The results of two nationally-respected obesity studies are relatively flattering to New Hampshire. We are officially one of the least rotund states in the U.S.A., ranking 33rd (high numbers are healthier) in the 2009 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey and 39th in the Trust for America's Health report sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Mississippi, Alabama and West Virginia natives are much fatter than Granite Staters in both studies, which produced similar rankings. Tennessee, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Kentucky have more bloated bathing suits than we do, too.
But before you start gloating to your southern friends, consider that our fitness victory is as hollow as a chocolate Easter bunny. It is estimated that 24 percent of adults - or 1 in 4 - are obese in our state. The fact that nearly 33 percent of the Mississippi Delta also can't fit in a restaurant booth should provide little comfort.
Of course, the only statistic that really matters is what the tape measure around your own waist says.
With that in mind, New Hampshire Magazine searched the state for some of the most inspirational weight loss stories. For people who lift weights and do cardiovascular exercise, the numbers on the scale can be deceiving because increased muscle mass partially offsets the missing fat. A person who pumps iron and loses 100 pounds of fat, for example, may only see a 75 pound reduction.
Although each individual's total loss might not technically qualify them as New Hampshire's "Biggest Losers," their struggle is likely our struggle.
And even if you are one of those dreadful people with a high metabolism who can chug Oreo milkshakes with no consequences, you'll want to root for these folks. The more of them who win the war on fat, the closer we might come to unseating Colorado, America's least obese state, in 2010.
Case File: The Single Mother
Total Weight Loss: 57 Pounds
Occupation: Job placement and training specialist for people with disabilities
Peak Weight: 220
Current Weight: 163
Total Weight Loss: 57
Biggest Food Weakness: Mint chocolate chip ice cream
Exercise is supposed to be a stress buster, and for soon-to-be single mother Emily Robinson, there is plenty of stress to bust.
"Some days I hear one of those love songs and I want to smash the radio," she says.
"When I go to the gym, those feelings melt away."
Robinson is now going through the final rounds of a divorce, while raising four children ranging from age 2 to 17. Her weight gain came gradually with each pregnancy.
"Stress in the household really propelled me to get to the gym," she says. "I figured if I am not well for me, how am I going to be well for my children? I have a lot of things pushing me."
Factoring into the equation: a soon-to-be-ex-husband whose remarks on her appearance took a toll, the psychological impact of turning 40 and the desire to be a good role model for the kids. Her route to fitness is a traditional one: consistent trips to the gym and five small meals a day to keep her metabolism going strong.
She sticks to "extreme circuit" weight training three times a week, mixed with running indoors and outdoors and cardio kickboxing class.
"Being Susie Homemaker is no excuse not to get to the gym," Robinson says. "I'm too young for a bucket list, but all my goals are possible now. Every negative I get thrown at me I turn into a positive. I don't want to be divorced, but I want to make the best out of the situation that I am in."
"Exercise has brought me to another level," she adds, noting that her youngest children like to sit on her back and giggle during push-ups. "I'm not even sure where I want to be yet, but I am happy where I am. I feel better than I did when I was in my twenties!"
Case File: The Surgery Candidate
Total Weight Loss: 162 Pounds
Occupation: Statehouse lobbyist, retired building contractor
Peak Weight: 400
Current Weight: 238
Total Weight Loss: 162
Biggest Food Weakness: Broccoli (no joke)
When he was the Republican majority leader of the New Hampshire Senate, Bob Clegg used to fear the sight of reporters at the top of the Statehouse steps. The legislator was at ease in defending his political positions, but was embarrassed by how quickly climbing those outdoor stairs caused him to be out of breath.
Topping 400 pounds, Clegg also dreaded the pain of walking up the stairs in his own home. Getting to his second-floor bedroom required "Percocets by the bottle" and the living room easy chair had become a rival to his bed.
Fed up with his weight problems, Clegg vowed to become a gym rat at age 50. For three years he made the Concord Racquet Club his second home, often working out twice a day with a trainer and making a special point to be there on Thanksgiving mornings. Baffled by his lack of results, he asked a marathon runner buddy to closely monitor his eating and verify he wasn't gorging on stacks of pancakes in his sleep.
"When your metabolic rate goes to zero, you can't lose the weight no matter what you do," says Clegg. "I'd swim for hours, lift weights, use the treadmills. There wasn't any exercise I didn't try."
