The ninth of 10 children, he graduated from Lynn Camp High School in 2009 with a 2.7 GPA and a composite ACT score of 18.
At age 21, he decided to become the first in his family to attend college, but only after a friend just out of the military asked him via a text. He began that pursuit on the Corbin campus of Eastern Kentucky University, qualifying for three remedial courses.
When he started classes at EKU’s Richmond campus a year later, his 5-foot-8 frame carried almost 300 pounds, his body fat measured approximately 50 percent, and his blood pressure was an alarming 188/102. All his high school friends had already graduated, so he was a virtual recluse, spending much of his time playing video games in his room.
Mark Hopkins was not supposed to succeed. But on Friday, May 12, he will graduate magna cum laude from EKU with a bachelor’s degree in physical education, with a concentration in physical fitness and wellness management and a minor in nutrition, and prepare to enter the University’s master’s degree program in occupational therapy. Oh, and he is now a muscular 168 pounds, with a body fat of 12 percent.
The metamorphosis that took place over the past few years is a testimony to Hopkins’ work ethic, mental tenacity in the classroom and the gym, and a campus that cared.
“I am not the same person, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, or socially,” Hopkins declared. “I am exponentially more confident in myself … more confident that I am capable of overcoming obstacles. I learned that hard work can break through many barriers.”
He came to campus an avowed atheist but, after accepting an invitation to a Cru meeting, was soon leading a Bible study for freshmen, channeling his love for serving and helping others. He even used a $1,000 prize from a fitness transformation contest to help pay for a summer mission trip to Africa.
The seeds for his physical transformation were planted in an Essentials of Nutrition course taught by Rachel Harrington in the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences. Hopkins came to realize he had to get out of his room, change his diet, and find a new home – in his case, the University’s Fitness and Wellness Center.
Early into his exercise regimen, he realized how difficult that journey would be.
“A 15-minute walk on the treadmill would debilitate me, because my knees were so bad,” Hopkins recalled. “I would have to ice them, take some NSAIDs and hope for the best. It didn’t take long to realize that being on a stationary bike was much more joint friendly, so I ended up doing a 60-minute cycle on the stationary bike, six days a week. Without the rec center being so close, I honestly don’t think that I would have been able to make the change.”
As the pounds dropped, his energy level increased, his heart “stopped pumping pancake syrup,” and his blood pressure eventually fell to its current 108/62. As those numbers were dropping, another was rising: his GPA.
“My grades did improve quite a bit,” he noted. “Really, (all the exercise) taught me discipline, that I cannot expect things to just be easy and given to me.”
Whether it was his coursework or his workout routines, Hopkins knew he could count on support and encouragement from faculty such as Dr. Jim Larkin and Dr. Michael Lane, who both teach in the Department of Exercise and Sport Science.
“Dr. Larkin was there every step of the way,” he said. “I do not know where I would be without him. The first time that I met him, we ended up talking for around 90 minutes, for a 15-minute advising meeting. He encouraged me to stay the course, not just physically, but through all the dimensions of wellness. He always reminded me that fitness and wellness is not a sprint, but a marathon (and that) a quick fix will have short-term results, while a long-term fix will have long-term results.”
Lane, who often reminded Hopkins that his body would adapt to the demands placed upon it, “was always willing to assist me in improving myself. And that is one of things I admire most about him – his willingness to serve.”
Now that’s exactly what Hopkins does as a student personal trainer at Eastern, where he works with all ages – through the Kentucky Adapted Physical Education Program, which assists children with disabilities, and with the Adults with Chronic Conditions program.
“I had two clients this semester who lost over 5.5 percent body fat in about three months at age 60, and another who lost 2 percent in the first month. It is such a great reminder of the positive effects that simply moving can have on your body. My job as a trainer is to motivate my clients and educate them on how to accomplish their goals safely and effectively. It seems more and more, though, that they are the ones motivating me. When I see my clients reach a new PR (personal record), I celebrate with them. This encourages me to work harder when I am training.”
Hopkins, who earned a national Major of the Year award from the Society of Health and Physical Educators, especially loves helping older adults.
“My father turns 81 in November,” Hopkins noted. “His health has never been great for as long as I have been alive, and it’s getting worse every day. I believe loving and caring for him is where a lot of my passion for geriatrics comes from. The joy that I get from helping him, even if it is just mowing the lawn, has caused me to really love helping others.”
Lamenting a cultural emphasis on treating disease rather than preventing it, Hopkins said his goal as a trainer or therapist is to “allow you to be able to live and function normally for the maximum number of years, to be able to pick up your grandchildren, to be able to feed yourself, to be able to get out of a bed, to be able to wash yourself, to be able to live in a home rather than a hospital.
“It is not only about the number of years. It is the quality of life you have during those years.”
Now, as Hopkins moves on to another degree and a career in occupational therapy, he is delighted to see the University planning for a new, much larger fitness and wellness center. “Anything that can attract students to become more active consistently is a big win in my book,” he said.
After all, that’s a journal Hopkins helped write.
Inset photo: Hopkins before his physical transformation.