Home All Empowerment over Disability

Marie-Josée (MJ) Salvas Shaar, MAPP '07, CPT, has studied, tested, coached, and taught smart health habits for over 13 years. Combining positive psychology with fitness and nutrition, she created a coaching method that builds better sleep, food, mood, and exercise habits, as described in her book, Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person's Guide to Optimal Health and Performance, which includes 50 practical health-building activities. Today MJ gives keynotes for corporate wellness programs and offers continuing education for wellness professionals, who can license her Smarts and Stamina Online program. Full bio. MJ's articles are here.

Editor’s Note: Marie-Josée Salvas is highlighting the research behind self-regulation and exercise to expand on the March optional theme of “What is your favorite application of research in positive psychology?”

Denny Before School PresentationIf you met Denni Chipollini before one of his speaking engagements, you’d see his communicative smile and feel his positive attitude.  But you’d never guess what the story behind his energy is.

On a rainy September morning of 1989, Denny was going to work, driving along the Pennsylvania Turnpike when his car suddenly hydroplaned. Denny lost control of his vehicle and slid violently into a guardrail. “The guardrail literally pierced my car from side to side, coming in from the driver’s side all the way through the passenger-side door,” he remembers.

“I didn’t feel anything at first. There was smoke, glass and dust everywhere.  Then I saw my left leg on the dashboard – it had been completely severed below the knee – and my right foot was on the passenger side, attached by just a few pieces of skin and an artery. That’s when I felt the most incredible rush of pain imaginable.”

Denny panicked, and then his survival instincts kicked in. “My wife was 7 months pregnant with our first son, so I couldn’t let myself go! Right then and there, I learned the power of visualization. I closed my eyes and imagined a group of caring and capable doctors taking control of the situation. Willing myself into as calm a state as possible seemed to decelerate my blood loss.”

Denny at the HospitalParamedics arrived, and Denny was rushed to the hospital by helicopter.  Doctors did all they could to save his legs. The miracle of medicine worked for one of them. The other had to be amputated above the knee.

It took almost 4 months and 15 operations before doctors had completed their work on Denny’s legs. Their final verdict was that rehab was pointless – Denny would never walk again.

To which he immediately replied: “You wanna bet?”

No Excuses

Denny TrainsThe very next morning, Denny began lifting dumbbells from his hospital bed. He still could not move his lower body, but he trained all the muscles that cooperated. “I was told I could spend the rest of my life on welfare. I refused to accept the diagnosis and instead started my own rehab. I spent time imagining myself go to work, walk around the grocery store and do the little everyday tasks that require walking. I couldn’t get up on my legs, so I was crawling around the house alongside of my baby boy. He and I learned to walk together.”

Three years later, Denny was able to walk again. Today, he is an accomplished athlete. He graduated from climbing up the stairs to competing in 5 mile runs, half-marathons and even full marathons and triathlons.

Denny’s story is extraordinary, and particularly inspirational because he didn’t use any resources that are out of reach. What happened was a series of small miracles of everyday life, fueled by a large dose of determination and self-regulation.

Denny’s mantra was “No excuses, no limits.” In his words, “The most important disability isn’t physical. It’s the lack of accountability and discipline to take action that is most disabling.”

In this month where PPND asked its authors to discuss some of their favorite research findings, I wanted to share Denny’s story to highlight how self-regulation and exercise go a long way.  I know that for many, self-regulation and exercise sound boring, even painful, but the effort required is minimal compared to the consequences of a lifestyle deprived of their benefits.

No Limits

Denny Runs a MarathonWe know from Roy Baumeister’s research that self-regulating in one life domain can have a spill-over effect on other domains. Denny started by applying discipline to his workout regime. “I knew from physical exercise that what you think is the limit really is just a glass ceiling to be broken.” This knowledge gave him power and mental strength. “And it was a great stress and anxiety reliever!”, so it also enabled him to better manage his emotions.

Research on exercise tells us that the benefits Denny experienced are common. Several studies have shown that physical activity promotes self-confidence and psychological well-being. It contributes to curing anxiety and depression. It maintains the brain healthy by facilitating brain cell growth. It is an effective weight and energy management strategy. Exercise is also associated with a reduced risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, high bold pressure, high cholesterol and certain cancers such as colon and breast cancer.

So it seems like regulating through exercise doesn’t only lead to the spill-over effect Baumeister explains happen between different domains of life. It appears that the benefits also spread to different aspects of a person – like their inner and outer strength, for example.

Generation HopeIt is very curious to me that many react with sarcasm to articles on the potential spill-over benefits of exercise. To see one such example, see here. In an article entitled “Positive Psychology and Health Psychology: A Fruitful Liaison”, authors Shelley Taylor and David Sherman explain that fear may actually undermine health behavior changes. Maybe people who discredit the benefits of exercise are actually fearful of the consequences of their own inactive lifestyles? If that’s the case, then Denny is right: the lack of accountability and discipline is a significant disabling factor.

Denny now devotes his career to inspiring and educating people of all ages to overcome adversity, accept diversity, and to live with “no excuses, no limits.” He will join us online and respond to your comments here on PPND.


All images used with permission of Denny Chipollini.

Babyak, M., Blumenthal, J. A., Herman, S., Khatri, P., Doraiswamy, M., & Moore, K. et al. (2000). Exercise treatment for major depression: Maintenance of therapeutic benefit at 10 months. Psychosomatic medicine, 62(5), 633-638.

