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Professional Santa cuts girth for health

Harry Jackson Jr. Tribune News Service

In 2011, Mike Reinhold, 65, had everything he needed to be a professional Santa: the white hair, long beard, rosy cheeks and a chubby midsection.

Over the next two years, three Santa booking agencies vied for his time – East Coast, West Coast, points in the middle. The St. Louis-area resident has a laugh that shakes furniture. On top of that, he’s a retired teacher, “and that means I’m good with kids,” he said.

Malls and public areas were paying well for him. Portraiture companies also book Santas for photo packages. Booking agencies flew him several places and provided accommodations. In one place he took 5,500 photos with people who’d buy them for their children, and who knows how many cellphone snapshots? In another spot, 25,000 photos over 40 days.

Being so popular had its downside. The South St. Louis County, Missouri, resident weighed more than 250 pounds at 5 feet, 9 inches tall. His legs and knees hurt, his stamina was marginal on good days. Even on his forays away, he’d work, eat and rest.

In April of this year, his physician broke the news. “He reminded me I had diabetes on both sides of my family, and it was a matter of time before that was me,” he said.

Still, he didn’t do much. He bought a coaster bicycle – the type that brakes by reversing the pedals – with big, fat tires. But he parked it and went back to doing little that involved getting off the couch.

Except for a couple of Santa months a year, Reinhold is retired.

He spends spare time helping charities. One day recently, for example, he and a friend were driving to St. Charles, Missouri, to collect a load of bread to return to a food pantry.

Otherwise, he was at home, “you know, sedentary,” so it was easy for him to not follow his doctor’s advice. But in June, he got some help changing directions.

His three children began having children. He had grandchildren and he’d want to keep up with them.

Also, four of his friends had heart attacks. “No one died, but I had to stop and think,” he said.

Then, his wife, Kathy Reinhold, told him he needed to do something about his health “or else.”

She’d been watching him for years go downhill. “He had a high blood pressure problem and he had diabetes on both sides of his family,” she said.

She was a retired physical education teacher, “so he knew better,” she said.

Reinhold pulled the bicycle from the garage. He wrapped the handlebar in clothes line rope to improve his grip. He began to ride and in a short while was doing 10 miles a day, every day.

The route was from his home to St. Anthony’s Medical Center in south St. Louis County, three laps around the hospital campus, then home. He’d start at 3 a.m. when his neighborhood was nearly free of traffic.

“It took 2 1/2 hours,” he said. He’d been an athlete in his younger years, so the change came quickly, he said.

“Now my legs are better, my (stamina) is better,” he said.

He’s still doing it.

At a recent weigh-in, he was down 53 pounds. “I’m at 203,” he said.

His doctor has started juggling the blood pressure and other medicines. “And when I get down to 180, my doctor can get me off (blood pressure) medicine,” Reinhold said.

He credits the bicycle riding for the weight loss. Improving his physical condition reduced his appetite, he said.

“You can’t lose unless you change your eating habits,” he said. “But the more I rode the bike, the less I needed to eat.”

He sleeps better, he doesn’t get up in the middle of the night for a snack, and he has the energy to chase his 18-month-old grandchild three days a week.

“I just had to man up, quit making excuses and get started,” he said.

Now that his energy level has increased, he’s remodeling his home, doing much of the work himself.

He told his booking agent that he’d lost weight.

“She said, ‘Why did you do that?’ ” he recalled. But then, “She said, ‘I’m so happy for you.’ ”

He says his goal weight is 180 pounds. “I’ll just have to put a pillow under the suit,” he said with a laugh.

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