Body Makeover


Several months ago, I embarked on a journey of weight loss and health.

My decision came in the wake of 2004: a year of hardship, tragedy and change. Each year of my life had been a mere blip on the screen compared to the massive crash of that year. To understand “Decision Minimize Me 2005,” you must know a few things.

I left a career I loved, teaching, in August 2003 at the request of my mother, then weak from cancer. She literally hobbled down the hall of the home my children and I share with my parents two days before the start of the school year and breathlessly declared, “Please don’t go back to work. I need you too much.”

What could I do? I talked to our family priest and turned in my keys the next day at the district office.

The breast cancer that besieged my mother’s body for nine years finally took over her bones and liver in the spring of 2004. By June, my once-vibrant, feisty and valiant mother was unable to swallow and curled into a fetal position after a few weeks of hallucinations that I now know were the result of ammonia building up in her liver and traveling to her brain. Once in the hospital, she slipped into a coma and the family took turns around the clock as we watched her organs fail. I learned to change my mother’s sheets with the nurses, prop her body with pillows to avoid bedsores and suction fluid from her lungs. Watching her die will remain the most trying, horrific and devastating event of my life. Dressed in my pajamas, as it was my night to watch over her in the hospital, I held her hand and listened as she took her last, labored breath after a day of seizures. Stoically, I spent the next few weeks orchestrating our faith’s intensive treatment of death. As Eastern Orthodox Christians, we engage in a cavalcade of services, prayers and meals: a first-day memorial, a third-day memorial and meal, the funeral, the funeral memorial meal, a ninth-day memorial and meal and finally a 40-day memorial and meal. I even managed to fit my twins’ 6th birthday party into the mix, hosting an elaborate luau for more than 50 people. I certainly didn’t allow myself to grieve, and yet I wasn’t quite living. Moreover, in the year preceding my mother’s death, I’d gained about 35 pounds and discontinued any sort of consistent exercise. I ate crumb doughnuts and drank Diet Coke every day of her hospital stay.

And then one balmy August night, in a fit of realization that the only thing that matters is family, I called my ex-husband, Tyler, after almost six years without conversation and asked, “Do you want your family back?” “Give me 24 hours to get out of the relationship I’m in and meet me for lunch at Mikuni,” he responded. Our physical reconciliation only lasted about three weeks, after which he, a Force Recon Marine recruited by a paramilitary organization to do “terror mitigation,” returned to Baghdad, Iraq. I’d called him the day he’d come home on a leave. Talk about providential! I went from having a dying parent to a husband (although we have yet to legally remarry, we are committed as husband and wife) in a deadly job. Still, whereas 2004 brought death, 2005 began with two romantic trips to Italy, meeting my husband there on his leave.

I never slowed down to contemplate all that had occurred-neither the impact of my mother’s death on my children (Tyler and I have four, including one who suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome, a neurodevelopmental disorder), nor my own weight gain and health. Now with my own nuclear family back together (albeit in an unorthodox manner, with Daddy in a war), I realized that I didn’t want our children ever to watch me die from cancer. I needed to mitigate my chances of getting the at-times-inheritable disease. I knew breast cancer cells feed on estrogen. The more fat you hold, the more estrogen you usually release. So I needed to lose weight. And I wanted to look hot for my husband; sue me. I wanted him to come home on his next leave and see the young, slender woman he originally married. Oh-and I also received an announcement for my 20-year high school reunion. And so the countdown to my husband’s next leave and my reunion in July began. Whereas July 2004 saw me bedside, July 2005, would see me the portrait of health, wellness and beauty, or so I envisioned. Here’s where my transformation story-a rocky story but a success nonetheless-begins.

Late February: The Transformer

Buoyed by my reconciliation and a desire for my body to come as close to Jessica Simpson’s as possible, not to mention the terror of cancer, I seek out the best personal trainer in town. I know that I cannot accomplish this task on my own. I need support and coaching. I need Jason Salinas of S&B Elite Personal Training in Rocklin, the guy clients call “The Transformer.” (Apparently, he’s worked with the the Sacramento Kings Royal Court dancers. I wouldn’t mind having a Royal Court body.) Although he works with athletes, dancers and bodybuilders, Salinas’ passion is working with out-of-shape individuals and healthfully transforming them into hard bodies by establishing realistic goals. With Salinas, it’s not about getting skinny; it’s about building muscle and losing fat at a safe rate and looking at all the components that come into play with a total transformation. Sleep, stress, eating too little, health disorders-these are just a few of the things that can derail a diet. What really cemented my decision to go with Jason, however, was his “book,” a scrapbook of sorts showing “before” and “after” pictures of former clients. Without surgery, without liposuction, without amphetamines, The Transformer takes people from obese to six-pack-ab fit. One woman weighs in at more than 300 pounds and smiles in her “After” photo at 117 pounds. Not one of his clients in the book looks Nicole Ritchie anorexic. Rather, they show off muscle and glow with health.

