Marlana Francis took a walk one day last year thinking it would be the start of a new exercise program. She’d attempted weight loss before, but nothing ever worked.
This time would be different, she thought with new hope. But just as quickly as the optimism rushed over her, a man leaned his head out of his car to crush her again.
“Fat cow!” he yelled as he sped by.
At 5-foot-1, 226 pounds and a size 26, Francis had weight to lose. Hurtful comments from a stranger weren’t what she needed, though.
What she needed – who she needed – was Ryan Hite.
Last winter, Hite, a Spokane-based physical trainer, ran a weight-loss boot camp for 74 people in the basement of Knox Presbyterian Church, in north central Spokane.
During the 10-week camp, participants competed against each other in a contest modeled after NBC’s reality show “The Biggest Loser” – a format that’s being imitated among co-workers, friends and fitness clubs throughout the Spokane area.
In Hite’s contest, the person who lost the largest percentage of their body weight won $1,500 worth of prizes at April’s Spokane Women’s Show.
“It’s good to have a combination of teamwork and competition,” Hite says. “As you’re going through any journey, you have to feel supported … but it’s also nice to have that feeling of victory now and then.”
Three nights a week, Francis sweated through Hite’s circuit-training program. On the off nights, she exercised on her own. And ate right. And lost weight.
It wasn’t enough to take home the top prize in April, but Francis continued to take Hite’s classes after the contest. Six months later, she’s down 40 pounds and wears a size 14. She springs out of bed in the morning, has boundless energy throughout the day and tossed out anti-depressant medications she was taking.
“It has changed my perspective on life,” Francis says. “If I’ve had a stressful day and am in a bad place, if I go to boot camp within five minutes I’m laughing and smiling and enjoying life.”
Homegrown “Biggest Loser”-style competitions and other types of group weight-loss programs seem to be growing in popularity. Participants say being accountable to (and under the watchful eye of) friends helps keep them on course.
Twice this year, employees in the human resources and payroll departments of Spokane Public Schools’ administration office have competed for cash through weight loss. During the first round last winter, 18 workers chipped in $32 each and together lost a total of 201 pounds over 17 weeks.
Cindy Sharp, who lost 30 pounds, won the first $600 pot.
“The competition is fun, and (the money is) a nice little reward, but it’s not like I was only doing it for that,” she says.
Sharp, 37, says she has more energy to keep up with her athletic daughters, who are 9 and 16, and play with her young nieces and nephews.
“I actually get down on the floor with them rather than say, ‘Why don’t you go play outside?’ ” she says.
Sharp says participating in a weight-loss program at work, where co-workers are with you at least eight hours a day, helped keep her accountable.
“You see them in the break room, so it’s not like you can go in there with some pizza,” she says.
The group was competitive, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t help each other reach their goals.
“As people discovered things that worked they’d share it with the group” via e-mail, says human resources specialist Nanci Slipper.
They offered verbal encouragement, too, says Mary Perdue, who won the district office’s second round with an 18.6-pound loss.
“As the weight came off, people were feeling good about themselves. You’d scrunch up someone’s pants and say, ‘Look at all the weight you’re losing,’ ” says Perdue, 56. “There was a good attitude in the office.”
The employees are midway through round three now, although some are just in it for fun because they reached their goals in rounds one and two. They weigh in with a nonparticipant once a week to stay on track, but it’s only the beginning and end weights that are used to calculate the total percentage of body weight lost.
Employees in Deaconess Medical Center’s Respiratory Care Services department don’t fight for cash or a shopping spree or a day at the spa. They’re vying for the top spot on a dry-erase board in their break room with the words “The Losers” scrawled across it.
“The winner gets bragging rights,” says 57-year-old Patti Martin.
Anytime one of the seven “losers” drops a pound, they update their stats on the board. The group has lost a combined 460 pounds during the last two and a half years, but they only began tracking their progress on the white board last winter.
“It’s a domino effect,” Martin says. “When you see somebody else succeeding, it inspires you to do it too.”
Martin began losing weight a year ago after undergoing gastric bypass surgery. Last fall, she carried 254 pounds on her 5-foot 3-inch frame. Now, she weighs 144.
Despite Martin’s big drop in pounds, she’s trailing behind respiratory therapist Ryan Reedy. By cutting back on sugar and “bad” carbohydrates and reducing the size of his meals, he has gone from 326 pounds to 201.
Reedy, 31, made up his mind to lose weight while packing for a family vacation in 2007.
“When my wife had to go buy me two 4-X shirts to go to Las Vegas, I said ‘I’m done when we get home,’ ” says 6-foot, 3-inch-tall Reedy.
“Now I wear large or extra large (shirts) and my pant size went from a 48 to a 34 or 36. I’m like Jared in the Subway commercials.”
The birth of his daughter, Raegan, two years ago also inspired Reedy to end the weight problem that first crept up on him in high school.
“I didn’t want her to see me like that,” he says.
Being open about his weight loss at work was somewhat inevitable for Reedy, whose appearance has changed so drastically that many people don’t recognize him when they see the new Ryan.
Some get so excited, “it’s like you told them they won the lottery,” he says.
For the last 17 years, Avista Corp. has run a wellness contest where participants earn points for eating right, exercising, getting enough sleep, drinking water and making other good choices.
Employees compete on teams – with names like Extreme Power Surge and Kilo Weights – and the winning groups earn gift certificates to the company store. Everyone receives a T-shirt for participating.
At Rockwood, the network of medical clinics in Spokane, employees can attend “Weight Watchers at Work” meetings held at the company’s main site.
Employees pay the $186 fee for 17 weeks upfront, and then Rockwood reimburses them for half the cost if they attend at least 75 percent of the meetings, says benefits and wellness coordinator Teri Kuhlmann.
“We’re fortunate to be employed by physicians who can see the benefit of healthy employees,” she says. “They know Weight Watchers works and isn’t a fad.”
As with all Weight Watchers programs, weigh-ins are private and there’s no sense of competition among participants.
Kuhlmann says it’s hard to calculate Rockwood’s return on the investment it makes when it pays half the program fee for the 70 or so participants.
“We have seen a decline in major hospitalizations” since bringing Weight Watchers on board two years ago, she says. “But it’s hard from a benefits standpoint. Your (quantity of) claims may be going down but the price on those claims might be going up.”
For Ryan Hite, the trainer who runs the boot camp in the church basement, the biggest rewards are the anecdotes he hears from participants.
“One woman told me she forgot something in her truck, so she ran to truck to get it. Then she realized, ‘I’ve never run to the truck before,’ ” says Hite, whose business is called Hite Performance. “Those are the cool things to hear.”
Aside from the Spokane Women’s Show contest, Hite holds occasional competitions with his boot campers at the church. But he advises people to focus on themselves instead of worrying about how others in class look or perform.
“Everyone’s on their own mission,” he says. “It’s not about where you start but the direction you’re headed and how you get there.”
Marlana Francis, the contest participant who has lost 40 pounds, talks about Hite the way contestants on NBC’s “The Biggest Loser” talk about the show’s celebrity trainers Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels. She had tried everything – yes, including the cabbage soup diet – before she clicked with his program.
“When I see an obese person now, I wish I could pay for them to go to boot camp,” Francis says, choking back tears. “I wish everybody could feel this good.”