Shaping up

Exercise and diet routine paying off in Nikiski

Posted: Sunday, March 30, 2008


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  Mary Kennedy shows the progress she made in the 12-week Body-For-Life Challenge last year at Elite Health and Fitness. She and others extol the plan's success at helping them get healthier bodies. Submitted photo

Mary Kennedy shows the progress she made in the 12-week Body-For-Life Challenge last year at Elite Health and Fitness. She and others extol the plan's success at helping them get healthier bodies.

Submitted photo

What do you see when you look in the mirror? More than a few extra pounds around the midsection, a sag to a rear area of the body that used to be svelte, or perhaps a pear shape reflects back at you where just a few years ago an hourglass would have been seen?


You're not alone. Obesity has become an epidemic in the U.S. According to the Center for Disease Control, only tobacco-related deaths claim more people annually than the deadly combination of being overweight and physically inactive. Not everyone is eager to become a statistic due to their weight, though.

In fall of 2007 more than 30 people decided to do something about it, and took part in a Body-For-Life Challenge at Elite Heath and Fitness in Nikiski. This is a 12-week healthy living contest based on principles from the book Body-for-LIFE, written by Bill Phillips, a former competitive bodybuilder.

BFL, as it's known to those who participate in the challenge, has been the catalyst for thousands of people to finally get fit and healthy. There is always a challenge going on somewhere in the world, and several a year take place here on the Kenai Peninsula at various gym and fitness centers.


Mary Kennedy talks with Lauren Brewer during a break in a workout at Elite Health and Fitness earlier this month. Both are participants in the gym's Body-For-Life Challenge. "It's all about being healthy, about feeling good," Kennedy said.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

The typical BFL diet consists of five to six meals per day and focuses on teaching participants how to feed their body, not how to starve it. Portion size is emphasized rather than calorie counts. For one day each week participants are also allowed to "cheat" and eat their favorite foods.


Connie Carlson toasts pine nuts before adding them to a shrimp spinach salad. "I've had to start cooking," she joked as she recalled her previous diet that was rich with "cookies, crackers, nachos, ramen, chocolate, chocolate and chocolate." She said a better diet and exercise, at far left, are responsible for her 12- week transition.

Participants are encouraged to record their progress with before and after photos. They are also asked to record their inner transformation in a short essay and they are judged on the quality of their outer and inner transformation.


From the original 30 to 35 people that attempted the fall challenge, only a few successfully completed it, and these are their stories.

Name: Mary Kennedy

Age: 52

Weight before: 161 pounds

Weight now: 144 pounds

Kennedy's body didn't isolate where it stored weight.

"I'm very fortunate to be pretty evenly distributed all over. I was just big all over," she said sarcastically.

Sweets were also Kennedy's downfall.

"My food weakness is, was, and always will be chocolate and peanut butter. I have learned that I can still eat it, I just have to stay really focused when I do eat it," she said.

Kennedy's lifestyle prior to the program was fairly fit, but she didn't have all the pieces of the fitness puzzle healthy diet, strength training and cardiovascular exercise put together.

"I played city league (women's) softball for 21 years. I love to hike. I snow-blow the driveway in the winter and mow the lawn in the summer. (It's a) steep hill down to the lake. I have always worked out at a gym, mostly organized classes, but nothing consistent until now," she said.

Kennedy had also tried other diets over the years with limited success.

"I have always yo-yo'd the same 20 pounds throughout my adult years. My 20 pounds turned in to 30 pounds as I was approaching my 'big 5-0' birthday. I decided I wanted to be fit and 50 instead of fat and 50.

"I joined Weight Watchers in January of 2006. I was turning 50 in February. I got serious, lost 36 pounds, became a Lifetime Member huge accomplishment for me and exercised on and off," she said.

However, during these "off" periods from exercise, Kennedy said some of her lost weight would start to be found.

"So to motivate myself, I signed up for the Body For Life Program in the fall of 2007. I made the commitment to follow the Body For Life diet and exercise program, but I also used it in conjunction with the Weight Watcher Program and I continue to do so," she said.

She said she has experienced weight loss and better health as a result.

"Doing both works perfect for me. I lost 17 pounds during Body For Life, but what I've gained is far more important than just the pounds. I gained lasting friendships with the 'gym rats' that surround me every day. I have gained confidence, determination, and the strength to believe in myself.

"I now know that if a person sets goals and actually puts their plan into action, and applies the knowledge that they have learned, they can accomplish anything they set their mind to. I also want to tell anyone who will listen about the program because it is so good for you," she said.

Despite her success with BFL, Kennedy said there were trying times. To get through wanting to cheat on the diet, she said "I get through it by measuring it. If I don't measure it ... the chocolate and the peanut butter, well you know the rest."

Kennedy's goal going into the BFL Challenge was to lose 20 pounds, get muscle definition and improve her overall health. She said her life is quite different now that she has successfully met her goals.

