By Beth Carter
They say marriage is hard work, and Julia and Eugene Smookler will celebrate their fifth anniversary this year by working up a sweat – literally. They were the first couple to be chosen for CNN's "Fit Nation," a program that proves even regular, busy adults can reach their health and fitness goals with determination and hard work. In this case, the fitness goal is to complete the Nautica Malibu Triathlon next month. Julia and Eugene were hand-selected by host Dr. Sanjay Gupta and CNN producers and have spent the entire year training. We caught up with them to hear about their progress and what it means for their whole family's health.
What motivated you to sign up for the "Fit Nation" challenge?
Julia: A few years ago, I was a new midwife, pregnant, and my dad was dying of cancer, so I started emotional eating. After my daughter was born I had back surgery and couldn't work out, so I put on more weight. One of my patients told me about "Fit Nation," so I decided to apply for the show for the motivation and challenge.
Eugene: We've both gained weight since our daughter was born. Obesity runs in our family, so we wanted to make a conscious effort to show our daughter a healthier lifestyle.
Have you done a triathlon before?
Julia: No, and I didn't really know how involved it would be. I love recreational bike riding
but didn't know about competitive biking.
Eugene: I've played sports my entire life but have never done a triathlon. This is something out of my comfort zone. I'm a natural swimmer and biker, but the running has been a challenge. My legs are like jelly after swimming, biking and then running. We did a mock triathlon in May with the four other "Fit Nation" participants, and I finished first and Julia came in second place. I was so proud of her!
What is your average workout schedule?
Eugene: We both work out six days a week. In the beginning, it was really hard to figure out a schedule that worked for both of us.
Julia: I was doing two-hour sessions initially, but it was a bit much, so now my max is an hour or hour and a half. I'm always trying to find a balance between training and my everyday life. Eugene and I have the challenge of who's working out when because someone has to watch our daughter. We're getting into a better balance with that.
What support has CNN given you for the triathlon?
Julia: During the January kick-off weekend they gave us our gear: bike, shoes, helmets, a Garmin watch, wetsuits and Oakley sunglasses. They brought in nutrition experts, checked our body mass index (BMI), heart rate zones and evaluated our health. We also have check-in calls every two weeks with our CNN producer, trainer and other participants. I wouldn't have been as successful, motivated and happy if I didn't have their support.
Eugene: It's like a family and the "Fit Nation" alumni have been so supportive. Jeff Dauler from "The Bert Show" was a participant before and gave us bracelets that said "Keep Moving Forward."
What have you learned about yourself while preparing for the triathlon?
Eugene: The hardest part of my training is the eating. I'm doing the workouts, but I like cheeseburgers and pizza! I haven't lost weight, but I've put on muscle and my heart rate has gotten much stronger from when I started.
Julia: I've learned that I can do anything I put my mind to. I've always wanted a quick fix for my weight, but now I have more patience – this is my lifestyle. I'm going to stay active and be healthy. I'm eating smaller portion sizes, healthier carbs and teaching my daughter that this is a normal way to live.
Have you found a new favorite meal since beginning the Challenge?
Eugene: I'm eating a lot more fish tacos. I make them at home, and they're healthier. It's fish, avocado, salsa and a little cheese.
Julia: I love Whole Foods' power kale salad. I was not an egg person before, but now I love hard-boiled eggs; it's good protein.
How do you relax when you're not training?
Julia: There's not a lot of down time, but I love to spend time with family. I take our daughter to the pool and have quiet time for myself. I want to get back into yoga, which I loved doing in college.
Eugene: When I'm not training, I like to listen to music and take long walks in the parks.
Has training together strengthened your relationship?
Eugene: Yes, it's the best thing we could ever do together. It takes dedication, communication and sacrifice so the other person can work out. It's strengthened our marriage because we both have more energy and a healthier lifestyle. Couples who work out together stay together.
Julia: It has brought us closer together because we both have the same goal. We're on the same page with getting healthy and not bringing bad food in the house. The competition has been healthy for us, and he's inspired me to do better. It's more fun together.
Has the Fit Nation challenge helped you to become your best self?
Julia: 150 percent, yes! It was exactly what I needed to get the ball rolling. I've lost 25 pounds, and my heart rate has improved drastically. I had the realization before I started that 'I'm a midwife, I'm overweight and I'm teaching about diet and exercise to my pregnant moms.' It was important for me to get fit and be a good role model for my patients and my daughter.
Eugene: This has been a life changer, and I feel so lucky to have the opportunity. I've changed my whole lifestyle by making better food choices and working out. It's baby steps and celebrating small accomplishments. Instead of just "talking the talk," we're living it.