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In the fall of 2008, Don Zeh felt like he’d hit the misery trifecta: He lost his job, his weight topped 300 pounds and he started suffering intense panic attacks. On top of all that, Zeh recalls, he wasn’t sleeping well either. “I was a wreck.”

Desperate to get some shuteye, Zeh, then 35, sought the help of his doctor, who bluntly told him he had a choice: Either start taking medication to deal with his insomnia and anxiety, or take full responsibility for improving his health. “My doctor said he could prescribe me all kinds of happy pills, or I could get off my butt, get to the gym and lose some weight,” Zeh recalls. “It hit me hard.”

On Dec. 5, less than a month after the appointment, Zeh enrolled at the Life Time Fitness near his Crystal Lake, Ill., home. That same day, he got a tattoo on his wrist with the date and the letters WP, which stood for “willpower.” It served as a constant reminder of his commitment to get back in shape and his goal of losing 100 pounds in 2009.

More important, though, it symbolized the end of an old way of life and the beginning of a new one.

Stepping Forward

Growing up, Zeh was an active kid and a standout swimmer. A state record holder in the 500-meter freestyle, he was the captain of his high school team as a freshman. He didn’t think much about his diet, and he never worried about his weight.

His carefree, athletic, ­outdoor lifestyle changed in 1995, when he was sidelined by a mountain-biking accident. Not long after, he cut open his eye in a freak work accident, which required delicate surgery on his eye. To prevent further damage, his doctors told him to refrain from physical activity and heavy ­lifting for six months. “I couldn’t do anything physical,” Zeh recalls. “That’s when I got lazy and I adapted to being inactive.”

During his recovery, Zeh started a retail job, where grueling 70-hour workweeks were commonplace. His harried lifestyle left him chowing down fast-food burgers and guzzling half a dozen sodas every day.

His weight began to steadily climb. Eventually, the 5-foot-10-inch Zeh tipped the scales at 330 pounds. The extra weight was having a profound effect on his quality of life. “I struggled with bouts of sleeplessness. I was just pacing the house,” he recalls. “Even climbing a single flight of stairs would leave me breathless.”

His friend Lester Johnson, another Life Time member, encouraged him to check out T.E.A.M. Weight Loss, the club’s 12-week small-group training program. Inspired by Johnson’s success with the program, Zeh decided to sign on. The next session didn’t start for another month, though, so personal trainer Jessica Walrack offered to train Zeh once a week — free of charge — in the interim.

By the time Zeh started the program in January 2009, he had already lost a few pounds and was eager to make more progress. Three times a week, the group of eight did treadmill workouts tailored to each individual’s fitness level. At first, Zeh was challenged to finish a half-hour of walking, but soon he could complete hourlong workouts that included weighted strength exercises for the upper body. On the other four days of the week, he did less strenuous treadmill workouts on his own.

Zeh saw results almost immediately: He lost 5 pounds in the first couple of weeks and continued to lose 3 to 4 pounds at every two-week checkpoint thereafter. As his fitness level improved, he increased the speed and incline of the treadmill and started using heavier dumbbells for his strength exercises.

More important than the numbers on the scale, though, were the changes he saw outside the gym. “It was simple things,” Zeh recalls. “I could sit down on a chair and not be on top of an armrest. Within the first month, my problems with insomnia were gone.” And for the first time in years, he felt comfortable doing the outdoor activities he loved, like hiking and mountain biking.

Smart Choices

As Zeh overhauled his exercise regimen, he also began to change his diet, which for years had included fast food, pizza, heavy Mexican dishes and liters of soda. Thanks to weekly nutrition counseling through the T.E.A.M. program, however, he swapped his three heavy meals a day for five lighter ones, and moved from eating out to cooking at home. He started his days with protein shakes or fruit smoothies, and made sure that each small meal had a vegetable, a fruit and a whole-grain element. Except for the occasional Subway sandwich or special-order Panera meal (minus the heavy dressings or sauces), he cut out fast food almost entirely.

The combination of changes helped Zeh drop 49 pounds during the first T.E.A.M. session. He signed up for a second session and trimmed another 47 pounds. After that, he hired a trainer, who provided tips and advice so he could continue to torch pounds and stay motivated. He’s now down to 190 pounds — 140 pounds lighter than when he started at the end of 2008.

Johnson, who encouraged Zeh to get started with the ­program, couldn’t be happier for his friend. “His confidence is back,” he says. “Life is easier for him now, and it shows. He’s more social, he goes out more and he talks to people more. The bottom line is that [the weight loss] has changed everything about his life.”

