After Tony Barnhill bought his wife a Withings scale as a gift, he stepped on it and soon found himself on the path to an amazing health transformation. Find out how he lost 87 pounds, nearly halved his resting heart rate, and went from no exercise — to completing a marathon.
Until three years ago, Tony Barnhill, pictured, didn’t know what healthy felt like. Barnhill grew up in Huntington, West Virginia, a city with one of the highest obesity rates in the United States, and he was overweight and sedentary like most of his family, friends and neighbors. The situation was so dire in the Appalachian town that Jamie Oliver worked with residents to try and improve their dietary choices on his television show Food Revolution.
Barnhill was raised eating and enjoying the “country cooking” his family served up, consisting mostly of carbs, fatty meats, and canned vegetables. He also had constant, free-flowing access to the soda machine in the family business adjacent to his childhood home. He knew he was overweight, but didn’t give it much thought when he was young. “Looking around, I looked like everyone else,” Barnhill said. “We all grew up eating our grandmas’ biscuits and gravy, full plates of food that were either brown, orange, or white, without a fresh vegetable in sight.”
In 2003, Barnhill moved to Hawaii, a state with one of the lowest obesity rates and longest life expectancies in the country. He married a woman who was health conscious and who made efforts to eat healthfully and stay active. They had twin boys. Though he was experiencing big, happy, life-changing events during his first decade in Hawaii, Barnhill’s sedentary lifestyle and unhealthy food choices remained the same.
Then, in 2013, his boss recommended a Withings smart scale to him, and Barnhill thought it would make a good gift for his wife. A proud and self-described tech geek, Barnhill liked the product, however, he had no intention of using it himself. But just before his 37th birthday, he stepped on the scale to show a visiting friend how it worked and was shocked by his weight, which had reached a new high. “Between the ridiculously high number and my birthday a week away, I was jolted into making a change.”
Read on to learn how Barnhill, who chronicled his downward weight loss track on his website, made slow and steady changes over time to improve his overall health and eventually win the race. Or, more accurately, finish the Honolulu Marathon in 5 hours and 9 minutes despite spraining a muscle halfway through, which sure seems like winning to us.
“I feel like there is nothing I can’t do.” — Tony Barnhill
Withings: Where do you live?
Tony Barnhill: Honolulu, Hawaii. Perfect weather year-round for running!
What’s your line of work?
I’m an independent Apple Certified Technical Coordinator, primarily working for a property management company in Honolulu as their System Administrator. It’s about as sedentary as it gets, although our entire office now has stand-up desks. My days are filled with configuring access points, answering emails, and fixing computer issues.
You describe yourself as a professional geek, what would you say is the absolute geekiest thing about you?
I’m sort of a MacGyver, Mac-head, technology evangelist. I have the perfect license plate: GEEK. I can almost always find a very geeky solution to any problem.
What were your eating and exercise habits before you decided to lose weight?
I’ve been overweight my entire life, so it’s been a life-long dream to be in shape but I never knew where to start. And before moving away from West Virginia, I didn’t necessarily see the issues with my weight, or understand what I should be eating or not eating. Every morning started with three or four cups of coffee with way too much of that hydrogenated soybean oil-based coffee creamer. To say I liked coffee with my cream, would be very accurate.
And as far as exercise, my wife dragged me kicking-and-screaming to go running with her a few dozen times over the years. I never went more than once per week, sometimes not for months at a time. And I never really ran, it was more like a jog for 500 feet, walk for 2000 feet, repeat. My obese body wouldn’t let me do more than that.
What was your approach to losing the weight?
I had to take a look at the main causes of my weight gain. Too many foods I was consuming were made with oils or syrups. I stopped using creamer made with artificial sweeteners and hydrogenated soybean oil and switched to creamer made with real cream and real sugar. I should stop using creamer altogether, but I needed to make changes that I could live with and not ones I just suffered through for the moment. I also stopped drinking soda made with corn syrup or any other artificial sweetener.
So, with my Withings scale and my no-artificial-sweetener diet, I started and lost 19 pounds with just the change to my diet and no exercise. By using the scale and the Health Mate app I could see small, incremental changes in my weight on a nice bar graph and that made all the difference. I’m really into data analytics, so seeing this data really made an impact.
What other changes did you make to your diet?
I slowly put together a list of menu items that I could live with eating regularly. This can be especially hard when you’re trying to make dinner not only for yourself, but also for your family. On my menu were marinated grilled chicken breast, fruit, occasional Coke made with real sugar, grilled salmon, scrambled eggs without butter, mounds of broccoli.
I stopped eating anything made in a factory or that came in a box. In fact, I threw it all away. I didn’t want my family eating that either. Now, I tend to shop around the outside edge of the grocery store. Fresh vegetables, fruits, lean protein, and fat-free milk. I also developed a love for salmon. I eat it for at least five meals per week. Basically, I stopped eating anything that had an ingredient list printed on the side of it. And you know what? It worked. For the first time since high school, my weight started with a 19-. I said goodbye to the 200’s, and never went back.
How did you go from being someone who resisted exercise to an athlete competing in long-distance races?
My grandmother passed away after I lost the initial weight. The grandma that had taken care of me, fed me, and loved me. Being at her funeral, carrying her casket, and looking at most of my family at the service, I couldn’t help but think about the role unhealthy cooking had in her death and on everyone else’s health.
At that very moment, I decided to do whatever it took to make sure that food would not play a role in my death. I didn’t want to die early. I wanted to live as long as I could for my wife and kids. As soon as I got back to Hawaii, I started running three to four times per week. At first it was very difficult, even with the weight I had lost.
