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Crying contestants, tyrannical trainers, head-to-toe transformations—it's easy to get sucked into watching The Biggest Loser. Like millions of fans, I follow along, often while eating ice cream (embarrassing but true). To a lifelong yo-yo dieter like me, the show feels personal. Weight-wise, I have good years and bad. Two pregnancies and spine surgery didn't help. In a burst of health-consciousness a couple of years ago, I lost 40 pounds but regained 10 bit by bit (or, I guess, bite by bite). Exhausted by the constant motion required in a two-working-parent household, a long commute and kids' activities and homework, I found myself eating more and exercising less (bad combo). So when I was offered the chance to spend a week at the Biggest Loser Resort Niagara in upstate New York, I was intrigued. It seemed like the body equivalent of a "shock and awe" maneuver and a chance to reboot fitness-wise. The prospect of leaving for an entire week seemed daunting, especially given that I'd never been away for more than one night since my son was born. But my husband (bless him) said, "Go! You'll do great! We'll be fine." I ran it by my sister and closest girlfriends, expecting at least one of them to tell me I was insane. No dice. They all said, "Do it!" So with no one willing to give me a reason not to, I booked a nonrefundable flight. Here's how my days went.
After breakfast, it's time to head to the airport. My daughter, 5, is splayed on her bed with the iPad, watching Taylor Swift videos. "Bye, Mom! See you in a week!" she says cheerfully. My 8-year-old son, however, looks bummed. I had braced for this ahead of time but still feel terrible. Part of me wants to say, "Never mind, I'll just stay home." Somehow, Rational Me muscles out Emotional Me. He and I talk about how I'll call every night and he can text anytime. He finally seems okay, but breaking our long hug kills me. I'm glad my sunglasses hide the tears in my eyes. My husband smiles, gives me a solid squeeze and says, "Go get 'em, killer."
Check-in at the resort consists of going over the week's menu with the dietician and being issued a big binder of nutrition info, recipes and worksheets. And, of course, weigh-in. Mercifully I'm not required to strip down to a sports bra and shorts like on TV. It's private, just a trainer and me on a futuristic scale that analyzes body fat and lean muscle percentages, among other things. She studies my numbers, takes measurements and informs me that I'm not adequately hydrated. This is not the least bit surprising, since I drink water rarely, if ever. For as long as I can remember, I've been guzzling diet soda morning, noon and night. And of course, at that moment, I would kill for one. Fat chance.
After dinner, we troop to orientation. Our first exercise class of the day is at 6 a.m. Attendance at scheduled workouts is mandatory and verified by our Biggest Loser lanyards, which we are to wear at all times. If you don't show up, a trainer will track you down to make sure you're okay, says the general manager. "Once we know you're fine, we'll encourage you to get right to class. After all, you came here for a reason," he points out, using a refrain that will be repeated over and over again (in a good way). The staff seems kind, genuine and approachable—but they also mean business. We all introduce ourselves and share goals, which range from the obvious, weight loss, to loftier ideals like living a longer, healthier life. Some people mention setting a better example for their kids. I'm down with that. In fact, my son and daughter are very much on my mind. I miss them so much.
I set the alarm for 5:30 a.m. but jolt awake at 5:22. My anxiety level is through the roof—I'm worried whether I can cut it here. I also desperately crave my usual morning jump start: an ice-cold diet soda. In the fitness studio, it's strangely quiet. I think everyone is wondering what's going down today and whether they can handle it. The workout is a reasonably gentle stretch class. Having all survived, we head to breakfast. Day one flies by in a blur of exercise, nutrition lectures and getting to know people. Age-wise, our group runs the gamut. Interspersed among a bunch of 30- and 40-something women like me are a teenager with his mom, a fistful of 20-somethings, even a few retirees. Some are quite overweight, others less so. Several are actually pretty fit and looking to go up a few rungs on the fitness ladder. It's an interesting mix.
After dinner, people mostly drift back to their rooms, wiped out from the day and well aware that we have to do it all again tomorrow, and the day after. Better not to think too far ahead here. Just one class at a time. Back in my room, I turn on the TV for background noise (it seems freakishly quiet without ambient kid sounds) and open my laptop. Bored, lonely, I troll Facebook for a while, then post this status: "I'm spending a week at a Biggest Loser Resort and have survived day one, so I guess that's something." This is news to most friends—I had only told my family and closest buddies. To my surprise, within minutes I am inundated with supportive comments, which boosts my morale. I call home and my kids sound happy and fine. Life is going on without me. Relieved, I fall asleep watching Food Network (ironic?) since I'm due back in the gym bright and early. Well, actually, it'll still be dark at 6 a.m.
Day two passes in much the same fashion as the first, but the afternoon brings a little Tuesday tradition called Trainer's Outdoor Circuit—TOC for short—where you walk or jog (your choice) around the huge hilly property, encountering trainers stationed throughout who have you do squats, lunges, planks and push-ups. I should be miserable, but exercise endorphins are working their magic and I'm energized. After dinner, a few women gather around a piano in the main lodge. Most people seem less tense, like they no longer think they might, say, fly off the back of a treadmill and fall on their face. As new besties belt out "It's Too Late" by Carole King, I head to the hot tub, my just-adopted nightly ritual.
