Losing weight, getting fit and becoming healthier is really a numbers game from the bathroom scale and calories burned to blood pressure and cholesterol levels. This year's five contestants and 80 at-work teams checking in at 450 participants reached their goals with the help of generous sponsors who partnered with the Daily Herald for the 2017 Fittest Loser Challenge.
It sounds easy -- diet, exercise and getting enough rest -- but everyone needs a road map to reach the promised land of fitness. Josh Steckler, president and owner of Push Fitness, knew this when he brought the idea of a fitness challenge to the Daily Herald years ago. "We wanted to bring awareness to the benefits of weight loss and to show just how much someone could accomplish in a short period of time if they're surrounded by the right people," he said.
Push Fitness provided food plans, workouts and personal trainers. Steckler has seen scores of bodies and attitudes evolve over the years his business has sponsored the contest and Push's larger facility added group exercise classes and personal training to this year's menu.
"Holding boot camp style classes for our military veteran contestants to attend was a perfect fit," he said. "We were also invited to participate in a Challenge 22 event that brings awareness to the 22 military veterans who die by their own hand each day." The event was sponsored by The Heart of a Marine Foundation, another Fittest Loser sponsor, during which participants performed 22 repetitions of different exercises like squats, pushups, and jumping jacks.
"The entire Fittest Loser group was there and although it was emotional, it brought some great awareness to the issue of suicide while bringing the contestants closer together," Steckler noted.
The staff at Push Fitness was excited to work with veterans to not only thank them for their service but to bring awareness about obesity that plagues a majority of veterans.
Elk Grove Park District partnered with AMITA Health to co-sponsor events and its own employees joined in the team challenge. The park district hosted four events that were free to contestants including a health expo, a Zumba party co-sponsored with AMITA Health, a seminar with the district's personal trainer and registered dietitian, and the Indoor 5K, which took place at the district's indoor track. Thirty laps around the track were needed for Fittest Loser contestants to get credit for their efforts.
Pure Barre, a low-impact total body workout facility in Deer Park, re-upped with the Fittest Loser to offer classes in studio for At Work participants and hosted a session at Athleta in the Deer Park Town Center. The workout is very different from your traditional jogging and squats in that it focuses on small isometric movements working one muscle group at a time in an all-inclusive and welcoming atmosphere. Owner Faith Anne Wade likes the mind-body connection that the challenge emphasizes. "It shows all of us that what you're eating and how you're moving can make life so much fuller," she said.
Providing the gear again this year, Dick Pond Athletics showed its unparalleled expertise and service by outfitting the main contestants in the perfect shoes and inserts. Nick Hurley, manager of the Hoffman Estates outpost, got a firsthand feeling for the competitive nature of the challenge. "When (contestant) Tony (Wiszowaty) came in to be fitted for shoes, he asked if he was the first one to come in -- he said, 'I'm in it to win it' -- so he was competing right from the start."
Hurley appreciated seeing the contestants at the beginning of their journey all the way to the finale.
Named one of Competitor Magazine's 50 Best Running Stores in America for the last six years, the athletic shoe store also hosted three Fittest Loser At Work events. Looking forward, all Dick Pond locations offer Walk2Run programs throughout the summer that are good options for someone just starting out or looking to get back into shape.
Athleta, a retailer offering cutting edge sportswear and accessories for women, hosted At Work exercise events at the Deer Park location and even gave a group Thai massage session. Athleta's community leader, Kris Taylor, noted that every week the roster was filled with eager exercisers for Pure Barre, yoga and tough boot camp classes.
Angelika Jurczyk, marketing director at Deer Park Town Center, was inspired to see there were 80 At-Work teams participating in 2017, the most in six years since the lifestyle center has been a sponsor of the event. "The teams attended many events hosted by retailers and even asked if more in-store classes and events can be added," she said.
The four main contestants got their head-to-toe makeovers courtesy of Deer Park. Jurczyk was particularly moved that this years' competitors were military veterans, and that they wanted to make a positive change in their lives. Not only is Jurczyk herself going to try running a 5K this year, but Deer Park Town Center has also added a new summer fitness series to its event calendar.
"We're inviting our community to get ready for summer and join us in the Gazebo for free, fun and interactive fitness classes on June 8, 15, 22 and 29 starting at 9 a.m.," she said. The classes welcome all skill levels. Visit ShopDeerParkTownCenter.com for a class schedule and details.
Anyone who has lost weight will tell you that catching their reflection in a mirror becomes a happy occurrence again.
Palatine's Salon Lorrene moves into its busy bridal season but didn't want to miss the chance to team with the Fittest Loser again, so the salon hosted a fun At Work event.
