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Working it off Weight-loss contest drives home healthy lifesytle

Out of shape, overweight -- and not just by a few pounds? Launching a fitness program can be an intimidating venture for those not used to consistent exercise.

Last May, when 6-foot-1 Mike Duffy decided to change his life, he weighed 450 pounds. The 37-year-old bartender was constantly short of breath, but his prime motivation for joining a health club was simple.

"Being fat," answered a red-faced Duffy, who has become as much of a fixture at the gym as the treadmill upon which he runs. This week alone, Duffy has completed three one-mile runs, something he had not done since his days at Kenmore West High School 20 years ago.

Fitness plans are popular, especially at this time of year when everyone wants to shape up, but here in Western New York -- where three of every five adults are above a healthy weight -- the focus on fitness requires year-round diligence.

That's why one local health club -- Fitness 360 on Delaware Avenue -- is sponsoring the "Biggest Loser Challenge." During the first two rounds of competition, 60 men and women lost a total of 2,000 pounds. Currently, 30 participants between ages 21 and 75 are working their way to a healthier lifestyle, tracking their progress on www.fitday.com.

Duffy signed on in January, as did a 68-year-old woman with a hip and knee replacement who is looking to lose 100 pounds. So far she has lost 18 pounds, according to Glenn Kaifas, club owner.

"It's up to the trainer to jump into that personality and find out what it is about that person that will make them succeed," said Kaifas, a certified strength and conditioning specialist. "With Mike, I can take a drill sergeant approach, but not with a 68-year-old, who has a lot more experience on this earth than I do. If I yell at her, she'll tell me to take a hike and never come back here again. With Mike I can create more of a sense of urgency."

Since Duffy launched his fitness program last spring, he has lost 89 pounds, or about 2.5 pounds a week. Twenty of those pounds were dropped in the last month as part of the challenge, which contains some innovative exercise drills.

On this day, for example, Duffy participated in the "tire flip," using a 400-pound monster truck tire, which he lifted up and pushed over -- five times.

A fitness program helps Duffy and the other participants to lose much more than weight. Combined with a well-thought nutrition plan, it can mean the end to poor eating habits and all the health problems that go with them.

Mike Errico weighed 392 pounds when he entered the Biggest Loser Challenge. The 34-year-old has dropped to 381 pounds, and pointed to a promise he made his mother as a big reason.

"My mom died in December," he said. "One thing she wanted me to do was lose weight, and I really never put the effort into it, but now I am motivated."

Diabetes was one of the health problems suffered by Errico's mother, and while Errico does not currently have the disease, he realized that exercise and good nutrition will go a long way in keeping it at bay.

According to a study conducted by the University at Buffalo Department of Family Medicine, 84 percent of adults in Western New York diagnosed with diabetes are overweight or obese. Being overweight is a major risk factor for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancers.

For adults, overweight and obesity ranges are determined by using weight and height to calculate a number called the "body mass index" (BMI). BMI is used because, for most people, it correlates with their amount of body fat. The BMI is a person's weight in kilograms divided by their height in meters squared, though you'll find many of the tables have already done the math and metric conversions.

Losing weight healthily requires a strategy including a weight-training program, regular cardiovascular sessions and a nutritional diet that maximizes nourishment while minimizing calories. Many people who enter into a weight loss program are surprised to discover they are actually eating more food.

At age 38, Peg Bush went from a size 14 to a size 8 and won the second Biggest Loser Challenge at the gym. Her weakness was Hershey Bars, she said, but now she is eating sugarless popsicles, Healthy Choice frozen lunches and Pure protein bars.

"Learning what foods to pick was most challenging," she said. "I crave sweets, but when I started eating right, my cravings decreased drastically."

Duffy eats five times each day taking in 2,700 calories (20 percent fats, 40 percent carbohydrates and 40 percent protein). Cottage cheese and tuna are staples of the Duffy diet. He chugs protein shakes and gives bread the cold shoulder.

"It's all about restructuring your calories and creating a small caloric deficit for consistent weight loss," Kaifas explained. "There's no way in the world we can know how Mike's body will respond, so all we can do is work out within his fitness level, and put him on a balanced diet.

"The average person we see would skip breakfast, have a small lunch or go through the drive-thru, saving their big meal for dinner," Kaifas said. "You're really slowing your metabolism by not eating during the day."

At age 24, Kristen Carlson, a teacher's assistant, did all the wrong things to lose weight. First of all, she jumped from diet to diet: Weight Watchers, Diet Workshop, Slimfast, Atkins. Then she spent more money on workout DVDs.

"I did every kind of tape there is," Carlson said. "I ordered Turbo Jam, Billy Blanks. I spent a lot of money, but nothing worked. It was my own fault that my weight got out of control. I was eating all the wrong things. I've done diet after diet, and finally I found something that works."

Since joining the Biggest Loser Challenge, Carlson has lost 7 pounds and 11 inches. Her daily calorie intake is 2,000. She eats six times a day, and concentrates on smaller portions. Carlson's diet is now a healthy balance of carbohydrates and protein. She is never hungry.

"Before I'd have a simple dinner, but my portion control was out of whack," she admitted. "Instead of having a small dinner plate, I'd go to the bigger plate and fill it to the max. Now I use the smaller plates and I fill it up and I'm just as satisfied. It's just a matter of eating the right things -- and the exercise."

e-mail: jkwiatkowski@buffnews.com

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