Four days into my stay at the fat farm, I found myself in the shallow end of a swimming pool doing jumping jacks with a "nautical noodle," surrounded by nine plump women and an insanely fit instructor as Lady Gaga blared over a loud speaker: Poker face, p-p-p po-ker face.
"Ten more reps," barked the instructor. "Push it!"
An already absurd moment in my life became more so when I realized I was about to lose my swimming trunks.
It wouldn't be my first humbling moment at Hilton Head Health (H3), a South Carolina fitness and weight-loss retreat that was just then getting national attention as site of the current TV hit "Heavy" on the A&E Network. Inspired by reality shows such as "Heavy" and "Biggest Loser," people are flocking to what used to be called fat farms to drop pounds or, in some cases, save their lives. The "Biggest Loser" show has even created resorts of its own to tap the demand, and some facilities are booked months in advance. Some hotel chains are offering getaways with personal trainers.
So there I was, enduring my biggest physical challenge since high school football. I stumbled through 10 minutes of mambo dancing in a Zumba class before giving up. I knocked over someone's water bottle and a stack of plastic steps during kickboxing. And after I had spent an excruciating hour tangling with resistance bands, a woman saw the sweat pooled on my mat and said: "Is that all you?"
Drop by drop, pound by pound, my outer fat guy was giving way to my inner fit guy, a person I'd hadn't seen in perhaps 20 years.
During a quick timeout in the pool, I was able to cinch up my trunks and continue the aqua aerobics. (While packing for my trip, I hadn't considered that I'd already lost about 40 pounds, so the trunks were comically large.) The music stopped, I high-fived the ladies and climbed out of the pool, exhausted.
I looked around and wondered: How did I get to this island, surrounded by cypress trees, dancing to The Gaga with my fellow fat farmers while an alligator lay ominously by the nearby pond?
When I walked into H3 on a Sunday night, it felt weird. I would be spending a week with strangers in varying stages of obesity, and frankly I was embarrassed. I called my wife and said: "I think this is going to suck, and I want to come home."
Over a spare dinner of grilled chicken and a teensie sweet potato, however, I was reassured by a veteran: "You'll never see these people again," said Janine Serell. "Do things you wouldn't do at home. Nobody here cares what you look like."
There were about 60 of us, and 60 different stories. Most guests, ranging in age from their 20s to 60s, needed to lose between 20 and 100 pounds.
The next day, Adam Martin, H3's director of fitness, was leading a discussion about defining moments, when people act on their health and weight. One woman had come to H3 because she couldn't get into a carnival ride with her child, for example. A man with a large belly overheard a girl ask her mother if he was pregnant.
"What made you take a healthy vacation?" Martin asked.
I told the class that I'd been diagnosed with diabetes, and had seen the toll it had taken on a family member. But there was another reason, I said.
"I'm a columnist, and my picture is in the newspaper every week," I said. "I often get e-mails that begin with something like, 'Hey, you fat moron.'"
There was a gasp in the room. Most people who are heavy usually get ridiculed behind their backs, apparently.
"My goal," I said, "is to change that to simply, 'Hey, moron.' I'd be happy with that."
"Get off the treadmill, the fat boy is here!" bellowed John Hardy, a Mack truck of a man with a wonderful, self-deprecating sense of humor.
Hardy, by far, faced the biggest challenge of our group. This was the first of his three planned stays at H3, for a total of four months. When he arrived, he weighed 606 pounds. He was 46 and realized he wasn't likely to live 10 more years.
"I Googled 'fat farm,'" he said. "I didn't want a program where they put you in a cabin in the woods and chain you to a tree. I needed fitness and exercise and a psychological review."
H3 markets itself as a middle ground between the nearly abusive boot camps and resorts where guests punctuate margaritas on the beach with an occasional aerobics class.
Bob Wright, H3's educational director for 30 years, has witnessed the epidemic of obesity and diabetes in America. "It's frustrating because for the most part, it's preventable," he said. "Type II diabetes is a totally avoidable disease, but we live in an environment that almost ensures it will happen."
Which is why the H3 program focuses so much on surviving once you leave its protected environment. Before guests leave, they meet with a counselor, plan meals and set reasonable goals, learn to log every calorie eaten, every calorie burned.
For Hardy, finding that success was a matter of life and death. "How many 600-pound 50-year-olds do you know?" he asked.
The sun was just popping out of the sea when we hit the beach for our first morning workout, a 2-mile walk. Then, it was back to H3 for a breakfast buffet; guests were on their own to choose among fruit, cereal, yogurt and occasionally eggs to create an approximately 250-calorie meal. On my first full day I took kickboxing, followed by an intensive hour of strength training. I was so soaked with sweat I had to change clothes between classes. Toxins had begun to pour out of my body, and my face broke out in red splotches.
Nobody here was in great shape, but nobody quit, either. Frank Gambuzza, a New Jersey beauty shop owner, huffed as he furiously punched the wall while fitness trainer Karen Williams yelled encouragement at us.
"Oh, yeah, keep moving! Jab, jab, cross, uppercut, hook!"
"I hit the wall even before I hit the wall," Gambuzza grunted.
During the fitness-band class, I found muscles I didn't know existed. Beyoncé might have been singing in the background, but my mind was thinking of a line by Leonard Cohen: "I ache in the places where I used to play."
At 10:30 each morning, we broke for a "metabo meal," a 100-calorie piece of fruit or small baggie of carrots or edamame. During the week at H3, we ate no beef, but had plenty of chicken and fish. A typical meal: roast pork with spiced apple cider compote, sweet potato and kale. It was delicious -- and only 355 calories.
Even though I was eating 1,200 calories per day, I never got hungry. Others did, however, and I did notice nobody was late for a meal.
None of the classes was mandatory, but everyone was serious, and participated. As the week passed, a strong camaraderie developed in the group. We cheered, backslapped and high-fived.
For me, I did five hours of exercise every day, starting with the beach walk. I awkwardly danced the mambo, wobbled clumsily during tai chi and yoga, pumped weights and even took a frantic drumming class. The keg that was my belly continued to wane and show definition.
"Hey, you have a one-pack," said another guest.
In some classes, I was the only male, but nobody seemed the least bit self-conscious. It was not a place where people were quick to judge.
On day three, I was exhausted and sore all over. I considered slipping away to the beach. I wanted to strangle the omnipresent Lady Gaga with a stretch band.
Then I saw Hardy. Accompanied by an instructor who had him on a heart monitor, Hardy was carrying a weight above his head down the hall, screaming in triumph.
I went to my class after all.
Hardy lost 34 pounds and cried at his counseling session.
I lost 10 pounds and my blood pressure dropped 20 points in the first four days at H3. Since I'd started an exercise program six months earlier, I'd lost more than 50 pounds and three waist sizes. My blood sugars were no longer in the diabetic range, and I had weaned myself almost off all my medications. My trip to the resort was not my solution, but rather a good kicker to my routine.
One night my wife called and asked what I was doing.
"I'm in bed," I said. It was 8:30.
"How do you feel?" she asked.
"Better than I have in 25 years," I said.
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