On the way to their first meeting with Bob, the women follow the palm-lined pathways of Bacara Resort & Spa, a collection of Spanish colonial villas hugging the coast between the rolling Pacific and the Santa Ynez Mountains. They look more than a little nervous. Just last night, they flew across the country from Shreveport, Louisiana (Yolanda), Atlanta (Amy), and Washington, D.C. (Kerri), not entirely sure what they should expect from a "boot camp." Kerri was steeling herself for severely calorie-restricted meals. Yolanda had nightmarish visions of marathon sessions at the gym.
To their great relief, Bob's greeting is decidedly un-drill-sergeant-like. After welcoming his campers with a big smile and hugs in an elegantly decorated, high-ceilinged meeting room, he sits down in an armchair and invites the women to settle into two white sofas. "The first thing I have to tell you," Bob says, "is that weight loss isn't just about diet and exercise. I've never seen success come from simply changing what you eat and how you work out. It's about breaking down your barriers—the hang-ups that are keeping you locked in an unhealthy lifestyle. Are you ready to break down those barriers?"
The women nod. To help them, Bob has brought along three more experts: psychologist Ann Kearney-Cooke, PhD; dietitian Janis Jibrin; and life coach Angela Taylor. Over the next few days, in a series of sessions with their counselors, the women will sweat, bond, and cry as they face deep-seated fears about themselves and their relationships. For now, though, Bob simply wants to know what inspired them to come here.
"I've always struggled with my weight," says Yolanda, a coordinator at a cancer hospital and research center. "I want to be the person inside, who no one knows." With big brown eyes and strikingly high cheekbones, Yolanda has such good posture that she appears taller than her five-foot frame. She tugs at the sleeve of her purple sweatshirt as she explains that since her mother's stroke six months ago, she's had little time to focus on her own health. She has given up her only form of exercise—daily three- or four-mile walks with her dog—and her weight has crept up to 167 pounds. Yolanda's goal is 135.
Amy, a blonde, freckled second-grade teacher and mother of three, says, "My whole family is unhealthy. Even my 9-year-old son is becoming overweight, and I want to stop the trickle-down that's coming from me." At 5'5" and 140 pounds, Amy is at the top of the normal weight range for her height, but she and her two younger kids (the oldest is away at college) eat fast-food dinners three times a week and rarely exercise. Amy brushes a strand of hair over her shoulder and explains that her husband owns a business in South Carolina and comes home to Atlanta only on weekends. Taking care of their family alone is overwhelming, but she doesn't want to burden him by asking for help. Instead, she soothes herself with chips and cookies in front of the TV. The more she has on her to-do list, the less she's able to cope. Amy worries that if nothing changes, she and her children are headed for obesity.
Bubbly, 5'2" Kerri, with her shiny chestnut hair pulled high into a ponytail, tells the group she has dropped 50 pounds in the past year—down from 215. The weight loss began by accident, 29-year-old Kerri explains. Depleted after finishing law school, she hit a gym near her apartment to de-stress, and 15 pounds just melted away. Liking the results, she began taking body-sculpting classes. She even changed how she socializes—catching up with friends for a walk instead of dinner. But now the scale won't budge. In fact, Kerri has added a few pounds since her low of 165. She would like to drop another dress size, to an 8.
Bob reminds the women that he can't offer them any quick fixes; if they want to gain control of their bodies, they will need to reimagine their daily lives. He tells Yolanda, Amy, and Kerri to keep asking themselves one question for the duration of boot camp: "Do I feel deserving of the life I want?"
Midmorning sun streams through oversize windows in Bacara's gym, and an ocean breeze drifts through open French doors. Yolanda, Amy, and Kerri are in their exercise gear, ready to learn Bob's one-hour workout plan. He begins with cardio: On treadmills, they choose the manual setting and then increase the machine's speed and grade until they're working at a "challenging" level. "On a scale of 0 to 10, where 5 is a leisurely walk and 10 an all-out sprint, go for 7 or 8," he says. "Anything over 8 isn't sustainable for very long. You should still be able to carry on a conversation, though you'll need to occasionally gulp for air."
Between breaths, Amy tells Bob she has only 20 minutes a day to exercise, and is sometimes so drained after work that she doesn't feel up to doing anything at all. He tells her to make time by getting up earlier: "If you're up early already, it's not that hard to wake up 45 minutes sooner." The activity will raise her metabolism for the rest of the day, and people who work out in the morning tend to stick with their exercise plans better than those who work out in the evening. For Amy, this will mean resetting her alarm for 5:15—not an appealing idea. But Bob promises she'll feel better in the long run.
