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Something to Lose

How three ordinary women became runner s and lost nearly 300 pounds.

Jen Arruda sat beside her newborn son watching him struggle to breathe. She visited him in the neonatal intensive care unit every day, all day. Born six weeks premature, Zakary had taken only a handful of normal breaths before his underdeveloped lungs had  collapsed. He had stopped breathing once earlier that day, twice the night before. Arruda obsessed over one thought—I did this to him.

I weighed 260 pounds when I was pregnant with Zak,” she explains. “I was sick, miserable and depressed. Once I hit about six months, every time I so much as got up and walked, I’d go into labor.

Arruda blamed her weight. The 34-year-old had suffered from thyroid issues since childhood, taking medication since the age of nine. This made gaining weight a cinch, but shedding pounds a challenge. With each of her previous two pregnancies, pounds had piled on that never came off. By the time she carried Zakary, she was heavier than she’d ever been, and only got heavier as her pregnancy progressed.

Ready to Change

“I realized how valuable and precious life is when I was sitting there with Zak—how I could have lost him,” she says. “I’d been such a sad, sad person the last 11 years, and I shouldn’t have been with three beautiful children. I realized I was wasting time—not being a happy mom, not being able to play with my children. I was just so ready to change.”

Arruda vowed that if Zakary came home healthy, she’d change her life. She consulted her doctor and an endocrinologist who advised her that because her metabolism was so sluggish, she would need to double what other people do to lose weight.

Arruda was undaunted. Once Zak was home, she joined a women-only gym where she walked on a treadmill for two hours every morning and one hour at night. She read books on how to eat healthy and based her diet on lean protein, veggies and whole grains. As she started losing weight, a friend advised her to run.

I thought there was no way I’d ever be able to run,” says Arruda, but she wanted to at least try.

Her first run lasted 10 seconds. She built up to a minute, running for one, walking for five, repeating this for her entire workout. Arruda remembers being so sore that she went to the doctor, concerned with the swelling in her shins. But the pounds kept coming off, and her muscles got stronger. The pain began to fade.

Two months later, Arruda jogged her first 5k. The next year, she completed a half marathon, two years after that, she ran Boston. After a 130-pound weight loss, Arruda pursued her personal training certification, landing a job at the gym where she started. Today, four years later, she runs six days a week, eight to 10 miles per day, and hits the gym three times a week for strength training.

Arruda recognizes her results are extraordinary. “I was crazy,” she admits, referring to the earlier fervor with which she approached her weight loss goals. “But I had a lot of guilt, and I was desperate to change.”

The key to Arruda’s success was her acceptance that eating healthy and exercising were a lifelong commitment, not a short-term fix, according to Rebecca Scritchfield, a sports dietician in Washington D.C., and member of the Sports Nutrition faculty at both American University and George Washington University. Arruda also puts herself first, which is unusual for women, particularly mothers.

If we really want to care for our children, our spouses, our friends and family, we need to put ourselves first,” says Scritchfield. “Only then will we have the energy and spirit to be at our best.”

Putting yourself first requires support. Arruda’s husband Jeff stayed home with their three children when she went to the gym in the evening. In the morning, she’d see the kids off to school and her mother-in-law would watch Zak during her workouts. Arruda recognized that while her new lifestyle required her to be absent from her family at times, in the long term, it made her more present as a mother, spouse and daughter.

When you can ask for help, or even just tell people what you’re doing, you get that verbal support that reinforces that yes, you can do this,” Scritchfield says.

A Lifelong Commitment

Before a woman accepts her health as a lifelong commitment, before she enlists the support of her friends and family, how do the wheels get put in motion for lasting change?

“A catalyst,” says Scritchfield. “A woman has to be moved beyond whim into physical action.” Arruda’s initiator was a very dramatic and emotional experience, but other women have found their ideal weight from much more ordinary strikes of inspiration.

Take 27-year-old Megan Pierce, who’s kept off 80 pounds for two years by becoming a runner. Suffering from exercise-induced asthma since childhood, the grad school student was far from being an athlete. For Pierce, the pivotal moment occurred when she visited the doctor for a cold and stepped on a scale.

“I weighed over 200 pounds for the first time ever, and for me, that was it,” she says.

By the time she had stepped off the scale, Pierce had already made a commitment to lose 30 pounds. She incented herself by swearing not to buy any new clothes until that weight had come off.

Like Arruda, Pierce joined a gym. She began by walking on a treadmill for 30-40 minutes, three days a week. Six months into her program, encouraged by her progress, Pierce decided to up the ante. She started jogging on the treadmill for as long as she could, just minutes to start, and then returned to walking.

