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Natchez man reverses diabetes through diet, exercise

Robert Pernell works out on the elliptical as one of the few people at Natchez Total Fitness early in the morning. Pernell, 65, was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes and at first just took medication, but upon hearing the disease was curable he changed all of his unhealthy habits. He started eating better and exercising regularly. Exercise has since become a part of his daily routine as a way of jump starting his day. Below, in between working out Pernell and Joe Brumfield, 75, laugh while talking about each other’s lives.  Pernell has become a regular at Natchez Total Fitness ever since deciding to change his unhealthy lifestyle. (Sam Gause / The Natchez Democrat)

Robert Pernell works out on the elliptical as one of the few people at Natchez Total Fitness early in the morning. Pernell, 65, was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes and at first just took medication, but upon hearing the disease was curable he changed all of his unhealthy habits. He started eating better and exercising regularly. Exercise has since become a part of his daily routine as a way of jump starting his day. (Sam Gause / The Natchez Democrat)

NATCHEZ — As long as Robert Pernell could simply take some pills, he didn’t worry about his diabetes.

It wasn’t until his daughter, who will complete nursing school in Atlanta in just a few months, started talking to him about his health, that Pernell began to see things differently.

“I used to travel a lot, so I had very bad eating habits,” Pernell said. “I like things like ice cream, potato chips, cookies and soda. So long as I was taking the pills, I thought I was fine eating that way.”

But that wasn’t the case.

“My daughter told me that Type 2 Diabetes is curable and told me what diabetes medications can do to your organs, like your kidneys and liver,” he said. “I want to be around to see my grandkids graduate and grow into productive citizens, so I made some changes.”

The 65-year-old said he also noticed he got tired very quickly.

“For instance, I would run out of energy quickly, even if I had only done something like go up the stairs. I knew something was going on there,” he said.

Those lifestyle changes — which ultimately took him from a size 40 waist pants to a 34 — had other benefits, too.

“I am more active now. I have so much more energy now. I actually sleep better,” he said.

Robert Pernell, 65, does crunches on a crunch machine. Curing himself of Type 2 Diabetes, he has been going to Natchez Total Fitness and taking himself through a grueling workout regiment.  (Sam Gause / The Natchez Democrat)

Robert Pernell, 65, does crunches on a crunch machine. Curing himself of Type 2 Diabetes, he has been going to Natchez Total Fitness and taking himself through a grueling workout regiment. (Sam Gause / The Natchez Democrat)

Changes Pernell has made in his lifestyle, thus significantly improving his health, are what the Clinton Foundation’s Health Matters Initiative and its major sponsor, Humana, will spend the next five years promoting in Natchez and Adams County.

Statistics from the County Health Rankings and Roadmaps program, which is a collaboration between the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, indicate Adams County was targeted for the initiative because studies show the county’s health continues to decline in a state that leads the nation in obesity and overall poor health habits.

In Adams County, almost 40 percent of the population reported being obese. Almost a quarter of the population was found to be smokers. Only a third of the county’s resident say they are physically active.

“We want to make it easy for people to achieve their best health,” said Bruce Broussard, Humana president and CEO. “In Adams County, Humana and the Clinton Foundation are committed to a multi-year partnership to co-create new health solutions with the county’s leaders and citizens. Throughout our partnership, we’ll work together to build innovative solutions that can eventually be applied to communities across the country and around the world. The plan we build together will be a plan that the people of Adams County can get excited about as they work to improve their health.”

Pernell, whose parents and grandparents were from the Church Hill area, came here during the summers as a child. He spent his adult life in Sacramento, Calif., where he was a manager in the construction industry.

“I moved south to New Orleans in 2007 to help with the rebuild after Katrina. I migrated to Natchez and retired about three and a half years ago,” he said.

Pernell built a house in rural Adams County on property he shares with his sister. Though retired, Pernell still does consulting work in the construction industry.

“This is home now. I’m not going anyplace else,”

Home in Natchez means Pernell is surrounded by good cooks and Southern food that isn’t considered healthy. But for Pernell, adopting lifestyle changes that improved his health was simply a matter of determination.

“I would say that it’s up to you to make that decision, but you have to get started. Once you get started and you see the changes in your body and how you feel, that will motivate you to continue to do it. But you have to get started yourself,” he said.

Pernell’s diabetes was discovered when he attended a health fair while living in California.

“After that health fair, I went to see my doctor and he put me on pills. Diabetes wasn’t my focus then, so I just took the pills.”

Pernell was taking 1,600 milligrams of Metformin, a common Type 2 Diabetes medication.

“After my daughter began to ‘educate’ me on diabetes, I started making changes in the way I ate. She told me how rice turns to sugar in your body when you eat it. I didn’t know things like that. What I did immediately was to stop eating ice cream. I had been eating a pint of ice cream a night and I just stopped that. And I stopped drinking soda of any kind, even diet. That stuff is not good for you. And stopped eating potato chips,” he said.

As his A1C — a test that measures your body’s blood sugar level over a three-month time period — began to improve, his physician decreased the dosage on his diabetes medication.

“I went from 1,600 milligrams to 800 milligrams to 400 milligrams and then got off it completely,” Pernell said.

Today, he enjoys a diet of lean meats, chicken with no skin, turkey, fish and lots of vegetables.

While he doesn’t do a lot of cooking, he chooses healthier items when he eats at the homes of family or friends and in restaurants.

“There are certain things I just won’t eat. If it has a high fat content or lots of sugar, I just don’t eat it. When I eat out, I usually order a salad with grilled chicken or shrimp.”

He allows himself an occasional sweet treat, but one with much less sugar than he would eat previously.

“I might eat a piece of pound cake if one is put on my plate,” he said.

However, Pernell’s lifestyle change includes more than changing his diet.

“I exercise on an average of five days a week, mostly in the mornings. I do a lot of cardio on the treadmill and elliptical at the gym. Once you start that, you will want to keep it up,” he said. “In fact, I now feel guilty if I don’t get up and work out.”

Pernell offered advice to those who may be thinking about making lifestyle changes to improve their health.

“You don’t have to measure everything you eat in order to become healthier. For a long time, things like that kept me from getting started. Exercise will compensate for the measuring. Don’t believe everything you read about losing weight. Most people work and don’t have the luxury of eating four or five small meals a day. Don’t complicate what you do. Just eat healthier foods and get moving,” he said.

Pernell hasn’t measured his success in the number of pounds lost — though he’s lost approximately 30 — but in his improved quality of life.

“And it makes my daughter happy,” he said.