Finding the Courage to Start

Creating Healthy Habits to Last a Lifetime


Greg Parks lifts weights regularly at the Brainerd Lakes Family YMCA. Parks lost eighty pounds four years ago and has maintained a healthy weight by teaching others how to stay active and healthy. 

LAURA DILLEY HAS ALWAYS SAID SHE’S NOT A MORNING WORKOUT PERSON. But two to three days a week for the past two years, she has become a regular participant in a 5:45 a.m. fitness class at Just for Kix studios in Baxter.

Getting up in the dark to leave the house to exercise sometimes even surprises herself. But Dilley discovered that it’s the best time for her to carve time out of her day for herself. She previously has tried to make exercise part of her daily routine but found it difficult to do with a full-time job as executive director of Carefree Living, a husband and three children.

“As a woman and a mother, you always put yourself at the bottom,” Dilley explains. “I refused to work out in the morning for the longest time. But if I put it off until early afternoon or evening, it wasn’t happening. Now I feel ready for my day. I feel like I have more energy and I’m making better choices all day because I’ve gotten that workout in. I’m taking the stairs and I’m parking farther away in the parking lot and walking.”

Deanna Olson leads a Box HIIT fusion fitness class at Just for Kix studios in Baxter.
Jody Davis (front left), also an instructor, also works out with the class.


What may seem like a small step to some — committing to a workout routine a few days a week — can make a big difference in the long run.

Greg Parks learned to incorporate healthy habits into his life. He’s now helping others learn to take small steps to transform their own lives. Parks lost 80 pounds four years ago. He volunteers as a lifestyle coach for the National Diabetes Prevention Program through Crow Wing Energized. These classes are free and offered at locations throughout Crow Wing County to residents who want to make healthy lifestyle changes.

Parks says he spent 35 years of his life maintaining the status quo until his unhealthy habits caught up with him. He was on blood pressure and insulin resistant medications and knew he needed a change.

“At some point the lightbulb went off for me,” Parks explains. He began tracking his food and working out. After losing some weight, he was able to get off all his medications. There was no turning back.

To stay motivated and active, he started teaching the Crow Wing Energized classes and became a member of the Brainerd Lakes Family YMCA board of directors. He recently became a ACE-certified health coach. This keeps him accountable to himself while also helping others in the process.

“It keeps me on track, and I enjoy seeing people making that lifestyle change and becoming more active,” he says. “I had been overweight for many years and I got to the point where I was sick of taking blood pressure medications and going to the doctor every three to six months for blood draws.”


Sharon Manion works out in a Box HIIT Fusion class at Just for Kix in Baxter. 

Sounds simple enough, right? Consistency, though, is the key. Parks says participants in his Crow Wing Energized class who have been most successful keep track of what they’re eating. The class asks participants to keep a food journal. There are also many free mobile apps out there, like My Fitness Pal and Losing It, that will help you track your food from your phone.

“I find that people don’t realize how many hidden calories are in their food,” Parks says. “When we look at their food journals, we see they are eating more than they think they are.”


Deanna Olson, a personal trainer and wellness coach at Move U Fitness at the Just for Kix studio, also volunteers as a lifestyle coach for Crow Wing Energized. She creates fitness challenges for Just for Kix employees and for people in her Move U Fitness classes to join. It may be a steps challenge where teams have to log in so many steps in 60 days or drink enough water each day. All fitness classes offered at Just for Kix are open to the public. The classes are free to Just for Kix employees as part
of its workplace wellness initiatives.

Olson mixes up the workouts in her adult fitness classes, offering boxing, resistance bands, medicine balls, and dumbbells, to make each class fun and entertaining. Some people may not feel comfortable working out in a group setting — and that’s why Olson wants you to try one of hers.

“I feel like everyone should have a place in physical activity — that’s my biggest purpose,” says Olson. She explains that there’s a misconception that certain fitness classes are for certain bodies and fitness levels. “We really have made it so a 71-year-old can come and work out alongside a 17-year-old. We’re really focusing on that one person, making sure everyone is comfortable with what they’re doing.”

