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Major Weight Loss Through Serious Fitness

How 4 adults reinvented their lives with competitive exercise

spinner image Pictures of Shelley Hughes before and after her weight loss.
Courtesy Shelley Hughes

Shelley Hughes, 55, Visalia, California

One step at a time — that became Shelley Hughes's mantra when she decided to get fit. At the time, she was a critical care nurse in Florida — and 100 pounds overweight. “I woke up on a January morning and realized that even opening my eyes was hard because my face was so full. I was 5-foot-1 and 233 pounds. That's when I said to my husband, who was about 80 pounds overweight, ‘We've got to do something. Today is the day we start.'” Hughes began by joining Weight Watchers and tweaking her diet, but within six months, she also began a new exercise regimen. Today, she weighs about 133 pounds (from a size 22 to a size 2/4) and is an avid open-water swimmer who has done a 12.5-mile swim around Key West and a swim from New York City's Statue of Liberty to Freedom Tower.

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How she got out of shape

"I became a mom, and then I was in nursing school. Life just took over and I never even thought about exercise. I met my friends at the buffet, not at the track. I'd been a swimmer in my teens, but I basically didn't exercise from age 16 to age 46. It was 30 years of nothing. After working 12-hour shifts, taking care of other people, I didn't feel like cooking, so I'd swing through the drive-through."

When she started to get fit

"I started by making one change at a time — and these changes were nonnegotiable. When I coach people now, I tell them, ‘You know when you start out brushing your teeth as a little kid? At first, you have to be talked into it, but eventually you just get up and do it.’ I tried to make sure that all of my lifestyle changes were things I could commit to 75 to 85 percent of the time. And once one lifestyle change was a habit, I'd move on to another."

Exercising once again

"About six months after I started losing weight, I signed up for a walking challenge. I had about eight weeks to work up to walking a 5K, and if I did the walk, I received a charm. It was teeny but I have to tell you — it meant something. And once I started walking, I thought, ‘What if I could run from here to the next mailbox?’ and then I joined a beginners running group."

Ramping it up

"I started to surround myself with people going in the same direction as me. They would finish a 5K in 20 or 25 minutes, and I'd come in at 45 minutes, but they would all wait for me and cheer me on. And when they did really long runs — I was probably down to about 200 pounds at that point — I would bring my bicycle and ride alongside. Then the 5Ks turned into 10Ks, and ultimately into half-marathons."

Finding her sport

"Our group branched out from running to riding our bikes and swimming. I had been a strong swimmer as a teenager, so suddenly the slow girl in the back of running races was doing great as a swimmer. I was down probably 70 pounds, but I had hit a plateau and could not get the numbers on the scale to move, so my daughter came up with this brilliant idea that as a family we would all do a marathon. I did it, and was one of the last ones to finish, but I did finish! And that's when I started to really believe I could do these crazy things. So on April 14, 2015, I did my first half-Ironman, which was a 1.2-mile swim, 56 miles on the bike, and a half-marathon [13.1 miles]."

Where she is today

"I had an accident on my bike shortly after the half-Ironman that didn't leave a scratch on me but caused a brain bleed. It meant that I had to learn how to walk and to talk all over again, and I lost my nursing profession that day because I could no longer handle the mental challenges of the job. But after the accident, I decided to become a coach at Weight Watchers and dedicate myself to helping others believe in themselves. It's like a different kind of nursing. We now live in California. I exercise at least five to six days a week, and this year I plan to swim the 10 miles across Lake Tahoe. My husband will kayak beside me, with my little service dog in the kayak. The swimming is like running — you find friends who support you, who say, ‘You're one of us now.'"

spinner image Before and after weight loss collage of Janie Jurkovich
Courtesy Janie Jurkovich

Janie Jurkovich, 66, Clovis, California

When Janie Jurkovich and her husband split a few years ago, after 35 years of marriage, it was just the kick in the pants the then 60-year-old needed to get her life, and her health, back on track. “It turned out to be the best thing for me, because I didn't realize how stifled I was,” says Jurkovich, who at the time worked as a property manager and commercial real estate broker. “It was a wakeup call. I decided to get my life back on track — including my sex life. I wasn't feeling good in my skin.” Losing weight, she felt, would help in that department.

