Laughing together is a big part of why the "Be a Winner by Losing" program at the Bolger Fitness Center (BFC) at the Ridgewood YMCA/YWCA works so well session after session. When a recent introductory spin class ended, the exhausted group members loosened the straps on the pedals of their "racing bikes" and joked that they felt like they had just finished the Tour de France.
Matt Bansch, BFC director, has run the program 15 times already, first at the Greater Morristown YMCA and now in Ridgewood, and he has seen amazing results. Over the course of just four recent sessions, participants lost a total of 249 pounds. The best weight loss over eight weeks was 16 pounds for a woman (12 percent of total body weight) and 33 pounds for a man (13 percent).
"It's the only program around I'm familiar with," Bansch says, "that combines the elements of serious nutrition advice, cardio exercise and strength training."
Class members have ranged from 18-year-olds to people who fall well into the "senior" category. Expectations for all participants are high. They attend two group exercise classes a week with only their fellow participants, and one private session with a personal trainer. They are then encouraged to take advantage of the more than 70 additional group classes offered each week to Bolger Fitness Center members. They can also use the Y's two pools for laps or work out in a state-of-art fitness room filled with elliptical machines, exercise bikes, treadmills and weight stations.
The first week of a session typically finds participants a little overwhelmed by the choices and challenges they will face over eight weeks. Some have never been inside a gym before, while others are former high school or college athletes looking to regain the edge they used to have. Making everyone feel comfortable and confident is a job the always upbeat Bansch embraces.
"Running this program is the favorite part of my job," he says.
The program differs significantly from The Biggest Loser, the hit television show that inspired it. First of all, losses are not expected to be so dramatic. The aim is for participants to lose no more than a healthy two pounds a week, and most of the "contestants" aren't dramatically overweight or out of shape.
"We aren't obsessed with pounds," says Marla Klein, the registered dietician who serves as consultant. She guides participants with food journals and emphasizes good nutrition over anything else. Most participants already know quite a bit about good eating habits, but meeting with a dietician really seems to help most people set those ideas into motion. Klein also offers follow-up email advice as well as useful cooking tips and recipes.
Also unlike the TV show, there are no dramatic, emotional breakdowns or public weigh-ins. Everything is kept upbeat, and everyone weighs in privately on the first day. Bansch uses the number only to determine a winner based on the highest percentage of weight lost. The prize is a gift bag of healthy treats and gift certificates and a choice of more training or massage sessions.
According to Bansch, part of the secret to the program's success is the personal training feature. While people might be reluctant to walk into a gym and book a session with an unknown trainer, here everything is taken care of for the participant. After going over questionnaires completed by participants detailing their fitness habits – or lack thereof – Bansch matches the "winners" with their private coaches. And somehow he always seems to find just the right combination.
Deborah Tonnessen, a nurse at Hackensack University Medical Center who has completed the program twice, can attest to that fact. At first glance, her trainer, Eric Deutsch, a specialist in martial arts, might not appear to be the perfect match for a woman who just wanted to get off her couch.
"I found so much more," the very enthusiastic and now much fitter Tonnessen recalls. "Eric helped me honor what I could do and kept pushing me out of my comfort zone."
For Tonnessen, the group exercise classes were an added bonus.
"They were like a big basket of opportunity," she says.
Marylu Coviello also likes the group exercise component. A contestant in the latest series, Coviello already worked out regularly when her trainer recommended the program.
"I love the synergy of working out with the group," she says. "I never would have tried spin on my own, and now I'm inspired to improve my Pilates and yoga too."
Deutsch leads the group classes in Tai Chi and kickboxing, which he recommends to anyone wanting to lose weight and get fit.
"Science has shown that the higher the stress level an individual has, the more likely they are to have high cholesterol and elevated blood pressure," Deutsch says. "The martial arts build muscular strength and teach self-control that can carry over into the discipline to follow a fitness program."
Lois Mettler, a spin instructor at the center and a certified vortex energy healer, also advocates training the whole individual. She loves introducing participants not only to spinning, but also to yoga and Pilates.
"Those disciplines taught me the importance of meditation and breathing practices that quiet the mind and promote a sense of peace and wellness," Mettler says. "And I love passing that on to others."
Alex Recchia of Ridgewood, meanwhile, is completely open to trying new exercise routines. Only 24, he realized his job as a financial planner, for which he works as many as 70 hours a week, contributed to a 30-pound weight gain and all-around feeling of not being fit. For the former high school and college athlete, that just wasn't acceptable. He joined the classes to get back into shape and approached Tai Chi and spinning with the same enthusiasm and energy he used to exert in rugby and football.
"It's a great way to get back in shape," he says enthusiastically. "Anyone can benefit from it."
For information about the latest session, call Matt Bansch at (201) 444-5600, ext. 306, or email him at email@example.com.