March 12, 2010

When losers win


— By

Staff Writer

When he weighed 318 pounds, Mark Tanner was a fan of the reality TV show ''The Biggest Loser.'' He remembers watching the show's overweight contestants competing to see who could lose the most pounds, and he thought, ''I could do that.''

So he did.

Tanner, 32, joined a ''Biggest Loser''-style competition sponsored by a Portland chiropractor and lost about 22 pounds. He didn't win the competition, but the program set him on a path to better health.

A year later, he weighs 226 pounds -- a total loss of 92 pounds.

''While I was working out, one of the things that would keep me motivated was the show,'' said Tanner, who watched ''The Biggest Loser'' while walking on the treadmill at his home in Hollis. ''You can watch TV just as easily walking on the treadmill as you can sitting on the couch eating potato chips.''

Tanner is just one of many Mainers who are using ''The Biggest Loser'' as inspiration for losing weight. The popular show has inspired weight-loss programs based on the show all over the state:

n A ''Weight Loss and Fitness Challenge'' developed by Portland Adult Education has become so popular it's got a waiting list, and classes are being booked into late spring.

n Enrollment has tripled this year in a three-month-long program sponsored by Dr. Lou Jacobs, a Portland chiropractor who started the challenge to help his patients. Last year, the top four participants lost more than 100 pounds collectively, and one has since completed the Iron Man triathlon in Lake Placid, N.Y.

n As of last week, 170 people in Rangeley had signed up for the second annual ''Fit 'n Big Loser'' competition sponsored by the Rangeley Region Health and Wellness Partnership. ''For a little town like ours, that's pretty good,'' said Colleen Dutile, executive director of the organization. ''That's over 10 percent of our population up here.''

n The University of Maine's Student Recreation and Fitness Center in Orono launches its ''Big Bear to Little Bear'' weight-loss program Jan. 19. Participants will be put through obstacle courses, modified boot camps and fitness tests such as a push-up challenge.

n In the Down East coastal town of Cutler, 27-year-old Chris Reynolds has launched a fan site for the TV show called that will be running its own challenge this season, competing against fans at another weight-loss Web site.

Participants in all these ''Biggest Loser''-style programs say it is both the group support and the intense competition that they find most helpful in their struggle to lose weight.

''The competition really, really helped, because when you wanted to cheat, you thought of your team members and said, 'I'd better not, they're depending on me,''' said Donna Gilbert, an office worker in her 50s who won the last Portland Adult Ed challenge by losing just over 22 pounds. ''I have to hold up my part of this deal, or we won't be the team that will lose the most. So the competition kept me honest and gave me strength when it would have been so easy just to give in.''

Gilbert, who wants to lose a total of 50 pounds, joined the challenge because stress from her job had made her too reliant on convenience foods. When she looked into her future, ''I could see myself eating nothing but junk food and putting on another 15 or 20 pounds and having a heart attack as an end result of it,'' she said. ''So my goal was self-preservation.''

The Portland Adult Ed program taught her how to read labels, plan her meals and make better food choices.


Adam Perron and fitness instructor Jessica Lockhart designed the $120 challenge at Portland Adult Ed, which lasts eight weeks and includes nutrition counseling as well as exercise.

Each participant gets a fitness card that admits them into exercise classes during the week -- everything from cardio to pilates and yoga -- and a journal to keep track of their eating. The competitors are divided into small teams so they can call or e-mail each other during the week for support.

While Perron and Lockhart expected there would be interest in the program, they were overwhelmed when 50 people tried to sign up for the first class, which had only 25 spots available. ''I kind of thought (the idea) would work,'' Perron said. ''I didn't realize how popular it was going to get.''

The wait-list losers were funneled into another class that began the week before Halloween. Almost everyone in that class was a ''Biggest Loser'' fan, Lockhart said, and they would often talk about the show at their Saturday weigh-ins.

''The (show's) trainer, Jillian, who's really, really aggressive -- my students want me to be like her, but I'm not like that,'' Lockhart said. ''I think what she does is great, because she pushes people to the extreme.''

The similarities to ''The Biggest Loser'' vary from program to program. Jacobs admits that his weight-loss challenge is only loosely based on the show. He started it to help patients who were struggling with weight issues.

''I deal with a lot of people who come in here to the office with problems that could have been prevented,'' he said. ''The five leading causes of major illnesses in this country are lifestyle related.''