Amy Jackson lost over 40 pounds three years ago while enrolled in Weight Watchers. She also has participated in two Crow Wing Energized lifestyle change classes since then, helping her maintain her weight and motivation.

Jackson says she now works to find balance in her life. If she has a slice of apple pie, then she knows she’ll work out a little harder that day. She takes Group Power classes at the YMCA three days a week and enjoys other classes, like Zumba and aqua aerobics. Her aqua class is more of a social activity, she says. She’s found she enjoys the people so much that she doesn’t ever want to miss it.

To keep herself active and working toward a bigger goal, Jackson decided to train to participate in the MS 150 Bike Ride, a 150-mile, two-day bicycle ride held each summer in various locations, including Minnesota. It’s an annual fundraiser for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. A friend of hers has MS, and she felt this was a great way to lend her support and be active at the same time. She’s now training for her fourth year of the MS 150 next summer. She entered that first bike ride without knowing anyone and rode alone but she soon met a group of riders who have since become good friends. They’ve now ridden multiple bike rides together, sometimes meeting in St. Cloud or the Twin Cities.

“Find something you enjoy and make a goal out of it,” Jackson advises. “This is a lifestyle change and not an easy fix. There are no easy answers. I think a lot of people think they’re going to diet and drop twenty pounds in a month. Maybe you could lose twenty pounds in a month, but it’s not something you’re going to stick with.”


Kimberly Drieling stretches during a fitness class at Just for Kix in Baxter.

Amanda Clough says she was pressured by her coworkers at Just for Kix to take Olson’s fitness classes on her lunch break. Reluctant at first to replace her lunches with a workout, Clough says the classes have become a nice break in her day.

“I hate working out, I never want to do it, but I found myself looking forward to doing it. I was making better food choices and feeling more energetic,” says Clough. When she suffered a knee injury this fall, Olson made fitness modifications for her so she could still work out but while seated in a chair. When Clough feels unmotivated, she’s got coworkers who will force her to join them.

“I truly never thought I’d be the person who would say, ‘Yeah, let’s go,’” Clough says with a laugh.


Parks says participants in his lifestyle change classes who found the most success committed to making long-term changes.

“They really make it a priority,” Parks says. “They say ‘I’m ready to make this change and what are you able to do to help me? I can give them direction, but they have to do the work.”

Sharon Manion retired six years ago as a registered nurse at Essentia Health-St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Brainerd, where she had worked for 36 years. She decided to make her health a priority, and she met Olson when she taught classes at the YMCA. Two years ago, Olson became Manion’s personal trainer, going to her home and working out with her twice a week.

Since she’s retired, Manion has run in several half-marathons. She and her husband Mike are eating healthier, thanks to Olson’s advice. She feels strong and fit.

“People think as you get older you have to sit in a chair and knit, but I have to keep moving and grooving,” Manion says with a laugh. “I’m 72 years old and she’s helped me stay fit. I’ve always exercised and I walked but I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t losing weight. I wasn’t eating right. I thought I was, but I wasn’t. I was eating more carbs than anyone should need.”

Manion says she and her husband utilize the local farmers’ markets often and try to focus on eating more fruits and vegetables.

“If you really want to do it, you can do it. Start slowly but set a goal,” says Manion. “When I do the races, I’m probably tenth from the last, but that doesn’t bother me as long as I finish. I set a time and I usually make the time. I don’t have to be first, I just have to finish.”


The National Diabetes Prevention Program, a free community-based, lifestyle change program is a great place to start. Groups meet with a trained instructor to help them lose weight, eat healthier and increase physical activity.

There are sixteen sessions offered over six months and six monthly follow-up sessions for the year-long program.

Visit for a listing of classes, along with advice and tips from lifestyle coaches involved in the program.