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Photography by David Michael Howarth 

Shot on location at Katz JCC Fitness and Wellness Center in Cherry Hill.

The change of the calendar year is a natural time to take stock of our lives, and perhaps reconsider some of our not-so-healthy habits. You might vow that this year you’re going to make some changes in your daily life. You might succeed, but there’s a good chance you’ll fail because, well, change is really hard. 

If you’re thinking you need some inspiration to reach your 2019 goals, take a look at three SJ folks who transformed their lives through weight loss. Together, they have lost over 300 pounds, and they’ve been keeping off the weight. They’re quick to acknowledge, though, what a challenge it was – but agree it was worth doing. What’s their secret? It’s starts with a commitment to change.

 

Frank Filipek 

Weight loss: 115 lbs. 

By the time Frank Filipek was 49 and staring down his 50th birthday, he had tried and failed to lose weight more times than he cares to remember. He was 335 pounds, disgusted with himself and obsessing over his father’s failing health when he finally and definitely took control of his diet destiny. 

“My father had a heart attack at 53. He survived but it definitely has impacted the quality of his life,” says Filipek, 51, the Camden County director of events and community outreach. “I knew I was going down that path if I didn’t make major life changes.” 

The odds were against his success. The self-professed foodie and stress eater had been serious about getting healthier before. He had already tried extreme measures well beyond counting calories, including lap band surgery and self-injections with drugs intend­ed to stimulate weight loss.  

In April 2017, he signed up for a doctor-supervised weight-loss method that combines nutrition education with a ketogenic diet designed to burn fat. 

It was expensive (he had to buy the brand’s food); it was very structured and supremely strict (no carbs, no sugar, no alcohol, no dairy) and it required Filipek to embrace a food group he had been dodging his whole life: vegetables. 

“I hated vegetables,” he admits. “The closest I used to come to a vegetable was a potato.” 

The first two weeks were the hardest. But the results were phenomenal; from the start he was losing an average of five pounds a week. He also discovered the joy of vegetables.  

“I started experimenting with vegetables and really started enjoying the flavors of sau­téed spinach, broccoli and cauliflower rice,” says Filipek, who is known for beautifully plated food posts on social media.  

From April 2017 until the end of October that year, he lost a total of 115 pounds. Upon leaving the program, he enlisted a weight trainer. To build up muscle, he reintroduced carbs to his diet and even treats himself to a good wine some days. He occasionally eats foods he should avoid, but he never has a meal that doesn’t include a side of vegetables.  

“I’ve never felt healthier,” Filipek says. “I have so much more energy and am now back to a size where nice clothes fit perfectly. It’s so rewarding. I love the compliments I get everywhere I go.” 

 

Les Vail 

Weight loss: 105 lbs.  

Les Vail always thought of himself as the Energizer Bunny. Into his 30s, he stayed lean and high-spirited, competing in sports leagues and rough and tumble pick-up games. 

But when he was 34, Vail, the president and CEO of the Gloucester County Chamber of Commerce, blew out his knee playing basketball after finishing nine innings of baseball. That was a game changer, to say the least. 

“Mine was worse than Carson Wentz,” he says. ”There was literally nothing holding my leg in place.” 

Recovery took 11 long months after multiple surgeries to rebuild the knee. After that, Vail was so afraid of reinjury that he stopped playing sports altogether. As the pounds gradually mounted – he went from 165 pounds to more than 280 by his early 50s – it was weighing down his psyche too. 

Fortunately, it was a reality check from his doctor, and not a health scare, that jolted him to change his ways five years ago. 

“He told me if I didn’t do something, my health would not stay the way it was,” Vail recalls. “It was also how I began to feel about myself and how I just kept feeling so sluggish.”  

Once he made up his mind, Vail was all in. He hired a trainer, a nutritionist and joined a gym. The first few training sessions were sobering. “I couldn’t even walk a half mile without being out of breath,” he says. 

From a food standpoint, Vail had to own up to his bad eating habits. “I never ate breakfast and rarely ate lunch. My body was just storing the fat,” he says.  

Once he started eating smaller, healthier meals throughout the day, cutting artificial foods and soda out of his diet, and working out, the pounds started rolling off.  

But after losing 40 pounds in the first six to seven months, his weight plateaued. He tried a commercial nutrition-based cleansing program, which took off another 40 pounds.  

Vail lost another 25 pounds by sticking to a diet that is rich in vegetables and proteins. He makes his own breakfast protein shakes out of fresh cashew milk and natural ingredients.  

In total, he has dropped 105 pounds in five years and is still hoping to shed another 10. Just as important, he once again has energy to burn and goes to the gym four to five times a week.  

“My best advice to those who want to lose weight is that it’s a lifestyle, not a prison sentence,” he says. “I got to the point, in my mind, where I was ready. And now I literally feel like I did when I was in my 20s.” 

 

Danielle Bernero 

Weight loss: 100  

Growing up, Danielle Bernero didn’t give much thought to her eating habits. She was neither thin nor particularly heavy. Afterschool activities, especially tennis, kept her calories burning, even after big Italian family meals. 

So five years ago, when she noticed a brown spot under her armpit before the start of college, she wasn’t all that concerned. As it turns out, the skin discoloration was her body’s way of sounding an alarm bell.  

“My doctor said it was an indicator that I was pre-diabetic,” says Bernero, 23, a trainer at the Katz JCC in Cherry Hill. “I knew I wasn’t the healthiest person, but it was still surprising. At 18, you aren’t thinking about these things.”  

Bernero did take it seriously. She joined a gym, started watching diet lectures on YouTube and researched workout routines. Unfortunately, this was a false start.  

“During that time, I was mentally deteriorating,” she says. “All my friends went away for college. I was home, and I didn’t know where my life was going. I would eat and eat and eat until I was numb. But then I would feel sad about the things I ate, guilty and angry with myself – which led me to eat more. It was a vicious cycle.” 

At 20, Bernero sought out a therapist who diagnosed her with a binge eating disorder. Although the label stung at first, it took  some metaphorical weight off her shoulders. 

“It struck me that I was not crazy for binge eating, and it was not like I am the only one in the world who would eat to mask my feelings,” she adds. 

Through therapy, Bernero learned healthier coping mechanisms.  As she started fixing herself, health and fitness became her passion. She pursued a degree in health promotion and fitness management at Rowan University. While taking courses, Bernero applied the knowledge to her own life – planning meals and exercise regimens that helped her shed pounds safely. She stays mindful of everything she eats and makes exercise a priority in her life.  

At her heaviest at age 20, she was wearing a size 17/18. Today, three years later, she has dropped 10 pants sizes. Although she still wants to lose 10 more pounds, she is patient.  

“What I’ve learned through weight loss is that a lot of it is mental,” she says. “You need a lot of patience, willpower, consistency and the power to say ‘no.’  If you keep doing it, you will see change.” 

January 2019
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