The reality of weight loss

March 13, 2011 

Standing in line for a "Biggest Loser" audition in Salt Lake City in 2009, Tracy Chan was served a heaping helping of reality.

She was the 547th person in a line that included a nearby woman polishing off a box of donuts and others ordering pizzas. And it seemed as if another 1,000 people were waiting behind her.

Chan, a 44-year-old Milton resident, thought she was a perfect candidate for the NBC show. She was 5-foot-7, 368 pounds, and she had a compelling story that included her husband’s death after a battle with cancer. But after waiting eight hours for a 15-minute group interview, Chan knew the odds weren’t in her favor.

“That’s when it hit me,” she said. “I can’t wait for some fairy to take me to the land of skinny. I have to do it myself.”

Chan never made it on the show, but two years later she finds herself in the middle of a different kind of weight-loss competition at Fircrest’s Innovative Fitness. She’s shedding pounds as part of the gym’s annual Biggest Winner Team Fitness Challenge.

Chan has worked with trainers Jesse Ewell and Shane Simmons since April 2010 and recently weighed in at 228 pounds. She lost 25 of those pounds during the first half of the competition, and her five-person team is on pace to win the $1,500 grand prize.

Dozens of gyms across the South Sound offer similar “Biggest Loser”-inspired competitions in an attempt to motivate people to lose weight and meet other fitness goals.

Some are group-exercise competitions that come free with your gym membership. Others are full-service contests such as the one at Innovative Fitness, where participants pay an entry of $200 in addition to usual fees and get a meal plan and one-on-one time with a trainer and a dietitian.

But all stand in contrast to the so-called reality TV show.

“The show sets you up mentally that anybody can lose weight because everybody (on the show) loses a lot of weight in a short amount of time,” Chan said. “So when that doesn’t happen, you can’t help but feel like a failure.”

Local trainers and dietitians say clients often arrive with unrealistic expectations based on what they’ve seen on the “Biggest Loser.” In 2005, Matt Hoover of Seattle won the TV competition by losing 157 pounds in nine months.

“That is unrealistic in the real world,” said Claire Kjeld, a dietitian who runs Pierce County’s Biggest Winner competition in conjunction with the YMCA. “On the show, they are working out a minimum of five hours each day. They are monitored by a doctor, they’re only eating 1,200 calories per day. They are running on empty, losing a ton of muscle.”

Most local gym competitions take more realistic approaches with a goal of losing about 1 percent of body weight each week, Kjeld said.

The local contests still offer friendly competition (without voting anybody out of the contest) to keep people inspired.

“But really you’re not competing against anybody but yourself,” Ewell said.

While such contests might not drip with the drama that the TV show offers, Chan is proof the journeys are every bit as inspirational.

Chan’s weight started spirally out of control when her world unraveled in 2002. Her husband, Tony, was diagnosed with cancer, launching an emotional roller coaster ride.

For seven years, Chan’s intense days included a full-time job at a Sumner toy company; taking her daughter, Nakayla, to swimming practice; and no time to take care of herself.

But when Tony died in 2009 and she was left as a single parent, the light bulb went on. If she was going to be there for Nakayla, she needed to lose weight. A lot of weight.

She set a goal of losing 200 pounds and held tight to the memory of her husband for motivation.

“My husband was a very incredible man, and he fought so hard to be alive,” Chan said. “So I have no excuse but to get my bottom over to the gym.”

She joined a small gym in Milton where at first she could barely ride a stationary bike for five minutes. Chan had some success, but the real breakthrough came when, at the recommendation of a friend, she went to Innovative Fitness.

On any given day, supremely fit athletes can be found at the training studio perfecting their already fine-tuned bodies, so Chan was pretty sure she wouldn’t fit in.

“I was so nervous I almost puked,” Chan said.

But Ewell quickly put her at ease. The studio’s owner helped Chan lay out a program that was about more than just losing weight.

“A lot of people can lose 20 pounds, but all they are is the same person 20 pounds lighter,” Ewell said. “That’s what makes us different. We’re about helping people change from the inside out, not the outside in.”

Ewell says training is only one-third physical. It’s mostly mental and spiritual.

“The mental is believing you can achieve your goal,” he said. “The spiritual is finding what it is that drives you. And the physical is doing it.”

Ewell encouraged Chan to make a list of things she wanted to change in her life. Benchmarks she could check off as she moved toward her goal.

