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Published: Sunday, 2/1/2004

The Scaling Down crew, one year later

BY VANESSA WINANS
BLADE STAFF WRITER

You can hardly turn on the television these days without finding a show promoting a diet contest. From Dr. Phil's Ultimate Weight Loss Challenge to the National Body Challenge on the Discovery Channel, public diets have a proven fascination for viewers.

But public scrutiny can be a powerful motivator: folks are likelier to stay on the straight and narrow when others are looking. What happens once the spotlight dies is often not so well documented.

Between Jan. 30, 2002, and Jan. 30, 2003, six Toledo area residents embarked on a grand experiment: They agreed to go public with their weight-loss efforts for a series, Scaling Down, that appeared in The Blade. During the year, the six lost a collective 140 pounds, and 75 inches from their waists and hips. Five saw a 10 percent or greater drop in their body fat. Although they did not meet all of their goals, they - and a couple of weight-loss professionals who tracked their progress - deemed the year a success. In their final interviews, all said they intended to keep their new eating and exercise habits - and keep the lost weight off.

Twelve months have passed since their final weigh-in for Scaling Down. In that year, three have experienced devastating family losses. Two have graduated from college and entered the job market. One has developed health problems that have baffled doctors.

All in all, "it's just been one of those kind of years," said Lisa Otting, one of the Scaling Down six.

And yet, the six report that while they mostly haven't lost any more weight in the year since the series ended, they haven't gained much, either, with one exception. And given the recidivism rate of dieters in general, that's a victory in itself.

"Weight loss maintenance can be extremely challenging following a period of significant weight loss," Dr. Robert Carels, an obesity researcher at Bowling Green State University, said in an e-mail interview. "In 1995, the Institute of Medicine summarized the findings of numerous weight loss programs and concluded 'those who complete weight-loss programs lost approximately 10 percent of their body weight, only to regain two thirds back within one year and almost all of it back within 5 years.'

"The participants in the Blade program did remarkably well," he added.

Here's what's happened with each of the six since our final Scaling Down story ran last February:

When the year ended, Lisa Otting, now 41, had lost 39 pounds, the most of any group member. She wanted to lose another 43. She had built a network of supportive friends and relatives, changed her eating habits, and made exercise a regular part of her routine. If anyone seemed poised to build on her success and meet her ultimate weight-loss goal, it was Lisa.

Then her father, who lived in another state, died in May.

"I arrived for his funeral on my birthday," she said. "They had already cremated him. There was no closure. That was the worst thing, dealing with my dad's death."

With his passage, she returned to old patterns of eating to bury the pain and grief.

"It shows what happens if you tend to be a stress eater," the Toledo resident said. "I've gained about 20 pounds back. It's hard to admit that."

Other changes have forced her to tweak her life. Her eldest daughter moved out three weeks ago. The latest move -- her two eldest sons have their own apartment -- has left the mother of five with just two teens at home. The nest may not be empty yet, but it is quieter.

"I'm not depressed, but it was an adjustment," she said.

As her life continues to shift, she finds herself getting back to old goals. The lure of art - she's a painter - feels stronger than ever. And despite the setbacks of the past year, she still wants to get down to 155 pounds.

"I feel very vulnerable," she said of sharing her story. "But it's an opportunity to show how real people handle disappointment. There were times I slipped, times I had tragedy. I feel naked, because I'm the one admitting publicly that I gained. But maybe this is a way to tell people, don't be so hard on yourself. If you fail, get right back on it. That's what I'm going to do."

Her tenacity inspires Diana Gaillardetz, another of the Scaling Down dieters. The two became friends during the series and still get together.

"I know Lisa has had trouble," Diana said. "But she's still at it. I think that's great."

Barb Meyers continues to plug away at weight loss. Her weight has fluctuated by 10 pounds or so in the last year; right now, the scale's needle points about where it did last February.

She considers her year a success. Not so long ago, she couldn't fit in a movie theatre seat; last summer, she had her first airplane trip.

"The concern I had was, was I going to be able to get that seat belt on?" the 60-year-old Oregon woman said. "It fit! Not by much, but it fit."

