about healthy living into his book, “Quit Digging Your Grave with a Knife and Fork” (Center Street, 2005). He also turned his attention to getting fellow Razorbacks healthier. Working with the state legislature, he launched “ARKids First” to extend healthcare coverage to children whose parents didn't qualify for Medicaid, and “Healthy Arkansas,” a comprehensive approach to changing the three behaviors that most drive chronic disease: overeating, under-exercising, and smoking.

“Chronic disease accounts for 80 percent of all healthcare spending,” says Huckabee, adding, “We don't have a healthcare crisis, we have a health crisis. We are curing snake bites instead of killing snakes.”

But not every crisis is conducive to a quick fix. “Some issues can't be changed within an election cycle,” Huckabee observes. “Politicians want to show results within a two-, four-, or six-year [election cycle]. But the changes we need, and the challenges we face, require a whole generational mindset.”

“In my lifetime,” he explains, “we have seen huge cultural shifts in how society views littering, smoking, seatbelt use, and drunken driving. None of those shifts were easy, and they weren't quick, but they have improved our lives.”

Changing hearts and minds requires a sustained campaign that Huckabee breaks down into three phases:

Attitudinal: Awareness campaigns provoke people to think differently. Huckabee vividly remembers Keep America Beautiful's iconic public service announcement that ended with a tear running down the cheek of Native American actor Chief Iron Eyes Cody. Here, raising the pitch of his voice an octave to imitate a horror-stricken six-year-old, Huckabee wails, “Daddy, please don't make the Indian cry. Please don't throw trash out the car window.”

Atmospheric: People start reacting to the attitudinal campaigns by taking various small steps — putting up “no littering” signs, removing ashtrays from public places, putting seatbelts into cars and choosing designated drivers at parties.

Action: Laws are passed reflecting the new cultural norm. Huckabee says it's counterproductive to go straight to the “action” phase, because “there's likely to be a backlash, as people react to what they see as unfair restrictions on their personal freedom and rights.” He adds, “That's not the battleground.”

During his run for the Oval Office, Huckabee often raised the importance of fitness and prevention, pointing out that, “There aren't enough doctors in the world to take care of us, if we don't take care of ourselves.” But Huckabee is the first to admit that it was sometimes hard to live by his own rules for healthy living while on the campaign trail.

“You're getting junk someone has picked up for you. I don't think I saw a menu for a year. Budget and convenience — whatever [a young staffer] can load into a sack or box and feed 20 people on an airplane. You get up at 3 or 4 am and get on a bus, make a half-dozen speeches, do a bunch of interviews — every day, week after week, month after month. You go to bed at midnight, if you're lucky.”

Huckabee pauses, perhaps indulging in a moment of reminiscence. “Not that I'm complaining, because I loved it. It was a great experience, and I hope that we affected people positively — not only about politics, but also about taking good care of themselves, and others.”

Huckabee is continuing his campaign to help people take charge of their own well-being on his eponymous talk show, “Huckabee,” which airs on the FOX News Channel on Saturday night. One segment, “Get Healthy with Huckabee,” features doctors and preventive health experts.

Having turned 54 in August, Huckabee is still committed to making what was supposed to be his final decade last several decades longer.

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For several months in 2008, I volunteered as a senior adviser to the 2008 Mike Huckabee for President campaign. Working on a presidential campaign is unlike any other experience — and yes, it's true what they say about the hours, the food, the stress.

The “official campaign trail diet” — coffee, Diet Coke, pizza — does not meet the Recommended Daily Allowance for much of anything, except maybe calories. And the amount of sleep you get would not make the Surgeon General happy (although the SG would be pleased that nobody smokes anymore; “smoke-filled room” is entirely a metaphor these days). But cancer sticks or no cancer sticks, presidential campaigns should come with a warning label: “The next several months will be hazardous to your health.”

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It's only a small comfort that the hardest-working campaign staffer on the Huckabee campaign wasn't working nearly as hard as the candidate himself. Yes, staffers were working crazy hours, but they didn't have to be “on” all the time. By contrast, the candidate is always in media jeopardy; whenever he is in public, he has to be shaved, cleaned up, tidy.

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And since Huckabee had famously lost weight and gotten into shape to forestall type 2 diabetes, the perfect “gotcha” shot would've been of him tucking into a glazed Krispy Kreme or caught with his lips and fingers stained with the telltale yellow you can only get from repeatedly sticking your hand into a bag of Cheetos.

The candidate also has to be nice and polite at all times. A single ill-chosen word could have put him into YouTube immortality, of a most unwanted kind.

But I should also mention that the campaign was fun. There's a reason people do these things — you get to see the country, especially the early-state primary country. And campaigns are invigorating; in an almost medicinal sense, it's a tonic to see real people speaking, acting, and voting their way through the democratic process.

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© 2009 American Heart Association, Inc.