The atmosphere of extreme positivity has taken over my mind. Fear? Gone. Doubt? Ditto. I'm in Bring It mode. I update on Facebook: "Greetings, friends! I am very much alive and kicking at Biggest Loser Niagara, aka Exercisepalooza. Am tired, but feeling excellent. I know this was a tremendous opportunity and I'm determined to make the most of it. Can't believe I'm halfway done! Thanks so much for all your shout-outs. Xoxo." Likes and "you go girl"–type comments stack up immediately, and my call home goes well. I hit the hay happy.
Getting dressed—and to my relief, no longer reflexively reaching for a diet soda that isn't there—I reflect on the peacefulness. Normally, my a.m. routine consists of taking a by-any-means-necessary approach to getting myself and both kids up, dressed, fed and out the door. Not barking orders, repacking bookbags and refereeing random sibling arguments has me so mellow, I feel unrecognizable. And then there's the utter lack of multitasking. In my normal day-to-day, I do 10 things at once, sometimes more. Here the focus is totally singular. One task at a time. One person to take care of—me. Initially it was unsettling. But once I get past the fish-out-of-water aspect, I realize I could get used to this. Big-time.
Meanwhile, after dinner, a smallish group ventures on a BL-sanctioned outing to Target for a change of scene. After, rumors spread like wildfire that at least a couple of people hit up Starbucks for lattes and other no-nos. Some road trippers insist this is simply not the case. In fact, the truth is never made clear. Regardless, it's hilarious that we discuss this obsessively.
I can't believe it! On the one hand, I'm giddy at the thought of having made it this far. On the other, to my utter shock, I'm also a little sad. There's not much left to the week. Our trainers (truly an amazing bunch!) point out that we have exercised more in five days than most people do in a month. I logged four classes before noon, including back-to-back cardio interval sessions. During the second one, Trainer Bill was messing with me, upping the settings on my cardio machine and swapping my chosen weights for heavier ones, all with a smile. It's the kind of attention I feared on Monday, but today I love it. After lunch, we hike at a local state park with stunning waterfalls. I'm tired yet feel lighter on my feet than I have in years. Tomorrow is the Last Chance Workout. The trainers are mum on details. I'm interested but not stressed. I know that I can take whatever they throw my way. I'm much tougher than I gave myself credit for six days ago.
No 6 a.m. class, so I sleep in until 6:45. (Decadent!) Pumped for Last Chance. We end up doing a Bob Harper workout with a deck of cards. Each suit represents a different exercise, such as squats and push-ups. You go card by card, doing that number of reps. Face cards are 10, aces 11. That's it! The afternoon is open to relax or visit the spa. Treatments are extra, but I decide I've earned a pedicure and a seaweed sugar body scrub. Graduation is at 4, a simple but surprisingly emotional ceremony where everyone is asked to jot down something they'd like to "leave behind," so to speak. One by one, we drop our papers into a small fire. We can choose whether to share what we wrote with the group. I volunteer that I am leaving behind the notion of myself as a frail, tentative person who had to have back surgery and has physical limitations. I'm not weak. I am strong.
At dinner, a genuine sense of accomplishment pervades the room. Honestly, I would have loved a glass of champagne to toast the occasion, but c'est la vie. (There's no alcohol. Natch.) After 20 meals around the same table, my BL family and I have become a tight-knit crew. As the night winds down, we brainstorm possible ways to keep on track away from here.
While I feel great physically, I'm already sort of freaking out about how to find sufficient time to exercise at home. Due to my lengthy commute and my husband's work schedule, logistics are not in my favor. But I remind myself that where there's a will, there's a way. This week I proved that I have the will. I will find the way. It's okay for me to be a priority too. Our get-together ends with hugs all around and promises to stay in touch by e-mail. Final assessments are first thing in the morning, and then it's a done deal. Back to the airport I'll go.
Waking up and not exercising feels almost surreal, but there's no class. Instead, I head over to my assessment, a mix of anxiety and curiosity. Good news! Trainer Betty proclaims my results "phenomenal" and says, "I knew you could do this from day one. Now you know it too. Go back to the city and enjoy your family, but take care of yourself as well." I'm touched, especially since I tried to avoid her like the plague the first day, thinking my best survival strategy was to fly below her radar. She never let me, and turned out to be a tremendous source of inspiration. I wish I could bring her home to keep me on track. But I also know, in the end, that living a healthy lifestyle is up to me. And with that knowledge, I'm ready to venture beyond the BL bubble again. Miraculously, I don't even order a diet soda on my flight home, although I am rather tempted. Haven't had one since. Don't plan to again.
Reuniting with my husband and kids was incredible. My clothes felt a little looser, and I was standing taller. Confidence comes with the bragging rights you get as a BL alum. But truthfully, the glow wears off after a while. Real life renders multiple hours of exercise every day impossible, and you just can't re-create that level of focus. (Or at least most people, me included, can't.) It's kind of a downer, but that's when I fall back on the mantras: Aim for progress, not perfection. Grab any and every opportunity to move, no matter what—five minutes of walking is better than five minutes of sitting. Just try. There are days when I desperately wish I could sweat it out for hours BL-style, to experience that high. Those opportunities are pretty much nonexistent in my life, but much to my surprise, I maintain motivation within to do what I can. A closed Facebook group for Niagara grads, monitored by the trainers, is a great source of support. I'm still losing weight, slowly but surely. In other words, the journey continues—I don't think it ever really ends. I'm enjoying it more, thanks to the BL. And I'd happily do it again.
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Originally published in the July 2013 issue of Family Circle magazine.