This year, Jacobs opened up the $25-per-person program to anyone. He offers classes once or twice a month with experts such as a nutritionist, an exercise physiologist and a life coach, but mostly his contestants are on their own.

The Rangeley contest, which kicked off last week, is free and open to the public. The idea for the program came from the TV show, Dutile said, but ''we don't have any trainers in here yelling at anybody.''

''We work our programs off of points, so it's not just how much weight you've lost or how many inches you've lost,'' she said. ''You get a point per inch or a point per pound. Then you also get points for meeting fitness challenges, for coming in and taking one of our nutrition classes. We offer free fitness classes to the public every week.''

There are several levels to the fitness challenges, which resemble those you might see on the TV show. To pass Fitness Level 1, a contestant has to do two rounds of 10 push-ups, 10 crunches and 10 squats, and run for one minute -- all within a 15-minute time frame. Anyone who finishes earns 10 points.

Last year, Rangeley residents lost a combined 1,444 pounds and inches in the program, Dutile said.

The University of Maine weight-loss challenge also runs on points, with participants earning extra points for attending seminars on flexibility, nutrition, smoking cessation and other topics.

''We're really trying to create an incentive to be a more well-rounded, healthy person, not just do personal training,'' said Meagan Ramos, the fitness coordinator.

Participants are divided into small teams with names like ''The Shrinkers,'' ''The Fat Burners'' and ''Do Not Resuscitate.'' Personal trainers meet with the groups twice a week to do pool workouts, boot camps and other activities. Contestants keep a diet log and use a fitness pass to go to as many exercise classes as they want.


Weigh-ins are more low-key in the Maine programs -- there's no mortifying big sign flashing contestants' weight for all the world to see, as there is on the TV show -- and contestants don't see the huge weekly losses that are touted on the show, either. The fitness experts who run the Maine programs say they strive for more realistic goals.

The contestants on the TV show, Lockhart notes, ''are at a secluded place where they get to exercise all day long if they want, so it's unrealistic as far as what people here do, because they can't leave their lives.''

It can also be hard on the body to lose a lot of weight quickly, she added.

''It puts a lot of stress on your organs,'' Lockhart said. ''So if you lose a couple of pounds a week, even if it's not as dramatic and exciting as the 10 pounds a week you see on the TV show, two pounds a week over the course of time is fantastic.''

The carrots dangled in front of competitors in these weight-loss challenges vary as much as the challenges themselves. The top prize for one of the fall Portland Adult Ed programs was a $20 gift certificate to the Maine Running Company.

Jacobs' contest works something like a basketball pool. The $25 that contestants pay to enter becomes part of the prize pool. Last year's winner took away about $400 for losing the greatest percentage of body weight. This year, with 45 people participating, the pool has grown to almost $1,200, so Jacobs added two more prizes for the ''greatest number of pounds lost'' and the ''greatest transformation.''

Folks who really need a lot of incentive for losing weight should think about moving to Rangeley. The grand prize in that contest is a week-long stay, including airfare, at the Los Milagros Resort in Cabo San Lucas, on the Pacific coast of Mexico.

Perhaps the best prize, however, is simply keeping the weight off.

Lockhart recently followed up with one of her fall classes, and at least half have either not gained the weight back or they kept losing, even through the holidays. Donna Gilbert has lost an additional five pounds since her class ended in November.

''I got an e-mail from one of the participants today who was pre-diabetic,'' Lockhart said, ''and she was just at the doctor today, and that's gone.''

Tanner even hired his own nutritionist. As his weight loss progressed, he kept setting new goals.

His newest goal?

''I really want to see my abs,'' he said. ''I'm starting to see the outline of them.''

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

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Additional Photos

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Jack Milton/Staff Photographer: Jessica Lockhart teaches a Weight Loss and Fitness Challenge course at Portland Adult Education Saturday, January 10, 2009. The course is loosely modeled on the TV show "The Biggest Loser."

Jack Milton

click image to enlarge

Jack Milton/Staff Photographer: Jessica Lockhart teaches a Weight Loss and Fitness Challenge course at Portland Adult Education Saturday, January 10, 2009. The course is loosely modeled on the TV show "The Biggest Loser."

Jack Milton

click image to enlarge

Jack Milton/Staff Photographer: Jessica Lockhart who teaches a Weight Loss and Fitness Challenge course at Portland Adult Education Saturday, January 10, 2009, watches as Pamela Richards weighs in before her first class. Richards is part of the team names "The M&Ms."

Jack Milton


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