It started with a letter.
After seeing a segment about fitness on NBC’s “Today Show” last year, Hampton Bays resident Ralph Oswald, 64, felt compelled to inform the show’s producers about the difficulties that prevent police officers, firefighters and EMS personnel from living healthy lifestyles.
“I said it would nice to get in shape, but you’re not dealing with the realities that these jobs—police, firefighters, EMS—have,” Mr. Oswald said last week while sitting in a Friendly’s booth with his wife Suzanne. “I could make a nice meal for myself, put it in the microwave and get banged out for a call. I’m ravenous when I get out of the call, I’ll stop someplace, grab something to eat, come back and reheat what I have in the microwave—I eat again because I haven’t been satisfied yet. The timing and the meal breaks and everything else, it’s almost impossible to balance your meals out.”
Mr. Oswald, the lead paramedic with the Hampton Bays Volunteer Ambulance Corps, weighed in at more than 200 pounds at the time and noted that there weren’t many in his profession at his age because the unhealthy lifestyle that comes with it along with the demands of having to go “from 0 to 100 percent in a matter of moments.”
Now, standing 30 pounds lighter with 11 inches off his stomach, Mr. Oswald is singing a different tune after he got a surprise boost in motivation from an unforeseeable source.
Months after sending the letter, two weeks before Christmas, with the morning show segment just a fading memory in his mind, Mr. Oswald got an unexpected phone call.
“He told me NBC called,” Suzanne Oswald said. “I said, ‘It’s a prank call, don’t answer it. Don’t call them back.’ He said they called again, so I said, ‘OK, see what they want’ and then he told me we were gonna be on the show.”
After reading Mr. Oswald’s letter, an NBC producer thought he would be perfect for a segment set to begin in January called the Six Month to a Six-Pack Challenge, in which three out-of-shape adults over the age of 40 would be brought on to consult diet and exercise strategies with experts on live television—while standing shirtless, of course.
Although he was hesitant to join the show at first, concerned that he wouldn’t be able to live down the ridicule from his peers, he decided to take the risk and now, three months into the show, he has seen a dramatic improvement in his health.
“I haven’t felt this good since my 40s,” he said.
Mr. Oswald, who also works as a paramedic in Dix Hills and teaches CPR classes in his spare time, attributes his success to walking at least 10,000 steps every day and cutting about 500 calories a day from his diet. He monitors both using a bracelet called a Fitbit, which tallies his daily steps into an application on his smartphone, which also tracks his calories. He’s cut down on some foods, such as red meat, and he exercises when he can, but primarily he will simply go for walks between calls in order to stay active.
Ms. Oswald, who has used her husband’s involvement in the show as inspiration to get in shape herself, said it’s about dedication to a lifestyle rather than finding a quick fix. The couple has created a competition between themselves and because she can track how many steps he’s taken in a day using the Fitbit application, she sometimes finds herself trying to rack up a couple hundred extra steps in her basement to pull ahead before her husband gets home from work.
“We have our different strengths,” she said. “Like he’s very diligent with the food and I’m very diligent with the gym and the exercise, so together we kind of play off one another.”
Every other Wednesday, the couple gets up at 4 a.m. to get ready for a driver to pick them up from their home at 5 a.m. and drive them into Manhattan for the show. Mr. Oswald has been on the show six times already and has four more appearances to go, including next Wednesday, April 23.
The change of lifestyle has been useful for both Oswalds as they have been dealing with health issues in recent years. Shortly before her husband first appeared on the show, Ms. Oswald, who is diabetic, was on the verge of having an automatic insulin pump installed into her body to help manage the disorder. Since starting the diet, she said she has been able to scale back the amount of medications she takes on a daily basis.
In the fall of 2011, Oswald, then 61 years old and weighing in at 225 pounds, had decided to take a jog with his youngest son, also named Ralph. He barely made it 200 feet running downhill before he knew something wasn’t right.
“I had to stop, I turned to Ralphy, and I was so terrified because I knew what was happening, I was about to drop,” Mr. Oswald said. “I said, ‘Ralphy, carry me home, please, try and get me home.’”
A sonogram revealed that Mr. Oswald’s aortic valve was failing and needed to be replaced. On November 11, 2011, he went into Winthrop Hospital in Mineola for surgery.
“I really didn’t expect to survive that,” he said. “I actually said goodbye to [Suzanne] before they put me under, which she never forgives me for.”
However frightful the experience was, it wasn’t enough to get him to change, Mr. Oswald said. He continued to come home after work and immediately lay down in front of the TV, which he said adversely affected his wife’s quality of life.
“I wasn’t there for her,” he said. “I was sleeping all the time, I was always tired, I had no reason to do anything, I didn’t want to do anything, I couldn’t do anything.”
Since committing to getting in shape, both Mr. and Ms. Oswald have seen improvement in their heart health, as their cardiologist informed them that they are in better shape now than they each were two years ago.
In the final three months of the show, Mr. Oswald said he wants to focus more on toning his muscles, while Ms. Oswald said she’d like to lose a bit more weight. But in the meantime, the two, who have been married for 20 years, are enjoying a more active lifestyle by taking walks together and even going out more.
“We come home at 3 o’clock in the morning and [our sons] are standing there going, ‘Where were you all night?’ Mr. Oswald said. “I say, ‘We’re having a great time.’”
“We always tell them we hope you’re as happy when you’re our age as we are,” Ms. Oswald added. “I think they’re finally getting it now that they’re older.