After 15 minutes on the treadmill, the women move to elliptical machines for another 15 minutes. Bob explains that variety in a cardio workout allows more muscles to be trained. Again, the women increase the resistance setting to their personal 8. Bob encourages Kerri to push herself harder than the others. "Getting past a plateau requires consistently increasing the intensity of your exercise," he says. He also wants Kerri to do longer sessions—45 minutes of cardio rather than 30, five days a week.
Next up: strength training. From a long rack of dumbbells, the women choose weights. Bob leads them through a series of moves, from biceps curls to squats. For each move, they do two or three sets of eight to ten repetitions. "If you can easily complete ten reps on your third set, your weight isn't heavy enough," Bob says.
Yolanda struggles with the shoulder presses and lateral arm raises, and Bob pushes her to work to her maximum ability. "If you're not feeling the burn, it won't trigger changes," he explains. But he warns her not to overdo it. While a little discomfort is acceptable, pain is not.
Bob wants the women to add these exercises to their cardio sessions three times a week on nonconsecutive days. They will practice their workouts during their time here so they're ready to do them on their own back home. For now, though, what's on everyone's mind is lunch.
The gym leads out to a courtyard with a swimming pool bordered by citrus trees and blooming bougainvillea hedges. Hummingbirds hover over the pink flowers, and occasionally over the flagstone terrace where the women sit down to eat. Today's meal includes crab salad seasoned with celery, lemon juice, and mustard powder, sprinkled with paprika, and served on flatbread; coleslaw with a splash of red wine vinegar; and fruit cups drizzled with a blend of fresh mint, orange juice, and honey. Calorie count: about 425. (Every recipe on today's menu comes from Bob's Best Life Diet Cookbook.)
The afternoon's goal is to help the women incorporate delicious, healthy food like this into their daily diet. Their guide is Janis, a nutritionist and weight loss counselor from Washington, D.C. She bases her prescriptions on a Mediterranean-style diet that calls for whole grains, lean protein (seafood, poultry, tofu, and the occasional beef tenderloin or lamb loin), and six to ten daily servings of a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Although it's not a low-fat diet, the main sources of fat—including olive oil, nuts, avocados—are the good, heart-preserving kind (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated).
Prior to boot camp, Yolanda, Amy, and Kerri were asked to keep food diaries, which Janis has used to devise some dietary suggestions. Yolanda, Janis announces, isn't eating nearly enough fruits and veggies. Yolanda looks stricken at the thought of consuming six servings a day. But it turns out that she was imagining platefuls, and when Janis shows her a rubber model of an actual serving size—five broccoli florets—she smiles. "That's all?"
Amy needs to boost her calcium intake. She's getting only 30 percent of the recommended 1,000 milligrams a day. While Amy doesn't care for milk on its own, she likes it in lattes—and that helps, Janis says. One cup of nonfat milk contains nearly one-third of those 1,000 milligrams. Janis also suggests a calcium-loaded sandwich spread that's easy to whip up: 1½ teaspoons of olive oil, a teaspoon of chopped fresh thyme, and ½ cup fat-free ricotta cheese.
When Janis turns to Kerri, she expresses mixed feelings about Kerri's "3 o'clock chocolate-ing hour." A little dark chocolate is fine because it contains antioxidants—but it's not good to have any sweet at the same time every day. "You start expecting that 3 o'clock fix like an addict," Janis says. "Move your treats around."
Of course, there's a big difference between knowing what a healthy diet is and maintaining that diet. "The main reasons we overeat are emotional," says Dr. Ann (as Bob likes to call her). Ann is the director of the Cincinnati Psychotherapy Institute and an expert on weight control. "We can't stop this behavior unless we become aware of the feelings driving us." Her session this afternoon is designed to help Amy, Yolanda, and Kerri identify their triggers.
First order of business: a guided imagery exercise. Ann asks the women to close their eyes, breathe deeply, and picture a typical scenario in which they want to raid the fridge. She runs through a list of questions for them to consider: "What time of day is it? Are you feeling exhausted? Lonely? Angry? What do you expect the snack will do for you?"
After the women open their eyes, they share their thoughts. When it's Kerri's turn, she says, "The danger zone for me is when I'm tired and I have 3,000 things in my head. I need a breather. Two years ago, I would have a slice of pizza or a brownie sundae. Now, for comfort, I usually go to the gym...."