I was always the kid who couldn’t run a mile in gym class,” she says. “So, for me, jogging was as much an experiment to see what my body could do as it was a mechanism to lose weight.”

Having small, measurable goals is another key element to lasting weight loss, says Scritchfield. If Pierce decided to lose 80 pounds right from the start, she would have had trouble staying motivated. The same applies to exercise. Walking on a treadmill for 30 minutes, three times a week, is a reasonable start for someone who’s been sedentary her entire life.

Similar to Arruda, Pierce made changes to her diet. She started by reducing processed foods, substituting a bag of baby carrots for crackers, for example. She also avoided fast foods and other convenience products. “I was commuting two to three hours a day for grad school, and I think my on-the-go eating habits really contributed to my weight getting so out of control,” Pierce says. She switched to eating her meals at home, including a hearty oatmeal breakfast, and brown bagging it.

It’s not a coincidence that both Arruda and Pierce achieved success with the combination of dietary changes and running. “Running and nutrition are very tightly connected in weight loss,” says Scritchfield. “One feeds the other.” Running releases a particularly large amount of serotonin, a happy hormone in the brain that makes you feel good and compels you to eat healthy. When you eat healthy, your energy level rises, motivating you to run. “People who diet without exercising don’t have this built-in motivation that comes from the serotonin,” says Scritchfield.

Shift in Attitude

When you’re under stress, at work or at home, your body increases its cortisol levels, a  fight-or-flight hormone that tells the body to store fat. By reducing stress, running works to turn off that message. Mary Carney was stressed at her job and feeling bad about her weight when her daughter Katie suggested running as a faster means than walking to lose  extra pounds. Similar to Arruda and Pierce, Carney eased into running by doing it for only one minute before returning to walking. When Katie suggested both of them run a 5k for breast cancer several months later, Carney reluctantly agreed, worried she would have to walk.

When I got there, I couldn’t believe the crowd of people,” she says. “I was not athletic as a child, and I got this adrenaline rush that I never expected.”

Carney ran the entire course. Hooked on the experience, she became a runner, entering local races, following a training plan, cleaning up her diet and losing 25 pounds. Running became her lifestyle. “It changed my attitude. It gave me a sense of accomplishment that spilled over into other areas of life like my job and marriage,” she says. “I just felt better about myself, more comfortable with myself.”

Carney experienced a change in the patterning of her subconscious mind, according to Tom Kersting, Ph.D, physiotherapist and author of “Losing Weight When Diets Fail.” Our culture generally views exercise as a torturous, time-consuming activity. When Carney realized that running could be fun and exhilarating, she overcame the final hurdle to achieving lifelong weight balance—she adopted exercise and nutrition as her lifestyle.

This is not an easy feat, Kersting says, adding that our predisposition to view exercise as unpleasant stems from the fact that so much in our culture has been oversimplified. A person can now hit a button and pay her bills or do her grocery shopping, for example. This oversimplification makes anything that requires effort, like exercise, seem even more challenging in comparison. “Our minds have become conditioned to simplicity in accomplishing things. So exercising, to someone who has been inactive her entire life, can seem like climbing Mt. Everest,” he says.

Carney, along with Aruba and Pierce, overcame this by taking baby steps. Running for just a few seconds or a few minutes to start. Their small, incremental success started to overcome their subconscious belief that exercise is drudgery. Once their minds shifted, they realized running was not only beneficial, but also enjoyable.

Arruda, Pierce and Carney eventually stopped trying to lose weight as they hit their ideal range. Then it was a matter of finding the right nutritional balance to feed their racing habit. “It was a strange moment when I realized I actually needed to eat more to have a better half marathon race result,” Pierce remembers. Arruda preps for long runs by adding a sweet potato to her dinner for extra calories, and Carney adjusts her portion sizes accordingly.

“The body will do its job, when given the right conditions to find its normal weight range,” says Scritchfield. These women all created sustainable conditions to enable their bodies to be their best.

“Anyone can do this,” Carney says. “You just have to decide you want to and incorporate it into your life.”

Exercising for 30-60 minutes, three to five days a week is a good beginner cardio program. Whether you’re running, walking or a combination of both, it should be a challenge, she says. Scritchfield also suggests strength training one to two days per week to build lean muscle mass. “Muscle is active tissue that’s burning calories and allows you to feel strong and empowered,” she says.

Above all, don’t get down on yourself. “We can be our worst critics and judges,” Scritchfield says. “In the beginning, your success is that you got dressed and got out there, because that’s already change.”

Jayme Otto runs and writes in Boulder, Colo., where she works as assistant editor at Elevation Outdoors. More at JaymeOtto.com.