Last spring, Chris Rogers found out he had liver cancer and was advised to get a transplant.
Rogers, who is 55 and diabetic, was surprised at the drastic measure, but his doctor told him that his diseased liver could easily become cancerous again. But before Rogers could get the liver, his doctor leveled with him.
Rogers, who weighed 305 pounds, would have to lose weight.
A lot of weight. At least 35 pounds.
After a half-hearted attempt at the gym, he joined the fall session of the Medical University of South Carolina Wellness Center's Healthy Charleston Challenge, a 12-week intensive fitness camp modeled after the popular TV show "The Bigger Loser."
He almost didn't make it through the first workout.
"The trainer said, 'See those six flights of stairs. I want all y'all up and down them five times.' I went, 'No way.' I barely made it that night. Now I can do it no problem.' "
By the end, Rogers lost the final 28 of the 35 pounds he needed to enable him to go on the transplant list.
And on Dec. 2, Rogers endured an eight-hour transplant surgery and has been recuperating at home. While he won't be in the clear for three months and will have to take drugs to keep his body from rejecting the new organ for the rest of his life, he still plans to lose more weight.
"I want to get down to a normal size," says Rogers. "I want to lose another 60 pounds."
Losing to live
Losing weight, for some, isn't just about looking and living better. Like Rogers, some are literally on the brink of a possibly fatal illness and disease.
"The stories that come out of this (Healthy Charleston Challenge) are pretty incredible and amaze me," says Janis Newton, program director at the Wellness Center and organizer of the Healthy Charleston Challenge.
MUSC is among hundreds of wellness centers, health clubs and weight-loss centers that have used "The Biggest Loser" model for the program. The Wellness Center uses an experienced and motivated staff of trainers, nutritionists, counselors and mentors to help guide participants.
Whether you are a fan of the show or not, those spin-off contests apparently are making somewhat of a dent in the obesity epidemic.
Since the winter of 2008, the Wellness Center has held four challenges. In total, almost 300 participants have lost a total of 7,029 pounds. And mentors, past participants who have returned to help others, have lost another 800 pounds.
Newton says that the program, too, is evolving as the team finds out what works and what doesn't and experiments with new ideas.
"We are trying to get the formula right for permanent, positive lifestyle changes," says Newton. "We tell them, 'Until you get your head straight, you can't get your body straight.'"
'Resetting your default'
Some participants are drawn to the Healthy Charleston Challenge because they are fans of the show.
Frank Kuchler is not.
"I don't like the trainers because they are too pushy," says the 37-year-old. "I'm easy-going, but if you scream at me, I'll turn on you."
When he started the program in September, Kuchler was 402 pounds. Like many, he had tried "countless numbers" of weight-loss programs. In one, he lost 100 pounds. Then gained it all back again.
"This one has completely change my whole mindset," claims Kuchler. "Janis always talks about resetting your default. My default used to be to try every Monday to diet and fail by Thursday. I'd always cheat and tell myself, 'I'll get back on it in a couple of days.' "
Now 39 pounds lighter, he says his default, for now, is geared toward wanting to exercise and that a 1,500-calorie-per-day diet is not difficult if he spaces it out to five small meals of healthy, filling food per day. As he approaches 40, Kuchler seems to understand the consequences of not changing.
"Heart disease runs in my family. My father has had seven heart attacks," says Kuchler. "I'm 37 and if I don't change, that's going to be me."
Helping each other
A key component of "The Bigger Loser" and "Healthy Charleston Challenge" is teamwork and camaraderie.
Numerous teams, sponsored by local businesses and nonprofits, foster the teamwork. But within teams, there are buddies. In one case this fall, a mother and daughter helped each other out.
Mother Susan Denaux and daughter Mandy Denaux decided to join HCC together. Both exercised. Susan walks. Mandy takes and teaches Spinning. Still, they needed some help with the bad eating habits, which often trumps exercise for weight loss.
Mandy says, "Most of what we learned as it relates to eating I knew already, but putting it together and applying it for 10 weeks with no alcohol or white bread or rice and writing it down was hard."
They also were encouraged to break out of the exercise box, participating in several local road races and fun runs this fall.
The results. Susan lost 30.4 pounds and Mandy 32 pounds.
"The team thing really worked for us," says Mandy.
And the biggest loser is ...
... Curtis Acheson.
Acheson, the local owner of Jason's Deli, not only was a sponsor of a team, but participated in the last one, and lost the most weight.
Acheson trimmed 41 pounds off his former 236-pound self.
Acheson, who is 47, started gaining weight at 30 after he stopped being an athlete, but kept eating like one.
"I finally got the eating down for the first time in my life," says Acheson. "The working out, I've always kind of enjoyed that, but it (Healthy Charleston Challenge) changed my life on the eating."
If you go
The fifth MUSC Healthy Charleston Challenge starts Jan. 7, but you need to sign up soon. Participants will notified of selection on Dec. 20.
The 12-week fitness and weight-loss program is designed to increase physical activity and provide skills, professional guidance and accountability for developing healthy lifestyle habits. The team of professionals includes experienced personal trainers, a registered dietitian, exercise physiologists and program clinical psychologist.
Participants should be 25+ pounds overweight and in need of permanently changing lifestyle habits for decreased risk of chronic disease. They also must attend a mandatory nutrition and educational meeting 5:45-7:30 p.m. every Thursday.
Fee: Wellness Center members, $225; nonmembers, $400 (includes a wellness center membership for 12 weeks); and students, $175.
Reach David Quick at firstname.lastname@example.org.