Airman’s fitness struggle involved overcoming pain

  • Published
  • By John Parker

The pain in Staff Sgt. Nicholas Liberty’s lower abdomen struck him out of nowhere four years ago. It didn’t happen during exercise or from a physical injury, so its origin was a mystery.

But what started as a nuisance pain that he pushed through during exercise grew to disabling proportions over the next months – so big that the excruciating pain was threatening to end his Air Force career over his inability to meet PT test standards.

“It got to be where I was the fattest I’d been in my entire life and just in dire pain that I didn’t even feel like getting up out of a chair,” he said.
Liberty, who was homeless before he joined the Air Force, was angry and frustrated at his situation, and on the verge of depression, but he was determined to stay in the military he loves. Today, Liberty has shed more than 30 pounds and his abdominal pain only resurfaces if he pushes himself to exercise extremes.

“Last year, I started cycling at Lake Hefner doing one lap,” he said. “Now I do up to four laps at Hefner twice every weekend for the most part. I did my first-ever 10 mile run back in July.”

His long recovery hit all the checkpoints for an Airman struggling to stay fit.

The noncommissioned officer in charge of mission analysis, 552nd Air Control Networks Squadron, started with a doctor checkup. The diagnosis, which couldn’t be confirmed by tests or imaging, was a pulled abdominal muscle that rest should cure. He was put on a profile that exempted him from fitness testing, going on and off profile roughly every two months at first.

He saw a physical therapist who also recommended rest. He was on a yearlong profile at one point. But inactivity and the fact that abdominal muscles are used constantly in normal movement set him back further.

“Over the course of a year and a half, I’d gained a considerable amount of weight,” Liberty said. “The cycle just kept on where I kept getting fatter and any muscle I gained from lifting would eventually go away anyway.”

About two years ago, he took advantage of the Health and Wellness Center’s services on Tinker Air Force Base. In particular, he sought expert advice from exercise physiologist Traci Fuhrman and registered dietitian Wendi Knowles.

He voluntarily enrolled in one of Fuhrman’s Performance Intervention Classes, which are separate eight-week programs that focus on FIT Basic Fitness Improvement Training, Health & Human Performance, a Performance Run Class, Better Body/Better Life, and Strength Training. FIT Basic is designed for military members on a profile or recovering from an injury.

Liberty added to his own in-depth knowledge of healthy eating habits with Knowles’ advice, such as eating 1,800 calories a day because any less for a man has been shown to lower metabolism that helps to shed weight. Knowles said Liberty, a lifter, had been following a “bulking and cutting” regime – bulking up with calories and protein to gain muscle and weight, followed by a steep drop in calories and cardio exercises to get lean.

“I tried to help him see a little bit different approach to the weight loss – not the extremes,” Knowles said. “And doing it the right way so it stays off as well, so that it will be a permanent weight loss.”

Fuhrman said Liberty pushed himself hard. “I have to say, I told him that if he was hurting he needed to stop,” she said. “But he’s the type of person who pushes himself and doesn’t stop.”

In addition to the abdominal pain over the years, Liberty also had to recover from a car accident in which he was T-boned on his driver’s side, leaving him with memory loss and headaches for months. He was also rushed to the emergency room in February after he collapsed from appendicitis.
Liberty said he was determined not to lose his career.

“I refused to accept this,” he said. “I fought so hard to get in, and keep this job. That’s why I’m pushing it. I said to people, unironically, that I’m either going to get in shape or die trying because I did not want to lose it.”

Liberty’s gradual recovery included Fuhrman’s workout regimen and a goal of “traveling” 2 miles on a regular basis. He also took Fuhrman’s advice not to try to push through the pain.

“I wanted to travel 2 miles,” he said. “I would jog, it would start hurting, and then I’d walk … jog and walk. It was many months before I could do a 2-mile jog without stopping, without pain. I was like, ‘Oh my god, I don’t hurt. This is amazing!’”

Liberty’s current exercise includes going to the gym five times a week, running 4 to 6 miles three times a week and cycling on the weekend. The 6-foot-1-inch Airman is around 10 pounds away from reaching his 200-pound weight goal.

He hit another milestone this month: He completed his PT test Oct. 3 with a score above 90 out of 100.