Britt Kennerly: Walk of life sets inspirational pace

When Vickie Mathis realized her weight was damaging her health and life, she took steps to change her path to the future.

Britt Kennerly, FLORIDA TODAY;
6:15 a.m. EDT March 29, 2014

The neighborhood my husband and I moved to recently teems with walkers — thankfully, not the zombie kind you see on AMC’s “The Walking Dead.”

I’m already in love with the sight of people walking their dogs. Strolling or power-stepping alongside the Indian River.

The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of physical activity weekly for adults. So when I learned that Wednesday is National Walking Day, I vowed to up my exercise routine to include daily jaunts.

I couldn’t find any better inspiration than 44-year-old Vickie Mathis of Port St. John, whose fight for good health started on walks in the dark.

You might recall Mathis from a 2011 FLORIDA TODAY story. Back in 2010, Mathis, reeling from a divorce and the death of her dad, weighed 400 pounds. Constant headaches sent her to the doctor, who wanted to hospitalize Mathis for blood pressure charting at a dangerous 190/110.

Instead, the single mother begged the doctor to let her pursue better health on her own.

And she did. She gave up sodas, fruit juices “and any other sugar-infested drinks and foods.” Drank water. Got up off the couch and moved her feet. Started watching what she ate, every morsel of it, and lost 100 pounds that first year.

Mathis, a cook at Daddy O’s, continues to eat well and has great BP and blood work, she said. And she serves as a model of hope for others after becoming a certified Zumba instructor two years ago.

The power of her story hit home as I watched Mathis lead Zumba — she teaches six classes a week — at Come On Get Happy in Cocoa Village.

As we talked about health and being a woman in an image-conscious world, I shared with Mathis that I had food issues from my teens into my 30s, and at one time, was an anemic Size 1.

And so, as Mathis told me about walking in the dark because she was ashamed to be seen, I recalled being afraid to eat for fear of gaining weight. Thin or obese, we agreed, we can be unhealthy, and healing starts on a very personal level.

Mathis sees that in her Zumba sessions, where she smiles, almost non-stop, as music blasts and she punches the air, reaches for the ceiling, almost sweeps the polished floor with her hands.

Behind her are different races and faces. People from age 18 to 73, including her daughter, Shanese Mathis, now 23 and a budding teacher about to graduate from UCF.

“Every person here is focusing on their own health,” Mathis said.

Mathis has learned much since she walked that first half a mile (she’s up to four miles daily now).

“Your health depends on three things: what you decide to eat, how much you sleep and how much activity is involved in your life,” Mathis said.

“That’s my experience. You have to balance them … you have to change all three of them, or it won’t work.”

Her head, as much as her body, is in a different place now. Her face melted into an almost-rueful grin as she talked about her before-and-after pictures.

“When I look at those pictures, I see a person who wasn’t aware of what I was eating,” said Mathis.

“Oh, how I wish I would have done it sooner. But I’m glad I started when I did, because it’s very difficult now. I can only imagine if I didn’t start then, how much more difficult it would be.”

I left Mathis’ class overwhelmed with respect for her journey.

I can’t promise I’ll wind up in Zumba class six days a week. But just to keep it interesting, I’ll be walking like zombies are hot on my heels.

That definitely should set the pace.

Contact Kennerly at 321-242-3692 or Follow her on Twitter @bybrittkennerly or at

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