In 2007, a doctor at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston recommended bariatric surgery, also known as gastric bypass or stomach stapling surgery. The procedure involves creating a small pouch at the top of the stomach, drastically reducing the capacity for food intake and making the incoming food skip over the first few inches of the small intestine. Patients fill their new stomachs faster, but their bodies also absorb less of the food. "Anyone who thinks this is the easy way out is nuts," says Clegg. "It requires a total change of lifestyle. My stomach now is only big enough to hold either a cup of food or a cup of water."
Clegg shelled out $22,000 of his own money for the procedure, which his insurance company refused to cover at the time. The incident inspired him to file legislation requiring insurance companies in New Hampshire to reimburse for obesity-related surgery. The bill was signed into law in 2008.
During the Republican National Convention, he shared the podium at a health care forum with presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, another "big loser" of unhealthy weight, and he has shared his experiences with Harvard Medical School. In his unsuccessful bid for U.S. Congress last year, Clegg took some flack for his obesity bill from a rival candidate who charged that he supported a "Nanny State." Ironically, Clegg says, his critic was significantly overweight.
"There's a lot of ignorance out there," he says. "People always look at the fat guy and think that something is wrong with him. Making fun of obese people is like making fun of the blind."
Political sniping aside, Clegg is still maintaining his 150-pound-plus weight loss and tours the country giving speeches to health care professionals about the benefits of bariatric surgery.
"You can invite me to your house now and I won't break your chair," he says.
Case File: The Spiritual Sisters
Total Weight Loss: 47
Hometown: Haverhill, Mass.
Occupation: Target store cashier
Peak Weight: 210
Current Weight: 163
Total Weight Loss: 47
Biggest Food Weakness: Dark chocolate peanut M & M's
Total Weight Loss: 70
Hometown: Eliot, Maine
Occupation: Dairy farmer
Peak Weight: 236
Current Weight: 166
Total Weight Loss: 70
Biggest Food Weakness: Muffins and cookies.
Sisters Linda Stone and Beth Johnson commute from neighboring Massachusetts and Maine to the Bethany Church in Greenland, but they are not nuns. They're regular sisters, as in siblings, whose battles of the bulge have brought them closer together.
On Monday mornings, they break away from their jobs to meet in the classroom as instructors for the "First Place 4 Health" program. The national faith-based weight loss initiative places equal emphasis on exercise, diet and scripture. Both started as students.
"Weight loss is great," says Johnson, "but the relationship you regain with Christ is the main thing. We both had kind of sidelined him before when food was our comfort. I didn't really know what Linda was struggling with and she didn't know what I was struggling with. This has renewed our family relationship, too."
Bethany Church's weight loss classes include weekly memorization of biblical verses, such as 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 - "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; You were bought at a price. Therefore, honor God with your body."
"This is the opposite of what the world thinks," says Stone. "People say, 'This is my body and I can do what I want to do with it.' Well, it's not your own body. The price was paid when Jesus died on the cross ... Gluttony and overeating are sinful," she adds. "God will love us no matter what size we are, but his will is for us to be healthy. When I'm tempted by junk food, I ask myself, 'Am I glorifying God by stuffing myself?'"
Theology alone, however, won't shed the pounds. Stone uses resistance bands, dumbbells, exercise DVDs and often takes long walks at a brisk pace. Johnson enjoys a variety of aerobic activities, including biking and tennis, and reports no longer having knee pain when she hops on the tractors at her 70-cow dairy farm.
"My sister and I are completely optimistic we can keep the weight off," she says.
"Ninety-five percent of people who lose weight gain it back. We don't want to be part of that statistic. This is a journey and is something we're going to have to stick with for the rest of our lives."
Case File: The Father of the Bride
Total Weight Loss: 73 Pounds
Occupation: Retired McDonald's restaurant owner
Peak Weight: 286
Current Weight: 213
Total Weight Loss: 73
Biggest Food Weakness: Rigatoni pasta
Long before the documentary "Super Size Me" blamed McDonald's for America's obesity epidemic, Don Bossio confronted fast-food issues on a personal level.
As a corporate training manager overseeing hundreds of McDonald's locations in New England, and later an owner of two restaurants, he briefly wondered if his 24/7 access to Big Macs and French fries might have contributed to his expanding waistline.
"McDonald's gave me the best years of my life," insists Bossio. "Sure, it was easy to eat there. But I lay all the blame for my weight on myself. Being an Italian kid, I grew up hearing 'Mangia, mangia, mangia!'"
"As you climb the corporate ladder, weight certainly is an issue," he adds. "I can't give you a specific instance, but I do think it makes people prejudiced against you. I was self-conscious about it which affected my confidence with strangers."
