A Priest's Weight-Loss Journey to Losing 80-Plus Pounds and Becoming a Navy Chaplain

The dome of the U.S. Naval Academy chapel in Annapolis, Maryland, is shown.
The dome of the U.S. Naval Academy chapel in Annapolis, Maryland, is shown. (Petty Officer 2nd Class Chadwick Runge/U.S. Navy photo)

Changing your life and doing something different because you yearn to do it is something many people simply read about. I am here to tell you it can happen to you at any time. A 52-year-old Catholic priest and 28-year-old Navy SEAL lieutenant met for the first time one day. The two never could have foreseen the effect they would have on each other's lives. I know firsthand because I am the Navy SEAL lieutenant.

The priest, Father Eric Hoog, who was from St. Mary's in Annapolis, Maryland, waited at his table at the Naval Academy restaurant. I was stationed at the academy and in charge of the remedial physical fitness program at the time, so I was accustomed to talking to people about fitness. But never had I undertaken such a project. Father Hoog's goal was to become a Navy chaplain after almost 25 years as a civilian Catholic priest. I knew this was not going to be easy, and I figured I would put as much into his program as Father Hoog did.

Our first visit was spent getting to know each other, and I soon found myself talking about my choice to convert to Catholicism. The first meeting went well as we discovered we could contribute to each other's lives. We decided to meet weekly to exercise, and my job was to alter his weekly fitness program to meet the goals specified by the Navy. In turn, Father Hoog would help me with my conversion to the Catholic Church. (He always was willing to answer my basic questions about Catholicism and faith.)

Father Hoog had to lose more than 80 pounds, be able to do at least 40 push-ups, 60 sit-ups and run 1½ miles in 13 minutes. The first week, we took a benchmark test to see where he should begin. Father Hoog could walk a mile but not run at all. Push-ups on his toes, which was the requirement, were nonexistent, and his weak lower back was preventing him from being able to do sit-ups. He was on medication for high blood pressure as well.

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Week one for Father Hoog was spent walking, stretching and performing a few knee push-ups and crunches. Every day, I saw him walking around the Naval Academy campus. It was good to see he was determined to start, but would he keep up the vigor? We also realized that he had to watch the sweets, but decided not to start a rigorous diet the same week as an exercise routine.

Exercise for a sedentary person is stressful enough, I did not want to add to the stress, so we waited a month or so before we added a strict diet program. We tripled his water intake, for if there is such a thing as a magic solution to losing weight, it is water. He was drinking nearly a gallon a day and barely making it through an entire mass without rushing to the restroom. But the water helped flush his system, enabled the body to burn fat as an energy source more efficiently and kept his body cool during exercise.

Two months into the fitness program, we started monitoring his food intake. I made him write down everything he put into his mouth. This proved to be the area where he needed the most help, and the documentation of every piece of candy between meals helped him realize that. He soon had given up M&Ms, cookies and other sugary snacks for apples, oranges and other fruits.

The water consumption helped out in this area as well, for most people confuse hunger with dehydration. A quart of water during the late morning and afternoon helped curb his appetite for lunch and afternoon snacking. It all made sense to him as I mentioned these tips, but changing 50-year-old dietary habits is as challenging as beginning an exercise program. But Father Hoog was well on his way physically, so I started to have as much faith in him as he had determination.

This was the month that his doctor reduced the high blood-pressure medicine as well. So we were making progress. "You do not get out of shape overnight; you can't expect to get back into shape overnight, either," I told him. So with that, he shifted into long-term mode, which took off the stress on weigh-in days.

By the sixth month, we had seen much progress. Father Hoog was now running with me for a few miles, then walking a bit in between. He started running by just completing 50 yards at a time, then walking 50 yards to catch his breath. We repeated this several times during the run/walk.

This workout seemed to help rejuvenate the metabolism and melted nearly 50 pounds off Father Hoog away by spring. It is not easy losing 50 pounds during the winter; most people in the Northeast gain weight since it is colder outside and fewer activities are available. But Father Hoog was now weighing 230 pounds, could run 1½ miles in the prescribed time and pass the push-up and sit-up test. Our calisthenics program had paid off.

I was amazed. He was still determined to keep on pressing. Accomplishing the physical fitness testing goals were a big relief for us both, but we had no idea how hard losing the next 30 pounds would be. It was almost Easter by now, eight months into Father Hoog's mission of becoming a Navy chaplain and my mission of becoming Catholic.

All along, Father Hoog helped straighten out the Catholic Church's views on many controversial topics as well as explain the basics. I was able to do my first confession with Father Hoog during Easter week services, and I soon was Catholic.

The ninth month was depressing. It was the third month in a row of little or no weight loss. Father Hoog only lost five pounds in three months. With 25 pounds to go, we had to change something to stimulate more weight loss. Father Hoog was stuck on a plateau, so I pushed him off with a course of weight training and more running, swimming and biking.

This was the boost Father Hoog needed. Not only did these add challenges to his physical fitness program, it also changed the tone of the workouts as well. The workouts were not easier, just different. The change in pace seemed to work. After another two months, we were back on the road to losing weight steadily.

Only 15 more pounds to go. Now Father Hoog's running had skyrocketed to as many as 10 miles nonstop. He could do 10 pull-ups, more than 60 push-ups and 75 sit-ups. Father Hoog well surpassed the maximum scores for his age group. He was now chasing the age group of Navy men 10 years younger than him.

Then the day came. The day we stepped on the scales, and he had lost all the weight he needed to lose. The scales tipped at a "lean, mean, preaching machine" of 200 pounds. We jumped, we hugged, we cried and thanked God. It was a moment I will never forget; it has changed my life in many ways.

Two months later, the Navy came to St. Mary's in Annapolis. The church held a ceremony for Father Hoog, and I was the naval officer who got to swear Father Hoog in to the Navy Chaplain Corps. Father Hoog impressed upon me that faith and love were as much a part of his life as hard-nose determination. The Navy needed a man like Father Hoog (LT, USN) and now has him.

This is a typical evolution of a weight-loss story. If you are in need of jump-starting your life, the beginner workout at the Fitness eBook store can help you. In fact, it is dedicated to Father Eric Hoog (LT USN).

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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