When Baker Harrell was 11 years old, he had an epiphany that not only inspired him to change his life, but those of countless others. An overweight child, Baker decided one day to take charge of his health – not an easy task in his community, where unhealthy habits and obesity were the norm. But with the help of his family, Baker transformed his health and spurred his family and eventually his neighbors to do the same. And Baker experienced firsthand the profound motivating power of one’s social circle.
Fast-forward a few decades: Baker is the founder of ACTIVE Life, a social change nonprofit organization that seeks to make healthy the new normal. Read more about Baker’s personal story and how empowered communities and individuals can truly create change.
Overcoming an Unhealthy Start
I grew up in small-town Mississippi, a child of the 80’s, when the cable, video game, and processed and fast food industries exploded. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my generation is one of the unhealthiest on record. And I was a victim of it. I was overweight, and I was bullied.
When I was 11 years old, the summer before 6th grade, I was trying on clothes and realized I had to move up to the “husky” size. I looked at myself and decided at that moment that I was going to change my life. There were few resources at that time and in that place to support a major change, but my mother said she’d help.
I started by walking two miles every morning and incorporated jogging, so that by mid-summer, I was jogging the full two miles. I cut out processed snack foods and replaced them with fruits and vegetables. I also eliminated sodas from my diet and substituted them with water. The family cut back on red meat and increased our consumption of lean meats, especially poultry and fish. I lost 30 pounds over that summer.
I was so fortunate to have the family support I did. They supported and encouraged me. Not only that, they changed with me. My entire family, including my father and younger sister, joined my mother and me in this transformation. We all changed our diets, became much more active and lost weight. We did it together, and most importantly, we have all maintained our healthy lifestyles since then.
Our neighbors started to notice and asked what we were doing, and my mom shared her tips and recipes with them. She largely created the recipes on her own, using trial and error. She took a lot of the traditional meals that we ate and figured out how to prepare them using healthier ingredients, like substituting yogurt for sour cream or ground turkey in place of beef. She was an absolute hero through this transformation, and without her strong support and leadership on the diet front, I would not have been nearly as successful.
After that summer, I grew in understanding as to what I could do. It set me on a different path. I went from dreading school (because I was often picked on) to being one of the top students in my class. I understood then that it wasn’t about how much weight I was going to lose, but that I was giving myself a better life and access to a bigger world. I learned to take the long view — to view healthy living as a journey — and that helped me get past any setbacks.
The Power of Social Change
As I was changing my own life, I started to wonder why my family and our community hadn’t valued health and how I could help change that. Living in Mississippi, there are daily reminders of the Civil Rights Movement’s legacy. Cultural change doesn’t always happen quickly, but the Civil Rights Movement changed things so dramatically – and in relatively little time. I became fascinated by the mechanics of social movements and thought they might be key to changing the societal crisis of Americans’ declining health.
So, I set out to understand how social movements work. I got my bachelors in Comparative Religious Studies (religions are the earliest documented forms of social movement) and a Master’s in Health Education with a concentration in childhood obesity. Health education is central to the solution, but the training is mostly about preventing and mitigating disease and does not prepare one, broadly speaking, to be engaged in the work of wide-scale social change. I’m currently working toward an interdisciplinary PhD, blending social movement studies with new media and health marketing. My goal is to combine all my learning and experience and help affect change through ACTIVE Life.
It’s All About Love
I truly believe that to make successful change, you have to love yourself. Because that’s what being healthy is about. It’s about being respectful of your body and honoring those you love and who love you. Sometimes in our culture, fitness is so often connected to a person’s image and, in my opinion, unhealthy ideals. I believe it’s more than that. An overly regimented lifestyle might be needed to live up to some of these body ideals, and, for most people, that’s just not sustainable or attainable.
I became addicted to fatty, sweet and salty foods at a very young age. They became my emotional crutch, and that will always be a part of me. When I fall back into those old patterns, I have to remember that those behaviors and that mindset are not loving and honoring myself and all the people who have supported me in my health journey. When I have a setback, I remind myself that I am the driver of my health decisions. I remember the long view — that I want to live a life of purpose and meaning — and that helps me weather the ups and downs.
So many people struggle with this, in all walks of life. But it can be done. I’m living proof. The trick is to find people to walk your health journey with you and to hold you accountable in a loving way. That’s what my family, friends and all the great people I work with and serve through ACTIVE Life do for me.
Do you have a support system that helps you stay motivated to make healthy choices? Tell us about it in the comments below.
Whether you’re just getting started or are well on your way, Whole Foods Market’s got great resources for your journey to health.
Disclaimer: This information is for reference purposes and is not intended to substitute for medical advice. You should not use this information as self-diagnosis or for treating a health problem or disease. Consult a health care professional for further information about food allergies or sensitivities and other health topics.