Over the years Bossio joined and quit several gyms, and yo-yoed with several brand name diet programs. But it was the fear of being a fat guy in a tux at his daughter Jodi's wedding this past summer that pushed him over the edge.
"I didn't want to embarrass my little baby," Bossio says. "I wanted to look good."
With the help of a personal trainer, the retired restaurant owner lost 73 pounds and dropped from a size 48 to size 35 waist in only 13 months - using the tux as inspiration whenever he needed an extra mental push.
As the slimmed-down Bossio was escorting his daughter down the wedding aisle, he asked his son to snap a picture of the two of them with his iPhone.
From the ceremony, the father of the bride e-mailed the picture to his personal trainer with just two words: Thank you.
"I was thinking of my trainer in the middle of the wedding," laughs Bossio. "That tells you where my mind is at."
"I'm no longer a Goodyear blimp, but I want to lose another 20 pounds," he adds. "I know I won't go backwards. To me, it's a matter of life and death. I also like shopping in a regular store and not the fat man's store. My doctor calls me his poster child."
Case File: The Body Builder
Total Weight Loss: 40 Pounds
Occupation: Personal trainer, sports nutritionist
Peak Weight: 170
Current Weight: 130
Total Weight Loss: 40
Biggest Food Weakness: Lindt dark chocolate
One of the biggest myths of weight loss is that you can eat as much as you want as long as you exercise. With the possible exception of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, athletes are not immune to getting fat, and Pearla Phillips could be the poster girl for this fitness truism. As a college softball pitcher on scholarship at Eastern Connecticut State University, she got "crazy big," topping the scales at 190 lbs.
While managing her company's Filene's department store (now Macy's) accounts in New England, Phillips started selling Herbalife nutritional supplements on the side and dreamed of launching her own full-time venture.
"But if I was going to be the owner of a health-related business, I felt like I needed to look the part," she says.
In 2003, Phillips radically changed her eating habits and "forced" her husband John and daughter Kortney to follow her lead. She claims 80 percent of fighting fat depends on nutrition. "The childhood obesity epidemic in America is infuriating," she says. "But we can only look in the mirror and blame ourselves as parents. My daughter makes great food choices now because that's all I have in the house. But even away from home, she'll choose Greek yogurt and a mandarin orange over a chocolate chip cookie anytime."
Phillips runs her own sports nutrition business, PJ & K Nutrition, with the initials standing for her family members. She is also a desk clerk at the Great Bay Athletic Club in Newmarket and competes in regional bodybuilding competitions on weekends.
"For me, bodybuilding is a celebration to show everyone your hard work and see all these other people who have worked as hard as you have," says Phillips. "It's not about winning. It's saying, 'Look at us, we've all come so far and we can shine and celebrate together."
To keep burning calories, Phillips lifts weights for 90 minutes a day and does cardio workouts for 30 minutes a day. To shake up her routine, she sometimes walks backwards or shuffles sideways on the treadmill.
"Most ladies are afraid they'll bulk up if they start lifting weights," says Phillips. "You won't look like a man, I promise. You'll look smaller and better refined and look really great."
Case File: The Reality TV Star
Total Weight Loss: 103 Pounds
Hometown: Frisco, TX (recently relocated from Nashua and Bedford)
Occupation: Real estate marketing coach
Peak Weight: 398
Current Weight: 295
Total Weight Loss: 103
Biggest Food Weakness: Steak
There is no evidence of a conspiracy, but after seven seasons of NBC's "Biggest Loser" show, New Hampshire waistlines have barely showed up on reality TV radar.
The sole exception is Nashua native Wally Bressler, who represented the Granite State in 2006's Season 3, when the program chose one overweight person from each state. The initial contestant pool of 50 was immediately narrowed down to 14 hopefuls, with the rejected candidates sent home to compete for two additional slots on the show.
Outside of the Hollywood spotlight, Bressler trained on his own at the Executive Health Club near Manchester Airport. He lost 116 pounds in six months, yet fell short of the North Dakota contestant to win a wildcard spot at the Biggest Loser ranch. However, Bressler was honored at season finale as one of only four at-home players out of 36 to lose more than 100 pounds.
The former reality TV star, his wife Stacie and four children have since relocated to suburban Dallas for his real estate marketing job. Although he's not as trim as his 282 finish at the end of the show, he is still 100 pounds lighter than his old self.
Bressler's advice: Every mainstream diet works - the tough part is sticking to it. "It's all in your head," he says. "Your stomach doesn't make you more hungry. Your brain makes you more hungry. You just need a strong enough 'Why' to not give up."
