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EVEN IF HOLIDAYS WERE HORRIBLE, YOU CAN STILL GAIN BY LOSING

The holiday binge is a familiar tale of woe. Our story begins with a huge Thanksgiving feast, followed by furtive midnight refrigerator raids. The action then segues quickly into the December eat-a-thon, moving from buffet tables to potato chips to Christmas cookies and back again. We indulge, but we don't worry. Much.

Because we will redeem ourselves on New Year's Day, the dawn of a new millennium, a new year, a new us. "I resolve to eat nutritious foods!" we write determinedly on the cocktail napkin holding our creamy, fattening drink. "I will exercise regularly!"

Then January comes, and reality settles down around our ears -- and our hips. We can't believe how much our pants have shrunk. It's dark and cold outside, and eating right and exercising can be -- well, hard.

Plus, the weight isn't exactly dropping off. We've resisted our favorite foods, and we've worked out five or 10 times. We feel pretty hot.

Then we face the mirror and see what we really look like in bike shorts: a sausage casing, stuffed with marbles.

Discouraged, defeated and deprived, we turn the mirror to the wall, trade the bike shorts for sloppy sweat pants, and toss our New Year's resolutions into the garbage, with the cocktail napkin on which they were written.

This doesn't need to be the end of the story. If you are among the many would-be dieters and exercising wannabes in Western New York, don't write yourself off yet.

We asked readers for health and fitness success stories, to help you get back on the fitness track after the dreaded broken-New-Year's-resolution slump. We got great stories, plus these super (free!) tips from one of this area's most in-demand diet and nutrition experts:

Keep a food diary

When it comes to being overweight, Sharon Lawrence has been there, done that.

"I was a fat dietitian," says Lawrence, who is president of Nutrition Dynamics, a registered dietitian, a certified nutritionist, and the regional media representative of the New York State Dietetic Association. "I knew all the rules, but it doesn't mean I followed them. I had gained and lost 60 pounds many times."

When she decided to get healthy in 1981, the 5-foot 8-inch Lawrence weighed 182 pounds. "I now weigh 120, and I keep it around there. "I don't weigh myself regularly, but I notice how my clothes feel. If they are getting tight, I immediately pull out the food diary and keep it for about a week. I get right back on track."

Lawrence says that most people who successfully lose weight have used food diaries to record foods eaten, minutes spent eating, location (bed? car?), feelings, and more.

Put yourself first

The ebullient Lawrence shares these -- and other -- winning fitness strategies in the corporate programs she presents:

1. Put yourself first. Get your priorities straight and focus on yourself. You can't take care of others if you don't take care of yourself. (This is why you're instructed to put on your own oxygen mask in airplanes, before your kids'.)

2. Be kind when you talk to yourself. Look in the mirror and say ONE THING you like about yourself -- and remember it.

3. Remove "I blew it" from your vocabulary. Instead, say calmly: "It's not a big deal. It's just another episode of my life, another moment in time." Stop beating yourself up.

4. Find an exercise you love and do it faithfully. "Many people don't find something they like, so they don't keep doing it." Whether it's dancing, exercise equipment, or running up and down the stairs, do it faithfully, to boost your metabolic rate and energy.

5. Stop inhaling food. Sit down and enjoy your food. Don't stand by the sink or by the refrigerator. "Inhaling food is the easiest way to get too many calories, too quickly."

6. Cut back on fat in cooking or at the table. Choose healthier fats, like olive and canola oil, and use them in TEASPOONS, not tablespoons. "The quickest way to get fat is to eat fatty foods."

7. Load up on fruits, vegetables and whole grains. "They are supercharged with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that prevent diseases like cancer." Eat them instead of higher fat foods.

8. Downsize, don't supersize. Eat small portions. It isn't what you eat, it is how much you eat.

9. Drink eight to 10 cups of fluid, preferably water, every single day. You'll be healthier and have more energy.

10. Treat your taste buds to new sensations. Don't limit yourself to a boring cycle of chicken, turkey and fish. Try a new recipe once a week, or once a month.

11. Laugh often. "A lot of times when we are eating, we are trying to amuse ourselves or relieve boredom or stress."

12. Take time to relax. "It keeps you sane and centers you."

13. Be daring. Her favorite. "No matter your age, challenge yourself with new experiences. Sign up for a dance class. Read a book in a subject you've never read before."

Weight loss happens slowly

Tonawanda homemaker Marie Fullagar has lost 65 pounds in two years, and she admits that the recent holiday season was difficult.

"This year was a little rougher for me," she says. "I had a lot more parties to go to -- almost every day." She loves salty snacks. "My choices weren't the greatest. And I was grabbing meals on the run at fast food places, instead of fixing healthier things at home."

