Contestants' losses are food pantry's gain

(Originally published in the Telegraph on 6/3/08)

BETHALTO - Being a big loser is a good thing - if you work out at Leisure World Health Club.

On Tuesday, the Bethalto fitness center concluded its "Biggest Loser" contest. Inspired by the success of the NBC TV network's show of the same name, manager Jan Crouch and owner Mark Lymberopoulos invited club members to enter an eight-week weight loss contest. Entrants joined teams of 10 to 15 people, each led by one of the club's physical trainers.

"Being a new manager, I didn't know what I was getting into," Crouch said.

But Crouch, who became manager at Leisure World in January, and Lymberopoulos, also owner of the club's Collinsville location, were pleased with the contest's results.

"It exceeded my expectations as far as the involvement," Crouch said. "Many of the teams, even though the contest is over, are continuing to meet on a weekly basis."

"It has brought in a lot of people," Lymberopoulos said.

He said the contest's success "has been twofold," because it attracted new club members and enticed inactive members to start exercising at Leisure World again.

Eighty participants completed the program for a total of 750 pounds lost, Crouch said.

Participants dieted, competed in contests and attended weekly weigh-ins for a chance to win prizes. Contests included a swimming pool relay, treadmill distance contests, and pop quizzes on nutrition and exercise.

"For one competition, we had about 100 different sizes of weights in our aerobics room, and they had to run all the weights to one side of the room, then run them to the other side," Crouch said.

The winner of each challenge earned prizes for his or her whole team. Crouch rewarded them with water bottles, zero-calorie drink mixes, food scales and shopping lists with matching pens. The grand prize, a duffel bag full of fitness equipment, went to the two "biggest losers" who racked up the most impressive statistics at the end of two months.

The grand prize-winners far exceeded the 9.4-pound average loss. Gary Herron from Cottage Hills lost the most total pounds at 27.2. Karrie Denney from Bethalto lost 19.2 pounds and dropped the highest proportion of body weight at 11.7 percent. Both were members of "The Green Goddesses and Two Guys," trainer Kelley Gerber's team.

"We had a great team," Gerber said. "We had about 10 people every week show up."

Denney, 33, joined the program with her mother.

"We both decided it was time to lose weight," Denney said.

Although Denney said she feels good about her accomplishments thus far, she plans to continue rigorous dieting and exercise.

"I need to lose 20 more pounds, and then I'll be happy," she said.

The final weekly competition challenged contestants to clean out their pantries and contribute canned goods to the Community Hope Center in Cottage Hills. The Center's executive director, Lyn Cloninger, and director of development, Angela Valdes, stopped by Leisure World on Tuesday to pick up donations and found that the club had amassed more than 2,000 items, all stacked in a giant can pyramid.

Cloninger said the Hope Center received a call from Crouch about a month ago, asking if they would like to receive food donations as a part of Leisure World's contest.

The Hope Center's coverage "reaches out quite a ways" to Hamel, East St. Louis and Jerseyville, but "the vast majority" of families in need assisted by the Leisure World donations will come from "the Wood River-Alton-Bethalto area," Cloninger said.

The Naturals, led by Leisure World employee Leah Brueckner, won the can contest.

"I think the program helped motivate people to do what they already wanted to do," Brueckner said. "I more or less just tried to help people increase their workout."

Naturals member and Bethalto resident Angela Heinle enjoyed working out as part of a team.

"We're meeting in August to make sure we keep up the work through the summer," Heinle said.