At a Gold’s Gym north of Atlanta, Georgia, Jennifer Marnell works out with a woman who weighs 300 pounds. Hard-bodied, tanned, a tattoo peeking from under a sock on one perfectly toned leg, the personal trainer could easily pass for a college student -- a sexy, energetic, 20-something with a fit, chiseled (yet feminine) body.
In fact, she’s 31, has been married for 13 years, and is the mother of a teenage girl. Looks can be deceiving. Even more surprising, she can relate to her 300-pound client on a remarkably personal level, offering a unique perspective of hope that fitness, even when you’re morbidly obese, does not have to be an impossible dream.
You see, just 3 years ago, Jennifer weighed the same as her client.
How she got here is a story containing no magic, fad diet -- in fact, no "diet" at all. It’s a story of lifestyle changes that resulted, literally, in a changed life.
Why should weight matter?
Jennifer grew up in a happy family with parents who loved to cook and siblings, who like Jennifer, loved to eat. They were an active group, the kids taking dance and gymnastics lessons. There was only one problem: Unlike the rest of her family, Jennifer was heavier than normal. "It was a case of not knowing my body and turning to food for everything, not eating just because I was hungry," she recalls.
Her mother tried talking to her about dieting, but Jennifer wanted none of it. She wasn’t ready. Besides, she was a pretty, popular girl. Why should weight matter? It didn’t seem to. In her late teens she was married to her husband, Chris, a trim guy who loved his bride and her big brown eyes and bubbly personality. If her nearly 200-pound body bothered him, he kept it to himself.
As time went on, though, Jennifer gained more weight. Pictures from just 4 years ago show an unhealthy woman with large puffy cheeks and narrow eyes when she smiled. By then, she was 100 pounds heavier.
Her family didn’t tease or criticize her. No one said anything about her weight, and she wasn’t trying to lose any. "It was a good and bad thing," she recalls. "They loved me for who I was. I learned later they were worried about my health when I maxed out at 300 pounds. They just didn’t know how to approach me."
Jennifer’s doctors urged her to lose weight, telling her it was contributing to several health problems, including a hernia, acid reflux, and borderline high blood pressure. Plus, her father had diabetes, so she was already at risk for that disorder, even without the extra weight.
She didn’t listen. She went about her life, trying to ignore her size. "I was able to avoid embarrassing problems, like not being able to fit into a booth at a restaurant, by scouting out places we went to first," she says.
The tide turns
One of those family outings eventually brought about life change. Jennifer and her family were trying to have a happy day at an amusement park. But, while trying to get on a ride, she couldn’t buckle herself in. She was too big; the attendant asked her to leave the ride.
There was no avoiding the truth, now.
"It was the ultimate embarrassing, pivotal moment. I was rejected in front of my family," Jennifer recalls. "It was heartbreaking to see my husband and daughter go through that. They didn’t have weight problems, and I realized my daughter would be subjected to ‘fat mother’ comments as she grew older."
That was it. She told her husband she was getting rid of all the junk food in the house and losing weight. Instead of going on a diet, fad or otherwise, however, she simply started eating only healthy foods, putting an emphasis on fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. And she wouldn’t allow her family to eat snacks in front of her. "Although we made compromises," she adds, laughing. "I don’t like Oreos, but my husband does, so it is ok for him to eat them when I’m around."
Six months later, 50 pounds were gone.
Jennifer knew the next step in getting healthy was to exercise. "I missed being active like I was as a child. I knew exercise would make me feel better -- but I was totally scared," she says.
She’d had a gym membership before but never used it. Now she finally decided it was time to work out. The gym’s women-only section helped with her embarrassment over how she looked in her exercise clothes. Then she excelled at workouts in the pool.
"I was able to last a lot longer; it was easier on the joints. The cardio swim classes began to work wonders. And I started thinking, ‘I could do this.’ In fact, it inspired me to become an instructor one day," Jennifer recalls. "Sometimes, you go in to work out and think there are reasons to leave, but that instructor kept me at it for an hour."
In the fall of 2007, after more than 2 years of exercising, she reached a healthy 120 pounds, and has maintained that weight since. Now a certified personal trainer and fitness instructor, she teaches classes and works with personal clients daily at two Gold's Gyms, where posters of her -- before and after -- are prominently displayed.
A crew from a cable TV station recently filmed a documentary about her remarkable transformation. She’s been on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" and was featured in People magazine. She’s been transformed through her own will and hard work, and as a result has become a spokesperson for Gold’s Gym, another Jared Fogle (also known as "Mr. Subway").
With all her success, however, Jennifer isn’t spreading word of secret diets, exercise plans, or motivational tips that will guarantee success for others wanting to follow in her path.
"People don’t want to hear it, but there is no quick fix, miracle cure, or pill," she says. "Of course, I use what I’ve done that has helped me to help my clients, but the whole idea of a lifestyle change is difficult for a lot of people. You have to be patient and change your lifestyle. Some find it hard. It is a lot easier to get into a habit than it is to break it. People are scared. They don’t know what change is going to do, and they are afraid of failure, too.
"But, no matter what, you have to love yourself enough to want to change your lifestyle and not be scared. I can encourage and train people, but I can’t do it for them. You have to take the small baby steps, one day at a time. The bottom line is, you have to ask yourself: Do you want to continue to feel bad about yourself or do you want to do something that makes you feel good about yourself? Do it for yourself."
Editor’s Note: Have you lost a lot of weight? What’s your success story? We’d like to know about it. Send your comments to email@example.com.
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