After 10 years working as a stay-at-home mom before taking a job as a lunch lady at her children's school, 37-year-old Navy veteran Penny Brown of Fox Lake decided to start getting serious about getting fit. And the main reason was what her older way of life was doing to her two kids.

"Three years ago I would never have done this. I was a hermit," said Brown, who met her husband while both were serving as the Navy's version of military police at a Rhode Island naval base. "After I got married and settled down, I let myself go. I put others above myself. But then I got this job at the school and that brought me out of my shell.

"I saw that my youngest son was 5 feet high and 140 pounds, and that was because I had terrible eating habits and never worked out." She herself had swollen to 227 pounds.

During the first weigh-in in February, the challenge's only female contestant had lost just two pounds while her male rivals had shed 12, 10 and nine pounds. But as all four gathered in a little office in Push Fitness's Schaumburg studio, the others generously supported and encouraged her, noting that hormones make it notoriously tough for women to lose weight.

Brown's race down the scale did speed up as the contest continued. Within 12 weeks and the competition's end, she had shed 33 pounds, or 14.5 percent of her body weight.

"She's probably the most low-maintenance person I've ever worked with," said her Push Fitness trainer and eating counselor, Patrick Stille. "She came in the first week with her food journal and it was perfect."

"I'm gonna continue to eat right and I'm joining a gym nine minutes from my home," Brown said. "I'm still going to try to eat four to five small meals a day and keep making healthy choices, especially when I eat out. My family and I went out to eat recently at Texas Roadhouse. I usually order the most unhealthy, greasy, fried food on the menu. That night I ordered salad and grilled chicken, a huge change from what I used to order."

She said her high blood pressure has gone back to normal. Her body fat dropped from 38 percent to 32 percent. She lost 4.5 inches from her abdomen, 3 inches from her chest and an inch from her upper leg and upper arm.

Instead of three pushups before becoming exhausted, she now can do 11. Instead of 19 situps in a minute, she now can do 28. A measure of her flexibility went from 10 to 14.

"This whole competition was an amazing experience," Brown said. "I got to meet wonderful people, get healthy and learn healthy habits. I feel like it gave me my life back."