Life Extension Magazine

Life Extension Magazine December 2005

Cover Story

Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee

By Matt Sizing

By Matt Sizing

Gov. Huckabee’s many interests include playing bass guitar in his band, Capitol Offense.

In 2003, at the age of 47, Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee was diagnosed with type II diabetes. His physician warned him that he probably had—at most—another 10 years to live. Heeding that warning, Gov. Huckabee underwent a dramatic program of diet, exercise, and supplements, losing more than 100 pounds and completely eradicating his diabetes and related health risks. Now, transformed by this life-saving experience, Gov. Huckabee is aggressively working to change the health of Americans through targeted initiatives that emphasize prevention.

Gov. Huckabee is the rare high-ranking government official who believes it is possible to achieve optimal health and wellness while reducing and even eliminating degenerative disease. He is aware that by preventing chronic disease, not only will Americans live longer, but the federal and state governments can save billions of dollars that would otherwise be spent treating killer diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, just to name a few.

In short, the governor’s emphasis on prevention could help the country turn the corner away from treating disease to achieving optimal health and longevity. He is one of the first public officials to commit himself and his administration to changing the health of Americans instead of throwing medicine at them after they become sick. He has targeted government dollars to educate the public and actively fight adult and childhood obesity, smoking, and other health problems. His initiatives in areas such as diabetes intervention have shown impressive results, producing significant reductions in program participants’ blood sugar levels, depression symptoms, and blood pressure readings. His ambitious, state-level initiatives such as Healthy Arkansas have made the state a model for improving the health of its citizens.

Now, as chairman of the National Governors Association, Gov. Huckabee is taking his campaign to the national level. His goal is nothing less than achieving a complete transformation of the contemporary American diet and lifestyle, which not only jeopardize the health of tens of millions of American adults and children, but also threaten to overwhelm the nation’s health care system.

When asked by Life Extension how much he thought America’s $2 trillion-a-year health care budget could be trimmed if everyone were to follow his program, Gov. Huckabee replied, “the amount could be staggering, since most disease in the United States is chronic and related to lifestyle choices.”

Gov. Huckabee’s remarkable journey to health is chronicled in his book, Quit Digging Your Grave with a Knife and Fork, published to national acclaim earlier this year by the Time Warner Book Group.

A Nationwide Crusade for Health

Last July, Gov. Huckabee became chairman of the National Governors Association (NGA). In September, at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, the governor unveiled his NGA Chairman’s Initiative: Healthy America: Wellness Where We Live, Work and Learn. Building on the success of the Healthy Arkansas program, this yearlong initiative will raise awareness of the urgent need for Americans of all ages to lead healthier, more active lives.

More than a quarter of American adults are physically inactive, and 65% are overweight. Poor diet and lack of physical activity contribute to the premature deaths of nearly 600,000 Americans each year. Moreover, millions of Americans are not even aware that many chronic diseases—such as diabetes, arthritis, and stroke—are largely preventable.

“We’re facing a health crisis in this country,” says Gov. Huckabee. “A lack of action isn’t an option. For too long, we’ve focused our resources on treating diseases rather than preventing them.”

Gov. Huckabee believes states can play in an important role in encouraging long-term, health-promoting behaviors in our communities, workplaces, and schools. For example, family-focused education campaigns can encourage active living and healthy eating. As Gov. Huckabee told Life Extension, “Good health habits are more ‘caught’ than ‘taught.’ Kids aren’t going to eat better if their parents don’t.” Other examples include state grants supporting the development of supermarkets and fresh food retailers in underserved areas, support for businesses interested in providing strategies and incentives to improve employee wellness and lower health insurance premiums, and helping schools offer healthy eating alternatives, physical education, and innovative programs such as measuring students’ Body Mass Index (BMI).

In addition to Arkansas, many states have now launched similar programs to begin building a healthier America. In Maine, for example, the Healthy Maine Partnership has helped tighten tobacco-free school regulations and ban the sale of soft drinks and candy during school hours. With nearly a quarter of its high school students either overweight or at risk of becoming overweight, Michigan has mandated a minimum of 150 minutes of physical education per week in its elementary schools and 225 minutes weekly in its middle and high schools.

ARKANSAS SCHOOLS SET NEW NUTRITION, PHYSICAL ACTIVITY STANDARDS

In August 2005, the Arkansas State Board of Education adopted new rules governing nutrition and physical activity standards in the state’s public schools, from kindergarten through grade 12. The new standards seek to advance Gov. Huckabee’s Healthy Arkansas initiative by encouraging more healthful eating choices and greater physical activity during and after school hours.

