Army Wounded Warrior Program Advocate Lee Zimmerman: Achieving optimal health
By Annette P. Gomes, Army Warrior Care and Transition

ARLINGTON, Va. - Army Wounded Warrior Program Advocate Lee Zimmerman is used to helping wounded, ill and injured Soldiers get back on track, but just three years ago Zimmerman found himself facing his own health issues. As we highlight Physical Fitness and Sports Month, Zimmerman recalled his own journey towards optimal health.

After 21 years of military fitness, the former infantryman learned the hard way that retirement could present a new challenge for him physically. Extensive damage to his knees would continue as his weight increased, which also began to cause him severe back pain.

"In 2016, I tore my anterior cruciate ligament, meniscus, and damaged some cartilage. I found myself going in for my fourth knee surgery in about 10 years -- the third surgery on my left knee," Zimmerman said. "I got on the scale before the surgery and I was horrified and humiliated to see how much I weighed. I had previously stopped weighing myself when I had hit 321 lbs. After the surgery, when the doctor came in to talk to me and my wife, he said, 'If you don't lose some weight, all of this will be for nothing."

That comment by his doctor turned out to be the wake-up call he needed. Zimmerman was determined to make a change, lose weight, and improve his overall health and fitness level.

"That really hit me like a slap in the face. The previous surgery on that knee was a transplant of donated cartilage. I realized I was actually wasting the cartilage that someone had donated to me when they died. So, in addition to being humiliated and horrified, I was disappointed and ashamed of myself, and felt selfish for wasting a precious gift," Zimmerman said.

A system Zimmerman found to be key to keeping fit was the military's performance triad which consists of sleep, activity and nutrition. Armed with a Fitbit watch, a sensible diet consisting of fish, chicken, lean pork tenderloin, fruits, vegetables and a sensible exercise plan, Zimmerman lost 150 pounds in roughly two years.

"I cut my calories to an average of about 1,500 a day in the beginning. I also started out hardcore on my fitness program because I knew that I needed to see results fast to get me motivated. The weight started dropping quickly, which motivated me to keep going," Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman found a cardio machine that had minimal impact on his knees. He found it to be a great workout and one that he could do for more than 30 minutes without experiencing pain in his knees. He worked his way up to doing three to three and a half hours of exercise a day.
Zimmerman's fitness and weight loss naturally began to help his other health problems too.

"I was on medication for my back and knees. I was also pre-diabetic and borderline hypertensive, so I was headed for more medication," Zimmerman said. "Now the only thing I have to take is a migraine preventative medication."

In the end, Zimmerman says the best prescription for living healthy was made easier by the support of his family.

"My wife, Kim, wanted me to get into the gym and [lose weight]. She had seen me focus on a fitness goal before when I wanted to get an Army Physical Fitness Test score in the high 290s as I got ready for Army Officer Candidate School. She had faith in me and knew that if I went after it, I could do it," Zimmerman said.

For Zimmerman, it wasn't a temporary goal of losing weight and being healthy, it was an entire lifestyle change. Although it was hard to make the change, he's stuck to it and encourages others who are going through weight struggles to do the same, not just for themselves, but their loved ones too.

"My weight goes up and down. It's something I have to keep working on. People ask me how to do what I did, and I tell them, 'get out and exercise, eat healthy and reward yourself reasonably. Make it a priority and never give up. You know someone who loves you and will be glad to have you around longer."