Losing to win

'Biggest loser' programs are winners in Southern Oregon

In her attempts to lose weight, 34-year-old Alicia Blake "tried everything in the book."

Everything, that is, except a support system. Because her previous diet and exercise programs lacked accountability, Blake went looking for women who could play both the confidante and the spy, women who could share healthful cooking tips and monitor mindless snacking. Blake found plenty of volunteers for the job in her own workplace.

"I think it helps more to have people at work because I see them every day," the Medford resident says. "When you're in the same office, they see what you're taking to your desk to eat."

A fan of NBC's primetime show "The Biggest Loser," Blake proposed a 12-week challenge based on the program at the Jacksonville headquarters of Ashland Partners. Tracking participants' weight, measurements and body-fat percentage, "The Biggest Loser" format has become popular locally at gyms and health-related companies.

"I have to have goals and a time frame," says Blake, the investment company's director of operations.

Six weeks after her office staff embarked on the challenge, Blake had lost 20 pounds simply by changing her eating habits. Instead of ordering lunch during the week, she brings fresh fruits and vegetables from home and worries that if she rummages in the vending machine for a bag of chips, a fellow "loser" could witness her moment of weakness.

"We always confess to each other," says 34-year-old Cristy Kell, executive assistant at Ashland Partners. "This has kind of been a real motivator for keeping those high spirits going and feeling good about yourself."

The group leans on Liz Cope, a 29-year-old firm partner, who used to teach aerobics and avidly researches the latest health trends. Cope frequently shares fitness tips and her favorite Web sites via e-mail, along with diet plans and recipes. The challenge not only enhances participants' personal lives, Cope says, but their professional lives, as well.

Nicole Seeley's job performance benefits from the clear thinking and sustained energy she's enjoyed since starting an exercise routine. To meet her goal of losing 15 pounds, the 32-year-old Medford resident and verifier at Ashland Partners started running and eating more healthfully. Discouraged by slow progress when she worked with a personal trainer, Seeley says even if the pounds aren't melting from her frame, the success of co-workers motivates her to keep going.

"That's contagious," she says.

The camaraderie among women participating in a Medford gym's "Biggest Loser" contest helps 33-year-old Jennifer Lundquist push through the pain of group workouts. Two teams of 23 women meet twice a week at Women's Fitness Company throughout its 10-week challenge. For extra punishment, they hike several uphill miles of East Medford's McAndrews Road or run a foot race and obstacle course at Hedrick Middle School.

"If you would have asked me to do that last November ... there's no way," Lundquist says.

The Central Point resident signed up for her second challenge after holiday indulgence wreaked havoc on her resolve to be the gym's "biggest loser" last fall. This time around, Lundquist is tracking her meals more closely and logging them on a Web-based program that complements the bodybugg, an electronic device the size of a wristwatch that Lundquist wears to gauge the number of calories she's burning.

"Obviously, it must be a pretty good program, or else I wouldn't have done it again."

Lundquist joined the gym and paid an additional $225 fee to participate in the challenge. Five weeks in, Lundquist had lost 7 pounds and decreased her body fat by 6 percent. The contest's title — and a cash prize — goes to the woman who loses the greatest percentage of her body weight.

It wasn't the promise of money or a winner's accolades, however, that spurred Lundquist to sign up for the challenge. Preserving her health for her four children's sake is the ultimate goal.

"I need to be around for my kids for a long time," Lundquist says.

Lisa Ramos, 32, cites similar reasons for signing up in January for a "Biggest Loser" challenge based in White City. Yet Ramos also wanted to take the contest's lessons home to her five children. Ranging in age from 17 to 4, her kids are active in sports, but Ramos says she worries they'll eventually become victims of her family's multigenerational ailments, namely diabetes and obesity.

"I wanted it to be more than just a diet," Ramos says. "Because believe me, if there's a diet, I've done it."

The 12-week program hosted by Herbalife distributors Ann and Bernie Grossman still provides participants like Ramos with some break-through lessons in calories and nutrition. Manager of Jackson County's White City branch library, Ramos lost 4 pounds in three weeks simply by trading her 32-ounce soda for water.

"I was a Pepsi-aholic."

Ramos also keeps a food diary and tries to fill her shopping cart with fresh fruits and vegetables rather than convenience foods. Salads of Romaine and leaf lettuces replace meals of fast food.

"We've all been watching 'Super Size Me,' " she says, referring to the 2004 documentary of filmmaker Morgan Spurlock's declining health during a month of eating only McDonald's meals.

While the Grossmans don't advocate a particular diet or meal plan, they do discuss the basics of proper nutrition, provide samples of Herbalife products and conduct weekly weigh-ins of their nine participants. Similar to the structure of other local challenges, participants who lose the greatest percentage of their body weight take home cash prizes, while the participant who loses the most inches claims a pot of money filled with dollars donated by participants who put on pounds during the program.

No prize awaits Ashland Partners' "biggest loser," other than improved health and fitness, Kell says. The six participants also dispensed with weighing and measuring themselves and instead are focusing on exercising together during lunch breaks and recommending healthful recipes. But the group's plan to run Nike's "Hood To Coast" 197-mile relay race next summer is an ambition, Kell says, that will keep their fitness challenge relevant all year.

"I think it's ongoing," Kell says. "I've reached my goal weight, but I'm still so excited about how I'm feeling."


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