In Fredi Usher-Weems’ family, pork ruled. On holidays, pig’s feet and chitlins cozied up next to stuffing and turkey. Greens were the only vegetable popping up among the potatoes and pasta—unless you counted the sweet potato pies.
Fredi, now 50, loved the food, but she didn’t like the illnesses she saw around the table. “My mom had diabetes by age 30,” says Fredi, an aerobics specialist at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio. “She was obese by her 40s, and then she got heart problems in her 50s. She died at 60 on dialysis.”
Fredi’s mom knew junk food-minus-exercise was a deadly combination. But she grew up poor in Memphis, so hungry that she and her neighbors ate the food soldiers threw to them from passing trains. “She determined that she would never go hungry again, that she would eat whatever she wanted when she wanted,” Fredi says. Her father, too, suffered ill health, battling high blood pressure beginning at age 18. He is now 82, and still on medication.
Fredi opted for health. At age 12, she declared herself the fitness instructor at the daycare center her parents ran in Cleveland. “When the kids came in, we did our laps, running a half mile to two miles.”
While studying business administration, health and fitness in college, she taught aerobics at a fitness center and even at a hair salon, for the women waiting for their appointments. Then, she heard about a job opening for a fitness instructor at the Cleveland Clinic. She went for it.
In the 18 years since, Fredi has accumulated certifications from the American College of Sports Medicine, the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America and Cooper Institute in Dallas. Married with a grown stepson, she has offered fitness classes—up to seven a day—to employees, school children and community members. She focuses now on Cleveland Clinic’s Lifestyle 180 program, teaching patients how to manage chronic diseases with fitness and healthy diets.
How does she get people to change? “I listen to them talk and find out where their heart is,” she says. All one obese patient wanted, for instance, was to be able to get down on the floor to play with her children. After bariatric surgery—and more important, a change in the way she thought about food and exercise—she met her goal.
Fredi starts by asking patients to give her just 10 minutes of exercise twice a week. “One lady who hated exercising realized after walking that she didn’t have as many aches and pains. Now, she walks three to four times a week. Walking changed her life.”
Changing lives is Fredi’s proudest accomplishment. “I can look back at the daycare children who are still exercising and healthy now because of how invested I was in them.”
For Fredi, who is currently studying for her master’s degree in divinity, fitness success isn’t about having a perfect body: “It’s about learning to love, respect and appreciate yourself. Sometimes you fall, and that’s OK. Get back up and start again.”