Story and photo by Scott Prater | Mountaineer staff
FORT CARSON, Colo. — Fitness can be a relative term.
For many folks, passing an Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT) would be a clear indicator that a person was “in shape” or “fit for duty.” For Sgt. Earledreka Toles, however, it hardly measured up.
“I think the APFT is too easy,” she said recently. “So, when I stopped maxing out my run times a while back, I knew I was in trouble.”
The three-year Army veteran and former collegiate track athlete felt changes to her diet and exercise were proving to be ineffective and that she felt sick, depressed and overwhelmed by the process for getting into the kind of shape she desired.
“When I was in college, youth and competitive sports kept me in shape,” she said. “But as I grew older and settled into a life of work, my motivation (to stay fit) declined.”
While attempting to fix her motivation problem, Toles tried her hand at earning the Expert Soldier Badge, a grueling event that challenges a Soldier’s fitness, among other combat skills. Then she completed an assessment for the Security Force Assistance Brigade, another physically demanding test that she passed, but suffered through.
But while proving to herself that she was fit enough, especially at short-term tests of strength and endurance, she still felt overweight and out of shape. Perhaps worse, she lacked the internal motivation to keep working at it consistently.
The fix, she said, came from a surprising place — YouTube.
It turned out Toles has a bit of social-media savvy. She’s hosted a video log (vlog) for a few years now, where she speaks to viewers about what life is like for a Soldier.
“It’s kind of geared toward recruits,” Toles said. “But since I vlog about life as a Soldier, a lot of other service members can identify and empathize with it … and me.”
YouTube views her as sort of a hit as well. She has 6,700 subscribers and the vlog continues to grow. What’s important, however, is that after Toles vlogged about her fitness struggles, one of her subscribers challenged her to do something about it.
Now, she vlog posts from the gym, setting her camera up near a machine or free-weight station while talking with her subscribers about fitness routines, nutrition and mental health.
“Most of what the military puts out (on television or the internet) is pretty stiff,” she said. “I like to make my posts fun, witty, entertaining, if you will. No one wants to watch a 15-minute-long, boring video, so I try to make my (vlog posts) high energy and interactive.”
While attempting to satisfy her subscribers’ challenges, “Dreka” went full vegan, among other changes. She also enrolled in a fitness program at Fort Carson’s Army Wellness Center (AWC).
Since Sept. 8, her first day at AWC, Toles has dropped 15 pounds and feels like her physique is reverting to her college track days.
“The fix was the conversations I had with the staff at AWC,” she said. “After my initial lean-body-mass assessment, I learned I was actually obese
for my height and gender. The first class I attended was called ‘Upping Your Metabolism.’”
For Toles, the education and information she soaked in from AWC staff was most important for her fitness turnaround.
“I learned I should be tracking the food I put into my body, getting 10,000 steps a day, knowing the ingredients in foods,” she said. “And I have so much energy now. I can think more freely. I remember things better. The pounds are coming off. It’s amazing to witness.”
Quintunya Chapman-Hamilton, health educator at AWC, said Toles entered the process hungry for information and guidance.
“First, we show people what their body-fat percentage is and compare that to what is considered healthy,” Chapman-Hamilton said. “We ask about eating habits and what types of exercise people get and then that opens the door to a solid conversation.”
Toles explained that she learned she wasn’t getting enough sleep, wasn’t exercising enough and wasn’t eating whole foods and vegetables.
“For me, fitness had been about competition,” she said. “I was training to compete, but when that was over, I didn’t have a reason to train. I guess people can train to look good, but really, you can look good to anybody’s standards. Whereas now, I’m training to live. I was obese, utterly depressed, confused as to why I lacked energy and had so many mood swings. It turns out it was what I was eating.”
Excited and energized, Toles began creating videos about her fitness journey and posting them on her vlog.
“I am a 33-year-old woman who is obese, but by the world’s standards, I’m someone who looks healthy, and I’m still active in the Army,” she said. “What is life like for a parent who works and has two kids at home. I’m so passionate about helping Soldiers and recruits and people like me because we don’t all have the answers. But when you find somebody who does, you have to stay connected to those types of people.”
Recently she began a pilot video project, where she posts videos three time a week. She calls Mondays, Military Monday, when her posts cover military content. Wednesdays are known as Wellness Wednesday, when she covers gut health and Fridays are known as Fit Fridays, when she posts about workouts and diet.
She’s even made videos along with Chapman-Hamilton. The pair have covered such topics as food tracking, resistance training, consistency and the importance of using a fitness tracker.
Most military bases in the area offer wellness center services, which include educational and informational classes, and Chapman-Hamilton explained that the Fort Carson AWC is open to all active-duty service members in the area.
To learn more, contact AWC at 526-3887 or visit https://www.facebook.com/FortCarsonArmyWellnessCenter.
Toles’ vlog can be found at https://www.youtube.com/user/MissDreeks.