I want it! I want to look and feel beautiful! I shamelessly tell Salinas to kick my butt in 12 weeks, thinking that I’m a movie star with nothing on my plate but time to fix five meals a day and work out. Actually, I’m a full-time writer. I just finished a textbook, and I have another book due on budget beauty within the month. I know it’s cliché, but there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to finish all my writing, run my kids around to school, musical-theater classes and orthodontic appointments, and take care of all the details of running a home. Salinas doesn’t know it, but I’m overzealous, on a People magazine high . . . thinking I can look like Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas in two weeks. “Sign me up!” I say.

But wait! I’ve lived on doughnuts and diet soda for the past year. What am I thinking? To his credit, Salinas thinks that it’s possible and believes in me. But do I really believe in myself when he hands me the menu and my program?

Late March: Chicken Breast, Egg Whites and Exercise

On the program, I have one “free” day a week. As long as I follow the program, I can eat what I want one out of seven days. If I want a piece of chocolate, I know I can have it on my free day. Loaves of bread drenched in olive oil and balsamic vinegar? No problem on a free day. How can I fail if I have something to look forward to each week, like eating a slice of cake from Ettore’s?

It’s all so great and manageable that I decide the day Salinas hands me my menu to roll through In N Out Burger and start the regimen with my free day. Immediately, I spiral into self-loathing. What have I done? So I thoroughly commit to the program on Day 2.

Salinas has prepared a menu for me based upon a detailed questionnaire regarding the foods I like and the combination of protein, fat and carbohydrates my body needs (Read that? Needs) in order to lose weight. I’m allotted about 1,300 calories a day divided among five meals-all precisely measured and all bland. My first meal consists of three egg whites, eight-tenths of a banana and one-third cup of plain oatmeal. Eight-tenths of a banana? What?

I eat all but one last bite of a banana? About now, I consider whether a Thai deep-fried banana smothered in vanilla ice cream counts as long as I only eat eight-tenths. Meal two: Three ounces of chicken breast, one-third cup of brown rice and one-half cup of veggies. You get the idea. Every meal contains a lean protein, a whole grain and vegetables.

In addition to my meals-and I must eat all five-I do cardio workouts twice a day for at least 35 minutes and weight train with The Transformer three times a week. I must daily drink more water than Folsom Lake holds and take a multivitamin, and a Pyruvate supplement (which studies suggest helps burn fat in women) three times a day. Perhaps most importantly, I must not measure my success by what the scale says. I am to measure it by what the measuring tape reads and my fat loss.

Amazingly, I follow the plan; it’s not that difficult and I’m feeling OK about the food.

But I’m unprepared for the pain associated with my first week of training with Salinas. He introduces me to total body-weight training-sessions, keeping my heart rate up as he leads me through weightlifting and exercises that eventually work all my muscle groups in 50 minutes. I’m exhausted. I am sweating profusely and feel like I can’t take any more of his “Superman” exercises, which have me lying on the floor on my stomach, attempting to fly with my arms and legs up off the carpet and holding it there until my trainer says, “Release.” And yet, I’m amazed at how much I’m learning about form. Salinas has me lifting perhaps five pounds, yet it feels like I’m lifting a ton. “It’s the form,” he confidently advises. “You see people all the time at the gym, lifting heavy weights and doing it all wrong. They’re not only wasting their time and not getting results but also possibly injuring themselves.”

At the end of the first week of training, my free day falls on my last workout of the week at S&B Elite. I’m afraid to eat whatever I want because I’ve done so well. What if I take a bite of the forbidden apple and never put it down, never go back to eating well again? Nevertheless, I hastily grab a fish burrito from a taqueria on my way home from the trainer’s studio. I pull over in the Roseville Galleria parking lot because I’m so hungry. Ironically, my arm muscles are so weak from working them that I can barely bring the burrito to my mouth. I’m too tired to eat.