“It’s got to be something deeper than a number on a scale that drives you,” Ewell said.

Chan called her two-page list “Fatitudes, Fears and Frustrations.” Some of the items she’s already checked off:

 • She no longer worries about whether she can fit into a booth at a restaurant.

 • She’s no longer concerned that plastic lawn chairs will collapse under her.

 • She no longer needs to request a seat belt extension on airplanes.

“There are so many negative things on that list that come with being a really heavy woman,” Chan said. “But as I cross them off, I see my mental state changing.”

She is quickly closing in on another goal: being able to shop in the regular-size clothes sections at the mall.

And eventually she’d love to go scuba diving in Hawaii and sit on the beach in a swimsuit.

“I never would have done that before,” she said. “I never would have worn a swimsuit in public, and I wouldn’t fit in a wetsuit.”

As Chan shrinks, her confidence grows, and it’s clear she’s changing more than her body.

At the bottom of her list of goals she writes, “When the time is right and I have transitioned into the new body and have a positive body image of myself, I would like to date. And hopefully be able to share my life with someone special again.”

She’s still busy, working full time and traveling to visit Nakayla in Las Vegas. But these are no longer reasons to interfere with her training.

“We hold on to excuses,” Chan said. “But we need to take the step and push and fight for it.”

The competition at Innovative Fitness has added a dose of extra fun and inspiration to Chan’s workouts of late. Especially since her sister, Anita Baillie, is on a rival team. But regardless of the outcome, she knows the only thing she’ll lose is weight.

“I’m able to look in the mirror now and what I see is not so negative,” Chan said. “I see really positive growth. I still have a big stomach but I’m getting closer to the finish line.”

Craig Hill’s fitness column runs on Sundays in The News Tribune and The Olympian. Please submit questions and comments via craig.hill@thenewstribune.com, facebook.com/adventureguys or twitter.com/adventureguys. Get more fitness coverage at blog.thenewstribune.com/adventure and thenewstribune.com/fitness.

Winning losers

Participants in weight-loss competitions at local gyms have enjoyed success. For profiles of others who’ve triumphed, visit blog.thenewstribune.com/adventure.

EARL FOWLKES

Transportation worker, Puyallup

Age: 49 Height: 6-foot-0

Start weight: 253

Finish Weight: 212

Fowlkes won the 2010 Pierce County Biggest Winner competition while working with MultiCare dietitians and trainers at the Mel Korum YMCA. He lost 40 pounds in three months and says working with the dietitian and learning the right foods to eat (and how much) was key to his success. He had to cut back on cereal, one of his favorite foods.

“Knowledge is the key,” Fowlkes said. “My motto for life is moderation. You have to be ready to make a lifestyle change to have success.”

The working out was easy for Fowlkes, a former high school football player.

“I’m a competitor, so I like it when I’m challenged,” Fowlkes said. “That’s why I think it (the contest) is a great thing.”

The 2011 Pierce County Biggest Winner starts this month.

FRANCESCA GUILLEN

Mom, Spanaway

Age: 37 Height: 5- foot-2

Start weight: 155

Current weight: 134

Guillen is a month into the Biggest Loser competition at Studio 138 in Spanaway. She’s lost 21 pounds since she started doing Zumba at the gym last year. She’s lost more than six pounds so far in the competition and has a goal of reaching 125 pounds.

“But it’s not really about that number,” Guillen said. “It’s about working to get healthy and being active and being there for my kids.”

Guillen is working out at Studio 138 and using the Paleolithic diet, a diet centered around plants and meat. She has eliminated regular trips to Taco Bell and McDonald’s and has set a goal of running a half marathon and, if it goes well, eventually a full marathon.

“I love running,” said Guillen, who does eight hours of cardio each week.

Craig Hill, staff writer

DROPPING WEIGHT

While researching weight-loss competitions, fitness columnist Craig Hill decided to take part in one. Over the next four weeks go to blog.thenewstribune.com/adventure to read about his attempt to drop 10 pounds and to read profiles of others who’ve found weight-loss success. Share your story via e-mail at craig. hill@thenews tribune.com.

Stories to watch for

Today – Unreality TV: Local gyms offer weight-loss contests inspired by NBC’s “Biggest Loser,” but add a huge dose of reality.

March 27 – Trainers and nutritionists: The right help might unlock secrets to reaching your goals.

April 10 – Now what? What to do after reaching your goal.

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