In elementary schools, for example, the rules prohibit students from accessing foods from vending machines anywhere on school premises during normal school hours. Similar restrictions will apply in middle, junior high, and high schools. Other provisions sharply limit access to “foods of minimal nutritional value” such as soda, candy, and chewing gum, while encouraging the provision of healthful foods such as fresh fruit, vegetables, and beverages such as 100% fruit juice, low-fat or fat-free milk, and unflavored, unsweetened water. The rules specify maximum portion sizes for school lunches, while prohibiting extra servings of items such as desserts, French fries, and ice cream.

The new rules also specify a minimum of 30 minutes of physical activity daily in grades K-12, limit the size of elementary school physical education classes to no more than 30 students for each instructor, and encourage greater participation in extracurricular sports and after-school programs such as walking and biking clubs.

A key element of the new Arkansas standards is the establishment of a School Nutrition and Physical Activity Advisory Committee in each local school district. The committee is charged with implementing and ensuring adherence to the new standards, in areas ranging from professional staff development on nutrition and physical activity issues, to ensuring that students receive age-appropriate nutrition education and engage in healthy levels of physical activity. The district committee will also be responsible for conducting an annual assessment of each school campus according to standards set forth in the state’s “School Health Index for Physical Activity, Healthy Eating, and a Tobacco-Free Lifestyle.” The results of the School Health Index assessment will be used to gauge each school’s performance against the state standards and to identify areas for continuing improvement.

An Overdue Wake-Up Call

Mike Huckabee was a heavyweight long before he entered the political ring in Arkansas. Gov. Huckabee was raised a Southern Baptist by working-class parents in the “land of deep fried,” a culture in which food—usually fried, and lots of it—was offered as a reward in good times and a consolation in bad times. Not surprisingly, he developed a weight problem early on. Although he had tried many diets and occasionally had lost weight during various periods of his life, the same poor habits that had led to weight gain in the first place would eventually creep back, as would the pounds lost.

The governor’s excessive girth had long been a source of personal embarrassment, mostly in mundane ways such as the daily struggle to fit into an airline seat or a restaurant booth. Occasionally, his weight problem had more resounding effects, including one he describes in his book as “like a scene from a Three Stooges film.” At a meeting of his 53-member cabinet in the historic, ornate Governor’s Conference Room at the Arkansas State Capitol, Gov. Huckabee commenced the gathering by attempting to sit in—and promptly shattering—an antique chair brought in especially for the occasion. As his cabinet silently looked on in a mixture of concern and barely suppressed amusement, the always good-humored governor managed to quip, “Boy, they sure don’t build ’em like they used to!” But as he notes in his book, “Deep down, I knew it wasn’t the chair that needed rebuilding—it was me that needed a major overhaul.”

Gov. Huckabee in 2002 (left),
and in 2005 (right).

In 2002, embarrassment turned to anger and alarm, when Gov. Huckabee visited his doctor complaining of numbness in his arm, only to learn that he had type II diabetes and a blood sugar level that was off the charts. Although the news was hardly surprising—the governor’s weight had soared to about 280 pounds, and he had two parents and two grandparents who were type II diabetics—his anger came from knowing this diagnosis was not only preventable, but potentially tragic in its consequences: “I knew that this disease diagnosed at the age of 47 would probably mean a very strong likelihood of heart attack, stroke, loss of sight, or loss of limb, as well as a much-earlier-than-expected death.”

In the next year, however, things only got worse. By the spring of 2003, Gov. Huckabee began experiencing chest pains and other symptoms characteristic of heart disease. Suspecting blocked arteries, he underwent a heart catheterization. Although the results came back negative, the governor’s cardiologist pronounced him horribly out of shape and said that without changes in diet and exercise, heart disease and other serious health problems were inevitable. This prognosis was confirmed by Gov. Huckabee’s primary-care physician, Dr. Charles Berg, who informed him that without major lifestyle changes, he had less than a decade left to live.

Shortly thereafter, Gov. Huckabee’s growing desperation and desire to address his weight problem were even further intensified by the death of a close friend and political associate, former Arkansas governor Frank White. Less than a week after visiting Gov. Huckabee and describing his plans to travel during his retirement years, former governor White dropped dead of a heart attack at the age of 69.

NATIONAL GOVERNORS ASSOCIATION TASK FORCE TO PROMOTE A HEALTHY AMERICA

As part of his Chairman’s Initiative for the National Governors Association (NGA), Gov. Huckabee has assembled a bipartisan task force of other health-conscious governors—California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, and Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano—to help him promote the goals of Healthy America.
The NGA task force will work to:

  • Raise national awareness of the urgent need for Americans of all ages to live healthier, more active lives.
  • Convene national health and wellness experts, researchers, and practitioners to lay out the problem and discuss solutions for obesity prevention and wellness promotion for children and adults.
  • Hold workshops for state officials to examine state best practices, including public-private partnerships, and provide state teams with tools and ideas for implementing programs in their states.
  • Conduct site visits to innovative businesses and state and local programs that are successfully implementing relevant best practices.
  • Explore opportunities for modernizing and improving relevant state programs, including Medicaid, Food Stamps, and child care, to ensure they promote and reward healthy behaviors and have measurable impacts.
  • Provide online tool kits and websites to offer families and policymakers useful ideas and information about healthy living.
  • Assist states in developing programs to reverse the national epidemic of childhood obesity.
  • Urge every governor to implement state employee health initiatives as models for the public and private sectors.