At the time of his TV debut, Bressler's sense of urgency was magnified because he says his wife had threatened to leave him if he didn't stop "committing passive suicide." His continuous embarrassment was punctuated by breaking a chair during a business appointment, having difficulty fitting in restaurant booths and hearing his nephew compare his girth to Santa Claus.
In his "Biggest Loser" audition tape, he set some of his XXXL clothing on fire to the tune of "We're Not Going to Take It" by Twisted Sister. Aside from 1980s metal bands, Bressler finds inspiration from the book, "Think and Grow Rich," by Napoleon Hill - a Great Depression manifesto he says is applicable to any life situation outside of business.
Hoping to eventually slim down to 265, he also is a die-hard fan of the brown bag lunch.
"Eating out is when you are inclined to make bad choices," Bressler says. "As General Charles de Gaulle put it, 'If you fail to plan, plan to fail.'"
Tips from the Professionals
We asked a few of New Hampshire's personal trainers to share words of advice about winning the war on obesity. It goes without saying that personal trainers like to use lots of exclamation points!
Owner, Next Level Performance - Manchester
N.H. State Director for the National Strength & Conditioning Association.
Don't starve yourself. Starvation spells disaster for your metabolism. A slow metabolism will actually lead to weight gain!
Don't turn eating into dread. Eating is normal and should be enjoyable. Instead of using a fad diet, simply reduce what you already consume and reduce the amount of fat in your diet from things such as butter, oil, fried foods and empty calories from candy, soda, cookies and other desserts.
Have discipline and be realistic. No diet will work unless you are consistent and accountable. Remember that overweight people have a shorter lifespan. Make an investment in your health and future by
eating in a healthy manner!
Owner, Personal Training by Mike
Planet Fitness - Raymond
Eat five or six small meals per day. Prepare meals weekly by making all dinners and lunches on Sunday night and freeze them.
Use nutritional shakes for one or two of these six mini-meals daily. Use a quality product like Beverly Muscle Provider; it tastes like chocolate milk. I use this stuff to make protein brownies. I've given the recipe to all of my clients and most of them are addicted to it!
Keep a log of all your workouts. By doing this, you can easily set goals and track your progress. This really keeps you motivated.
Owner, Exercise Express - Bedford
Avoid eating out. Portion sizes in restaurants are enormous and it is hard to pass up all that yummy food on your plate. Eating healthy all week long can be sabotaged by a weekend of eating out.
Remember your lifestyle is all about choice. We live in a land of abundance. We are fortunate enough to have the privilege of choice. When we really look to make change and knowing that it is in our capable hands to do so, it is empowering.
Perhaps most important for de-conditioned folks are the "10 Percent Rules." When increasing your fitness routine, try not to increase it by more than a 10 percent increment. This will really help with keeping you injury free. And 10 percent of something is 100 percent better than nothing.
Owner, Good Training,
Gold's Gym Manchester
Food is like a drug for a lot of people. It can take control of our thoughts and take over the way we feel. Just remember what you feel like after you overeat and eat unhealthy. Put yourself in that feeling - uncomfortable, unmotivated, tired - do this before you decide to overeat.
Start by eating something healthy. Once you get rid of that overwhelming feeling of hunger, you will not crave unhealthy food.
Eat often. Get rid of the hunger often, but never make yourself full. Stabilizing your blood sugar will make you feel great. With more energy and less hunger, you will soon not have the urge to overeat!
Director of Training at Hampstead Health & Fitness in East Hampstead www.hampsteadhealth.com
With the frozen blueberries and vitamin-enhanced flavored water, you get the taste and appeal of a fruit smoothie with all the benefits of protein, vitamins and minerals. And the slow-burning carbs of the oatmeal will get your morning started off on the right foot."
Jeremy McCurdy's Blueberry-Oatmeal Fitness Smoothie
This is a breakfast drink for people on the run like me! Keep in mind that my portions are sized only for me, and different individuals with different goals will require smaller or bigger portions of the ingredients.
1/4 cup frozen blueberries
2/3 cup oatmeal
2 scoops (46 g) vanilla whey
10 oz. calorie-free flavored water
Combine all the ingredients and blend until smooth. Pour the shake into a cup and drink it on the way to work. By blending the dry oatmeal, I don't have to take the time to cook it or eat it (I find it very boring and filling to eat plain oatmeal cooked).
This article appears in the September 2009 issue of New Hampshire Magazine