"I lost 17 pounds. I went from 29 percent body fat to 23 percent body fat. I went from a size 12 jeans to a size six jeans," she said.

Kennedy also continues to participate in BFL and encourages others to do so as well.

"I am currently participating in Round No. 1 of Body For Life 2008. Round No. 1 started on February 11th and will end on May 4th. I am the Body For Life Coordinator for Kamichia at Elite Health and Fitness Gym. I do it as a volunteer because I like the program so much and I would like to encourage as many people as I can to participate in the program. It will greatly improve their lives, both physically and emotionally," she said.

Name: Barbara Roland

Age: 43

Weight before: 213 pounds

Weight now: 180 pounds

Rather than just having a pot belly or love handles, Roland said her body didn't store fat in any one place in particular.

"I put weight on all over. I had a big butt, and my belly was getting big, and I had some weight in my legs," she said.

As to what she ate that contributed to her weight problem, Roland said it wasn't fried or fast food as can be the case with many people. Instead, it was her sweet tooth that got her into trouble.

"Sweets were my food weakness. I loved baked goods and I like to bake," she said.

Her lifestyle prior to the BFL Challenge also didn't lend itself to being fit. She had played sports in her youth, but as an adult, the 9- to-5 demands of her job got in the way.

"I was into sports and basketball in high school, but now I work long days at a desk, so I just sit, go eat lunch, sit some more, than go home and sit. It isn't conducive to a healthy lifestyle," she said.

Roland had also tried other diets in the past with some success.

"About 12 years ago I lost 100 pounds on the Susan Powter diet. She was crazy, but she inspired me and I cut out a lot of fat, but when I took a break from exercise my weight slowly started coming back, and the last five years I had totally abandoned exercise. I just got too busy with work, family and setting up a home," she said.

For the BFL Challenge, she made the necessary changes, though.

"My goal was to win the challenge, but really it was just to change my lifestyle, and I was afraid because I knew if I was going to do it, I would do it right and it would be for life," she said.

Roland faced her fears though, and made a plan and stuck to it.

"Failure to plan is like planning to fail, so I kept a journal of my exercise and diet, and I would review it each day. I was militant the whole 12 weeks," she said.

It wasn't easy either, she said.

"It was hard the first three weeks, but after that you get over the hump of feeling deprived. You know you're doing it for yourself, and that makes it less difficult," she said.

Roland said the BFL plan was designed with success in mind, so there were many alternatives to help her when things would get tough, such as when she would get craving for a sweet treat.

"You get to eat every two to three hours, which is about six times a day. I'd also get through by having alternatives from the BFL cookbook, such as carrot cake muffins, pumpkin cheesecake or other good things."

Now that she has completed the BFL Challenge, Roland said her life is completely different.

"I've had a transformation. I've completely changed. My kids say I look better than I have their whole lives, and I can shop for clothes where I want and get what I want now. And I have more strength and more muscle, which is important to me as I age," she said.

The changes aren't just in how she looks, they're also in how she feels.

"My energy level is amazing now. I get up at 4:30 a.m. and go to bed at 9 p.m. all the time," she said.

"I'm also more confident now. I don't sell myself short now and I never will again," she added.

Name: Darin Hagen

Age: 34

Weigh before: 152 pounds and five percent body fat.

Weight after: 160 pounds and still five percent body fat.

Don't be fooled by Hagen's weight increase as a result of the BFL Challenge. Increasing his lean body mass and building muscles is exactly what he was hoping for when he got involved, which he said is a little different situation than some in the BFL program.

"My body-for-life impetus for change actually began two years ago after a long bout with illness. I was 135 pounds, weak and emaciated from being sick. I was no longer able to do any of the fun things that I used to enjoy so much," he said.

Hagen had formerly been extremely active and wasn't about to let being sick stand in his way of doing so in the future.

"I used to play sports, hike, snowboard, rollerblade, jog and row my drift boat down the Kenai for fun. When I realized I was no longer able to do the things that I used to enjoy, I vowed to do whatever it would take to regain my quality of life," he said.

Hagen began with small changes every week.

"At first, all I could do were a handful of push-ups and abdominal crunches. I slowly built up my muscle strength and endurance by using mostly body weight exercises and an exercise ball. Within a few months I was able to bench press 20-pound dumbbells and eventually 30-pound dumbbells 10 times," he said.

Hagen explained this may not seem like much to a fully fit person, but he saw this as huge milestones in the improvements he was making to his recovering body.

"Now, I'm doing five to six sets of 10 reps on the bench press with 75-pound dumbbells. After making improvements to my body through consistent weight training exercises, cardio exercise and by cleaning up my diet eating the right combinations of foods to maintain my energy and mental alertness I started to try some of the activities that I hadn't been able to do in five to 10 years," he said.

