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Head start into health

Politician turned TV personality Kim Atienza reveals how he turned a major health scare into one of the most inspirational moments in his life.

By Manila Santos


As someone who had been focused on fitness almost all his life, Alejandro “Kuya Kim” Atienza admits that having a stroke was the last thing he ever expected. But that was exactly what happened one morning three years ago to this happily married father of three as he was preparing for a noontime show. “I would go to the gym regularly before, but I stopped when I got into politics and then into showbiz. I was still into dieting and into all that but I was not exercising anymore. Just like most people on TV, puro diet-diet lang kami without exercising, but that's not enough pala. The stroke was congenital so fit or unfit, it was bound to happen. It happened while I was in the bathroom but it could have happened at any time of the day and that's what started this whole fitness triathlon bit,” he shares.


Working out

Unknown to most of his fans, Kuya Kim first started out as a ballet dancer when he was 17 years old. “I was part of the Fabella Alejar Dance Company, the Manila Metropolis Ballet and the Philippine Ballet Theater. I did ballet very actively for about three years. I did it until I was about 20. And then the ballet became jazz, and then became aerobics. That's how my fitness regimen changed,” he recalls. The talented host says it was only natural that he developed a love for dancing. “I come from a family of dancers. My mom and dad were dancers, they were all part of the Bayanihan Dance Company and all of my ballet mentors were friends of my parents who I grew up with,” he adds. 

Kuya Kim first started getting active in the gym mainly for health reasons, but ended up doing serious bodybuilding in the process. “The bodybuilding started mainly because I was also asthmatic. When I was doing pure ballet I'd get bad bouts of asthma. So they said that lifting weights kasi can cure the asthma and it did. Then my lifting weights became bodybuilding. Now, [there’s] no more asthma,” he proudly says.

Stroke of luck

After he started hosting in 2005 as part of Magandang Umaga, Pilipinas as well as having a stint as a weatherman for TV Patrol, Kim turned his back on politics for good. He considers surviving his stroke in 2010 as a cautionary tale for him to go back to fitness. This was also compounded by the fact that his family has a history of diabetes. “Both my lolo and lola died because of complications due to diabetes so I know that I will have diabetes at one point in my life. So I'm very conscious of my diet mainly because of that, also because it's good for my training. It's the perfect food for endurance athletes which is basically a low-glycemic index diet. I eat a lot of carbs, but I eat the right carbs. I don't eat any white rice or white bread, white sugar,” he reveals. 

Less than a year after his health scare, he would go on to accomplish unexpected fitness feats. Although he was initially advised by his doctor to start out with brisk half-hour walks daily. Kim decided to take it to the next level after he was given a clean bill of health. “As I was doing my brisk walk one day in [Manila] Polo Club, I saw a group of students of coach-triathlete Miguel ‘Ige’ Lopez, who later became my coach. I saw them running effortlessly and I wanted to run at that pace. So from my slow walk it became a brisk walk. At first he was very hesitant because my stroke was very high profile eh, sabi niya baka mamatay ako so three months after my all-walk program, he started to teach me how to run,” he says. Half a year after his stroke, Kuya Kim joined a 5K fun run which encouraged him to join more running events. Just a year after his stroke, he joined his first full marathon abroad, the Bourdeaux marathon in France. 

The stroke taught Kim to be more grateful for all his blessings. “Nothing changed naman, I'm just more thankful now. There's no big catharsis na parang, 'I saw the light' or anything like that except that now I'm more appreciative of the little things because I experienced how it is to almost die and I know that life by itself is already a miracle. Just to live is a miracle already and all the things that God gave me is a bonus. Meaning: I have a beautiful wife, beautiful kids, I have a beautiful job, I'm popular. These are all a bonus. But the more important thing is I'm alive. So I now I realize how blessed I am,” he shares.


A triathlete is born

From doing brisk walks to successfully running marathons, Kuya Kim eventually focused on triathlons. After competing in his second Cebu 70.3 Ironman event last August, he’s setting his sights on competing in a full Ironman event in Western Australia by the end of 2013. The popular TV personality, whose time is good enough to compete with younger athletes, says he’s constantly challenging and pushing himself to do better. “My fitness goal is to do at least one marathon or one full Ironman a year. Next year, I'm doing Kona 70.3, it's a half-Ironman in Hawaii—and then I'm doing the New York marathon in November 2014,” he says excitedly. 

Another aspect of training for triathlons that Kuya Kim appreciates is the solitude he enjoys during his daily training sessions. “That's why I like endurance sports also, because it's my quiet time with myself, those long runs, those long swims and those long bike rides. I get to talk to myself. I'm very sociable. My public persona is very outgoing but I actually like being alone,” he admits. With a strict diet that involves seven to eight small healthy meals a day in between two training sessions and working on TV shows, Kuya Kim didn’t have to go through a difficult adjustment period because of the support from his family and his dedication to his sport. “It's not really a diet because I eat so much din. ... I just pick my food. I eat a lot because I need to eat a lot, but I eat a lot of good food. My wife Fely is also like me, she's also very O.C. about the food that she eats. She's also very fit and she goes to the gym. When we eat out we also choose the restaurants we eat in. My wife is also a heath buff and we like Japanese [cuisine]. We totally dislike trans-fatty food meaning deep-fried or whatever. So we stay away from deep-fried food,” he says. 

Kuya Kim says his diet mainly involves staying away from white bread and white rice, opting instead for the whole wheat alternative. “My dinner with my wife is normally brown rice with whatever ulam is there, sometimes it's tinola, sometimes it's fish and then a little bit of fruit to satisfy my cravings. And then I sleep,” he says. This health habit has helped keep the threat of diabetes at bay for him. “My blood sugar is always low now. And I'm so thankful nga na I discovered triathlon and endurance sports kasi if not for this, I would have been diabetic by now. Imagine if I did not exercise. With my predisposition I would have [been a] diabetic already like most of my cousins,” he admits. 

Learn how Kuya Kim manages to balance fatherhood, marriage, career and an athlete’s life in the November issue of HealthToday.

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