September 22, 2008

Losing to Win — Competition Weighs Heavily As Incentive for Shedding Pounds, Improving Healthy Lifestyle

By Mary Powers

Weight-loss competitions might have few fans among the stethoscope and lab-coat set, but as TV's "The Biggest Loser" begins its sixth season, plenty of Mid-South residents are trying the strategy to jumpstart their own efforts.

Take Deborah Golston, 50, of Memphis.

Last week, she was one of 150 Memphis Health Center patients and employees who signed up for the clinic's 12-week, Lose to Live weight-loss challenge. Think "The Biggest Loser" on a small scale. The center's top prize is $300 and a one-year membership to the Hope & Healing Center.

Golston's just hoping to lose weight and bring her cholesterol and blood pressure under control. "I've never been this large before," she said. At 5-foot-7, Golston weighed close to 140 pounds for years. But she registered nearly 200 pounds when she stepped on the scale last month.

She's not alone. The reality show debuted as health officials were warning that Americans were eating their way to an early grave and as the percentage of overweight or obese adults continues to climb.

So, although some health professionals question the long-term effectiveness of the approach, weight-loss competitions are now a staple of Mid-South work places, health clubs, churches or seemingly anywhere two or more gather.

At Memphis Health Center, Dr. Oscar Webb said the staff at the federally funded health center was ready to try something new. Webb is an internal medicine specialist and the center's chief medical officer.

Despite years of working one-on-one to help patients revamp their diets, get active and lose weight, an estimated 40 percent of the clinic's 12,000 patients are obese. The extra weight leaves them at increased risk for early death from cancer, heart disease and other problems.

"The reality TV show has excited public interest," Webb said. "We thought we could bring some of the same excitement to the health center's" efforts.

The health center's challenge was open to adults who are obese based on their body mass index (BMI), or who are overweight and also battling high blood pressure or other health problems.

Wanda Coleman, 53, of Memphis, credits Weight Watchers with helping her lose nearly 52 pounds. But Coleman said competition helps her stay motivated and focused. "I do better when I am competing," explained Coleman, a part-time receptionist at MIFA.

"When I worked a part-time job at FedEx, we had a weight-loss challenge that included money deposited in a pot. The biggest loser every month won the pot. That challenge lasted three months and I won the first two months for the most weight loss," she said.

Last year Latesha Fitzgerald, 48, of Memphis, lost 54 pounds through the Healthy Churches Challenge. She regained about 30, and then lost it again during this year's challenge.

She plans to sign up for the next challenge. She'd like to lose another 50 pounds.

Since it started in 2007, the Healthy Churches contest has attracted about 1,300 people from 14 Memphis churches.

They are competing to win everything from a one-year health club membership to as much as $1,500 for their church.

Grace magazine and Baptist Memorial Healthcare have sponsored the contest.

Fitzgerald won perfume. But she said other aspects of the contest proved more important than prizes. They included regular weigh-ins, educational sessions and practical advice, such as finding a diet partner.

It helped her recognize that she was an emotional eater. "I had to realize I couldn't depend on food, but I could depend on the spirit of God. As I become more satisfied with life in general, it helped keep me away from food," Fitzgerald said.

She focused on prayer and formed a weight-loss partnership with her sister.

Tina Birchett, Grace magazine's publisher, said weight-loss contests build camaraderie. "It is exciting. You feel like you are part of something," she said. A third challenge is planned for later this year.

So far, contest participants have lost a total of 4,075 pounds. But there's no record of how many have kept the weight off.

Mary Kay Oyler of the Church Health Center said competitions might be a good way to kick-start a weight-loss program, particularly for those with a relatively small amount of weight to lose.

Oyler is manager of wellness education and nutrition. "Any way to motivate yourself to create change is good," she said.

But she said long-term success requires the kind of permanent lifestyle changes that aren't easy to maintain.

Dr. Kevin Niswender said that has proven difficult. Niswender is a Vanderbilt University School of Medicine professor.

"There is nothing inherently wrong with the (contest) approach, but the changes have to be sustained on down the road" and built on a sound weight-loss strategy.

The Memphis Health Center's Webb said center staff will emphasize the importance of increasing exercise, limiting portions and making better food choices.

"We want them to lose weight, but be healthy doing it," he said. Enrolling in the contest includes a checkup and meeting with a nutritionist.

Participants received a sheet to log their weekly exercise, plus nutrition tips. There will be weekly weigh-ins.

Webb is hoping participants will lose one or two pounds a week.

Golston would love to win a prize, but she signed on in hopes of improving her health.

"If I could lose 8 to 10 pounds a month, I know I would feel better," she said.

So far, she's embraced the center's advice. Golston is also trying to break habits she developed when her children, now grown and parents themselves, were young. That includes eating four or five meals a day, plus snacks. She's switched from frying to grilling or baking her beef and chicken. She's dropped pork from her diet.

She's also started walking again, warning her daughter she might be calling on her soon to come along. She even got off the bus a few blocks early when she came to the center for the competition weigh- in.

Contact Mary Powers at 529-2383.


Losing together

Here's your chance to join in group weight loss.

You can post your before weight loss pictures and share your goals with other readers of The Commercial Appeal.

Sign up at to share your photo and a paragraph or two about your present state and your goals.

As you progress on your fitness journey, you can post updated photos and weight-loss stats.

Hopefully, this will provide some accountability and support from other readers as they see your progress.

If you have questions, call 529-2372.

Editor's note: We'll check in with Golston periodically during the Lose to Live Challenge that ends in November to get an idea how weight-loss competition is working for her. We'll update the progress in future stories.


Originally published by Mary Powers / [email protected] .

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