Health Heroes: The Power of Diet and Determination

How a mental health professional changed his habits, his stress level—and his life.

Left: Ralph Wittenberg during one of his personal training sessions with Mint Fitness instructor Sean O’Brien. Right: Wittenberg with O’Brien and Mint owner Patrick John. Photographs courtesy of Mint

In 1993, Ralph Wittenberg took a stroll that changed his life.

He was walking his dog up a slight incline when he became short of breath and noticed his pulse acting funny. Wittenberg, then a 59-year-old psychiatrist, went to the nearest Giant to get a blood pressure reading.

“When it said ‘insufficient data,’ I figured I was in big trouble,” he says.

At the time, the 6-foot-tall doctor weighed 260 pounds, didn’t exercise, frequented McDonald’s, and had a stressful home life. Wittenberg got conflicting diagnoses from different physicians, but one thing was certain: His heart was failing. Doctors gave him vague recommendations to cut back on salt and avoid stress—whatever that means.

He wound up having a coronary artery bypass, among other procedures, but that wasn’t enough. He knew he needed an overhaul if he was ever going to enjoy life again. And that’s exactly what he did.

He started with a strict vegan diet: cereal with a banana, raisins, and soymilk for breakfast; a pita with hummus and vegetables for lunch; and maybe vegetarian chili with brown rice for dinner.

On a one-week heart-health retreat, he discovered hatha yoga, which he credits with much of his recovery. Now he incorporates the poses into his personal training sessions at Mint Health Club and the spiritual aspects of yoga into his everyday life.

He also began taking a class at Mint called Joyful Dance. “The whole idea was to learn to dance from the inside out,” he said. “You were told to imagine that you’re made out of water, or that you’re a robot, and you could do whatever you wanted. It was more damn fun than I’ve ever had exercising.”

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He attracted some attention at the gym (his right leg is more than an inch shorter than his left, the result of a botched hip replacement years ago). People at the gym asked if they could watch the old guy dance.

But Wittenberg didn’t mind. He was dancing, meditating, and eating his way to a new life.

Over the years, he has fallen off the wagon a few times. Stress from his divorce sent him right back to the hospital. After another bout of heart failure in March of this year, he was discharged with a walker and an oxygen tank, and was told he would never walk up the stairs in his townhouse again.

“Well, you don’t want to challenge me like that,” Wittenberg says. “I can go up and down the stairs just fine now.”

After returning to his regimen of training three times a week at Mint, Wittenberg has doubled his exercise capacity. He also meditates and sticks to a vegan—but not low-fat—diet. It’s been almost two decades, but now, at 77, he weighs a healthy 180 pounds and says he’s never been happier.

“I would dare anyone to say they have more fun than I do,” he says.

He’s an active member of Occupy DC, and recently marched with the protesters from McPherson Square to the Justice Department and back—a walk he couldn’t have managed a few months ago. He sings folk songs at farmers’ markets and fundraisers. He’s on the board of directors of the Woman’s National Democratic Club.

All this from a man who says he would be dead by now if he hadn’t changed his habits.

“You have to take some action on your [own] behalf,” he says. “Not because you’re dying, but because you’ll feel so much better.”