When Sarah Reitsma embarked on her dieting journey, she weighed 280 pounds and longed for a role model.

Celebrity dieters such as TV's "Biggest Losers" or Oprah -- with their private chefs and trainers and fancy equipment -- didn't do much for her. Reitsma wanted to be motivated by someone struggling to get fit amid the challenges of everyday life: jobs, family, doughnuts in the office break room.

Then she started reading weight-loss blogs, where ordinary people chronicle their experiences with dieting and exercising. Writing for what often grows into a loyal group of online followers, posters celebrate their successes and confess their downfalls, prominently sharing "before," "after" and "in between" photos along with pictures of meals eaten and new clothes purchased.

Here were Reitsma's role models.

"It was just really inspiring to see that these people are real, just like me, and that they can do this," said Reitsma, 34, of Eagan, who works for a small technology company.

Eventually, Reitsma started her own blog, Fat Little Legs (www.fatlittlelegs.com), after the name her older sisters used to tease her when she was a chubby child. Next thing she knew, Reitsma herself became a role model.

"I started to get a lot of, 'Oh, you're so inspiring,' and I thought, that's really weird because I would never think of myself as inspiring," she said. Now down 115 pounds altogether, she has met her weight-loss goal but keeps blogging, setting an example for people who "are reading and thinking, 'I can do this, too.'"

The Web offers thousands of fitness blogs (search site Technorati lists nearly 6,000), including at least a few in the Twin Cities. Think of them as another weapon in the weight-loss arsenal. Like an online Weight Watchers meeting, a blog reinforces healthy habits through sharing and accountability. Readers get encouragement from watching someone else's progress and commenting on their own; writers get to confide their struggles and challenges to a supportive community.

The back-and-forth seems key. A University of Texas study of blogging and weight loss suggested that "sharing negative emotions" leads to greater weight-loss success than simply keeping a food-intake diary.

"Blogging won't make you skinny," but it can help you cope with ups and downs along the way, said Jennifer Emmert of Minneapolis, 29, a human resources administrator who blogs as Prior Fat Girl (www.priorfatgirl.com).

Emmert first started blogging in 2008, about two-thirds of the way to what eventually became a 90-pound weight loss (since reaching that goal she has invited other bloggers, still making progress, to join her on the site). "At first I thought, 'Who wants to read about my journey? I'm just a girl living in Minneapolis. I'm nobody special.'"

But eventually Emmert came to view the blog as online therapy sessions with a circle of like-minded friends. "I found writing a release for whatever I was going through that day, a chance to talk about some of the struggles I was experiencing."

Let's say you hear that package of Oreos calling you from the kitchen, or you're pressured to have a piece of birthday cake at a party. You deal with the challenge -- one way or, ahem, the other -- then later report what happened on your blog. Readers respond with solace, commiseration, congratulations, advice.

"UGH! Been there!" commented one of Emmert's readers, replying to a post about the difficulty of exercising. "All the planning and rearranging that I have to do around my kid, karate, supper, errands, etc.! ... Jen, press on Girl!"

"Many times there are people who have already gone though the same situations," said James Nagan, 31, an IT student from Woodbury whose blog, Prior Fat Guy (www.priorfatguy.com), is linked to Emmert's site. "They provide ideas, support and always encouragement,"

Knowing that you'll be reporting your successes and failures to your blog audience helps keep you on track, said Lindsay Ryan, 26, of Champlin, who started with her own fitness blog and later joined Emmert on Prior Fat Girl (since she's still working on her weight loss, she's referred to as a "future prior fat girl").

Although Ryan has been blogging for almost two years, she rarely discusses the blog in "real life," and many of her friends and relatives don't even know about it. But she tries to be as candid as possible with her online followers.

"I don't paint a perfect picture about how easy and wonderful weight loss is, because it's not," Ryan said. "It's hard, it's a struggle, it's not fun -- but it's necessary. If I were not a part of Prior Fat Girl and didn't have a blog, I can pretty much guarantee that I would have given up by now."

Katy Read • 612-673-4583