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On life's laundry list of to-dos, losing weight rarely gets shuffled to the top spot. "Kids, work commitments, family obligations -- life in general gets in the way," said Natalie Gianesello, 45, a personal trainer in Riverside, Conn. "You have to be a little bit selfish and make taking care of your body your No. 1 priority."
Gianesello knows what she's talking about. Since having her two kids, now 14 and 11, she watched her weight climb higher, month after month. "I knew I had around 30 pounds to lose," she said. "I just didn't know where to start."
Then, three years ago, after encouragement from a friend, she checked out her local gym. At the Sportsplex health club in Stamford, Conn., she signed up for the Lose Big program, an eight-week intensive weight-loss plan that included fitness and nutritional consultations for gym members seeking to shed unnecessary baggage.
"I was nervous," said Gianesello. "I was not an active kid. I was not the person who went to the gym after work." Though much of the health club scene was new to her, Gianesello quickly found her groove. "I felt comfortable in that environment, working out with other people who had similar goals."
She lost about 14 pounds during the eight weeks of Lose Big, and kept chipping away at her larger goal after the program ended -- first hiring her own trainer to customize a fitness routine, then signing up for bootcamp classes and finishing it off with weekly abs workouts.
"By the end, I'd gone from around 169 to 129 pounds," Gianesello said. "But it wasn't just about the numbers. I got hooked on fitness!"
Gianesello's enthusiasm for exercise did not go unnoticed. Her trainer mentioned her personality made her well-suited to becoming a fitness instructor herself. "I appreciated the compliment, but I thought he was joking," she said. "Then after some more coaching, he let me teach one of his classes. And I discovered he was right: I loved it."
Gianesello began working toward her certification. Along the way, she learned invaluable lessons about helping others get fit. "I used to avoid group classes at all costs," she said. "I did not feel confident walking into a studio and standing next to some skinny woman who knew all the moves."
As she worked her way into better shape, she had a wake-up moment: "I realized that no matter what their size, all of the women in these classes were completely focused on themselves. That took a lot of pressure off."
She also learned that slow and steady wins the race. People who have a lifetime of fitness experience may be stronger than someone just beginning, but it's the person who puts in the time, day-in and day-out, regardless of skills, who reaps the biggest payoff in the long run.
"As a trainer, I see people of so many different fitness levels," she said. "Everybody is working toward a personal best."
One thing they all have in common: an appreciation for a little extra support. "Recently, I was waiting for one of my clients to show up for her session, and she was late," Gianesello said. "I called her to find out what was going on, and she was at home, procrastinating. She said, 'You can go ahead and charge me for the session. I'm not coming in.' And I said, 'No way. I have all the balls, weights, you name it, ready to go. Just come in for half an hour.'" Her client begrudgingly came in for a 30-minute session. At the end, she thanked Gianesello for the extra nudge. "She admitted she felt a lot better having worked out rather than sitting at home, eating junk food and feeling bad about herself. I was like, 'Well, of course you do!'"
Ironically, now that she's a certified trainer, keeping her own fitness level up has proved a bigger challenge than when it was just a hobby.
"My day gets pretty full," Gianesello said. "I might have a client at 9 a.m. and another at 11 a.m. and in-between the two, I'll try to squeeze in a short workout for myself."
She motivates herself they way she does others: Taking time to appreciate the definition in her arms, and lean leg muscles she's developed from running, one of her top cardio choices.
"I used to be fixated on the numbers," she said. "But now it's about enjoying being fit."
She works hard to impart that message to her children, with mixed results.
"On the one hand, I want them to see fitness as something fun; on the other hand, I want them to think of exercise as something that's as routine as brushing your teeth -- you do it every day without fail."
Healthy eating is another tricky area. "I have nothing against ice cream," Gianesello said. "I just have something against eating it every night after dinner." Savor, don't sacrifice, your treats, she added.
As for women out there thinking about beginning their own weight-loss program, Gianesello says to keep an open mind.
"I didn't sign up for Lose Big assuming it would automatically work," she said. "But I knew I needed to do something about my weight, so I figured, why not give it a try?" She takes that nothing-to-lose attitude into her role as a trainer as well: "If I can help guide just one person down the path to better health, I will have succeeded."