Jacksonville Daily Progress
Bigger doesn't always mean better – especially when it comes to a child’s weight.
That's why Jenny and Sterling Pratz, operators of Beyond Fitness Gym in Rusk, invited Rusk students to participate in the gym’s annual weight-loss competition.
"We approached school officials with the idea we could help motivate local youth – and maybe their parents too – to get active and start making changes that would have a positive effect on their health and well being,” Jenny Pratz said. “We had them write essays explaining why regular exercise and eating right is important and how making those healthy choices can benefit them.”
Authors of the three best essays – the youngest of which is 10 years old – were invited to participate in the contest and got the opportunity to invite someone else to compete as well. Contest fees for both were waived for the 15-week event.
“It's a lot like that show ‘Biggest Loser,’” Rusk teen and contestant Zach Drinkard said as he prepared to start a session of 'exercise boot camp' recently. He wasn't one of the essay winners, but he and his mother, Candy Drinkard, signed up for the weight loss challenge together anyway.
"I just wanted to be healthier," the 16-year-old said when asked why he joined the competition. "I want to look and feel better. I don't want to just sit on the couch all the time, doing nothing either."
Drinkard admitted to having concerns about his family's history of illnesses commonly linked to weight gain, and added this is the first time he's gotten serious about his health.
"It's important," he said. "That's why I asked my mom to sign up with me. I want us to both be healthier and live longer."
Some of the sacrifices he's had to make were difficult, he confessed.
"I think the biggest sacrifice was I lost all the 'lazy time' I had," he said with a laugh. "But there's such a good atmosphere here and we have so much fun, I don't even mind."
Drinkard said he's lost 37 pounds since the competition started 10 weeks ago. His total weight loss goal is 50 to 55 pounds, at least, he said.
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry's website, www.aacap.org, an estimated 33 percent of U.S. children and adolescents are obese.
"Unhealthy weight gain due to poor diet and lack of exercise is responsible for over 300,000 deaths each year," the site states. "Overweight children are much more likely to become overweight adults unless they adopt and maintain healthier patterns of eating and exercise. Obesity most commonly begins between the ages of 5 and 6, or during adolescence. Studies have shown that a child who is obese between the ages of 10 and 13 has an 80 percent chance of becoming an obese adult."
But it's not only about losing weight, according to Rusk sixth grader Taylor Bowman.
"I exercise to help get stronger to play sports," he said. "I play football, basketball and baseball and I want to get stronger to play better. Training and exercising and eating good food -- you gotta do all that to get stronger and bigger!"
Bowman's mother, Shanna Bowman, placed fourth in last year's contest and -- along with fellow volunteer Dusty Lee -- is helping mentor this year's contestants.
Pratz said while getting the youngsters involved is important, it's just as important for older folks to get up and move too.
"It's never too late," 62-year-old Rusk resident Charlsie Session said. This is her second competition.
Session said she'd been utilizing Beyond Fitness's facilities well before signing up for her first contest. She's lost 62 pounds since starting her exercise regimen, but said losing weight really isn't her long-term goal.
"Sure losing the pounds is great but I see so many more benefits every day," she said. "I keep seeing improvement in my strength in just doing everyday things.
"I was so nervous just stepping foot in here that first time," she recalled. "But everyone was so nice and uplifting -- they're very good about not overwhelming you with things you can't do. They let you go at your own pace, but they don't let you slack off either."
It's that support and the accountability that helps keeps most of the competitors striving, not only to win the competition, but to reach their own personal goals as well.
"It helps to know there are others going through the same thing," said first time contestant Heather Beck, 33, of Rusk. Beck said several of her coworkers participated in the contest last year, which helped inspire her to join in this year.
"I saw what it did for them and decided I'd give it a shot," she said. "The best part is the support. I was really upset when I gained a pound recently but everyone said it's okay, sometimes that happens -- that kept my motivation up so I could keep going. It helps."
Beck's lost 20 pounds and hopes to lose 20 more before the contest ends.
For Rusk resident Shanon Watson, 50, it's knowing he will be held accountable at each week's weigh-in.
"It keeps me going," he said. "In the classes there's someone pushing you -- you can't turn them off when you're tired or out of breath, like you can a DVD. There are people there, around you, and you don't want to stop."
Pratz stressed, no matter how you choose to do it, the most important thing anyone can do for their health is exercise regularly.
"As much as I'd like to see every person in Rusk here at the gym," she joked before getting serious, "I realize people may not be comfortable in that setting or maybe finances are an obstacle -- don't let that stand in the way of good health. If your budget's tight, just doing simple body weight exercises like sit-ups, jumping jacks and push-ups regularly will help. If you aren't comfortable in crowds, find a few DVDs you like and get a good friend or spouse to schedule workouts with you. Start slow, take baby steps, and don't get discouraged -- it took you time to get where you are today, it's going to take time to get where you want to be."