Leading by Example

Zeh still wants to lose a few more pounds to reach his goal weight of 185, and in the meantime he’s studying to become a personal trainer, so he can help more people choose a healthier path. By sharing his own story of transformation, he believes he can encourage others who struggle with their weight to make real long-term changes.

“People often think that trainers don’t know what it’s like [to be overweight],” he says. “But anyone who trains with me won’t have that as an excuse. I know firsthand what it takes to get yourself to change — and then stick with it.”

Success Summary

Meet: Don Zeh, 36, a personal-trainer-in-training from Crystal Lake, Ill.

Big Accomplishments: Losing 140 pounds; turning his newfound passion for health into a career.

Big Inspiration: Making his goal public by tattooing the date of his commitment to health on his wrist. “By putting it out there, I knew there was no turning back — it was for the rest of my life.”

What Worked: Moderation. “I still go out for a night with friends, but I prepare for it now. If you indulge a little bit, then you need to commit to yourself that the rest of the meals you eat that day will be healthy ones.”

What Didn’t: Eating on autopilot. “I’d drive past McDonald’s or Burger King, and I’d automatically get something. It was almost like second nature — and it got out of control.”

Words of Wisdom: Healthy doesn’t mean boring. “At the beginning, I worried that I would never have a hamburger or pizza again. I still eat those things now and then. I just make sure that they’re as healthy as they can be.”

Priority No. 1: Lester Johnson’s Story

After years of putting his own health on the backburner, Lester Johnson began an exercise regimen that transformed his body – and his life.

On July 27, 2008, Lester Johnson did something he hadn’t done in years: He went to the gym. Overweight and out of shape, he had spent the past five years caring for his ailing mother and had little time to consider his own health. “So much of my time and energy went toward taking care of my mom,” Johnson, 41, recalls.  “In those years before she died, I gained a substantial amount of weight. I went from being big to really big.”

Though he had been overweight for most of his life, he hit an all-time high of 375 pounds in early 2008 — and realized that if he didn’t do something about it now, he would end up like his mom, who had suffered from a host of chronic health conditions, including weight-related high blood pressure and diabetes. “My motivation was that I didn’t want to die,” he says.

So, at the urging of a trainer at the Algonquin Life Time Fitness near his home in Lake in the Hills, Ill., he joined the club and signed up for the 12-week T.E.A.M. Weight Loss program. It was the beginning of a life-changing transformation.

On the Move
Johnson, a newspaper sports reporter and videographer who also runs a prep sports Web site, had always been a fan of team sports, so the T.E.A.M. program was a great fit. But it wasn’t easy: At first, simply walking on a treadmill was a challenge. “I had to work up to the point of using weights like other participants to get my heart rate up,” Johnson says. “It was pretty intense.”

He stuck with it, though, and began seeing results almost immediately. “Like a lot of people, I’m results-oriented, so when I saw the weight start to come off, it gave me the momentum to keep going.” And keep going he did.

Thanks to the advice of both the program’s personal trainers and nutritionists, he lost 34 pounds during the three-month T.E.A.M. program. Rather than signing up for second session, though, he decided to take what he learned and go it alone. “The support was great, but I knew I had to be able to do this on my own or it wasn’t going to stick,” he recalls.

Over the course of the next year and a half, Johnson increased his cardio workouts, integrating plenty of interval sessions, and began lifting weights to tone up. He also found a workout buddy in good friend Don Zeh, and together they kept each other on track.

Johnson also revamped his eating habits, which had previously consisted of way too many take-out and fast-food meals. “I’m not exaggerating when I say I ate every meal out,” Johnson says. “I would go to McDonald’s and order a couple of hamburgers, fries and soda, along with another sandwich for when I got hungry later. It was out of control.”

Keeping the guidance of the T.E.A.M. nutritionist in mind, Johnson began shopping for more nutritious, wholesome foods, and preparing many of his meals at home. He also cut down on portion sizes; focused on getting a healthy balance of carbs, proteins and fat; and replaced his three large daily meals with several smaller ones and snacks.

Now, nearly two years later, Johnson has dropped a total of 145 pounds and maintains a steady, healthy weight of 230. “I went from barely being able to walk on the treadmill to running 4.5 miles. I’ve done 5Ks — heck, I’m even doing them as workouts!” Johnson says.

More important, though, Johnson has his health under control and feels more confident in every aspect of his life. “I’ve always prided myself on being a tough, strong person. In the last couple of years, I’ve rediscovered that inner animal — that thing in all of us that, when it clicks in, people either need to get out of the way or join in.”

Jamie Martin is an Experience Life senior editor.

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