Well Being: Weight-loss doctor took his work home

Ramsey Dallal, Einstein's Health Care Networks' chief of bariatrics, who struggled with his own weight, trains for a triathlon. DAVID SWANSON / Staff
Ramsey Dallal, Einstein's Health Care Networks' chief of bariatrics, who struggled with his own weight, trains for a triathlon. DAVID SWANSON / Staff
Posted: July 28, 2013

'Physician, heal thyself," the Gospel of Luke urges.

It's an exhortation that Ramsey Dallal has taken to heart, and then some. Today, as proof, he will take part in the Lake Placid Ironman Triathlon. Such an endeavor would have seemed inconceivable only three years ago.

Back then, he had no time for exercise. He was a busy doctor with three kids. His weight began to climb, topping out at about 220 pounds. At 5-8, he was wearing size 40 pants. At night, he would snore, his cholesterol was high, and he had heartburn and acid reflux.

"I just felt lousy, uncomfortable, and unhappy," he says.

He was also setting a bad example for his patients. Dallal is a bariatric surgeon with the Einstein Health Care Network. In other words, he's a weight-loss doctor who has performed more than 3,000 procedures, such as gastric-bypass surgery and sleeve gastrectomies.

"Here I was, a weight-loss surgeon, telling people to exercise and eat moderately, Dallal says, "and I wasn't doing it myself."

He simply didn't have the time, he told himself. Growing up, he wasn't physically active and didn't consider himself an athlete. The only time he exercised regularly was in the late '90s when, during his residency and training, he packed on some pounds. He began running, eventually as much as eight miles a day, and completed a half marathon. He dropped to a lean 150 pounds.

But then came the demands of family and career. He stopped exercising and, predictably, began adding flesh. In late 2010, he decided that his New Year's resolution for 2011 was to shed the lard before his 40th birthday.

It was hard at first. He'd wake up determined to exercise, and before he knew it the day was half over. But by mid-January, he was showing up at the Ambler Y, near his home in Lower Gwynedd, and riding a stationary bike and working out on the weight machines.

"It was diet control primarily," Dallal says. "I counted calories. I eliminated greasy fried foods and desserts. I didn't eat so much that I felt stuffed. I increased my protein and decreased my carbs. I didn't drink a single thing that had calories in it. In other words, I practiced what I preach to my patients."

By May 28, his birthday, Dallal had shed nearly a fifth of his body weight and was down to a relatively lean 170 pounds. Meanwhile, he had taken up road biking.

"I would wake up at 4:30, get out by 5 a.m., and ride the sleepy country roads for an hour and a half, then shower and bolt to work."

Dallal began cycling daily and his weight continued to drop, reaching 163 pounds. He also discovered that he enjoyed cycling, that he was surprisingly good at it, that he had a knack for prolonged endurance activities. To celebrate that, he ran the Philadelphia Marathon in November 2011. It was his first, and he had done minimal training. Nevertheless, he finished in a minute over four hours.

"The sense of accomplishment was incredible," Dallal says. Delirious with pride, he was inspired to do something really rash - to tackle the Lake Placid Ironman.

"The idea of having a goal that's difficult to attain and that you can easily fail at appealed to me," Dallal explains. "There aren't too many physical endeavors that amateurs can sign up for that are more difficult than the Ironman."

To test his mettle, Dallal climbed Tanzania's Mount Kilimanjaro in March. "I got to the summit," he says. "It was very strenuous actually. A lot fail at it; the altitude is very hard."

Reasoning correctly that one's first triathlon shouldn't be an Ironman, Dallal signed up for the Philly Triathlon last month. An Olympic-size triathlon, it features a 1,500-meter swim, a 40K bike ride, and a 10K run. Dallal finished in 2:30, placing 20th of 183 people in his age group.

"It made me feel more confident that I'll be able to get through the Ironman," Dallal says. "There's no way I'm not going to finish because I want my kids to know their dad at the age of 42 did an Ironman."

Now he can also legitimately lecture his patients that there are no excuses. If he, a busy surgeon, can find the time to train for a triathlon, they, too, should be able to find the time for moderate exercise.

"He's become an inspiration to his patients," says Ian Soriano, a fellow bariatric surgeon and cycling partner. "For someone who just got into it, he's done quite well. He's a natural athlete who sort of forgot about it because of other demands. He pushes himself more than anyone I know."

"Well Being" appears every other week, alternating with Sandy Bauers' "GreenSpace" column. Contact Art Carey at art.carey@gmail.com. Read his recent columns at www.philly.com/wellbeing.

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