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A 550-mile hike walks off the pounds

The Baltimore Sun

Loralie Thomas walked the manicured grounds of the city's Federal Hill Park on Tuesday and delighted in seeing so many families enjoying the sunny outdoors. She and her husband look forward to starting their own family someday, but for now, that's out of the question.

Her doctor recently deemed her too fat to bear children. Those words were enough for the formerly 241-pound Chicago resident to get off the dieting roller coaster and switch to the new, exciting way to lose weight: reality television.

Thomas became one of the obese contestants to participate in Fat March, an ABC series that chronicles 12 overweight people during a 550-mile, 10-week walk from the start of the Boston Marathon to the White House for a chance to share a $1.2 million prize.

The contestants (six men, six women) were chosen among 4,500 people who answered the show's casting call. They endured extensive background checks, psychological exams and physical testing that included heart-rate monitoring, blood work and stress tests.

But they were not told that they would walk through nine states in three weeks - at distances that occasionally exceeded 20 miles a day - until they signed on.

The reality TV show is part of a popular genre that focuses on weight loss, including the Biggest Loser and Celebrity Fit Club. The shows capitalize on widespread concern with weight loss by blending Hollywood drama and real-life characters.

And while it's hard to argue with the success of the shows - the Biggest Loser's Jan. 11, 2005, finale scored NBC's highest rating in the time period in nearly three years - some question whether they're truly an inspiration to those aiming to pare down or offer an unrealistic and ultimately discouraging picture of a weight-loss regimen.

Dr. Lawrence Cheskin, director of the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center, says that many of his patients have mentioned reality shows dealing with weight loss but he thinks they set a false standard.

"What I encourage is getting focused on your own weight problem and changing behaviors in a lasting way," he said. "I would encourage my patients to do specific things, not to go on a 500-mile trek through the Eastern seaboard."

But Lorrie Henry, a fitness trainer and co-host of Fat March, says that most viewers know that the various challenges depicted are beyond what folks would do for exercise daily. More important, she says, is they propel the notion to put down the remote and get active.

"People have always been interested in finding a way to get healthy. Any way they can gravitate toward that, and if it's on television, it's an easier venue to get information quickly, versus trying to discern what a book says or going to a gym and finding the right person," the Phoenix, Ariz., resident says.

As the Fat March series stopped in Baltimore on Tuesday for shooting en route to the nation's capital, Thomas said that enduring the rigorous walks has not only contributed to significant weight loss (television confidentiality requirements prohibited her from saying how much weight) but has given her a sense of accomplishment. The group started off by walking the first 5 miles of the Boston Marathon in April and are due to arrive in Washington in less than two weeks.

Still, one of Thomas' concerns is what will happen when she returns home.

"That's going to be the real challenge, back in my original environment, having all the same temptations, falling back into the same old habits," she says. "But doing this in front of America is going to give me a greater accountability than I would have had if I did it at home. I'm not one of those pathetic, fat people in the corner, thinking TV is going to make my life better or losing weight is going to make me happy. I am happy. I want to be around for my life and be healthier so I can live my life."

Competing on the Biggest Loser last summer undoubtedly helped former Baltimore resident Amy Hildreth get her weight under control.

After being eliminated from the TV competition after five weeks, she pared down to 219 pounds from 260 pounds. She kept losing weight until the show's December finale, where she returned to weigh in at 154 pounds.

Shortly after the finale, Hildreth put 20 pounds back on. She said that during competition and even after being eliminated she was "working to get the lowest weight possible," before the finale. When that drive ceased, some of her weight returned almost immediately.

But not all of it. Hildreth, who now lives in Omaha, Neb., says she picked up enough healthy living habits to maintain a weight of 180. A certified personal trainer, Hildreth is dating fellow Biggest Loser contestant Marty Wolff. The two have launched a company that specializes in motivational speaking and personal training.

"We both get e-mails from people who say, 'You inspired me to start a workout program. I've lost 50 pounds and I've got 30 more to go,'" she says. "And we also get e-mails from hopeless people who say, 'I've watched you and I don't know where to start. Can you help?' And we write back and send them words of encouragement."

Such success stories drive the popularity of the reality series.

Contestants on Fat March are also learning how to eat healthy. They're given a daily diet of three meals plus two snacks that is FDA-approved and is divided among proteins, carbohydrates and fat, about one-third each. The producers will later post on the Web site a Fat March diet plan designed by nutritionists.

"Sixty-four percent of Americans are overweight, and everyone is looking for the magic pill, and it just doesn't exist," said Julie Laughlin, co-executive producer of the show. "The next best thing is for people to watch others and lose the weight. Hopefully, it provokes them to want to get out and change themselves."


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