They may be called the Losers, but they're winners to us.
Last month, about 20 people finished the yearlong Las Vegas Losers program, sponsored by the Review-Journal to encourage them to trim down, get fit and generally adopt healthier habits. That's down from 71 who attended the first weigh-in in February 2007 -- and 115 who initially signed up for the program -- illustrating just how tough it can be to make major lifestyle changes. So the 20 should be congratulated for sticking with it by courageously climbing onto the scale at the Las Vegas Athletic Clubs each month.
But they should be congratulated for another reason: Those final 20 members lost a total of 334 pounds over the course of the year, an average of 16.7 pounds each.
The winner: Christie Zerkich, who lost 59 pounds, or more than 23 percent of her body weight. She wins a spa package.
Zerkich, 49, lost weight the way many physicians and dietitians recommend -- by eating less and moving more. Zerkich stuck to a lower-fat, lower-calorie diet, "but the biggest thing was going for a 21/2-mile walk every morning," she said. Well, almost every morning; she took weekends off to give herself a break and reduce the monotony.
"It's all mind-set," said Zerkich, a corporate travel agent. "I hate to exercise, but it works."
In second place is Leslie Van Ginkel, 53, who lost 43 pounds, or more than 16 percent of her body weight. Van Ginkel, who works in medical insurance verification and preregistration, followed the HMR -- Health Management Resources -- plan, which involves meal replacements. HMR worked for her, Van Ginkel said, "because it was a total package -- meal replacements, education, support. It wasn't just, 'Here's your food.' Every week you're accountable."
Zerkich, Van Ginkel and the other finalists said they also benefited from the accountability inherent in the Las Vegas Losers program.
"My name was out there," Zerkich said. "It was announced to Las Vegas. People know me." Zerkich said her brother, a resident of Laughlin, didn't even know she was in the program until he read it in the paper.
Fourth-place finisher Alice McCain, who lost 35 pounds, or more than 13 percent of her body weight, said the monthly weigh-ins made a difference to her because "it's going to be out there for the world to see."
"You have somebody to be responsible to," said Robert Moore, who finished in fifth place. "You don't want to be embarrassed by gaining weight. You want to have positive feedback."
McCain, 47, who works at University Medical Center, joined Las Vegas Losers at the suggestion of her boss, a registered dietitian. Her co-workers were aware of her participation, and McCain said she was motivated by other people watching her and rooting for her.
She ate a lighter diet -- cutting out fried foods, eating more broiled foods and eating a salad for one meal a day -- and worked out on exercise equipment at home. One indulgence was the Olive Garden's House Italian Dressing, which she bought by the bottle (four bottles, every other month) for her salads.
Venetta Wilson, who finished third, is McCain's mother, and joined Las Vegas Losers simply to support her daughter. She lost 29 pounds, or 13.88 percent of her body weight (edging out McCain's 13.21 percent).
"Actually, I owe the whole thing to Alice," said Wilson, 66. "She didn't know she was being support for me." Wilson was successful, she said, because she attended the weigh-ins with McCain -- "and I watched her with those salads."
Wilson said she was a "huge meat eater" and had poor eating habits. She cut down her portions and paid more attention to what she ate. As for exercise, she goes dancing every Friday.
Moore, 54, lost 31 pounds, or more than 12 percent of his body weight. He used a modified Atkins plan.
"It controls hunger," he said. "It reduces the cravings and the sugar ups and downs."
Moore also has started riding a bicycle to his work as an accountant. To stick to his program, Moore said, "I'm trying to make changes so that I walk more and get more exercise in my daily activities rather than just going to the gym. That's the only way it'll ever work -- if you change your daily lifestyle."
McCain said she thinks she'll be able to stick with her new routine as well.
"The eating habits have changed for me greatly, which is a good thing," she said. "It became kind of a lifestyle for me."
"If I wasn't exercising, there's no way I would have lost as much," Zerkich said.
All of which is music to the ears of Mary Wilson, a registered dietitian and extension nutrition specialist with the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.
"Certainly the increasing of the exercise is really important," Wilson said. "And as we get older we tend to get more sedentary. So the fact that they increased their exercise in order to burn more calories, and reduced their portion size -- cut down on sugar and fat, whatever -- is important.
"It's interesting because it's that simple, but it's harder to execute than you think. There's no magic bullet. That's it."
The dietitian wasn't surprised that the size of the group dropped from 71 to 20 during the course of the year.
"I think the typical duration of a diet for most folks is three weeks," she said. "I think that's why we've failed with this whole diet thing over time. We see it as a temporary thing, especially when there's some kind of gimmick. We give that up and go back and gain weight. So obviously they had some commitment there."
All of the finalists said they plan to keep up with their new lifestyles and lose even more weight. Zerkich, who plans to lose 35 to 50 more pounds, said when her parents arrived from Michigan in December, her father commented that she carries herself differently and talks to people more.
"Instead of ignoring the world, I'm acknowledging it," she said.
"It's really nice to look in the mirror and think that you actually have accomplished something that is difficult to do," Moore said.
"It makes you feel very good. It makes me proud that I did stick with it and make it work."
(Other members of the Las Vegas Losers who attended the weigh-ins over the duration of the program -- or the majority of it -- and recorded a weight loss were Laura Alton, Failyn Brooks, Melina Camey, Paular Cornejo, Laura Friedlander, Anne Gravett, Nancy Kinder, Max Knisely, Katie Kolman, Jeff Mank and Jerry Socea.)
Contact reporter Heidi Knapp Rinella at email@example.com or (702) 383-0474.