This article is the first in EBN's year-long BeneFIT Success series, which will chronicle employers and employees in their individual and organizational wellness triumphs. Learn more about how to submit your company as a candidate for the series at the end of this article.

The skies were finally clear, and there was a slight breeze in the air when I laced up my sneakers and joined Luann Watkins on the walking path just steps away from Heffernan's Walnut Creek office.

Joining with us was Katie Riedel, another Heffernan employee who has been Luann's friend and confidant on Lu's year-long journey to improve her health, get fit and shed some weight.

I'd been talking to Lu since January by phone and e-mail, but this was the first time I had a chance to meet her.

At 5'9", Lu is striking with dark hair and a peaches-and-cream complexion. Always warm and personable since the first time we chatted on the phone, Lu greeted me with a hug before we headed out on the three-mile loop that Katie and Lu try to walk whenever it's not raining.

California has seen more rain than usual this year - just one more obstacle that Lu has had to overcome along the way.

Lu has struggled with her weight for more than a decade. It was a battle that she started seriously losing a few years ago when a back injury - at the gym - left her nearly immobile and in pain for months. As her weight continued to climb, every aspect of her life was soon affected.

She developed asthma and began needing medication to control her blood pressure. She was showing early signs of diabetes. And she struggled to complete tasks as mundane as tying her shoes.

"It was hard to bend over," she recalled.

But what really concerned her was she could no longer enjoy hanging out with her husband if it involved any physical activity. A trip to the mall could be overwhelming.

"I would get to one store, and I couldn't walk anymore," said Lu.

That was not the life she wanted. Although she prefers not to reveal her weight, she knew she needed to loose at least 80 pounds. The problem was how. She had never had much success with diets and she was afraid to head back to the gym and risk another back injury.

Two years ago, she came across the South Beach diet, which emphasizes whole grains and lots of fresh vegetables. To her surprise, she lost 30 pounds and has kept it off for more than a year. She and her doctor were thrilled. It was that first sign of success that convinced her to embark on her latest weight-loss campaign in hope of reaching her ultimate goal.

"I know I'll never be 22 again in a tight little black number," said Lu, now 54. "I don't care about that. What I want is to be able to take a picture with my friends here at work and not look like the side of a barn."

Lu's weight-loss mission was a well-guarded secret at Heffernan's headquarters in Walnut Creek. She did not want to start her diet under everyone's compassionate, but watchful, eyes.

But Lu was willing to share her story because she knows that her battle is one faced by so many Americans. Two out of every three adults in the United States are overweight, and more than a third are considered obese. Lu's hope was that her success might encourage others.

Of course Heffernan had provided her with a secret weapon: fitness guru Adam Cox, director of wellness, who developed the company's Wellness@Work program.

"Adam is awesome," Lu said. "If you start to get down on yourself, he does not let you."

Dieting is a marathon, not a sprint

Adam told Lu to focus on her goal and not worry about minor bumps or the occasional potato chip binge. As Adam put it, dieting is a marathon, not a sprint. He also encouraged her to start working out again. He gave her a list of exercises to do at home and also supported her idea to make the Walnut Creek walking trail part of her routine.

But most importantly, Adam reminded Lu to not focus on her daily weight, but on eating healthy every day. Adam said many people get discouraged if they feel a diet is dictating how they live their lives. The real problem isn't the diet, but that they are trying to do too much at once.

They are either trying to follow an exercise regime that is unrealistic for someone their age or a food plan that leaves them feeling constantly deprived. He said small steady steps toward a healthy lifestyle are much more sustainable than dramatic changes.

Lu's other secret weapon is her husband, Jeremy, who is also the cook in the family.

One night last spring when I called for an update, Jeremy had just finished making dinner. He was serving broiled fresh sturgeon with a light sour cream Parmesan sauce, a side of asparagus and what he described as a "monster" salad.

Even better than his cooking skills is his attitude. Jeremy is happy to help Lu stick to her diet, but he insists (and Lu says it's true) he's never had a problem with her weight.

"We've been married 17 years, and I still look at her the same way," Jeremy said. "She hasn't changed much."

A journal of the journey

To provide an accurate chronicle of Lu's weight-loss efforts, I decided to check in regularly, starting on January 15, the beginning of the second official week. In an e-mail message, she said the news was good. In her own words, here is the view from the weight-loss trenches:

WEEK 2: I'm doing the (walking) trail - the one I want to master. But for now, I go 30 minutes one way, then turn around and come back. Next week it's supposed to rain every day, so I'll be doing cardio from home. I weigh in for the first time next week.

By the way, Jer does terrific stir fry, and he did that a couple nights with chicken and steak, tossed with a little olive oil and various veggies.

