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LaDawn Riggs is no stranger to New Year’s resolutions. Like many people, she made one every year, vowing to lose weight or pay off her bills. Countless times, her pledges of self-improvement fell to the wayside.

But for 2004, the outgoing and upbeat Riggs resolved to change her life for good. And now, for two years in a row, she has made good on her New Year’s resolutions. The bigger payoff? She’s traded in years of self-doubt and peer pressure for a can-do commitment to pursuing lifelong health and fitness — and has even helped raise money for a worthy cause.

Riggs, 28, struggled with her weight from ages 8 through 26. At 16, she lost 55 pounds, only to gain it all back after leaving home for college. Through the years, she tried every quick fix available, but nothing seemed to work. What’s worse, she was eventually diagnosed with serious stress- and weight-related health problems, including high blood pressure.

Shortly after Christmas in 2003, at age 26, she reached her heaviest weight — 181 pounds — for the second time. Riggs, who stands 5-feet, 4-inches tall, decided that if she wanted to live a full, healthy life, she needed to not only lose weight, but change her lifestyle for good.

Extreme Measures

Growing up in Chandler, Ariz., Riggs was an active kid. She took singing and dancing lessons, spent summers at the lake and snow skied with her parents and six siblings in the winter. But of five sisters, Riggs was the only one with weight issues at an early age. “My diet was the main culprit,” she says, recalling frequent after-school trips with her dad to the local convenience mart for his daily Dr. Pepper and her choice of soda, candy or an apple turnover.

Riggs was heavier than many kids in elementary school, but during junior high her weight gain became pronounced. Although uncomfortable with her own reflection even then, it wasn’t until ninth grade that Riggs felt the social pressure to lose weight and “fit in.”

Quiet, shy and insecure, Riggs struggled to be accepted, often feeling left out because of her weight. “LaDawn didn’t have the kind of friends she needed at that time in her life,” says Ralynne Riggs, 20, LaDawn’s youngest sister and the person LaDawn often turned to for comfort.

In the spring of her sophomore year, 16 years old and 181 pounds, Riggs says she “practically stopped eating altogether” and simultaneously started exercising intensely in a desperate effort to get in shape. “I worked out for two to three hours a day to Jane Fonda Step Aerobics,” she remembers. She ate fruit and occasionally cereal, and when her family went out to eat, she’d pick at a salad with no dressing.

Within a month, she’d dropped 25 pounds, but she felt terrible. “I felt shaky all the time, and I had no energy,” Riggs says. “But, back then, I was going to do anything to be skinny like everyone else.”

By the time Riggs returned to classes the fall of her junior year, she had lost 55 pounds. Her new appearance stunned classmates. “It was amazing how differently people treated me because I was thin,” she says. “They would make eye contact, and it seemed like they were actually listening to me.”

Riggs knew she’d lost that weight in an unhealthy way, but she was determined to maintain her results, so she joined a gym and started eating better. She kept her weight stable through high school, but the stresses of college put her back in the mode of unhealthy habits — and reignited the familiar yearning for acceptance.

Throughout her college years, Riggs repeated her old, externally motivated cycle: spotty workouts, poor diet, lots of takeout, trying to get skinny to impress family and friends. But with classes and a job, she barely had time to get to the gym. Fueling her way through late nights with pizza and soda, she gradually regained all the weight she’d lost. So she resorted to more weight-loss gimmicks — Xenadrin, Dexatrim, even a cabbage-soup diet — but nothing worked.

Frustrated as Riggs was with her weight, being truly healthy was low on her list of priorities, even after high blood pressure nearly landed her in the hospital in October 2002. A different medical scare occurred in spring 2003: Her sister Ralynne, then 17, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.

“I was very scared for her, and it also made me realize that my own health was at risk — not because of a disease, but because of the way I was living,” Riggs says. “I tried again to change my habits, but had no success.” Still trying to draw motivation from outside forces, Riggs couldn’t yet break her cycle of poor health choices. But she was getting closer.