For more information on Healthy America, visit www.nga.org.

Getting with the Program

Gov. Huckabee knew he wanted to get healthy, but simply had no idea how to succeed. His break came when he was approached by a close advisor and cabinet member about a weight-loss program offered at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS). Led by Dr. Philip Kern, a renowned endocrinologist whose research specialty is metabolism, the UAMS program approaches weight loss in the context of permanent lifestyle changes, anchored by healthy eating habits and balanced nutrition.

In the program’s first phase, patients are put on a largely liquid diet of prepared soups and nutritional supplements. The idea is not only to eliminate sugary and high-glycemic-index foods from one’s diet, but also to effect a dramatic change away from typical eating habits. According to Gov. Huckabee, “It worked for me because I didn’t have to think, plan, or fret about what I could or couldn’t eat. I needed that intense ‘breakaway’ from having to choose my food until I changed me enough to make smart choices.” Having been broken of their former eating habits and educated about more healthful food choices, patients on the UAMS program eventually return to eating solid foods.

While the UAMS program was a big part of his success, Gov. Huckabee is quick to point out that there is no “secret” to weight loss, nor is he partial to one type of diet over another. After all, he notes, “weight loss comes back to this simple truth—fewer calories in (consumption) and more calories out (exercise).” In fact, he writes, “a focus on weight loss will probably lead to failure. Instead, your focus needs to be on actual health and fitness. With permanent health and fitness, the weight will take care of itself . . . My experience is that most people fail not because their method fails them, but because their motivation fails them. The challenge is not so much to change your actions on a temporary basis but rather to change your attitudes on a permanent basis.”

On the Path to Fitness

As Gov. Huckabee began to change his diet, he also embarked on a program of regular exercise, something he had disdained all his life. He started small, going on early-morning walks with his black Labrador, Jet. At the outset, just 12 minutes of walking left him virtually breathless. Yet he persisted with the program, gradually building strength. He also began to ride a stationary bike and work out on a weight machine several days a week.

One day, several months after beginning his exercise program, he spontaneously began running, an experience he likens in his book to “the scene from Forrest Gump when Forrest was being chased by a group of bullies and, as he started running, his leg braces fall off. I was being chased by a lifetime of bad habits and voices telling me I couldn’t, but that day, I found out I could!”

About a year after beginning the program—and about 100 pounds lighter than when he started—he surprised himself by running in the Firecracker 5K race in Little Rock, a feeling of exhilaration that he likens to “winning the Super Bowl.” Additional races followed. Remarkably, last spring, just two years after starting his diet and exercise program, Gov. Huckabee completed the 26.2-mile Little Rock Marathon. When Life Extension asked the governor to compare the before-and-after effects of his diet and exercise program, he replied, “I have nothing to compare it to—I’m doing things I couldn’t do when I was 17!”

Today, his exercise regimen consists of getting up each morning at 4:30, warming up by walking a mile or so with his dog, and running or (on non-running days) cross training, followed by 30 minutes of riding a stationary bike while reading the morning paper. He also lifts weights several times a week.

The governor’s diet has undergone an equally drastic change. His former sugar- and fat-laden diet—which he described as “fried foods, lots of potatoes, gravy, ice cream, just about anything, especially snack foods and chips”—has been replaced by one emphasizing fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and nuts. He strictly avoids refined sugar, trans fats, and highly processed foods. He also supplements with a daily multi-vitamin, folic acid, and garlic tablets.

Once the “poster child” for everything that is wrong with America’s state of health, today Gov. Huckabee is the picture of health. He long ago discontinued taking medication for his diabetes, which has been completely eliminated. When asked by Life Extension about the status of health markers such as blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol, the governor replied, “I have the body chemistry of a teenager—all are in the exceptional range.”

Gov. Huckabee’s personal odyssey has not only informed his views about the sorry state of health and health care in his native Arkansas and in America generally, but has also emboldened him to take a leadership role in changing a culture focused on treating disease to one focused on creating health and wellness. As he notes in his book, “I have embarked on a mission to challenge the faulty thinking of our current system that could result in a complete change in the paradigm of health care in America.”