Wellness Rebel: Vanessa Cook

Regular exercise and healthier diet help project manager lose weight and control RA progression

Vanessa Cook Photo by Robert Jordan/Ole Miss Communications

Cook incorporates bike rides into her workout routine.

OXFORD, Miss. – Vanessa Cook, diagnosed with a fast-progressing form of rheumatoid arthritis in 2008, repeatedly walks up and down the steep steps of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium for exercise each week.

Taking those steps is no small feat considering her pain and other struggles at the time of her diagnosis.

“I struggled for a few years to find a drug regimen to slow the progression,” Cook said. “During that time, I dealt with a lot of pain, fatigue and joint damage that prevented me from continuing my normal activities. This also led to a substantial weight gain and a lack of energy to put into healthy eating and exercise.”

Two years ago, Cook, now a project manager in University of Mississippi Department of Outreach and Continuing Education, began changing her behaviors to become healthier. The change came around the time of the Campus Fitness Challenge, which is sponsored by UM Campus Recreation.

She took some major steps, including changing jobs to one that allowed her to manage her stress better and also devote more time to exercise. She also talked with doctors about ways she could get her active lifestyle back.

One of her first measures was to walk the steps at the stadium with a friend once per week.

“I started slowly, which was a struggle for me since I really wanted to get back to ‘normal,'” Cook said. “Eventually, I built up to riding my bike and exercising in some other way every day – stadium steps, walking around campus and extra bike riding around campus. Over the first year, I lost about 25 pounds and had a greater range of motion and flexibility.”

During her second year of becoming more active, she continued to build on her daily exercise and made those workouts more challenging. She worked out at least an hour each day, which included walking around campus with hand weights and doing yoga, as well as daily bike riding.

She also made major changes to her eating habits, she said.

“I also began cooking at home and eating fresh, whole foods as often as possible,” Cook said. “I eliminated almost all fast foods and limited packaged foods at home. During this second year, I lost an additional 30 pounds for a total of 55 pounds lost and kept off.”

Anne McCauley, assistant director in UM’s Office of Sustainability, said seeing Cook’s commitment to better health has made an impression on her.

“As her neighbor, I see Vanessa riding her bike to work almost every single day, rain or shine, and it is very inspiring to see,” McCauley said. “You can see the results she is having from the changes she is making and it makes me want to get out there and walk stadiums too.”

Cook, who is entering her third year with her new routine, is focusing on strength and balance, which she said is important for rheumatoid arthritis, because of the higher risk of falls and permanent joint damage. Her exercise has much more variety than when she started, she said.

“Besides bike riding, I still go to the stadium occasionally, do HIIT circuits and do targeted strength training for my core and balance,” Cook said. “My complications related to RA have decreased, though I still have days where fatigue or flares get the better of me, and I’ve been able to dial back some of my pain and maintenance medications.”

Cook’s progress is a great example of how making small changes can really improve someone’s life, said Wendy Carmean, project coordinator with RebelWell.

“She’s such an inspiration for anyone who is managing a chronic illness,” Carmean said. “We hope others will consider better overall wellness as a roadmap to improving their quality of life.

“RebelWell encourages and provides tips and assistance through wellness challenges and programs to help the Ole Miss campus create better habits and get on the road to a healthier lifestyle.”