In September 2003, she took a job in the childcare center at the Life Time Fitness (LTF) in Gilbert, Ariz. Three months later, Riggs hit bottom, in the form of her top weight, for the last time: It was December 2003, and the scale again registered 181.

“I couldn’t believe I was there again,” she says. “I finally realized that if I wanted to change, it had to be permanent. I had to make a lifelong commitment to a healthy lifestyle.” She made it her 2004 New Year’s resolution.

Staying Power

Riggs knew full well that a resolution has only as much power as its maker has commitment. “This time,” Riggs says, “I wanted to do it the right way.” She started by hiring a personal trainer to show her how.

“When LaDawn first came to me, she was really out of shape,” recalls LTF personal trainer Heather Ashbaugh. “She’d been in my General Bootcamp class but was always in and out because she was sick a lot. When we started personal training, getting her on a consistent program was key.”

With Ashbaugh’s help, Riggs stuck to regular sessions of cardio and weightlifting three to five times a week. “Heather was always positive,” Riggs says. “She told me I could achieve my goals.”

Riggs tracked everything she ate in a food journal. She ate five to six small meals a day, breakfast being the most important. She eliminated processed sugar from her diet and replaced her five cans of Dr. Pepper per day, which she’d been drinking since she started college, with a gallon of water. By mid-2004, Riggs had lost 40 pounds.

In June 2004, Riggs resolved to kick off 2005 in a big way: by running a marathon just after the New Year. She knew if she hoped to be ready in time for the race, she’d have to start training right away. She reinforced her personal goal to get in shape with one that would benefit her sister Ralynne: The race would raise money to research a cure for juvenile diabetes.

When Riggs crossed the finish line of the Walt Disney World Marathon on Jan. 9, 2005, she had several reasons to celebrate: She’d achieved her resolution to get and stay fit in a healthy way. Her body fat had dropped from 38 percent to 11.7 percent. And her sister was there at the finish line, waiting to congratulate and thank her. “As soon as LaDawn saw me after crossing the finish line, she gave me a big hug and we both started to cry,” Ralynne remembers.

Up for a Challenge

As exciting and fulfilling as that race day was, Riggs knew it was, in many ways, a beginning. “I decided my new resolution was to stick with the healthy choices I’d made,” Riggs says.

Two years after resolving to get healthy, Riggs has adopted habits that are keeping her healthier than she’s ever been. She continues to work with Ashbaugh three days a week, and she makes nutrition a priority. Portion control, she says, has been a major key to her success.

In July 2005, she competed in her first triathlon, beating her goal by nearly 25 minutes, and in November she raced in the ING New York City Marathon. Riggs is doing all sorts of things she once thought she’d never be able to do, like learning to play tennis. As Ashbaugh observes: “LaDawn has the spirit and energy to go out and do virtually anything she wants.”

To kick off 2006, Riggs will compete in Goofy’s Race and a Half Challenge at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., where she’ll run a half-marathon one day and a full one the next.

“My goals have changed,” says Riggs. They’re no longer just about keeping fit and motivated, they’re also about challenging myself and maintaining my health so I can help support finding a cure for diabetes.”

After struggling with her weight and her body image for nearly 20 years, Riggs is now authentically enjoying the choices that support her commitment to fitness. She’s motivated to succeed from the inside out, she says, and that makes all the difference: “My life is so happy now,“ she says. “I love who I am and what I’ve become.”

Success Summary

Meet: LaDawn Riggs, 28, child center department head.

Big achievements: Meeting her fitness New Year’s resolutions for two years in a row; running three marathons and successfully completing a triathlon.

Big inspiration: Racing for a diabetes cure on behalf of her youngest sister.

What worked: Setting realistic, health- and love-motivated goals; getting involved in athletic events with special meaning; developing portion-control awareness; food journaling.

What didn’t: External pressures, self-criticism, nearly 20 years of yo-yo dieting, weight-loss drugs and gimmicks.

Words of Wisdom: “I used to give up when I didn’t see results immediately. This time, however, I judged my success on how much better I felt, and I finally accomplished what I set out to accomplish: living a healthier, happier life!”

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