Suddenly tears are welling up in Kerri's eyes. "I don't know why I'm crying," she says, genuinely puzzled.
"You were saying how positive it is for you to work out," Ann prompts her.
"Right, but it's a constant struggle," Kerri continues. "I'm always afraid I'll fall off the exercise wagon because I have so little time. I stretch myself too thin. I feel like I have to accept every dinner invitation, talk my friends through their crises, drop what I'm doing to help people whenever they ask me to be there."
"We often have to make sacrifices to create room for healthy behaviors," Ann says. To keep up her gym routine, Kerri will need to relinquish her role as the go-to confidante for her family and friends, and start taking care of herself first. Echoing the question Bob posed to the group earlier this morning, Ann asks: "What do you deserve, Kerri?"
Kerri dries her eyes and runs a hand through her hair. "I deserve to say no."
"Yes!" says Ann, with a fist pump.
As the last rays of the afternoon sun move across the room, a waiter arrives with a snack: apple tea lattes—black tea steeped in fat-free milk that has been simmered with honey and chopped apple, then strained. Calorie count: 108. The women clink their white porcelain cups and toast their first day.
The next morning, over breakfast at the Spa Café—ginger waffles (made with yogurt) and a selection of teas (black, oolong, green, and white) containing heart-protective compounds called polyphenols—the talk turns to how rare it is to enjoy such a leisurely morning. Most days Yolanda wakes at 6 A.M. to a ringing phone: her mom's nurse calling with an overnight report. Amy goes straight from bed to the kitchen to fix breakfast for her kids. And Kerri runs through a long mental to-do list as she dresses for work. But here at Bacara, they can enjoy the moment.
After a three-mile hike into the Santa Ynez foothills ("If you're going to walk for exercise," Bob says, "you've got to have inclines"), the women gather in the kitchen of Bacara's haute cuisine restaurant, Miró, where executive chef David Reardon has laid out ingredients on a prep table. He and Janis are going to teach the boot campers to make healthy versions of their favorite foods: French fries, sloppy joes, mac and cheese, and chocolate pudding. "We're hard wired to crave fat and sugar because our caveman ancestors needed all the calories they could get," Janis explains. "But you can trick your palate into thinking your body's getting lots of calories with food that's good for you."
Chef Reardon begins with his favorite substitute for matchstick fries—roasted root veggies (which have half the calories of potatoes). He mists julienne slices of parsnips, rutabaga, and carrots with vegetable oil cooking spray and tosses them with fresh chopped rosemary; then he puts the vegetables in the oven to brown.
"So, do you think these might replace my obsession with everything potato?" Amy asks.
Janis assures her she'll be satisfied: "They're crispy on the outside and soft and starchy on the inside. The cooking spray adds just enough fat to keep them from drying out."
For the sloppy joes, Reardon browns finely sliced onion and sweet pepper in a large skillet, then adds 95 percent lean ground beef, kidney beans, tomatoes, cloves, cinnamon, cider vinegar, and a half teaspoon of brown sugar. He makes the mac and cheese with a puree of butternut squash, 1 percent milk, and yogurt (instead of cream), shredded part-skim Jack and Cheddar cheese, and whole wheat macaroni. The chef's finale is the pudding: He brings unsweetened cocoa powder, solid dark chocolate, cornstarch, sugar, and nonfat milk to a boil, then ladles the mixture into three martini glasses to cool until this evening.
Eager to sample the dishes now, the women spoon the sloppy joe filling onto whole wheat hamburger rolls. "You would never know this was lean meat, it has so much flavor," Amy says. She decides her family will also like the "fries"—but only with ketchup. Janis suggests a low-sodium ketchup alternative: Make some fresh tomato salsa and pump up the flavor with onion, cilantro, jalapeños, a little lime juice, and a dash of salt.
The mac and cheese is the biggest hit, especially for cheese-lover Kerri. Yolanda had warned everyone that she doesn't like whole wheat because it's "gritty," but even she is sold on the pasta: "I can't tell it's healthy!" And Amy feels confident her kids won't be able to detect the butternut squash.
Outside, an afternoon rain shower is dimpling the water in the resort's fountains and swimming pools. Kerri, Yolanda, and Amy dash across a manicured lawn to the conference room where Angela is waiting. Angela is a psychotherapist, but with her long limbs and graceful movements, she could pass for a dancer. In her Los Angeles practice, she specializes in both healthful living and life coaching, and she's here to help the women establish realistic goals.