Is that how it works? The trainer exhausts your muscles so much even eating is impossible? I consider going on the Little Debbie Diet-eating 1,300 calories a day of nothing but snack cakes and throwing this whole lifting thing out the window. Currently, I cannot move my arms or feel them at all. I cannot lift my food to my mouth. I go home, shaking, and take a shower.

Trips to the family gym for my cardio workouts find me wincing at the rows and rows of lithe, gazellelike members. I try different times of the day so as to avoid the masses of fit fiends, the Courtney Thorne Smiths of the running set, but they are everywhere, every day at every hour in the gym. About my third week into the Salinas boot camp regime, where I’m actually pulling my whole lower body up from a suspended position and doing hanging crunches, I find myself in the row of gazelles competitively keeping up with the pack, and taking a sick pleasure in running faster and longer than the man next to me. Could this actually be working? Am I getting fit?

April: Best Friends, Massages, Mud Baths and Wine

In the middle of my program, my best friend from high school visits from Florida. Rhonda promises to follow the program with me. And indeed her first night in town, she eats whole-wheat pasta with two tablespoons of Prego sauce. The next day, we put on our workout gear, eat three egg whites and walk to the supermarket to buy our eight-tenths of a banana. Rhonda picks the biggest piece of fruit she can find. We decide to eat our banana and walk a mile, then run a mile. On our walk, I devour my banana. Suddenly, I drop the last bite of the eight-tenths of the banana. We both gasp in horror. I could pick up the banana piece in the gutter, but it’s just too gross. I tell Rhonda that I will pick the dandelions in people’s gardens and eat them. We decide to write a book on edible plants in your neighborhood.

A few days into her visit, I take Rhonda to my workout with The Transformer. He puts her through the grind with me and surprisingly, I’m not as flushed or weak or completely drenched in sweat as before. Am I getting better at this? I comment to him how the workout “wasn’t so bad,” while Rhonda grumpily turns to me and says, “Can we eat now?” Salinas chuckles and promises with a wicked smile to knock my workout up a notch next week. I tell him I’m leaving for a few days to Napa. Rhonda and I have booked time at a spa-mud baths, massages and complete relaxation. I vow to only use my free day one day of the trip but consider also using all my free days for the entire program consecutively and really eating well.

I use all my free days consecutively. Well, somewhat. I’m playing a frightening game of almost staying on the menu while still working out. I drink a couple of contraband glasses of wine, but rise the next morning and swim countless laps in the spa pool. I drink a mocha on the way home from the wine country, but also run three miles that day. My trainer is due to take my stats, and I am freaking out. Rhonda tells me not to worry. But I cannot help but worry. I feel accountable to my trainer. He motivates me, helps me through hard lifts; he wants me to succeed, and I want to succeed, too.

May: Success, Stress, Strep and a Chiropractor

Amazingly, I’ve lost 8 percent of my body fat in about four weeks, as measured by calipers and a space-age piece of equipment that I stand on for several minutes. Hallelujah! I try on all my old clothes from the year prior to my mother’s death. I fit into them. I’ve dropped inches all over. I’m completely motivated now to really go gung-ho. I grab my brother, a former football player and present paramedic, and taunt him into working out with me. He can barely finish the hundred crunches and squats that Salinas now has me doing daily at home. I breeze through them, shower and put on a tank top for the first time in years. The sun begins to blaze in Sacramento. Summer is here, and I can wear skirts without feeling like my legs resemble an elephant’s.

Suddenly, things slow down. I’m worrying obsessively about my husband as the headlines pummel me with car bomb after car bomb and insurgent after insurgent. I know he traverses the deadliest highway in the world-the road to the Baghdad airport-frequently. I have not seen him since our five-day getaway in Rome this past January, and I am reminded that while we were there, his team in Baghdad was ambushed at the shooting range where they practice. Thankfully, all survived, but not without injury. I cannot sleep. I stay up checking my e-mail every hour. I cannot eat. I’m starving myself out of stress, and my body goes into “starvation mode.” Although I’m eating less and working out, I’m not losing fat. Salinas begs me to eat and sleep. Salinas tells me to get a massage and a babysitter and sleep.

My sleepless nights and calorie-free days catch up with me. My body is burned out, and I pull a muscle in my stomach at my training session. Salinas insists I see his “active release” chiropractor, Scott Zawada, D.C. Everyone at the studio raves about his technique and how much he helps athletes recover from injury. My trainer also tells me to work with Dr. Zawada on my scoliosis.