“Running and yoga changed my life” – a conversation with Leah Roberts Willis

Since January, I’ve been participating in the Full ON CVNP challenge, organized by the good folks at Western Reserve Racing. The challenge is to cover all 115 miles of trails in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park (CVNP) by May. It’s a great way to experience the park, get outside, and get or stay fit in these chilly northeast Ohio months! And it turns out an added benefit is that you might meet some inspirational people in the process!

On a couple of mornings, posts by Leah Roberts Willis popped into my Instagram feed, where I follow all things “#CVNP.” After I saw a few more of her posts, I invited her to chat on Zoom about getting or staying active in our 50s and beyond! To my delight, Leah graciously accepted.

In our conversation below, Leah shares her story. Her “come to wellness” moment happened a few years ago at the age of 47, when she found herself overweight, in pain, chronically exhausted, and facing a lifetime of medication to manage her blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol. As she recounts in our conversation, she thought, “If I go on medication for diabetes, cholesterol, I’ll never change because – why? If it gets worse you just take more medicine. …I can’t do that. And so… I decided to lose the weight. …I dropped 87 pounds in 24 weeks. And I haven’t looked back.”

Over the years, Leah’s weight had gone up and down. She lost a significant amount once before, in the early 2000s, when she was enticed to train for a marathon as part of a team-training program organized by the American Stroke Association. She ran several other marathons, but eventually stopped running, and the weight crept back on. She participated in a hospital-sponsored weight loss program, but “it just didn’t sink in:” at the end of the 8-week program, “all my numbers were up” – weight, blood sugar, cholesterol, etc. Her doctor told her they would be discussing medications at her next appointment. “I was only 47, and I thought, ‘I’m way too young to be on three medications for the rest of my life’!”

Leah credits running and yoga with changing her life. A friend encouraged her to join Black Girls Run, “a national organization that encourages all women, but primarily black women to be active and get healthy through running and walking.” At a special yoga event for Black Girls Run, Leah met Dawn M. Rivers, founder and owner of Daybreak Yoga, a yoga studio on the east side of Cleveland, Ohio in Bedford. Today, Leah teaches yoga at the studio and manages it, as well. Both of her knees are shot, so she stopped running, but she has ratcheted up her hiking! Take a look at her Instagram posts and you’ll see that she walks as fast as many people run. At the yoga studio, she has also begun teaching a program she calls “Menostart,” designed to help “women of a certain age” understand and manage menopause symptoms (“It’s not a ‘pause,'” she told me later, “but the start of blossoming in our Second Spring!”). I asked her what she finds most effective for motivating clients to get moving or keep moving. “The best way for me to motivate people is not to tell them but to show them. I just show them a before-and-after picture!” (That before-and-after photo is the featured image on this post.)

Click the YouTube link below to hear more of Leah’s story and wisdom! Note: I don’t know what I did wrong (after 12 solid months of multiple weekly hours of Zooming, how do I still make recording mistakes?!), but my side of the video wasn’t recorded – just my voice.

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