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How she got out of shape

At 5-foot-7 and 180 pounds, Jurkovich says, she was working out but not hard. “I was just barely doing it,” she says. “I'd go to Pilates classes, but I couldn't even keep up with the ladies in the class who were 70 or 80 years old! It might have looked like I was doing something, but I wasn't really working very hard."

When she started to get fit

"I tried going to a trainer, but that didn't work out well for me — I'd go on vacation and the trainer would be gone when I got back. Or I'd have a younger trainer, and he'd have no patience for me. So I quit going to the gym. Then I told myself to start small by doing sit-ups and push-ups at home and going for walks. After a couple of weeks of that, I signed up for a women's boot camp. It was five days a week at 6 in the morning, and it was intense. But the coaches were inspiring, and I liked the accountability. And because I had to get up so early, I was pooped at night and started going to bed earlier and getting better sleep.

Seeking a new social group

"Often a couple of friends in the class and I would get together to hit golf balls or go out for coffee. It was a good way to nurture like-minded friends, because it's so important to hang around people who are also interested in being fit. If I'm hanging around with people who just want to go out and eat a meal with three carbs, dessert and a drink, it's not conducive to losing weight. I want to go out with people who want to eat healthy and be fit and grow and learn."

On to the Nationals!

"I started doing 5K races in April 2017 and I did pretty well — I'd get third or fourth for my age group. But I wanted to get faster, so a friend suggested I join her masters elite running team. When I started, my 5K pace was 12 minutes, 30 seconds a mile. Within two months, it was 9 minutes and 30 seconds. I was with my people, and we motivated each other. When they encouraged me to enter a regional meet, I got second place for my age and qualified for the National Senior Games in June 2019, where I ended up getting seventh place in the 1,500 meter and ninth in the 800. It was really fun but the training was hard-core — workouts six nights a week, and it could be a hundred degrees! Everything in my life revolved around training, and I thought, ‘This is just too much damn work.’ So after that meet, I hung up my spikes. Now I do Pilates or sculpting classes two or three days a week and jog two or three times a week. I even tried belly dancing!"

How she feels today

"I feel tremendous — so much younger. People can't believe I'm 66. I go on 8-mile hikes with girlfriends who are 10 years younger, and they're in awe."

spinner image Before and after pictures of Reginald Rowsey's weight loss.
Courtesy Reginald Rowsey

Reginald Rowsey, 73, Quincy, Illinois

A candid photo: That was the turning point for Reginald Rowsey, a former quality assurance manager for a metal fabrication company. “I was sitting at a table around Christmas of 2015, and my son took a photo of me. It just captured everything I was feeling at that time. I looked way, way big, I didn't look very healthy — and I didn't look very happy. I had been retired, and it was like I was just sitting there waiting to die. I looked at that photo and thought, ‘I don't want to live like this. I want to enjoy the time I have left.'”

How he got out of shape

"At the time that picture was taken, I would get out of breath just going down our driveway to get the mail and coming back up. The truth is, I've always struggled with my weight, even as a child. I had even turned to Weight Watchers before, in my 30s and 40s, losing 100 pounds or more each time. It worked for me — I just quit working it. Most of us think we can do it on our own, but I can't. I need the structure, the meetings. When I don't have that, I go back to my old habits."

When he started to get fit

"No one was pressuring me to lose weight — it had to be my own decision. I needed to look in the mirror and say, ‘Hey, I'm the problem.’ I'm 5-foot-7 and when I started out to lose weight this last time, I weighed 350 pounds. I lost an average of 2 pounds a week by cutting out processed foods and eating fresh produce. When you're that heavy, your body just doesn't want to exercise — but from the beginning I started walking at a park near my house. I could do one lap around the park, which was 1.2 miles and not level terrain. I had to stop a few times at the beginning, but I used an app called Endomondo, which kept track of my time, how far I went, and the terrain. As I felt stronger over time, I went a little farther and a little faster. And when I got down to about 200 pounds, in the spring of 2017, I began running. Not too long after that, I bought a bicycle and started cycling again."

