A little support helps dieters shed the pounds

Saturday, April 8, 2006

Losing weight takes perseverance, it takes discipline and it takes hard work, but one national group believes that it also takes a support system.

And support is what TOPS is all about.

TOPS stands for Take Off the Pounds Sensibly. It is a national organization with more than 10,000 chapters worldwide and 2600 in Missouri. This weekend, 850 members of the Missouri delegation are in Cape Girardeau attending the annual state recognition event to celebrate those who met their weight loss goals.

Judging by the cult-like loyalty of TOPS members, they might be on to something.

TOPS groups are designed to take people off the roller coaster of fad diets, pills and depression. TOPS does this, say members, through weekly meetings that push participants to reach their weight loss goals and support one-another when those goals seem unattainable.

Membership is only $24 -- a fraction of what other diet organizations charge -- because a member is expected to give to the group through time and support as much as he or she gets in return.

Robert Courtney of Rolla, who lost 107 pounds in just over a year while in the program, said enthusiasm for the system is contagious. "With all of these diet fads, if you don't learn how to change your lifestyle then you haven't really trained yourself," he said. "TOPS helps you change your lifestyle."

Courtney, whose waist size has shrunk from 54 to 36 inches, participated in Friday night's "baggy clothes parade," where slimmed-down participants wear the clothes they're glad no longer fit.

Vivian Pippen of Pevely also says her life has been changed by TOPS. At her heaviest she weighed 325 pounds. She said she tried every diet available and had even tried TOPS in years past without success. Her self-proclaimed "anxiety eating" had gotten the best of her.

"I really needed to make a change," she said.

Her weight was so high that even walking was extremely painful. She was in need of re-constructive knee surgery, but when she met with her surgeon she got a surprising prescription.

"My doctor said he would not operate on me unless I lost 50 pounds because it wouldn't do me any good," she said. "He told me if I had the surgery I'd be right back in there a few years later because of my weight."

This warning, combined with a plea from her son to get healthy for the sake of her granddaughter, gave Pippen the drive she needed.

For over a year now her regimen has been stable. With the help of her TOPS group, Pippen ditched her crash diets and ice-cream eating binges. Breakfast for Pippen became juice and toast, lunch a salad, and dinner healthy and moderate.

The key to TOPS' effectiveness, she said, is the camaraderie. "I thought when I joined that this was just a way to make me accountable, but what I guess I didn't realize was that this is not just a weight-loss group, but it's also a family," she said.

Exercise initially posed the biggest problem because the bone on bone friction in her knee caused extreme pain. But with tips from her group she found that she could handle a stationary bike and certain chair exercises. Before long, she was up to walking as much as five miles per day.

Pippen said the group support goes far beyond the weekly meetings where members swap stories, record their weight and chart progress. "I know there are people I can call 24 hours a day -- they're going through the same things I am," she said. "So when I feel weak and I'm going for that cake and that ice cream, I'll call them and they'll tell me, 'Viv, don't do it, you've come too far to be set back now.'"

And the effort has paid off. Pippen now weighs 218 pounds. She has gone from a dress size 32 down to a size 18 to 20.

The conference continues Saturday with a walk at the Arena Building and the crowning of the state winners for most weight lost. The festivities will end at 4:00 p.m. when TOPS members will bid one another farewell with a last shout of encouragement: "See you lighter."

tgreaney@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 245

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