All of this Hagen did on his own, so when he heard about the BFL Challenge, he said it sounded like more of the good thing he was already doing as part of his recovery from illness.

"The greatest thing for me has been able to show people how they too can regain their quality of life back or simply improve on their level of health by making some small changes to how they live. I knew that in order to talk the talk, I had to walk the walk. I believe you should lead by example so I was excited when I learned about the Body-for-Life challenge and how closely it resembled the exercise/health habits that I had already found to be so helpful in my life," he said.

Hagen said the BFL exercise component takes up less than three and a half hours a week, and he found the nutrition plan simple and easy to follow. He couldn't say it was more simple than other diets, because he said he had never tried any others.

"I've never been on a diet because my weight has never been an issue. What I learned that I needed most was the right combinations of good foods to maximize my energy. I wasn't overweight or underfed but I was malnourished because I wasn't eating foods that had enough of the things my body needed," he said.

Hagen said his circumstances, when he ate, was almost as important as what he ate.

"My food weakness was that I didn't eat the right things when I was hungry or often enough. I didn't understand how much the timing of what you eat and how much would affect your energy, moods or alertness," he said.

He said the one "free day" in the BFl plan made things easy when he got a craving for something off the diet plan.

"One day a week is a scheduled free day to eat whatever cravings you want. This keeps your cravings in check knowing you can eat your favorite foods once each week and it allows your metabolism to reset itself a little after restricting yourself for the rest of the week. It's good to satisfy your cravings so you don't ever have to feel like you are depriving yourself," he said.

In addition to improving his cardiovascular endurance, gaining muscle strength and maintaining a low body fat percentage while on the BFL plan, Hagen said he has experienced other results as well.

"Additional benefits I received included increased energy level, better posture and knowledge that my heart is stronger and healthier as a result of choices I make during the day. Now I can do all the activities that used to be too strenuous for me. That's been the greatest benefit I could have imagined," he said.

Hagen said he now applies the principles he learned to help others in his position as a personalized fitness trainer.

"I did reach my goal and I was lucky enough to get to help others make some changes to their lifestyles and help them reach their goals as well. The greatest part of my job is getting to show people how through determination, hard work and making the right choices that they too can slow or stop the aging process and regain strength, endurance and quality of life.

"Making small changes to one aspect of your life and achieving goals by seeing results can empower you to transfer some of those new skills to other areas of your life. This is really only the beginning to realizing a person's full potential," he said.


Connie Carlson toasts pine nuts before adding them to a shrimp spinach salad. "I've had to start cooking," she joked as she recalled her previous diet that was rich with "cookies, crackers, nachos, ramen, chocolate, chocolate and chocolate." She said a better diet and exercise, at far left, are responsible for her 12- week transition.

Name: Connie Carlson

Age: 42

Weight before: 169 pounds

Weight now: 135 pounds


Carlson said her weight was in her belly, but only slightly more there than anywhere else on her body.

"It was concentrated through my abdomen, but I pretty much gained it all over," she said.

As to her food weakness, Carlson said she didn't discriminate when it came to eating.

"I love all food, so if I'm not trying to be fit I can eat heck of a lot of food. Eating is fun and I can overdo it on portions. If I had to pick one thing though, I would say my weakness is chocolate. I can really O.D. on it," she said.

Her lifestyle prior to the program was also very lethargic.

"It was mostly just work and homelife, and when I would go to the gym it was very sporadic. I wasn't really getting much exercise. I would stay up late watching TV and eating. It wasn't uncommon for me to snack at midnight," she said.

She hadn't tried many other popular weight loss programs or fad gimmicks in the past.

"I hadn't really done other diets. I had lost weight before by not eating so many carbs, but I never really got into the whole Atkins thing. I think balance is healthy," she said.

Since starting the BFL Challenge, Carlson said she has made a lot of changes to her lifestyle.

"I eat a healthier and more balanced diet now, and I exercise six days a week. I'm in another BFL program. I find that these 12-week programs are good for staying motivated," she said.

Carlson said she never had trouble when she would start to think about possibly cheating on her diet.

"BFL is pretty user-friendly because you can enjoy eating and there's a good variety of foods. Also, since it was a challenge, I looked at it like a game because I like games. The challenge gave me something to think about and made it fun for me to do," she said.

Carlson said her life is significantly different now that she has succeeded in the BFL Challenge.

"I'm enjoying being fit so much, and it's fun to be able to fit into cute clothes. My daily activities are easier. Just putting my socks on I'm more flexible," she said.

Now that Carlson is fitter, she said she is looking forward to taking up physical activities she abandoned long ago.

"I'd like to try downhill skiing again. I tried it once 20 years ago, but I didn't feel like I had the strength, stamina and coordination to do it again until now," she said.

As to if she thinks she'll ever return to her old eating habits and sedentary ways, Carlson said its not likely.

"There may be minor losses and gains, but I think this change will be for life."

Joseph Robertia can be reached at

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