- Associated Press - Sunday, December 20, 2015

SAN ANTONIO (AP) - When Elena Garcia grasps dumbbells, pain from her arthritis shoots through her hands. Her shoulders ache. She grimaces as she wiggles her fingers between sets.

She’s 70 years old, obese and had never formally exercised until she began a workout routine in February. It’s tough going.

But Garcia has a fierce motivation to work through the pain.

With each repetition, she honors her son Hector Garcia Jr., who died a year ago after a lifelong battle with obesity. She vowed to lose the excess weight she carries on her 5-foot, 1-inch frame.

Since willingly taking up her son’s struggle, Garcia has lost 50 pounds by changing her diet and adopting an exercise routine. She hopes to shed more weight.

“I’m doing it for him,” Garcia, who has gone from 270 to 220 pounds, told the San Antonio Express-News (http://bit.ly/1k1uuiT). “I hope wherever he is, he can see I’m trying my best.

Hector, who was 49 when he collapsed and died on Dec. 8, 2014, had been overweight since childhood. At one point, he weighed more than 600 pounds.

As an adult, he once dropped hundreds of pounds through gastric-bypass surgery, but the numbers on the scale inevitably crept back up. Later, without being able to afford the help of a personal trainer or dietitian, he lost about 350 pounds through diet and exercise in order to undergo double knee replacement surgery. With his mobility restricted after four surgeries, he slowly regained the weight.

In the last few years of his life, obesity confined Hector to his bedroom in his parents’ South Side home. In his final months, he spent most of his time in an oversized chair. He talked about starting another diet, but he ran out of time.

After an Express-News article about Hector’s struggle was published in December 2014, the daytime talk show “The Doctors” invited Garcia to share her son’s story. They connected her with Fit Therapy of Texas, which provided her with personal training, nutrition education and counseling sessions.

Garcia had dieted unsuccessfully in the past, but this time it was different. This was her chance to fulfill the promise she had made to her son.

“My son always wanted me to lose weight like he wanted to lose weight,” she said. “I could never do it. I didn’t think I could. But I can, I can do it. And I will do it. I’m not going to let him down.”

From February through mid-September, Garcia dutifully drove 50 miles round trip from the South Side to Fit Therapy in Stone Oak three times a week. At first, she didn’t have much confidence in her ability to transform her lifestyle.

“I had never exercised in my life,” she said. “I thought I was going to die.”

She started slow. Fit Therapy co-owner Kenny McClendon had her walk on a treadmill for 10 minutes, then walk back and forth across the small personal training studio holding a weighted ball.

She grew winded easily and had limited range of motion in her right shoulder, which she had injured hoisting her son’s wheelchair.

Molly Cortez, then a nutritionist with Fit Therapy, wrote up a food plan, took Garcia grocery shopping and gave her an in-home cooking lesson. Garcia cut down on fried foods and salty snacks and started drinking more water and less soda. Now, she now cooks with olive oil instead of lard. Fruits and vegetables dominate her diet, and she has started reading food labels.

“I’m teaching myself to eat foods I never ate before,” such as feta cheese and yogurt, she said.

Meanwhile, as Garcia’s endurance and strength improved, fitness expert Brittany Ewing ramped up the workouts.

Weight loss was one goal, but Ewing also led Garcia in moves to improve her range of motion to make everyday activities easier. Garcia’s positive attitude helped.

“She never complained one time,” Ewing said. “She would get done doing 20 squats, out of breath, and she would look up with a smile and said, ‘OK, what’s next?’ She’s definitely very inspiring. Everyone has an excuse (not to exercise). Elena never had an excuse.”

Garcia’s husband also praised her efforts. “I’m really proud of her,” said Hector Garcia Sr.

The hard work has paid off. Garcia no longer has to ride the electric carts to shop at sprawling stores. Her blood pressure has improved, although she still must take medicine to treat it. She has more energy. She dropped dress sizes.

“I’ve already taken in all of my pants twice,” she said. “If I have to take them in again, that’s it. I’ll have to get rid of them. I haven’t seen this weight in 20, 30 years.”

Witnessing her son’s attempts at weight loss taught Garcia about the importance of self-control and commitment. She knows how easy it is to get discouraged, to regain the weight.

Tracy Cooper, co-owner of Fit Therapy of Texas and a licensed professional counselor who worked with Garcia, said that while her son continues to motivate her, Garcia also began recognizing the importance of caring for her health.

“She was always doing everything for everyone else,” Cooper said. “It became about her. It became, ‘I have to do this for myself.’”

Exercise has become a daily habit for Garcia. She wakes at 4:30 a.m. three mornings a week to walk with her husband at the YMCA near their home, then pedals an exercise bike and uses resistance bands. She attends an exercise class for arthritis relief twice a week and has begun a line-dancing class. At home she lifts weights between household chores. And she visits Fit Therapy twice a month.

It’s not easy. Every day is a battle, she said. She takes it one meal and one workout at a time.

Sometimes she falters - Cheetos are her Kryptonite - but “every time I get tempted to eat something I shouldn’t, I feel like my son is telling me, ‘No, no, no.’”

Garcia’s focus on change extends beyond her personal goals. Feeling strongly that the community should do more to fight childhood obesity and bullying, she advocates publicly for vulnerable kids.

In May, she visited a South San Antonio ISD board meeting, passing out copies of the Express-News story about her son to the board members.

“My son wanted to help children and adults that were suffering from obesity,” she told them. “He suffered from bullying since he was in elementary all the way through high school and it stayed with him. It hurt him very much. And if this can help our children make better choices about what they eat and also stop bullying, I’ll all for it. I am trying to keep his legacy going.”

The grief of her son’s death and that of her daughter Terry, who died of cancer in 2007, never leaves Garcia.

“I’m forever crying,” she said. “I just miss them so much. Life will never be the same without them. Your heart is broken and nothing will ever mend it.”

But she smiles when she remembers the way they laughed, their love of children. She consoles herself by thinking of them in heaven, “teaching the Lord’s little angels.”

On Nov. 19, which would have been Hector’s 50th birthday, Garcia paid tribute to her son and daughter in her front yard with friend Patsy Villarreal.

The week before Thanksgiving, the sun shone, wind chimes on the porch delicately tinkled and late-blooming pink roses swayed in the wind against the small blue-and-white house.

Garcia read aloud from a Catholic prayer book before she and Villarreal released multicolored balloons. They watched them rise until the specks were lost against the horizon.

Later, she reflected on the year that has passed.

“I wish mijo could see me now,” she said. “He kept telling me, ‘You’ve got to lose this weight.’

“I would start and I would stop. Not this time, though. I’m going to keep my promise to him.”

___

Information from: San Antonio Express-News, http://www.mysanantonio.com

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