Where he is today

"I have weighed 175 pounds for a little over two years. Currently, I run 5 miles every other day and bicycle 25 to 30 miles every other day. If it's winter, and it's too cold and the roads are too slick to bike, I run every day. I also really like to go-kart, which is something I did when I was a kid. I'm a vintage guy, so I use a vintage kart, which means it was made before 1985. You won't believe how physical that is — it's a real workout because I'm going 60 miles an hour on twisty, turny roads around a park. I've always been really competitive, and the weight loss and exercise allow me to compete — to enter 5Ks and cycling trials and go-kart races."

His best advice

spinner image Before and after picture collage of a woman's weight loss.
Courtesy Gail Lind

"You're never too old to get fit. And if you do get fit, you're going to feel a lot better. Don't do it to live longer. Do it so you can live while you're living! That's the payoff of exercise. I exercise because it allows me to do all the things I want to do. I can squeeze everything out of the life I've got left."

Gail Lind, 72, Huntsville, Alabama

Sixty-five is the age when most people retire, but that's when Gail Lind un-retired — from her sedentary lifestyle. “I just felt like I was on the downside of the hill — and I wanted to be active and do some adventure trips, like hiking,” she says. After doing weight training with a personal trainer, losing 50 pounds and getting herself into great shape, Lind (who now works as a Silver Sneakers personal trainer herself) looks terrific — and feels even better. “One day my trainer asked me whether I felt as good as I did in my 40s and I said, ‘I feel better than I did in my 40s!'”

How she got out of shape

Lind had never been an athlete — “I was always the kid with the book” — but she'd also never really had a big weight problem. Then menopause hit, and she began noticing the pounds creeping up. “I was 65 and weighed close to 200 pounds,” she said. She'd go to the gym to do cardio, but the scale didn't budge. “I used to call it ‘the treadmill to nowhere’ because nothing changed. I had a grandson and wanted to be more active, but I had a hard time getting off the floor. Like probably 99 percent of the population, I thought that if I went on a 900-calorie diet and did cardio, things would change, but they did not."

When she started to get fit

"I was at the gym and noticed these boot camp classes, with kettlebells and light weights. You had to pay extra for them, and I was single and working in retail, so I didn't have a ton of money. But I decided to invest in my body, and it's absolutely the smartest thing I ever did for myself. After about six months, my body was starting to morph and build muscle, but one of the trainers — he was in his 40s and happened to be a bodybuilder — said, ‘Gail, you've maxed out. You need one-on-one personal training.’ So we started working out in the bodybuilding part of the gym, doing things like leg presses. He was really pushing me; it was intimidating. But he'd keep saying, ‘You're fine. You can do this.'"

Changing her eating habits, too

"One day, my trainer said, ‘I need you to be stronger. Record what you eat for three days and bring me the list. I want to know what's going on.’ So I did. Later a friend asked me, ‘Oh, did he tweak your diet?’ ‘Tweak? No. He threw the whole thing out!’ I was going to Starbucks for a black coffee and a low-fat blueberry muffin — and he told me to eliminate all baked goods. He said, ‘Just get rid of them.’ He told me to make sure every meal and snack included high protein, and to make sure I ate eight servings of vegetables a day. With the exercise and everything, I lost about 50 pounds in a year and a half, two years."

Liking the results

"I was absolutely astonished at how I looked. Even though when I started working out it wasn't so much about my looks, I loved the fact that I could put anything on and look damn good. But I also loved how I felt. I have so much energy. I'm nonstop."

Paying it forward

"I kept working out, using myself as my own guinea pig, and I got my trainer certification in California from the American Council on Exercise [ACE]. Then I started working out with friends, who'd go to the gym with me. And I was constantly reading and picking up new information. Today, I train others about 15 or 16 hours a week, and work out myself probably five or six hours a week, mostly in the weight room. I'm not on any medications, and I only go see the doctor once a year. My advice for other people? Get yourself a trainer so you can learn how to use the equipment properly. It's worth it."

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