Sharon, 47, from Cedar Park, didn't volunteer to lose weight on television in order to win a cash prize. And if she has dreams of becoming famous, she never mentions it. Her goals are different: In the short term, she'd like to be able to walk down the stairs without fear of collapsing; long range, she wants to stay alive.
At 366 pounds, Sharon is one of the morbidly obese subjects profiled in "Heavy," a documentary series that premiered on cable network A&E on Jan. 17. Her episode airs Monday night; it also features Ashley, a 26-year-old Austinite who weighs in at 296 pounds. The Feb. 7 program features Travis, a 34-year-old Round Rock man who began the program at a remarkable 431 pounds.
These people aren't game-show contestants — they are mothers and fathers, husbands, wives, sons, daughters, brothers and sisters staring down the business end of pain, fatigue, sleep apnea, heart disease, diabetes and death.
"The individuals on this show had two to five years of life expectancy," says David Richardson, a personal trainer who, along with Britny Fowler (both work at Austin's Lifetime Fitness) starred in the series, working with the participants on achieving their fitness goals. "We didn't add two decades, but we definitely added a few more years to their lives. ... It was pertinent for us to really get into their heads and let them see that they were not going to live past a certain point if they didn't do something about it now."
The first half of the 11-episode series was filmed in Austin, while the second half takes place in Hilton Head, S.C.
"Austin is known as one of the fittest cities in America," explains executive producer Jonathan Nowzaradan of Megalomedia, which produced the Texas episodes. "We looked at places and programs around Texas and some other states. In the end, it was the fitness mindset here in Austin that made a difference for doing something regarding a lifestyle change." Nowzaradan found other locales to be too medical in their approach. "Treating medical issues is an important part of the process, but not the only or main part of what we needed," he says.
Fowler's and Richardson's curiosity about the show grew to a strong desire to become involved when they heard the details of the rehab program in which the subjects would participate.
Participants were cloistered for the first of six months (in Texas, they stayed at Lake Austin Spa Resort). In seclusion — apart from families, negative influences and temptation — they underwent physical examinations and consultations with doctors and then worked with Fowler and Richardson on their exercise regimens. In addition, each subject met with a therapist and went on field trips with a dietitian to learn how to shop and cook for good health.
After those first 30 days, subjects returned home to spend the next five months on their own with the help of a personal trainer. Strictly monitored, they returned to the spa when they slipped and regained weight.
Richardson and Fowler were excited about the frequent and direct contact with the participants, acting as their coaches, cheerleaders and support system during that critical first month. "Everybody (featured in the show) has emotional, mental or maybe something traumatic in their history that has driven them to what it is they turn to now with food or not moving their body," says Fowler, 26, who landed the gig when producers visiting her gym found her "being a little bit obnoxious and entertaining and crazy and loud and having fun with my clients."
Richardson, 27, who heard about the job through a random e-mail from a friend, was motivated to seek a spot on the program by a traumatic event in his own life.
"My aunt died from morbid obesity, and she was my best friend," he says. "A blood clot in her knee rose to her heart, and she had a heart attack in the hospital. It crushed the family. It crushed me. And this (show) was a grand stage, a grand opportunity for me to help 10 individuals that were in dire need of my assistance. I felt that I was a guy that could really help them, and I was thankful that (the producers) liked me well enough to give me the part."
The trainers are well aware that there are other television programs dedicated to weight loss. Richardson rattles off a list including "Biggest Loser" and "Dance Your Ass Off." What does the pair think about these shows that position weight loss as a competition and award a huge cash prize to the winner?
"I don't really watch TV," Fowler says, admitting that she has caught glimpses of these programs. "I would say that if somebody out there is touched through any of these shows and their life is changed, then that is phenomenal. That's important."
But she adds that the participants in "Heavy" signed up out of pure motivation, of "wanting to change and needing to change, you know, needing assistance in their life and just wanting life. I thought that was a beautiful — how courageous that was," she says.
"When it becomes more about money and it becomes more about making a mockery out of someone so that you can become rich and make a lot of money, that's when it loses the essence of what this whole thing is all about," Richardson explains.
He admits that what he calls the "spoon-fed" participants on those programs will have initial success dropping pounds. "You really almost have no choice at that point, especially if you can't go home." But he's concerned that many seem to regain the weight they lost — and sometimes even more.
He believes that rehabilitating those same types of people in a controlled environment while also showing them how to shop, cook and move — showing them that they don't have to remain bed-ridden or house-bound — will lead to more lasting success. "Because we've sent them home for the last five months and given them a true opportunity to learn how to do this in the place that the problems occurred — where their enablers are; where their psyche knows exactly where the McDonald's and the Wendy's and the Whataburger is around the corner," he says.
The results have been impressive. The show's 22 participants began the program weighing between 240 and 630 pounds each. Collectively, they shed more than 2,440 pounds, half of them losing more than 30 percent of their body mass. Sharon from Cedar Park lost 109 pounds.
"When Tom, Jodi, Vickie, Wayne, Jessica — all these individuals call us and say, ‘Hey, I'm still losing weight,' ‘I lost 30 pounds again,' ‘I lost 40 pounds again on my own,' it really exudes what this show is all about," Richardson says. "They created a bond with us over the course of time, and I created a bond with them. And I never want to lose that."
"Each one of these clients from the show has touched my heart in a big way, has made me understand to listen, how to be a better trainer at times," Fowler adds.
Although Richardson had some childhood modeling and theatrical experience, neither of the trainers had previously attempted anything of this magnitude. Still, they're naturals in front of the camera.
"I had to just try and tell myself, ‘You're with a client. Just train. Do what you do.' And that helped," Fowler explains. Richardson says he has been recognized from the show, but says it doesn't do much for him.
"The big deal that I get out of it is when someone sends a blog or an e-mail or a review or does see me in the street and says, ‘You know what? You guys are doing the right thing for these individuals. This is the type of program that the world's been missing. This is the type of program that we've been waiting to see. It's not about the money. ... You guys are really helping them.' That's the joy that I get when someone notices me."