Battling MS, Venice man loses 50 pounds in quest for fitness and health

VENICE — Multiple sclerosis may have invaded Allen Howard’s body, but he refuses to let the neurological disease control his life.

Howard, 53, has been working with several trainers to get ready for Saturday’s Venice YMCA Triathlon, and has lost 50 pounds.

He was diagnosed with MS 11 years ago, and retired from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency in 2018 after he fell and broke his shoulder. He and his wife moved from Maryland to Venice shortly afterward.

The disease affects the left side of Howard’s body. Multiple sclerosis causes inflammation in the central nervous system that damages the protective coating of nerves and disrupts signals from the brain to the body.

Unhealthy habits and a grueling work schedule saw him tip the scales at 290 pounds shortly after retiring. He started working out with personal trainer Lucia Elsadek at the Venice YMCA.

“She had me doing step-ups and I said, ‘Are you crazy? I don’t have any balance.’ I had more than I realized, and it improved,” Howard said in an interview at the Venice Y.

During their second workout in December 2018, Elsadek recruited Howard for her Venice YMCATriathlon team. They trained hard, but red tide forced the cancellation of last year’s event.

Between workouts with Elsadek and triathlon coach Heather Butcher, Howard continued to make progress. The former Marine, who calls himself a “finless manatee,” also worked with swim coaches to improve his form in the water.

The trainers are all mindful of his MS, which presents challenges in an athlete who sometimes pushes himself over healthy limits.

“Exercise is good, but exercise can be bad, especially for MS because when you stress the body that much, it might just tip it to the other side,” Elsadek said. “We both have to work together to try to get him to do what he wants, because once he gets to this point he’s going to keep going. He’s going to be awesome.”

Howard was more than willing to put in the effort required to lose weight, including giving up alcohol and changing his diet.

“It’s a balancing act because with MS you’re also dealing with depression and anxiety that comes with the disease,” Howard said. “The exercise makes you feel better, and then you want to exercise more and you can’t do it. It’s an ongoing, I don’t want to say battle, but it’s a process.”

Elsadek marveled at the progress Howard has made, losing more than 50 pounds to now weigh in at 239 pounds. His body fat percentage has gone from 37.9 to 25.7. His mile run time has dropped from 14:30 to under 10 minutes.

“He is looking so much better,” Elsadek said. “He’s doing great. I could not be any more proud. He’s definitely an example of someone that puts his heart and soul into something.”

Howard’s doctors had encouraged him to be active after his MS diagnosis, but he’s taken that advice to a new level.

“One thing I learned about MS, my doctor said this a long time ago, ‘Be as active as you can.’ What I thought was active was nothing compared to what I’m doing now,” Howard said.

Howard is looking forward to Saturday’s sprint triathlon, but he’s not putting pressure on himself to set personal records. He just wants to finish and try to be more relaxed in the water than he was in the Englewood triathlon.

He knows that swimming will be an important part of his fitness routine going forward, because it’s easier on the joints and keeps the body cool in Florida’s summer heat. He has had to back off training this summer because of the heat and fatigue.

“I only learned how to swim 6 or 7 years ago. I’ve never felt this comfortable in the water,” said Howard, who has also joined a Sarasota Storm Masters Swim group. “Unless there’s a major medical breakthrough, my MS will progressively get worse as I get older. Swimming is going to be the best exercise for me.”

Howard’s training has become a journey of pushing himself beyond what he thought was possible with the help of his trainers.

“This is not about anything else but have fun, enjoy the moment,” Elsadek said. “No matter what level, do what you feel makes you happy. Fitness should be joyful even though you’re sweating bullets when you’re here. I try to make it fun.”

Howard wants to encourage others to tackle a triathlon or a run, or try an activity that they thought they might not be able to do.

“What I learned is doctors don’t get you healthy,” Howard said. “They will cure what ails you or manage your chronic condition, but health is up to you. There’s no magic pill. It’s never too late to become an athlete.”

 

Vicki Dean is freelance writer based in Venice.