WEEK 4: I'm almost up to an hour on the treadmill. I did 50 minutes yesterday, and felt great! I love getting over the "hump" during exercising, when you just feel like you cannot go another step, then the energy kicks in and I take off! Another high...lost eight pounds! The best dish was probably the smoked sturgeon salad my husband made. Yum.

And, yes, I've noticed a difference in my clothes. My tummy isn't as big, so my shirts are looser up front. And, my jeans are a little baggy.

[But] I cannot have pistachios in my house! I just cannot say no. We bought two big bags, because I can have nuts within reason. But, I just couldn't stop eating them, and I wasn't even hungry! Thank goodness, my husband ate the rest...I've got to just get on the scale once a week or every other week.

If I look every day, my weight fluctuates by as much as two pounds, and that got me really down for a couple days - thus the pistachio insanity - but I didn't stop exercising.

WEEK 8: My knee problems slowed me down on the cardio. But, I'm doing what I can. I'm watching my foods and just being smart about what I eat. I walk the three-mile trail once or twice per week, which is so wonderful.

I met one other goal. ... down one pant/top size! I'm down two sizes since March of last year. Someone I hadn't seen in several months came into the office today, and commented on my 'smaller figure.' I was so happy to hear that! People you see every day don't always notice, so it's good to hear that.

WEEK 12: It's so true that personal problems can affect your weight and weight loss progress! My son was visiting from Iraq (he's in the Army) since March 8. I had to take him to the airport, to go back into Iraq, last Wednesday.

The last week before he left was very emotional for me, and needless to say, my eating and exercise has suffered. Somehow, it just didn't seem all that important to me anymore.

I'm feeling better now, and I'm back on track as of today. I'm walking the trail with Katie at lunch. Wish me luck, and if you are a "praying person," please pray for my son's safety.

WEEK 15: Let's see, I'm down another pant size. I've lost more weight. My face looks different, too! I think it's weird. Why is it when you lose weight, you lose it in your feet and hands first, then your face? At least, that's how I am. The butt's always the last to go.

I've joined a seven-week weight loss group at Heffernan, "Ivanna Lose A Lot," which is a group of girls trying to lose weight for the Reward Event, which is May 22 this year in Lake Tahoe. I don't expect to win (they choose the highest percentage of weight loss), but it's keeping me on track and accountable!

My knees are doing much better; now my back is giving me trouble (getting older isn't all that much fun, you know). But I'm working my way through it.

WEEK 18: I love the Ivanna group - it has kept me focused and on track. I'm on a plateau right now, as far as weight goes, but I'm smaller which tells me I'm putting on muscle now and replacing the fat. I hate the scale because it isn't a true reflection of what you are doing, but since I have still a lot to lose, it does keep track of my downward trend.

I looked through my old notes with my doctor from March 2009, and I've lost a total of 52 pounds, which doesn't seem like very much, but when losing it the "right" way, it's a good number.

Lu leading the way

By the Tuesday after Memorial Day, I was able to meet Lu and share that walk in Walnut Creek.

The first thing she told me was that she had dropped another 14 pounds. She credited in large part the Ivanna competition with keeping her on track.

Although no one at work ever had to disclose their weight from weigh in to weigh in, everyone had to share the percentage gained or lost that week. Lu said that public revelation was enough to give her the incentive she needed to stick to her program.

Unfortunately, she put three of those pounds back on over the holiday weekend while she was enjoying an out-of-town visit with friends: a little too much wine and food with friends had the scale going up again.

But Lu said the recent gain hadn't gotten her down. She knew it was a temporary blip and she just needed to redouble her efforts. After all, she had grown accustomed over the past few months to watching the scale go down - then up, then down and up and down again. Overall, she reminded herself, she was winning. She was down 64 pounds from a year ago.

Besides her slimmer figure, her weight loss was providing big health benefits. She had been able to stop taking some of her asthma medication and was no longer showing any signs of diabetes. She hoped to be off her blood-pressure medication by the end of the summer.

Her walking partner, Katie, said the changes in Lu since they started exercising together in January were remarkable.

"Lu used to breathe hard when she first started doing this walk and couldn't really carry on a conversation, but now she has no problems," said Katie, a self-described exercise junkie who is obviously proud of her walking partner.

We stopped for lunch at a nearby deli that's become a regular part of the walk. Lu ordered her usual turkey on whole wheat with mustard - no mayo. Carrying our bag lunches, the three of us hit the trail again and headed back to Heffernan, with Lu leading the way.


Linda Wagar is a freelance writer based in Kansas City, Mo. This story originally appeared in HG Magazine in November 2010. It has been reprinted with permission from Heffernan Insurance Brokers. To submit your company's wellness success as a candidate for the BeneFIT Success series, e-mail Editor-in-Chief Kelley M. Butler at kelley.butler@sourcemedia.com.

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