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Jeni Bier was in trouble. At just 30 years old, the preschool teacher at a health and rec center in Eagan, Minn., carried more than 200 pounds on her 5-foot-2-inch frame, and her blood pressure was dangerously high. In August 2008, her worried doctor laid Bier’s options on the table: Either she started doing something about her health or she had to start taking medication.

As luck would have it, Bier had just learned that her workplace was planning a Greatest Loser contest for its employees that fall. “My doctor wanted me to change my diet and start exercising anyway,” Bier recalls. “I decided to give it a try and see what would happen.”

Because her previous attempts had proven futile, Bier wasn’t so sure about the competition. Still, she saw it as a last-ditch effort to turn her health around. So she signed up for the program, and when it started five weeks later, Bier entered the gym down the hall from her classroom. In the two years that she had worked at the rec center, it was her first time through those doors.

From Resistance to Readiness

Growing up, Bier’s weight wasn’t an issue. She played softball and took frequent bike rides with friends. Then she moved away from home. “I made poor choices during college,” she says. “I ate out too much and never cooked. I drank a lot of pop.”
Working full-time at a childcare center didn’t help. “At lunch, I ate what the kids ate, sometimes in addition to my own lunch. When they had afternoon snacks, I’d have one,” Bier says. After a long day at work, she often stopped at a drive-thru on the way home.
As the years passed and her weight increased, Bier occasionally tried exercising and eating better. She turned to programs like Weight Watchers and even completed a “Lazy Man” triathlon. But when Bier didn’t see immediate results from her efforts, she always fell back into her old habits.

“I would rationalize my weight,” she says. “I’d think, ‘I’m heavy, but at least I’m not over 200 pounds.’” But that day eventually came: In 2004, she hit 224 pounds.

The added weight exhausted Bier as she tried to keep up with her ­preschoolers. It also made her more self-conscious in social situations. At work, she was uncomfortable speaking up for fear of not being taken seriously. Meanwhile, she walked by the fitness center every day, but refused to step inside. “I didn’t feel comfortable,” she recalls. “I was worried that everyone would be looking at me.”

It wasn’t until that doctor’s appointment and the start of the Greatest Loser competition in fall 2008 that Bier finally found the courage to go to the gym.

Exercising Effectively

Patterned loosely after the TV show The Biggest Loser, the six-week contest emphasized nutrition education and included twice-weekly team exercise sessions in the gym. Certified personal trainer Trish Gjerde, who was assigned to Bier’s group, remembers her poor physical condition at the start of the competition. “[With Jeni at 206 pounds] her body fat measured 42.3 percent, which was more than double what it should be for someone her height,” she says.

Gjerde started off Bier’s out-of-shape group with light cardio and basic strength exercises, before gradually incorporating strength-training circuits, with two-minute cardio bursts between sets. Gjerde also had the group keep food journals, which she reviewed each week.

“I was pretty much dead after that first training session,” says Bier. “I thought, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ But for the first time, I was learning ways to eat and exercise effectively.”

By week three of the competition, Bier was beginning to see results. Not only was the number on the scale dropping, but she felt stronger than she had in years. Even better, a checkup showed that her blood pressure was improving.

Fast-forward three more weeks to the end of the program: Bier was down 13 pounds and had dropped 2 percent of her body fat. Though she didn’t win the contest — she placed sixth out of 26 — it didn’t matter. She felt like she won the top prize when she got the OK from her physician to proceed without medication.

Setting Realistic Goals

Excited by her results from the contest, Bier decided to keep working out with Gjerde while studying various nutrition and exercise approaches. She set a realistic goal of losing 2 pounds a week and began a more regimented routine of cardio and strength training. She also tracked her eating habits.

In place of junk food, fresh vegetables soon made up a significant portion of Bier’s diet. She began making her own lunches and dinners, skipping fast-food meals in favor of homemade dishes like Pumpkin and Black Bean Soup (find the recipe at right). She even gave up her daily soda habit.

In less than a year, Bier reached her goal weight of 135 pounds — a 71-pound weight loss. She also cut her body fat in half, from 42.3 percent to 21.1 percent. At her last doctor’s appointment, her blood pressure was a healthy 114/76.

Keeping the Momentum

Today, Bier continues to work out regularly, setting goals that push her physically and emotionally. She recently completed her first duathlon, which didn’t surprise Gjerde.

“Jeni is competitive and loves a challenge,” Gjerde says. “During the Greatest Loser contest, as an incentive to my group, I told them that the first person to run — not run/walk — a mile on the track would win a free 30-minute training session with me. Jeni ran a mile that very day!”

Having someone else encourage her toward new goals has been one of the most important lessons in Bier’s journey. “Trish told me early on that this was a lifestyle change,” Bier says. “That was important for me to hear, because when you’re on a diet or have a single goal, at some point it ends. What I am doing now has no end. There is no finish line.”

Success Summary

Meet: Jeni Bier, 32, a preschool teacher from Minneapolis.

Big Achievements: Losing 71 pounds; lowering her blood pressure without medication; kicking her daily soda habit.

Big Inspirations: Not wanting to take medication for high blood pressure; a weight-loss program offered through her workplace; feeling ready to do the work.

What Worked: Making changes gradually. “I never pushed to make a ton of changes at one time. They happened slowly, like trying to eat more vegetables — or any vegetables!”

What Didn’t Work: Half-hearted, impatient attempts to follow various diets and weight-loss programs.

Words of Wisdom: “Anybody can do this, but you can’t be forced into it. You have to really want to make a change. Like my trainer told me, it’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle change. It’s not something you get to stop.”|

Favorite Things

This soup is one of Jeni Bier’s favorites. It relies on healthy staples she can keep on hand for a quick, home-cooked meal.

Pumpkin and Black Bean Soup

Makes eight servings

•1 tbs. olive oil
• 5 green onions (white and light green parts), thinly sliced; slice dark parts and set aside for later
•1 red bell pepper, chopped
•3 cloves garlic, chopped
•11/2 tsp. ground cumin
•1/2 tsp. dried thyme
• 2 cans (15 ounces each) black beans, rinsed and drained
• 1 can (15 ounces) pure pumpkin purée
• 1 can diced tomatoes with juices (preferably no-salt)
• 1 can (14 fluid ounces) vegetable broth
•1/2 cup water
•1/2 tsp. salt (or to taste)
• 1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper (or to taste)

Heat oil in large saucepan over medium heat. Add white and light green parts of onions, bell pepper and garlic; cook, stirring occasionally, for four to five minutes or until soft. Stir in cumin and thyme; cook, stirring occasionally, for one minute.

Add beans, pumpkin, tomatoes and juice, broth, and water; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low; cook for 10 minutes. Stir in salt and cayenne pepper.

Top each serving with dark green onion tops, and serve.

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