Welcome to our “Moments of Will” series, where we’ll feature community members who have faced adversity on their health and fitness journeys, only to come back stronger and better than ever. While they could have let their challenges keep them from their goals, each of them found the will to fight for their physical, emotional and mental health.
The Army’s Basic Training Physical Fitness Test is notorious for testing the limits of the human body. But for George Cassels, a 46-year-old former Army warrant officer from Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina, being in shape wasn’t exactly synonymous with having a healthy attitude toward fitness. “It may seem funny, but when you are in the military, you work out because you have to be ready,” he says. “I never worked out for me — I worked out because that is what the Army required.”
Cassels says this hard way of living and working out took its toll on him but he continued to push his body to the limit with HIIT workouts to stay in shape, even after leaving the Army. The lifestyle was ingrained in him. Finally, the abuse on his body caught up to him — he sustained injury after injury. “It all started about two years ago when I popped something in my foot. After that, I pulled my hamstring which put me out for six weeks,” he says. “I came back and popped it again within two weeks, which put me out for another few months. After that, I started having a knee issue and shoulder pain.”
Sidelined for the first time in his life, Cassels’ relationship with his body suddenly couldn’t be ignored. “The main thing I remember is not feeling good about myself,” he says. “I was always trying to suck in my gut in pictures.” His changing physical state started to seep into other areas of his life, sapping his energy and motivation.
“We all know we are gaining weight, but the great thing about the human mind is you can deny it,” he laughs. “I knew my pants were tight, so I stayed away from the scale.” Then in 2017, about a year into a streak of injuries that left him on the bench, he and his family took a cruise. “I remember looking at photos and thinking, ‘Oh my God, I have a dad bod.’ After seeing that picture, the proof was right in front of me,” Cassels says.
Being confronted with the reality of his changing health struck a chord. “I decided that I was not at an age where I did not care how I looked,” he says.
STRENGTH IN SUPPORT
Cassels’ first instinct was a common one: just start slashing calories. But he quickly realized that without a healthy set of goals and support to reach them, he wasn’t going to get anywhere. “I remember one time sneaking cookies and hiding it from my wife. I even tried to hide the wrapper in the garbage,” he says. “I felt so horrible about that afterwards.”
To find the will to keep going, he cautiously turned to social media for encouragement. “There are always some friends that hate on posts where you are trying to do something positive,” he says. So he started a Facebook group where friends who were also trying to get healthier could motivate each other and swap stories of struggles and victories, large and small.
Having a supportive community who understood the struggle made a huge difference, says Cassels. Through the most frustrating parts of the journey — plateaus, lack of motivation, uncertainty about what to do next — the encouragement and feedback from Cassels’ Facebook community “made all the effort worthwhile,” he says.
A NEW KIND OF STRENGTH
Today, Cassels is in even better shape than he was during his Army days. “It is truly amazing how your body reacts when you feed it the right food on top of exercise. It’s not just a change in appearance but energy levels and attitude,” he says.
While his workouts may be less hard-core these days, they’re actually healthier than ever. “Honestly, I think what we’ve ingrained in men as the standard for being in shape is wrong,” he says. “I thought I needed to be big and bulky, lifting weights with a little cardio thrown in, to be ‘in shape’ by guy standards.” In lieu of his old hard-driving HIIT workouts, Cassels is now all about better-for-his-body body weight workouts — squats, lunges, planks, pullups. “I would have referred to this as more of a lady workout at one time in my life,” he says. But now, he says he’s never been in better shape.
Cassels’ goals are simple now: maintain a consistent workout schedule, eat more good foods than bad and always prioritize a healthy balance. “The most important thing I have learned is that working out doesn’t have to be OMG hard,” he says. “What it has to be is consistent.”