Avalon Salon, worked its magic doing the final four makeover which included hair, brow shaping and waxing and mani-pedis. Avalon's Bonnie Conte said her service providers remarked about the contestants sincere appreciation of the pampering.
Changing your life is a complete process and Amrit Yoga Institute provided Fittest Loser participants with access to a 30-minute guided meditation that aimed to teach participants how to calm their minds and ease response to stressful situations and thoughts. The winner of the Fittest Loser Challenge snagged an "I Am Yoga Welcome Weekend" retreat as part of his grand prize package.
AMITA Health, the official medical partner of the Fittest Loser Challenge, did the weighing, measuring and crucial blood work for all contestants. This wasn't the first fitness rodeo for Dr. Anthony Auriemma, who leads the AMITA Health Weight Loss Solutions Team and is a leading authority in the field of obesity. The doctor and his team have been on board for years and noted that this was the healthiest group of Fittest Loser contestants.
"They were the lightest; none had chronic disease and they were pretty motivated individuals," Auriemma said, "which could be a testament to their military training."
All contestants improved: Those who had higher cholesterol numbers lowered them to normal and those who started with normal numbers got them to an even better place.
"One contestant was able to go off three blood pressure meds within weeks," he said, beaming.
Although eating less and moving more is the tried-and-true path to fitness, Lifespan Brands, famous for the iconic Lava Lamp, brought some high-tech help with its Detecto scale, a trusted medical brand for use in the convenience of your home. The iConnect by Detecto scale became the official scale of the Fittest Loser contest and an iConnect by Detecto Bluetooth 8-in-1 body fat scale went to each Fittest Loser At Work team.
The 8-in-1 Bluetooth scale measures vital measurements to provide you with a full analysis of your weight management trends weekly, monthly or yearly. This scale easily pairs with both iPhones and android phones and comes with a free health app.
Wellness specialist Jill Micklow spends her work days bringing Assurance's passion for "minimizing risk and maximizing health" to clients nationwide, so the partnership of the Fittest Loser and Assurance, one of the largest and most awarded independent insurance brokerages in the country, just makes perfect sense.
"The tenets of the Challenge is what we preach," Micklow said, "and the fact that this year's contestants were veterans is just awesome."
Assurance provided on-site fitness classes, a mindfulness and mediation workshop, funneled weekly health tips to participants and hosted the initial captain's meetings for the At Work participants.
"This event is the best because we get to actually meet contestants in person as opposed to through technology, which is more often the case these days," she said.
A positive outlook, medical tools and exercise took the contestants far. However, healthy, delicious food is a significant part of the Fittest Loser equation. Tony's Fresh Market, with 15 family-owned locations in the Chicago area, sponsored the Fittest Loser healthy shopping trip as well as hosted Fittest Loser At Work healthy eating events.
Vince Gambino, vice president of sales and marketing at Tony's Fresh Market, was wowed by the enthusiasm and competitive spirit among contestants.
"I was inspired to see the strength of the teams, pushing one another to get better and not quit," he said. "I'll never forget the expressions on people's faces when they read ingredients and labels in the frozen food aisle. I think many people were surprised with the ingredients in what they perceived as healthy," he laughed.
Gambino offered his own formula to fitness: "Write your goals down. Make a schedule. Shop at Tony's. Eat fresh! Lose weight!"
Barrington's Savory Salads, owned by dad-and-daughter team George Jameson and Stephanie Dzugan, hosted a healthy eating class and passed out gift cards as prizes for At Work teams.
Contestants surely came away with a healthier love of romaine over pale iceberg lettuce. "We loved hosting the contestants and showing them all the healthy menu options when dining out," Dzugan said. "Everything at Savory Salads is made in its kitchen: dressings, breads, soups. Sauces are made from scratch without added preservatives. Produce is freshly chopped daily and salads are hand tossed using just enough dressing to season the mix of ingredients."
Health coach Monique Costello hosted healthy cooking classes for At Work teams demonstrating how to make almond milk, spiralize a sweet potato and make a darn satisfying dessert -- coconut pot de crème -- that was not only delicious but vegan!
"This has been fantastic," Costello, the proprietor of Happy Eats Healthy, said. "And those who attended learned how important it is to prep meals in advance because if you don't have healthy stuff prepared, you're likely to grab for something unhealthy when you're hungry."
Healthy food options are also on the mind of Elizabeth Gartman, communications manager of the Northern Illinois Food Bank. The organization now provides a Healthy Eating for the Family Program to the shelters it serves.
"Our hungry neighbors see all the barriers to healthy living and it's great to have another organization in the community like the Daily Herald having a wellness outlook," she said. "Helping people lead healthier lives is what we do and the Fittest Loser Challenge gives people an accessible and realistic way to get healthy -- that's the battle."