The app Runtastic Pro has a great feature of challenging any previous run, which was an incredible motivator for me. I just kept running until I increased my daily goal to 3.1 miles and then, for the first time in my life I signed up for a 5K race. My only goal was to finish the race in 30 minutes. I finished in 29:52 and literally threw up as I crossed the finish line. But I’d reached my goal. At that moment, I became addicted to that feeling of crossing the finish line.
In January 2015, I set a goal to run 1,000 miles in the calendar year and I signed up for almost every race I could find. Altogether I did 15 races including the Honolulu Marathon. My wife and 9-year-old twins even joined me for a 5k in London and all of us finished under 30 minutes. The marathon put me at exactly 1,100 miles. I had reached my goal, and blown right past it.
Has running helped you experience things about your home you hadn’t noticed before?
It’s opened me up to an entire community of like-minded individuals who have discovered the benefits and transformative powers of running. I see the same individuals at many of the races. It’s not just the physical activity side of it, either. It has the ability to clear your head, deliver fresh air to your body, and notice the things around you that you wouldn’t otherwise notice by driving a car. It’s like free therapy. Running along the beach in the morning as the sun comes up is magical. Seriously, there’s nothing that can compare.
How are you feeling now?
I have lost 87 pounds altogether. My shirt size has gone from an extra large to a small. I’ve had to buy new clothes four times in the last year which is not a bad problem to have.
And now I feel like there is nothing I can’t do. I’m never tired anymore and I’m able to keep up with activities that I never could have before. We’ve been kayaking and biking recently and there is no way the “old” me could have done those without hating life. My average resting heart rate went from 80 to 43 BPM. What a difference!
What is your method of maintaining your healthful weight?
My method is very easy – create goals you can live with for the rest of your life and stick with them. I know it’s easier said than done, but if you find ways to feel satisfied with what you’re eating, then you don’t feel like you’re missing out on anything. I always hear about people doing shakes or eating salad for every meal. But who wants to drink a shake for every meal for the rest of their life? That’s simply not sustainable long-term.
I think that each person has to find what’s right for them, but here are the rules that work for me: no artificial sweeteners, no alcohol, no red meat or pork, nothing made with oil of any kind, no bread or pasta, only natural carbs like steamed rice, and no desserts, ever. Seriously, you don’t need them. No dessert will ever be as sweet as the feeling of seeing a lower number on the scales.
I love that you lost weight with McDonald’s as part of your diet. Do you still visit the golden arches for your greens?
At least five times a week, I have the Southwest Salad with Grilled Chicken from McDonalds. I’ve never been a salad guy, but this one is great. The dressing is a little spicy with a hint of lime. I know a lot of people are anti-McDonalds, but I say, the best healthy meal is the one you have access to. I don’t have time to grill chicken and make a salad all of the time.
What’s the best part of having lost the weight and how you feel today?
Not being embarrassed about how I look. Avoiding the pool because I didn’t want to take my shirt off is a thing of the past. But beyond that, I feel like a different person. I feel like I can accomplish anything with enough hard work and dedication. I hope I can inspire my kids to feel the same way.
How has the Withings scale been helpful on your journey?
I couldn’t have done it without the Withings scale. It enabled me to see all of the small, incremental changes on a very nice graph. And, as time went on, the line kept going lower and lower. Until it reached my goal weight of 165. The app draws a line where you have set your goal weight, so you can see that you’re getting closer and closer. And also, the body fat measurement has really helped me understand just how fat I used to be.
Has your success inspired friends, family and co-workers?
I’ve inspired my nine-year-old twins for sure. They ran a 5K with me and, in February, they’re running the Great Aloha Run with me, which is 8.6 miles. They see me running and now they want to do it too, which is so cool.
I’ve been told by a couple dozen people that my story has inspired them. That’s hard for me to believe, because after being obese most of my life, I never thought I would be the one inspiring others. I know at least a few people who have also purchased Withings scales based on my recommendation. One of my co-workers even ran the Honolulu Marathon, too. I’m very proud of him for finishing.
What are your favorite foods and drinks on your healthful eating plan?
Salmon, for sure. I’m like a salmon-aholic. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it. I bake it in the oven for about 15 minutes at 425 with nothing on it whatsoever. I’ll have that along with steamed broccoli and a very small portion of brown rice at least five times a week. No sauces or anything else, only natural flavors. I also drink plenty of coconut water these days as well to keep me hydrated on my runs and help with recovery.
What advice do you give to others who want to get healthy but don’t know where to start?
My advice is to look for one thing you can do without. For me that first thing was corn syrup. It’s hard to start a diet where you try to change everything at once. But if you just find one thing that you’d be better off without, you’ll see progress. I think it just comes down to breaking old, bad habits and creating new, healthy ones.
What are your current short and long-term health goals?
My goals are to maintain my current weight, which is currently very easy for me. I haven’t felt like I’m on a “diet” for, well, ever. I never felt like I was suffering through eating something I didn’t really want. All of those carbs, sweets, and syrups are habit-forming. You just need to break the habit. And now that I have, I’ll never go back. There are far sweeter things in this life than those that can be eaten.
I want to live for as long as I can. I want to see my kids grow up and be there for them. I want to hold my grandkids and great grandkids on my lap. My great, great grandparents were still alive when I was in high school. They lived over 100 years. Five generations of us were alive at once. If they can do it, I can do it. And if I can do it, you can do it.
Thanks so much to Tony for sharing his success story!