Although her eating habits haven't always helped her cause ("You get lazy and think, 'Tomorrow I'll do better,' and then tomorrow comes and you don't"), she has kept up with her six-day-a-week exercise regimen. And the new year has helped her regain a sense of purpose, a necessary part of a long-term strategy.

"I haven't given up, and I'm not going to give up," she said.

The birth of her first grandson, Jude, has also revitalized her desire to drop more weight. She plans to return to Tucson this summer to see him again, which means another air trip - and another seat belt.

"When I get on that plane in July, I don't want to unlatch that belt any farther than necessary," she said. "And I want to be able to get down on the floor and play with that kid! And chase him around."

Like Lisa, Jacob Coon lost his father last year, in September. The death hit the 22-year-old hard.

"He'd been sick for a while, but we didn't think he was going to die," he said. "It just happened one morning. I was the only one in town."

Since then, Jacob, who graduated from Bowling Green in December, has rethought his career path. The newly minted teacher had planned to leave the area. But now he's not so sure.

"My mom, she would tell me, don't stay just for her. But, you know. I'll stay in Ohio for a couple of years."

Between the family issues and the rigors of finishing college, Jacob hasn't paid much attention to diet or exercise.

"I've been doing pretty bad this year," he admitted. "These two semesters I've just finished were two of the more stressful for education majors: your first experience in the classroom, then student teaching. That made it a little tiring."

He paused for a moment, considering his words.

"Those are just excuses to say I was a slacker."

Yet, he still wants to get back on track, eating less and moving more.

"I don't want to live this way; it just ends up being the way I do live because it's easiest," he said.

The group's other recent college graduate, Tiffanie Wachira, 24, has had her own professional issues. After months of looking, she still hasn't found a career-track job. And that's affected how she takes care of herself.

"I would apply for all these jobs, I would get an interview, but I wouldn't get the job," she recalled. "I would get anxiety from that. I would try to eat my problems away."

Despite the frustrating job search, she lost another 10 pounds over the summer, but has since regained it.

"For the longest time, I was on and off, on and off," she said. "You're really ready [to work at it], then you have a period where you're not working as hard, then you get back to it. That's my year, condensed."

She too wants to continue the weight loss journey.

"I want to lose 30 more pounds. I don't care if it takes all year. I want to lose it."

Of the six, Bob Zirker has had the toughest year. Both of his parents died, his father in February and his mother in August. He had excruciating pain in his feet, which led his health to decline. Because he was unable to work as much as he had, his business went down, too.

"All that pushed my goal of losing weight way into the background," the Toledo man said.

His parents lived in Cleveland, which meant plenty of stressful hours on the road as their health worsened. His foot neuropathy paining him, he would often stop at rest stations and maybe get something to eat or drink.

"Very often, I would manage to get to a rest stop, pull in, and cry," he said. "I couldn't tell if I was grieving or hurting.

"I knew I was overweight and fat, but I didn't care," he said, adding that he relied on a high-calorie coffee drink to ease the two-hour ride.

"It was my pacifier," he admitted. "And I would always get the giant size that would last till I got to Cleveland. And after the visit, I'd go to Damon's and have a slab of ribs."

Months later, he again watches what he eats, but still cannot work out.

"When I exercise and get my heart rate going, it actually feels like someone is stabbing my feet with a knife, real fast," he said. So he is considering surgery options and trying to hold his own until he can exercise again.

A year after meeting, and even overshooting the goal she set for herself, Diana Gaillardetz has regained nine pounds. She couldn't be happier about it.

"I had gotten below goal, and I was really struggling trying to keep below goal," the Ottawa Hills women said cheerfully. She went to her doctor, who told her to add five pounds to her goal weight of 155. Diana put on a few pounds, and looks and feels great.

"It's much easier to maintain," she said. "I can go out and eat with friends. It's much more like a lifestyle now."

She sees her current eating and exercise habits as something she can live with for the rest of her life. She joined the YMCA, where she works out, and TOPS, which keeps her accountable for her weight. "Those two things really made a big difference.

As did being in the newspaper for an entire year. She's amazed that strangers still recognize her from her time in the spotlight.

"Even now, I'll still run across people I don't know who ask how I'm doing," she said.



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