Getting Fit Amidst a Sea of Wine and Food

How do wine and restaurant industry folks stay healthy?
Jan 2, 2014

It's that time of year. Time to make a resolution, only to watch it fade out. Common wisdom says that most New Year's resolutions are broken in less than two weeks. And of course, the most common resolution folks make is to lose weight. In 2012 and 2013 I made the same resolution …

With the calendar turning, I thought I'd ask a few people in the wine and restaurant industry how they first got into and now stay in shape. It's an industry rife with pit falls—long hours, big restaurant meals, travel and, of course, alcohol. Being a sommelier, restaurateur or a wine journalist can easily become a built-in excuse for taking your health for granted.

Some folks are lucky from the start, with a healthy lifestyle from childhood that they then maintain as they get older. Bobby Stuckey, a Master Sommelier and co-owner of Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, Colo., is an avid runner, a habit he picked up as a young boy.

"I was running 10Ks as a 7-year-old," said Stuckey, 45. "But as a kid I suffered from dyslexia and ADD, so team sports was not a fit for me. Running, a more solitary pursuit, was. And it stuck. Now today I find running is the perfect fit for staying healthy in the restaurant business. You can get more done by running for an hour and then there's that boost you get from the morning run. You get in to work and you're charged up for the day."

Over the years, Stuckey has seen the high turnover and burnout rate among servers and staff in restaurants and he realized longevity was the key to success.

"I've had many people over the years that come to me with problems, fatigue, breaking down. They use the restaurant business as an excuse for burnout. But do neurosurgeons burn out? That's high stress—restaurants aren't. Don't get me wrong, restaurants are a hard business. But it's only stressful if you're not balanced," said Stuckey, who usually runs one marathon a year, often in a different location each time, while maintaining a regimen of around 35 to 50 miles per week.

"Want motivation?" asked Stuckey. "I think running makes you sharper too. You taste better and you enjoy things more in a way. When you're worn out, you're not focused. And the best thing is you can take the running with you when you go on the road. All you need is a pair a sneakers."

Motivation is the key, of course. For some people though, it comes only after reaching a low point and getting a wake-up call from their body.

With his TV exposure, big-name restaurants and overall popularity, Joe Bastianich, 45, is one of the most visible examples of healthy living while maintaining a busy schedule. In between running his restaurant and wine businesses, Bastianich currently runs two to three marathons a year and has also participated in Iron Man triathlons. But unlike with Stuckey, Bastianich wasn't always fit.

"It just got to the point where I realized I'd let myself go. I'd been in the restaurant business pretty much all my life. But being in the restaurant business shouldn't be an excuse," said Bastianich. "In fact, it should be considered an advantage for us, because we should be more more educated about how to eat properly and thus more knowledgeable about how to manage our health."

Since starting his routine about eight years ago, Bastianich, said he's lost 60 pounds from his highest weight to his fittest point and has also beaten back diabetes and cholesterol issues.

"In the end, exercise is a moderating effect on your lifestyle. It's not punishment," said Bastianich. "If you're going to drink wine at dinner, but know you're getting up the next morning to go for a run, you find the balance necessary to do that and you wind up enjoying both sides of it."

Getting started on any exercise routine is the hardest part. For wine and food professionals, sometimes that can be extra difficult because it means admitting defeat, in a way.

"When it comes to wine and restaurant professionals, we're often in roles where we're looked up to for advice or considered experts," said Shebnem Ince, a former sommelier who now works for Chicago wine retailer Perman Wine Selections. "Now you're going into a field [fitness] where you have to admit you know nothing and are way behind. So you have to check yourself a little bit and recalibrate. That emotional part at first is hard. You have to admit to yourself that you've completely let yourself go and now you have a lot of work to do."

Ince, 45, has a textbook cautionary tale for the industry. She was healthy and active as a child but as she spent 10 years working as a sommelier in Chicago, she let the restaurant world consume her and her health suffered.

"It was the usual excuses—the sea of food and wine. The late hours. I'd get home at 2 a.m. and need a glass of wine just to try and get to sleep since I was still wide awake from the dinner shift," she said.

Ince hired a personal trainer ("she kicked my ass for six months and got me started") then got hooked on CrossFit, an intense workout regimen which has become increasingly popular. She also ascribes to the paleo diet. Over the past 18 months she's lost 28 pounds. She still enjoys wine, but in a different way.

