BU Today

Health & Wellness

Winning the Losing Game

One woman’s four-month fitness challenge

At the time, it seemed like a good idea: a series of articles about my personal quest to drop a few extra pounds. My editors liked it, and I figured that public scrutiny of my success or failure would be a powerful motivator. Now, however, three weeks after pitching the idea, I’m beginning to question the wisdom of laying open such a personal mission. I never did like to talk about myself, and at the age of 27, I still don’t.  But I’ve somehow piled on 19 pounds in the past year. And as I said, my editors liked it. So here I go.

Looking back, I’d say my aversion to physical activity began when I was six, the year my cousin Sarah and I took ballet class. Sarah, always a graceful child, quickly mastered the plié and barre exercises, while I stumbled my way through each class, eyes fixed on my toes. It probably wouldn’t have bothered me so much if I had not been denied the opportunity to wear the Princess Crown — the reward for a piece danced particularly well. Sarah wore the crown in every class. I never wore it once. After about six months of standing at the barre and listening to Mrs. Miller bark, “Head up, Vicky,” I ditched ballet in favor of ceramics class.

Eight years later, I joined my high school cross-country team. I came in last in every race. Not just last on my team — I was the last runner to finish out of all the girls on every team.

During the last three years of high school, I threw myself into other activities, such as editing the school newspaper and working backstage during drama club performances. I followed the same formula in college, with exceptions for the occasional trip to the swimming pool and an ice skating class. Despite a regular diet of burgers, pizza, and Taco Bell, I managed to stay trim  — albeit without six-pack abs or rippling biceps, but always maintaining a healthy weight of 130 pounds. After I graduated from college and got a job sitting at a computer all day, I noticed that my jeans were becoming a bit snug, so I swallowed my pride and joined a gym. When the jeans remained snug, I tried the South Beach Diet and dropped from 145 to 132.

And then I moved to Boston. Life was great. I walked to work, and I biked all over the city. I started backpacking through the White Mountains. I became a member of the FitRec Center and stopped eating meat. I thought I was in the best shape of my life.

Until I realized that I had gone up a clothing size. When I noticed the extra rolls of flesh peeking out from beneath my shirt, I began to understand that my healthy lifestyle wasn’t all that healthy.

My situation is hardly unique. During the past 20 years, there has been a dramatic increase in obesity in the United States, and results from a 2003-2004 study by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey indicate that an estimated 66.2 percent of U.S. adults are overweight, including 32.9 percent who are obese. In fact, according to an initial calculation of my own body mass index, I too am overweight.

I was perplexed. How did I, a physically active person with a relatively healthy diet, become overweight? To help answer that question, I called FitRec and set up an appointment with a physical trainer.

The First Step

I do not sleep well the night before my Saturday morning fitness evaluation. I grab a quick breakfast of yogurt with fruit and a glass of V-8 juice and head to the gym to meet my personal trainer, Stephanie McNamara (SED’07). She’s a graduate assistant athletic trainer studying for a master’s degree in health education, and she’s very friendly.

The first thing Stephanie does is measure my height. “You’re five-five,” she tells me.

I blink. I’ve been telling people I’m five-four since I was 12. But I barely have time to ponder the discrepancy, because now I’m being ushered onto a scale.

Stephanie moves the big lever on the scale from 100 to 150. She then gently flicks the smaller lever to 155. I stare at her as she scrawls something on her clipboard. Surely that scale doesn’t read what I think it does.

“Okay, 155,” she says cheerily.

The battery in my scale at home has been dead for nearly a year, and the last time I weighed myself was after I had the stomach flu in 2005. I was 136 pounds. I think I’m going to cry.

“I had two beers last night,” I blurt. “And my shoes are on.”

Stephanie gives me an encouraging smile. “Well, the alcohol can definitely cause water retention and bloating,” she says. “And your shoes probably add a pound or two.”

That means they probably added an inch to my height as well.

The rest of our session passes quickly but painfully. Stephanie measures my resting heart rate, then puts me on a treadmill. For the next nine minutes, she increases the treadmill’s speed and resistance, until I’m climbing a 14 percent grade at 3.4 miles an hour. She takes my pulse, allows me to rest for five minutes, and measures my heart rate again.

“Great,” she says. “Your heart rate is nearly back to normal.”

Well, it’s nice to know that all of that biking and hiking is good for something.

Next, I use the chest and leg presses so Stephanie can evaluate my upper and lower body strength. Then I do a set of push-ups and crunches. Afterward, she tests my flexibility by having me sit with my legs spread slightly apart while I reach for my toes. My calves and hamstrings protest.

While Stephanie compiles all the data, I wait in the juice bar and scribble in my notebook. There’s a group of students at a nearby table.

“Do you guys want pizza for lunch,” one of them asks, “or burritos?”

I resist the urge to throw my notebook at their perfectly sculpted bodies. Enjoy it now, I think darkly, ’cause in another six years you’ll know what it’s like to go for more than three weeks without refined sugar and still weigh 155 pounds.

At that moment, I’m rescued by Stephanie, who has my evaluation results. “Okay,” she says, opening a folder. “These numbers aren’t nearly as bad as they sound.”

I smile weakly.

“Your body fat composition is 27 percent,” she says. “Ideally, I’d like to get you down to 25 percent or lower, and I think we can do that with resistance training. Your cardio is good. Your upper body strength is fair, and your lower body strength is poor to fair. Your flexibility is poor.”

I quietly nod as Stephanie draws out a training plan for the next week. My stomach is in knots as I leave the FitRec Center. What if this doesn’t work? I wonder. What if I do all of what she says and I only gain more weight? I’m going to look like such a fool. I wait until I’m home to cry.

I take the weekend to mope, but on Monday, I’m back at the gym. Stephanie has promised to draw up a fitness routine for me, and in the meantime, I’m supposed to complete one hour of cardiovascular exercise five days a week. I begin my workout by running two miles on the treadmill, varying my speed and incline throughout the run. Then I use the elliptical machine for 30 minutes. According to the calorie counters on the equipment, I’ve burned a total of 600 calories. On Tuesday, I have my first spinning class, which burns an average of 400 calories per session. Aside from the fact that half the time I feel like I’m sliding off the seat, it’s fun. Afterward, I head into the weight room to prepare myself for my upcoming resistance training. My muscles ache by the time I complete three sets of bicep curls, side bends, crunches, and lunges.   

I’d be lying if I said I’m not experiencing severe performance anxiety, but I do feel more hopeful than I did over the weekend. I’ve got a long 16 weeks ahead of me, and I only hope that by the time it’s all over, I’ll have lost some weight and gained some confidence. Six-pack abs would be nice, too.

Look for Vicky’s next installment, detailing the rigorous demands of her new fitness regimen, on Tuesday, February 20.

Please send all notes of encouragement, sympathy, and ridicule to vwaltz@bu.edu.