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Diagnosis: survivor living with multiple sclerosis, country music star Clay Walker has learned to put a positive spin on life.

Athletic all his life, country superstar Clay Walker began his usual pick-up game of basketball with friends one hot, humid Texas day. But it turned out to be anything but a normal hoops game. "I fell down about five times," Walker recalls painfully. "I even hate to think about this. But my right leg almost completely stopped working. I looked up at the basketball hoop and saw two of them. It didn't take me long to realize that something was wrong." To make matters worse, the singer and songwriter, whose guitar playing had always been second nature, could not hold a guitar pick between his fingers. "I went for an MRI and they found lesions and scars on my brain. That's what Multiple Sclerosis (MS) means--multiple scars," Walker says.

That was eight years ago. Walker, who now lives on a Houston ranch with wife Lori and daughters MaClay (eight) and Skylor (five), has since viewed his MS diagnosis as a motivator to take responsibility for his health and fitness. "It's been a process for me," he explains. "One of the things I've always wanted to gain out of life is wisdom. Getting my health back has been an enjoyable learning process." A key to his educational odyssey was diet. "I didn't realize that you could improve your health immensely just by eating better," admits the 34-year-old. "When I was first diagnosed, I probably lost 30 pounds because I [ate only] fish and vegetables while drinking water. Now my diet is so much better." The 170-pound, handsome singer eats a well-balanced diet high in protein, fresh vegetables and fruit with occasional ice cream or cappuccino splurges. "Everything in balance," he says.

Embracing natural, organic foods, Walker grows some in his own garden. 'Tm a gardener," he boasts. "I live on a big ranch and grow a lot of my own vegetables and herbs." Tomatoes, cucumbers, corn, zucchinis, eggplants, peppers and fresh herbs are carefully tended with natural fertilizer. "It's all organic. Nobody knows what causes MS so I try to stay away from pesticides, chemical additives and fertilizers," he says in his Southern twang.

Like so many others with MS (currently 37,000 in California alone), Clay has experienced both triumphs and frustrations. But unlike most people, Walker has waged his battle privately while leading a public life and continuing to tour with his band. With 11 number one singles and five number one music videos, Walker is a major force in country music. Diagnosed at 26, he had recently completed his fourth album, his career was taking off, his first daughter had just been born and he had to take on the challenge of his illness.

"You have to get tough mentally first," says Walker about his road to remission. "You have to have a reason why. I've always been a physically active and athletic person. But when I was diagnosed it really scared me because I lost a lot of ability and it took awhile to get that back. You don't want to fall in love with something that is going to leave you. I didn't want to do a physical activity and then have it all taken away from me--because I love it."

Copaxone, a daily injection stabilizing the progression of MS, helped Walker gain courage to get back out there. "The disease has been arrested in me. I'm now in my eighth year and by medical standards, I should be in what they call the secondary progressive [stage], and I'm not. I have gone back out and tried to regain what I lost. I've been exercising two to four times a week for the last year. Although that doesn't seem like a very long time compared to what people have dedicated themselves to, it's become a passion [for] me." Golf, football, horseback riding, swimming, gym routines and gardening have helped bring Walker back to the man he was before. "I started running about 18 months ago and at first I could only walk a little. Then I built up to a 100-yard jog and now I can run three miles without stopping. I'm now preparing for next year's MS 150 [bike tour]. I'm determined not to be beat; I'm a person who believes in persistence," he says.

Since he stepped forward in his fight against MS, Walker's nutritional staples have taken on a new meaning. Breakfast is a regimented meal of egg whites mixed with turkey, onions and seasonings. "I don't like bland foods so I'll add rosemary, basil or garlic to spice it up. I love garlic." Lunch is usually a 300-calorie protein shake, packed with vitamins and minerals. "I normally run or do cardio on an empty stomach so I burn fat. Then I have my egg whites and drop one yolk in. I do some exercise, and whatever else I have to do, and then have my protein shake. All of this is good for physical balance. It's not for body building," he states. When the evening rolls around, dinner is either a lean steak, a piece of grilled or poached fish or chicken breast, served with antioxidant-rich sauteed spinach and tomatoes.

While good diet, daily medication, regular exercise and eating as naturally as possible have helped Clay in his fight against MS, he says there is another side to the story. "It's a philosophical thing. All these things I've talked about are very important, but it's the approach you take to MS in your mind that's going to determine how everything is going to work out," Walker says. "You have to get up everyday, put your feet on the floor and take control of your attitude. That's where my life changed. I had always been a positive person but when I [was diagnosed] I went into an internal cave and everyday was a struggle to be positive. Not anymore. Now I'm more positive than I've ever been."

Bonnie Siegler has covered celebrity fitness for American Fitness since 1990. Based in Playa del Rey, California, she is an internationally known writer whose work has appeared in McCall's, Redbook and InStyle.
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Author:Siegler, Bonnie
Publication:American Fitness
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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