But she didn't ditch her goal of losing 30 more pounds. "I got right back on track, and I lost 3 pounds the first week.

"I've been disappointed with how slowly the weight comes off, but I stick with it. And I walk every day, whether it is raining or snowing or whatever."

What keeps her motivated? "I have more energy, I even joined a dancercise class. I don't have to pay extra for plus-size clothes anymore; I can pay the regular price in catalogs.

"My husband says I look good," she pauses, "but the main thing is, I feel really good about myself when I look in the mirror."

It's a guy thing, too

Todd Yoder weighed 300 pounds and was uncomfortable even bending to tie his shoes, when he decided to join the Weight Watchers program offered at his workplace, Keybank in Amherst.

Even though he'd be the lone male in a group of women.

"I was a little self-conscious at first," says the single, 34-year-old customer service representative. "I think Weight Watchers has a stigma attached to it that it is for women, and I didn't know of any other men that belonged.

"But by the end of that first meeting, I felt very comfortable."

He's lost 79 pounds in seven months, with 30 more pounds to go, and he's confident that he can reach his goal.

"I follow my Weight Watchers program pretty strictly, and I also exercise.

"I started out walking 20 minutes a day, being pretty inactive before. Once I got comfortable with that and started to lose weight, I walked more. I got up to where I was walking over an hour a day."

When winter came, he no longer enjoyed walking outside -- but he didn't give up exercising. "I changed to a Nordic Trak skier that I've actually had for eight years," he laughs. "I do it every other day, because it's a more intense workout. Now I feel I'm getting a better aerobic session than walking, and in less time (25 minutes)."

Yoder isn't afraid to dive into emotional issues to win the battle of the bulge, either. "I've been overweight the better part of my life. In high school I played football, and I got down to a normal weight. But then once I graduated, I stopped playing sports, I had poor eating habits, and the weight came on.

"I started to honestly ask myself, when I felt like I was going to eat in excess or have a binge day: Why? How was I feeling? Was I depressed, or anxious about a work issue or something?

"A lot of times, I wasn't eating because I was hungry, so I decided to address the real issues, instead of eating."

He doesn't pretend it's easy, but two key things keep him motivated when he feels his resolve slipping: "Nothing tastes as good as thin feels. And when I don't feel like exercising, I remember that never once have I gotten done exercising and said, 'I wish I hadn't done that.' "

The support of others is vital, too. "When friends, family and co-workers say, 'Hey, you look great,' your self-esteem just goes through the roof."

Kick it

Mary Vaughan-Vizzi e-mailed us the day after Christmas: "This morning, as I was sitting in my gym clothes and having a cup of coffee, I read The Buffalo News article requesting fitness trials and triumphs. Three years ago, I would have been in my bathrobe while reading (especially the day after the Big Day) and probably planning a nap."

A histotechnologist at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, Vaughan-Vizzi has lost 55 pounds and gone from a size 20 to a size 6. She credits exercise -- and her 3-year-old granddaughter -- with her improved fitness.

"Mary Grace looks to see if I'm on the Stairmaster," says the 44-year-old Town of Tonawanda resident. "I'm doing all these things to give her the coolest, most healthy, contemporary thought of what womanhood should be.

"My grandma was an old woman who could hardly move; my mother was 41 when I was born -- and 41 was old back then. I don't want my granddaughter to think that as you age, you have to get weak and slow."

Vaughan-Vizzi also does aerobics at the Tonawanda Aquatic Center and tae kwon do ("Not that tae bo fad!") at Robert Summers School of Tae Kwon Do on Elmwood Avenue. About halfway to black belt and being groomed for instructor, she started tae kwon do because she was getting bored with her fitness routine and wanted more legwork.

"When I'm dragging my butt, I've got to drag it to the gym. I'll find my energy there."

Part of daily life

With her weight loss of 147 pounds, Tammy Munson has lost more than anyone else who contacted us. The 33-year-old receptionist at Chautauqua County Social Services in Jamestown now weighs 112, and her dress size has shrunk from 26 1/2 to 3.

And -- get this -- she loves to bake.

"I bake often; it's my hobby," she says in a telephone interview. "I think if you completely wipe out things you love, it just drives you nuts. But now I limit myself; I'll have just two or three cookies, with a cup of herbal tea."

And she exercises. Faithfully.

She participates in the National Weight Loss Registry at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School and is featured in an upcoming book on weight loss being written by New York Times writer Jane Fritsch.

"I always have to be conscious of what I eat. I still hate people that can eat whatever they want." She pauses thoughtfully.

"I just keep exercising and eat real healthily most of the time."

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