'World's Fittest Man' brings message of health to Africa
Aug. 4, 2004
Ellyn Pak
Staff Writer

For once, Joe Decker, a man who has run thousands of miles and broken endurance records, sat idle.

But it only lasted 18 hours.

Once the plane landed in Kenya, Decker went to Entebbe in Uganda, a country just west of Kenya and slightly smaller than the state of Oregon, drove to the capital and started promoting what he has incorporates into his daily schedule: health and fitness.

"It was such a beautiful sight to drive down the road and not see the golden arches," he said of the absence of fast food restaurants.

For two weeks, 34-year-old Decker, a fitness instructor and a man deemed "The World's Fittest Man" by the Guinness Book of World Records, was a health ambassador who encouraged Ugandans to live a healthy lifestyle and to strive for their dreams. He stayed in Kampala, the capital.

The Cabin John resident and founder of Level Fitness, his own fitness company, returned home on July 23 and returned to his way of what he calls an average existence. In Uganda, however, he was far from an average Joe.

"There, I was treated like a movie star, a rock star," he said.

He met Henry Oryem Okello, the minister of state for sports, and editors at the East African Procurement News, a newspaper that sponsored his visit to the country. A Ugandan diplomat, who takes fitness classes from Decker in the U.S., referred Decker to his brother-in-law, who owned the newspaper. From then on, the rest is history.

Decker spoke to children, led fitness classes, experienced a safari and attended traditional African weddings. He ran with the Kampala Hash House Harriers, a running group, and signed autographs. And local television and newspapers jumped at the chance to interview the man who talked about health and fitness.

But Decker is a modest man. A native of the Midwest, Decker said he grew up using an outhouse until the age of 13. His family hunted for food when they had none. His parents couldn't afford to send him to college so he depended on a football scholarship, which he lost due to a leg injury.

"I kind of knew that hopelessness," he said. "I thought, 'Is this what I'm destined to do?'"

He joined the Army in 1988 after graduating high school and flunked his first fitness test. "They put me in a fat boy program in the Army," he said. "I couldn't do 10 push-ups."

After three years of serving in the military, he worked throughout the country, including a ski resort in Colorado and on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. For five years, he said, he tried to find his niche.

In 1998, Decker earned a bachelor's degree in exercise science from Western Illinois University. Physical fitness thereafter became an every day part of his life.

Decker, who moved to Gaithersburg in 1998, pursued a career in personal and boot camp-type training. He competed in a series of the world's most difficult ultra-marathons and adventure challenges, including the Badwater 135 -- a 135-mile, 40-hour race through Death Valley, Calif., in 1999 and 2000.

Later in 2000, Decker landed in the Guinness Book of Records as the "World's Fittest Man." During the 24-hour physical fitness challenge, he completed 13 events, including cycling100 miles, running 10 miles, hiking 10 miles, power-walking five miles, kayaking six miles, swimming two miles, doing the NordicTrack for 10 miles, rowing 10 miles, doing 3,000 abdomen crunches, completing 1,100 push-ups, doing 1,100 jumping jacks, doing 1,000 leg lifts and weight-lifting 278,540 pounds.

After attaining that title, his life became a whirlwind of events. Decker, who is not married, was named in 2001 as one of America's Top 50 Bachelors by People Magazine. He competed in 2002 against other record-holding men and women, including the "World's Fattest Man," and won $75,000 on the game show "The Weakest Link." He did motivational speaking to groups and children about physical fitness and established a research foundation for childhood obesity. He got a book deal in January and opened his own fitness company in Cabin John about two months ago.

"I had no idea whatsoever," said Decker of his success. "I've always been driven. I never thought it could become something like this."

And through it all, he has never stopped running.

He jogs every evening for about 30 to 45 minutes. He teaches a bootcamp-type class and enjoys physical activities on the weekends.

And, the world's fittest man eats carbohydrates.

Decker said the trip to Uganda was a great opportunity to talk with Africans about how to lead healthy lives, because they were so hungry to learn.

"It was a boost for me as a health and fitness professional," he said. "Over there, they're so hungry to learn. They haven't been blasted with infomercials and quick-fix diets."

The health issues that Ugandans face, he said, are far different from Americans, who are oftentimes blasted with bad information and bombarded with the latest diet crazes.

Unlike Americans, obesity is not a huge issue in Africa, he said. But Africans deal with issues of hypertension and diabetes as a result of living sedentary lifestyles. And the level of health awareness is not up to par, he said.

Decker said he told the Ugandans to believe in themselves, never lose sight of their dreams and maintain being physically fit.

What struck him, he said, was the Ugandans' sense of family, friends and culture. In November, Decker plans to return to Africa and visit Kenya and Tanzania with 25-year-old Nicole Howell, co-director of his fitness company. He said he hopes to visit other countries in South America and Southeast Asia one day to spread his message.

"I will be out there doing it till the day I die," he said of living a healthy and physically fit life. "I think we all should."