Baumeister, R. F., Gailliot, M., DeWall, C. N., & Oaten, M. (2006). Self-regulation and personality: How interventions increase regulatory success, and how depletion moderates the effects of traits on behavior. Journal of personality, 74(6), 1773-1801.

Brooks, D.S. (2004). The Complete Book of Personal Training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Loehr, J. & Schwartz, T. (2003). The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal. New York: Free Press.

Ratey, J. (2008). Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Taylor, S.E. & Sherman, D.K. (2004). Positive Psychology and Health Psychology: A Fruitful Liaison. In P. A. Linley & S. Joseph (Eds.). Positive Psychology in Practice (pp. 305-319). New York: John Wiley & Sons.

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Lindley 24 March 2009 - 3:45 pm

A very well-written and thought-provoking rendition of a truly inspirational individual. I really got hooked by the line “Maybe people who discredit the benefits of exercise are actually fearful of the consequences of their own inactive lifestyles?” As someone who certainly needs to invest more time in exercise, I can understand how this could be a very probable train of thought for many people. It is so easy to fabricate excuses- easier, it seems, than to just take a few simple steps towards bettering ourselves. What a great way to help put things into perspective!

You are truly an inspiration, and I am sure many people feel this way. So many things that we take for granted are things that you had to work hard to reclaim as every day tasks. You were so committed that you worked all the way up to marathons- I can’t even make it through a mile run without getting winded! Keep sharing your story; there are so many of us that need to hear it.

Christine Duvivier 24 March 2009 - 8:19 pm

Marie-Jo, thank you for bringing Denny’s story to light for us. I particularly love the way he used visualization so powerfully throughout his recovery — and especially in the crucial, panicky moments following his accident, when he didn’t have lots of time to consider how best to approach his goal.

I also appreciate your emphasis on the benefits and spill-over benefits of exercise.
Thank you,
Christine Duvivier

Senia Maymin 24 March 2009 - 11:03 pm

Hi Marie-Jo, Hi Denny,

Like Christine, I want to second how impressed I am at Denny’s reaction to those first few minutes after the accident.

Also, my favorite part is when Denny learned to crawl alongside his little one. That is mega-cool, and is also told as a story in Doidge’s book about the brain – so neat.

Yes, self-regulation and exercise together. Wow.


LeanRainMakingMachine 25 March 2009 - 9:12 am

Thanks for this article and for introducing us to Denny.
I am among those who need to be reminded that so much of my life is within my own hands–hard work, determination, perseverance, optimisim, hope, grit–all of which are demnstrated by Denny and his story.
I exercise often and vigorously, but not often and vigorously enough –no limits and no excuses. Also, I sabotage my exercise efforts by then eating as though I was a 17 year old football player rather than a 57 year old professional –ooops! No excuses, just inadequate self regulation. Same with procrastination.
Denny, congrats on all you’ve done, and thanks for paying it forward. Your stopry also demonstrates the value of having a very clear and inspiring purpose and the energy derived from pursuing it one day at a time…
So, the challenge is what will I do with the rest of my day? No limits, and no excuses…
Is there much science on the benefitrs of visualization to goal achievement?

Denise 25 March 2009 - 9:46 am


There is a book you might really like that covers some research related to motor/kinesthetic imagery and neural development supporting skills and high performance: The Body Has Mind of Its Own by Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee.


Marie-Josee Salvas 25 March 2009 - 10:50 am

Hi everyone!

Very glad to see that Denny’s story resonated with you!

There is a quote by Frank Tibolt that says: “We should be taught not to wait for inspiration to start a thing. Action always generates inspiration. Inspiration seldom generates action.” Denny proved it right – he took action and found himself inspired to pursue. Now I’d love for you to try and prove it partly wrong by using his inspiration to take action! I hope you’ll feel that much more inspired afterward!

LRM, it looks like you have a new motto to experiment with. Maybe it can serve to help you self-regulate your food habits? Just a thought!

Thank you Denise for pointing to The Body Has a Mind of Its Own. I haven’t read it yet, but am very much looking forward to it!



Editor K.H.B. 31 March 2009 - 7:34 pm

Denny Chipollini comment below — He posted it on March 28, but for some reason it couldn’t get past our spam filter. I am posting it here for him so there is no more delay.

Hi guys,

This is Denny Chipollini. I first want to thank everyone for your comments. Yes, life is all about accountability, that’s if you want to stay true to yourself. Let’s face it, the person we can get closest to is our self, but you have to want it.

Here is a good example of how I try to live my life. Remember back in kindergarten or 1st grade when the teacher asked you to draw a picture of your hero. Many of us drew a picture of a brother or sister, mom or dad, fireman, policeman, superhero, etc… but here is the way I see it. I say this not in a conceded way, but more like a motivated beginning. The picture should be of our self. When you do that you put the responsibility on you. See, to be a hero you must take action. You can’t sit on the sofa, do nothing, and be a hero.

Live your life as if you are a hero, better yet a SUPERHERO! We are all examples to each other. So be a good one. Be the best you can be. I have found through the disciple of exercise it helps you to accomplish this.


Thanks again,

Denny Chipollini
A Motivated Speaker trying to create an
inspired moment that lasts…between others
Personal Fitness and Lifestyle Trainer
Founder of Generation Hope


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