School Committee member Paula McFarland is used to giving of herself to the community, having served on the Cranston City Council from 1999-2008 and on a wide variety of other boards and committees.
Not having “me” time because of those commitments, McFarland was not happy with the weight she had gained after she took political office. Now, as the executive director of the RI Community Action Association RI since 2007, McFarland is not only giving herself that time but also has lost 4.2 percent body fat and 11 inches overall. And she is not done.
“Closing in on my 50th birthday within less than two years and the loss of my mom at such an early age of 67, I began to think about my own health,” said McFarland. “While most stories began with, ‘I have always had a weight issue,’ not mine, as I had always been thin. Never had to worry about my eating, which was not healthy, but I could eat anything and not have to worry about the extra pounds.”
Then she reached her 30s and 40s and was recovering from lower back surgery at the age of 30. She decided to run for political office at 32.
“I gave up most of my active lifestyle after being elected to the City Council, the active lifestyle that I had grown up on and had spent doing for most of my 20s,” she said. “So for the last 16 years, it has been a gradual increase and creeping of weight to the point of ignoring it, so it would just go away or disappear with some level of magic.”
While still attempting an active lifestyle, McFarland never seemed able to make the time, or would feel comfortable in the big gym atmosphere. She tried everything, from the magic potions and diets to weight loss products and portion control. None ever worked, or not for very long.
Like some women, McFarland just left it all in the back of her mind and continued with her high-stress lifestyle that included working full time, raising a child, community commitments, family commitments and returning to college in 2010.
“So I put on about 75 pounds in total from the moment I began to see it creep on and entered in at my heaviest weight in September 2012. I saw this golfing league picture with me in it and it was, ‘Wow, Paula what happened to you? When did you forget about you?’” she recalled.
Feeling down about her weight and lifestyle, McFarland found other women in her situation at Body Complete Fitness, located at 1375 Park Ave.
“We encourage each other, even when things are tough internally and externally for us as women. We come from all walks of life, and with so many stories of our own journeys and struggles with weight and loss of it,” she said.
While she wanted to be fit, her fitness routine was an on and off, including walking on the treadmill. Election years would help take some of the weight off or a few workouts with a trainer or two, but it never continued to the point where she would keep going or experience results.
“Then there was my eating and the unhealthy choices I was making,” said McFarland. “So I starting reading everything I could about healthy eating, and while I had been diagnosed with gluten intolerance, it was so much more than just a wheat allergy that I needed to control. I needed to think about how to get fit, to be happier with a healthy lifestyle that was personal, positive and powerful. I read those three Ps in an article, and it clicked. It had to be a journey that was personalized to me. So I started talking with friends, and one directed me towards a women-only gym. But not just the women-only [aspect] sold me – it was the size of the gym, the location and of course people [who] helped me to discover my passion for change and create a new Paula McFarland.”
She began slowly, as she checked out the gym in July 2012 and took a couple of classes over the next couple of months. But as she continued her research, talking to friends and doctors, it became clear that she had to commit to this journey. On Sept. 8, 2012, she made that decision and has not looked back.
“Has it been easy? I would be lying if I said yes,” said McFarland. “Instead, it has been conquering my fears, but it has been with women who have given so much of themselves to me with their friendship, as gym buddies and participating together as a team in BoldrDash [a 5K military-style obstacle course].”
“For me this September, one year later after joining the gym and a loss of about 30 pounds and who knows how many inches and fat percentage was gone by then…To tell you how it felt to accomplish a 5K with mud and obstacles as a 48-year-old woman, it was full of so many feelings. And while I didn’t do all the obstacles and it took me 2:16:02 to accomplish the race, I still have the text receiving my race time, and my daughter, Katie, and husband, Brian, were there along with all the ladies from my team waiting for me to arrive at the finish line. I cried when my friend Sally put my medal on me.”
Last August, McFarland began making new goals and changes to her journey toward a healthy lifestyle, and she has set new goals for this year. This includes continuing her journal on the fitness journey and developing a life workout plan. This year, she will be doing three military-style 5Ks and many runs.
“I’m going to get ready for many more compliments in 2014, now that I’m fitter, happier and healthier. My learning is not over, and I’m thankful to the many women who support me,” she said.
Compared to a year ago, McFarland said she feels much stronger.
“The mental part is the feeling I get from working out. The fact I can work and build myself from level to level is not all easy, but you work your mind and your body at the same time. I can do so many things that I thought I would never do,” she said. “Take the BoldrDash. I would have described the experience as building blocks. Training, team building and accomplishment at all levels is what I endured with my BCF [Body Complete Fitness] ladies. Or the fun of the Color Run this year and the Park View Veterans Day Run. I’m going back to things that gave me meaning, being part of the community as a participant instead of a bystander. I love that I get to integrate myself as part of the community, and all the recreational opportunities that are offered throughout Rhode Island.”
McFarland had belonged to a couple of gyms over a period of time, but it was a smaller women-only gym that gave her a place to believe in herself and a feeling that she belonged.
“Other gyms will give you the big items that people often think they are looking for such as pools, spas, etc.,” she said. “I needed other women who were going through the same things I was experiencing. I enjoy walking into my gym and seeing women that I can share with, as several of us have close relationships outside of the gym, often sharing dinners, coffee and parties. They all share the struggles with weight loss, being overweight or being unhealthy, and the ones that have accomplished their goals and believe it can be done.”
The owner of Body Complete Fitness, Donna Spinelli, has not only been McFarland’s personal trainer, but she is also there every day as a secret weapon given her more than 25 years in the industry.
“Some of the gyms have new trainers, youth and lack experience,” said McFarland. “I wanted to improve my health. As I said before, that was about changing my lifestyle and becoming healthy, not being youthful and thin again.”
Still in line with her goals this year, McFarland wants to achieve another 25 to 30 pounds of weight loss. As much as that, though, she said her focus is on healthy eating, new opportunities and, of course, all the great friendships
“I have become fit with similar-minded people,” said McFarland, “and that makes it all fun and rewarding at the same time.”