Locals get fit from reality show-inspired program

By Johnny Jackson


Dan Hanekamp has resolved to make this new year a bit healthier than last year.

He plans to take part in the Second Annual Biggest Achiever at Gold's Gym in McDonough. The Biggest Achiever Program, inspired by NBC's Biggest Loser series, returns this year by popular demand, said the program's creator, Susan Viar. "I think that the television show, 'Biggest Loser,' gets a lot of people's attention," said Viar, also a fitness director at Gold's Gym.

Viar and fitness instructors, Priscilla Gramling and Kathy Blackwell, designed the fitness program to not only help participants shed pounds, but to promote healthier living among those in the program.

The program is a two-layered fitness competition that builds in intensity over the span of eight or 11 weeks in time - whichever the participants prefer. Participants compete through collecting points by recording their healthier diet plans and engaging in various types of fitness training at the gym.

"It's changing lifestyles," Viar said. "Weight-loss is going to come. It's going to happen, because we build them up to that. But that's not the end all-be all. We want people to make positive choices when they eat, and we want them to get into an exercise routine - something that they can stick with."

About 80 people participated in last year's program, which was the first. Leonard Lawrence, of McDonough, was one of them. The 46-year-old, electric-utility analyst said he lost 88 pounds in less than a year. On Dec. 20, 2007, Lawrence measured in at 6-feet, 6-inches tall, and 320 pounds. By August 2008, he weighed in at 232 pounds.

"My goal was to lose 80 pounds by August, and I lost 88," he said. "I wanted to get fit, and the biggest thing was to lose weight."

Lawrence dove into the program, putting in hours at the gym in order to acclimate himself to exercising regularly. "As a part of that process, one of the cycles I went through was the 'Biggest Achiever' process," he said. "I would simply work out and run."

Before the process, he said, he had poor eating habits. "For the most part, I ate whatever I wanted to eat, and I did not complement that with working out. During the process, I began watching what I was taking in, and I upped what I was eating to five meals a day to improve my metabolism."

Lawrence, who has two children with his wife, Renee, now lifts weights, adheres to a strict diet, and participates in group aerobics classes. He credits the program's staff, and his family's support, for his continued success in healthy living. "You've got to have people around you who've bought into what you're trying to achieve."

He said buying into making a lifestyle change was his biggest challenge. "That probably is the key to success - making the decision to do it," Lawrence said. "You have to make a decision that you are going to start, and you are going to finish."

Thirty-one-year-old Sheli Mathews said she decided to join the program last year, in order to recover from an ankle injury she sustained during an automobile accident. "I had surgery the year before," she said. "I was laid up for weeks. I did the Biggest Achiever to get back on track, learn about nutrition and to lose 10-15 pounds that I put on not being able to do anything."

Mathews, who lives in McDonough with her husband, Guy, and their three children, said she learned a lot through the program. A fast-pitch softball player in high school, she is about as fit now as she has ever been. At 5 feet, 4 inches tall, she weighs 135 pounds.

"My biggest goal was to come back from the injury," she said. "Biggest Achiever is a competition, but it's not a competition on who loses the most weight."

She said the program became a family affair for her. She and her husband enrolled together. "He was very supportive," she said. "The funny part about the Achiever is I was doing two classes a day, pretty much. And the kids ... always wanted to go to the gym with me and play [in daycare.]"

She said she continues to workout at the gym, taking as many as 15 cardio-aerobics, stretching, and weight-training classes a week. "I have more energy doing that many classes than I had before," Mathews said.

Orientation for this year's program begins at 6 p.m., on Jan. 9, at Gold's Gym in McDonough. Gym members can register for $50; non-members for $185, for either the eight-week or the 11-week session.

Winners of this Biggest Achiever Program competition, those who earn the most fitness points, will receive gift baskets that may include gas cards, iPods, and other items. For more information, call Gold's Gym at (770) 957-0804 or (678) 565-8682.