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Weighing in online

Fitness contest spawns blog, Twitter account, Facebook page.

Pam LeBlanc
pleblanc@statesman.com

Consider the Out of Control Fat Roll gang officially whipped into shape.

The four young Austin professionals paused between runs, boot camps, yoga classes and a battery of blogs, Tweets and Facebook updates recently for the final weigh-in of their very public, 18-week fitness challenge.

"I'm nervous and hungry," Ashley Sparger said moments before stepping on the scale.

"Yogi's fasting tea is awesome, by the way," Jenni Balthrop joked.

Then, the moment of truth. The winner? Sparger, 26, who lost 25 pounds.

Per their agreement, Sparger won a pair of designer jeans purchased by the other three competitors. But since a family friend promised her $1,000 toward a new wardrobe for the victory, Sparger gifted her jeans to second-place finisher Balthrop, 27.

Last-place finisher Kristine Gloria, 25, who was edged out by the teensiest of margins by Meredith Budwin, 26, must post a photo of herself wearing a bikini on the Internet, which she will do this week.

"I'm a little disappointed," Gloria said after digesting the news. She held it together a moment, then crumpled into tears.

Last spring, the women griped that their jeans were too tight. They complained about failed diets, office snacks and weight that kept creeping up. Determined to whip their unwanted expansions into shape, they launched a friendly competition. They became the Out of Control Fat Roll girls, and they vowed to make exercise a part of their lifestyles and kick junk food to the curb.

"Four girls unite because their jeans are too tight," they screamed.

Real incentive came in the form of those (smaller, sexier) jeans, purchased by the others, for whomever lost the greatest percentage of weight. And that bikini shot the loser would have to post. Harsh!

They drafted spreadsheets. They scheduled office weigh-ins and began charting their weight publicly, on a newly hatched blog (outofcontrolfatroll.com) and a sheet posted in the office kitchen where Balthrop and Budwin work.

They made public confessions when they had "fails" — indulgences in unhealthy food or skipped workouts. They created their own lingo and drafted wanted posters for Fat Roll Offenders — people who brought unhealthy food to the office. They put giant X's on Fat Roll-unfriendly snacks in the breakroom.

"We're not striving to be supermodels, we just want to reach a healthy body mass index," Balthrop said. "It's about being healthy."

No more rewarding themselves for a run by indulging in a meal at Juan in a Million — an incentive program that had derailed previous efforts.

"It's crazy looking at past pictures — how did I even think that was acceptable?" Balthrop asked.

They stress that it wasn't so much about pounds as it was revamping their less-than-healthy lifestyles. "My advice? Don't go crazy and crash diet," said Sparger, who took advantage of a Weight Watchers program offered by her employer, Frost Bank, and wears a pedometer.

Friends and co-workers said the contest inspired them, too. "Seeing them and reading their blog has been an additional inspiration to kick it," said Keely Johnson, who works with Budwin and Balthrop and has started her own weight-loss program.

"They keep us laughing all the time," said co-worker Katie Ryan. "I'm amazed at their bravery for posting their weights publicly."

That public commitment played a big role in the contest's success, Budwin said. On the Fat Roll blog, she even advised others to do the same. "Start a blog and share the link with as many people as you can. The more people that know about it, the bigger your support group will be, and you will be held accountable."

Gloria said the contest spurred her to sign up for a dance class, get into yoga and ramp up her exercise regimen. The going public part didn't worry her much. "I've always been a blogger, so the thought of sharing a lot of my life is not that far out of my bounds," the graduate student said.

The blog had an average of 200 to 300 hits a day, but traffic spiked as high as 1,800 hits at times.

That's valuable information for Balthrop and Budwin, who work at Waggener Edstrom, a public relations company that works with high-tech clients. They say the Fat Roll experience helped them learn what works and doesn't work in social media.

In the end, each of the four women lost between 10 and 25 pounds. Collectively, they shed about 66 pounds. Or, as their Web site humorously pointed out, the equivalent of an 8-year-old kid — or a golden retriever.

Up next? A maintenance round to get the Fat Roll gang through the holidays.

Each woman who gains more than 2 percent — between 2 and 3 pounds — of what she weighed at the end of the first challenge must post a photo of herself in a bikini online.

The maintenance phase will take them through Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's — and all the pumpkin pie, gravy, cheese, cookies and candy that implies — and will end Jan. 14.

This time, it's each woman for herself.

pleblanc@statesman.com; 445-3994