Ep 93: How Dave Cooley pushed past his comfort zone to find fitness again

This week, I welcome Dave Cooley to the Fit Dad Fitness Podcast. Dave is a father of two who came to his fitness journey like so many of us — it took a few tries.

After Dave reached out to me to share with me his fitness testimonial (see below), Dave actually was reluctant to join me on the show. He had never really been so publicly overt with the story of his fitness journey.

However, like he had done so many times in discovering and re-discovering his health and fitness, Dave stepped out of his comfort zone … and crushed the interview/conversation we had.

Dave’s motivation first and foremost stems from losing his grandfather and mother when they were both in their 40s, and once Dave reached that milestone as well, he had a newfound purpose in making sure he did not keep the trend going.

We get into all that and much more in this episode. Props to Dave for being so willing to share his story. Enjoy!

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Dave’s fitness journey, in his own words

R-E-S-P-E-C-T (that’s what fitness means to me)

Cheesy, I know. But, also more than a bit insightful. Just like a really good dad joke.

My maternal grandfather was my age (41) when he died of a massive heart attack in his bed. He was a mail carrier, walked a lot, but also smoked and did nothing to control his diet or stress levels. To be fair, men weren’t really encouraged to manage their physical and emotional wellbeing in the 1950s. They were expected to be workhorses and keep their feelings buried until they imploded. For my grandfather, it was a literal physical collapse.

When I see pictures of him, I see myself. I look more like my maternal grandfather than I do anyone else in my family.

My mom looked up to her dad, and his early death was something from which she never really recovered. Unfortunately, my mom didn’t take such great care of her health either. Like her father, she internalized stress and didn’t pay particularly close attention to what she ate. My mom was a hard worker, trained as a teacher but able to parlay her skills into a variety of jobs including developing training for Boston police officers and working at a nonprofit for the visually impaired.

One of my favorite memories of my mom is from some summer in the early 1980s when she took me to the community pool. My mom was an excellent swimmer. I remember watching her swim laps with pride. It was something she truly enjoyed and about the only time I recall seeing her doing something physically active.

My mom passed from breast cancer when she was 46. She was first diagnosed when I was in second grade, and was given chemotherapy. Although she went into a brief remission, the cancer returned more aggressively when I was in junior high school. She died in 1992 after a prolonged hospital stay. I was 14. I know that some kind of fitness routine may not have helped her much, but it certainly couldn’t have made her chances for survival any worse.

So, dad fitness. What does this have to do with my dad fitness lifestyle? By now you can probably see where I am going with this.

To backtrack a bit, I was a low-energy, lethargic teen. Between depression brought on by the trauma of my mother’s early death and my perceived lack of natural athletic ability, I felt like I had a lot of reasons not to do anything physical. Ever. My main after-school activity was snacking on junk food. I was thrilled when I was no longer required to take P.E. class after my sophomore year of high school. Running the mile was a great source of dread for me because I was one of the slowest, arriving at the finish line exhausted and nauseous. My focus was on academics, health be damned. I got through the SATs and college application process by stress-eating. This pattern remained through most of my college years as well.

I’m not sure exactly what it was that spurred me to change everything in 1998. I recall that I started going to the counseling center around that time, seeking help for how I was feeling for the first time in my life. My counselor recommended exercise as part of a holistic approach to feeling better about myself. But it still took a bit for me to cross the threshold and take action. I was scared to visit the gym or try to run. I felt like I didn’t belong with the fitness people. Like I didn’t even have the baseline level of knowhow and ability to start. Still, during the summer of 1998 I drove to a Big 5 Sporting Goods and purchased my first-ever pair of running shoes. They were white and blue ASICS. At first I started taking walks in them after work or studying. Then one day I began to start running. One day, a bunch of teen boys yelled at me from their car as I ran by.

“Ha!! Look at how white his legs look in those shorts! Run Forest run!”

I recall that a homophobic slur was also shouted. I almost gave up that day. The running shoes went back in the closet for a few more months.

During my break from running, I moved up to Berkeley for graduate school. I was happy to be moving to a new city and resolved to make some big and permanent lifestyle changes as well. One of them was to attempt fitness again.

I was fortunate to live right near the campus gym, and I decided I would start by using a cardio machine one or two times a week. This was an easy, manageable start. Pretty soon, I became friends with some other students who were very fitness-minded. They welcomed me into their group and started taking me along on their gym sessions. Despite a tentative and doubt-filled start, I learned how to lift weights properly. After a few months, I began to see gains. We would go running as a group, too, and my friends would encourage me to keep on training even though I was not at their level yet. Pretty soon, I had an actual fitness routine. I was as proud of this as I was of any of my academic accomplishments.

So, fitness became a way of life and a source of emotional strength which kept me going through my rocky 20s. I had something that was my own, something that I had created for myself. Something that was entirely new, and that nobody in my family had explored before. Most of all, I had self-respect.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Fast forward twenty years. I’m now in my early 40s, a father of two wonderful young children. I have a career, so does my wife. I feel like I am always short on time. Although fitness culture is a part of California living for many, I see some of the other dads around me struggling with both their physical and emotional health. This is the time of life when so many become overwhelmed with life’s responsibilities that they simply stop taking care of themselves.

For me, this is not an option. I don’t want to die in my 40s.

Nor do I want to lose my self-respect. So, I make the time. I go to the gym at lunchtime as many days as I can even though there are meetings and deadlines. I do push-ups or planks in the living room while the kids play, and I stretch at night after they are in bed. I do pull-ups on the monkey bars while my kids play at the park. I go for a 5K run or a yoga session a few times a weekend even though there are birthday parties or other activities and I need to make sure my entrepreneurial wife has enough time to devote to her burgeoning business. In the Spring and Fall I hit the trails, showing my inquisitive children the beauty of nature. Most of all, I still make time to go see a therapist at least once a month to talk out how I am feeling. To me, all of this is an essential part of self-respect, self-love and self-care.

I want my children to watch and perhaps take away a thing or two from my experience. Of course, they don’t have to do it like I did. They will find their own passions, the things that they choose for themselves that will end up defining them. Hopefully these will be healthy things that help them overcome barriers, perceived or real, in their lives. I think that the key is that they learn to develop themselves, to push and challenge themselves to see what the world looks like outside their comfort zones.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T. I got there. I plan to stay there, however challenging this may be.

— Dave Cooley