"Compared to the average person I'm sure I still drink a copious amount of wine. But it's much less than before," said Ince. "Now it's more for pure pleasure than just habit. I drink less but better and I enjoy it more, because now I'm not having an internal conversation about self loathing. All the pleasures of life are more enjoyable now. Before it was without thought, now it's with thought."

The problem for wine and restaurant folks who struggle to get healthy likely comes from the idea that being healthy means sacrifice and denial—eat less and drink less (or not at all). This mantra is perpetuated by rail-thin celebrities who espouse odd diets as well as high-energy trainers who scream at you to put the cheese and wine down. But I found that an approach based on denial undermines whatever good you're trying to do, and eventually you're not able to maintain that level of self control. There are goals and then there are habits. You can't achieve a goal without sustainable habits, and denial doesn't work.

So, when I decided to get in shape, I made a different kind of deal with myself. I wanted to get in shape without sacrificing. I didn't want to give up wine or eat tiny meals of tasteless food. I also didn't want exercise to be a stand-alone part of the day that seemed like a chore. I wanted to eat and drink what I wanted while making exercise part of my lifestyle. I wanted to take a positive approach, built on rewarding myself. It helped make getting healthy a lot easier. Along the way I worked with trainers and in gyms that had a "work hard, play hard" mentality.

One of my recent finds has been Flywheel, a popular chain of indoor cycling gyms. Among the reasons it caught my eye, the owner's bio stated she liked wine—not the typical fitness professional's credo.

"We're believers in that," said Ruth Zukerman, co-owner and co-founder of Flywheel, which now has 25 locations throughout the U.S. and worldwide. "One of the reasons we work out is we do like to indulge. We like to eat and drink well. Working out gives us that permission. We're not into deprivation. It's about having fun and enjoying life."

Zukerman said she dines out and enjoys wine and doesn't worry about body fat percentage or calories.

"I know it will all balance out," she said. "By exercising throughout the week, I don't have to worry about counting the bottles of wine I might have on the weekend. We have a lot of clients who tell us how much weight they've lost after a couple of months here, and when I ask them if they changed their diet or drinking habits, most often they say 'not really.'"

So how did I do on my resolution? Well, in mid-2012 I started with primarily jogging, going 2 to 3 miles a day. I eventually followed a series of training plans and now run regularly, averaging 60 to 70 miles a month while participating in races along the way.

I tweaked my diet just a little, cutting back on cheese and red meat, but I didn't eliminate anything. And yes, I drank plenty of wine all along. I travel frequently to France but I don't let that become an excuse. When I'm there, I try to eat more fish and, yes, I take my sneakers with me. There's a wonderful feeling jogging amidst vineyards.

The results? Over the second half of 2012, I lost 40 pounds. After dropping all that weight, I went back into the gym, including some CrossFit sessions, and put on 15 pounds of muscle in 2013. I capped off the year by running a half-marathon and then a Tough Mudder obstacle course on back-to-back weekends.

Was it easy? No. There were injuries, occasional setbacks, plateaus and frustrations along the way. There were times it seemed like one step forward, two steps back. But as Bastianich and others note, there were also no excuses. I kept going, motivating myself and always talking to and asking questions of other people who'd been down the same path.

In the end, the benefits were and are numerous. Overall, I've never felt better.

I handle travel better and have less fatigue in general. I digest meals better and feel as if I enjoy food in a more detailed way, rather than just a blur of excess. I also feel I taste better. And in work and play I have better focus and endurance. I also have the confidence of knowing that I'll never slide backward because fitness is now part of my life, it's not a chore. By making it a habit I've made it as enjoyable and necessary to me as good wine and other hedonistic indulgences. I've found balance and, like riding a bicycle, it seems like I'll never lose it.

Exercise and healthy living should be the reward you give yourself that allows you to indulge and imbibe. One of my favorite expressions is "pay to play." And after you make a resolution to get in shape and then succeed in doing it, you'll find you start to make bigger resolutions going forward.

So, what's my resolution for 2014? I'm going to run my first marathon and I'm going to drink more Cornas … how's that for balance?

You can follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at twitter.com/jmolesworth1.

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