"In our enthusiasm to better ourselves," Angela begins, "we tend to make long lists of simplistic proclamations, like 'I will not eat carbs after 7 o'clock' and 'I will get at least eight hours of sleep every night.' But lists like this typically set us up for failure, because there are real, concrete reasons we aren't doing these things already." Angela reminds the women what Bob said yesterday: Weight loss is about breaking down the barriers that are keeping you locked in unhealthy behaviors. This afternoon the women will gain a better perspective on what those barriers are. Angela is going to lead them through a series of prompts, and they will respond in writing.
1. "What do you know about yourself? Finish five statements that begin 'I am....'"
Yolanda puts on her glasses, crosses her legs, and begins to write. Kerri jots down a phrase, taps her pen, then scribbles again. Amy curls into a corner of the white sofa, focused intently.
2. "What feels good about your life right now?"
3. "Where are you dissatisfied?"
4. "Who do you want to be in the world?"
In response to the last one, Amy writes, "I want to be a supportive and loving wife. I'm afraid I'm not able to be that person any longer."
And at that, her face reddens and tears roll down her cheeks. Angela invites her to explain what's unfolding in her head.
"I've always tried to be tough and handle whatever I can on my own, without help. So I don't tell my husband that I'm overwhelmed when he's away. But now he's not sharing any of his problems with me, either. We don't communicate anymore."
"You think keeping quiet makes you strong," Angela says, "but really, it's dishonest, and it's hurting you and your husband. The truly strong thing to do would be to tell your husband the truth, which is, 'I miss you very much when you're gone.'"
Amy nods. "You're totally right."
Angela asks Amy to create a new intention for herself, and to state it in the present tense. "It should be just a simple statement about who you are trying to be right now."
Amy says, carefully, "I am open with my husband and my kids, and supportive of them. I am starting down a healthy road with my family."
At the close of the session, Angela hands each woman a wallet-sized card. On one side, she has written their intention. On the other is a sketch of a tree with a spreading canopy. It's meant to remind them that when we root ourselves in meaningful goals, we thrive.
On Sunday morning, the boot campers leave the resort for a field trip—a tour of a local grocery store. As they navigate the aisles, Janis delivers tips on what to pick up and what to skip. Lesson one: Not all produce is created equal. Some items are particularly supercharged, such as vitamin D–enriched mushrooms ("Three ounces will provide nearly all your daily D requirement") and BroccoSprouts ("They're loaded with sulforaphane, a well-known cancer-fighting compound"). More lessons: Don't shy away from frozen veggies; because they retain vitamins and minerals during transit, they can be healthier than fresh produce. Avoid products labeled "unbleached wheat flour," "enriched wheat flour," or just "wheat" ("Look for the word whole"). Instead of ice cream for dessert, pick up creamy, rich nonfat Greek yogurt and add a little honey and some fruit. And just because something is labeled "natural" or "healthy" doesn't mean it is. Janis picks up a cereal bar near the checkout line: "Eating this is like eating a cookie," she says.
"I have three in my purse!" Yolanda blurts out, laughing.
That afternoon the women seem like old friends, joking about Spanx (as in, the miracle of) while they wait for their next session to begin. Ann is going to coach them on healthier relationships back home—the kinds of social connections that will nurture them as they make over their lives.
Ann starts by explaining that one of the most difficult things to learn is how to speak up: "You have to really believe that it's okay to ask for what you want." Not stating your needs, she says, is almost always a barrier to weight loss. For example, an emotional eater will turn to food for comfort when she doesn't get the affection she craves from her spouse. A woman who can't admit to her boss that she's overloaded may consistently sacrifice her gym time to get her work done.
To see how well Kerri, Yolanda, and Amy stand up for themselves, Ann has them sit in a circle around an eight-by-ten piece of paper. Then she tells them to reach for the paper with a level of intensity that represents how they typically pursue what they want in life. After a few seconds of pulling, they have ripped the page into three sections of varying sizes.
Yolanda, her face framed by dangling heart-shaped earrings, looks upset. She got only a small scrap. Amy got a third of the sheet, and Kerri got the largest piece.
"I feel guilty," Kerri says.
Ann says it's common for women to feel shame about being assertive. "We're raised to care for others before we consider ourselves," she says. "As little girls, we watch as strong women are labeled 'selfish' and 'demanding' while assertive men are perceived as powerful and effective."
Yolanda says she has been struggling with this breed of guilt for a long time. "All my life, I've given more than I get. But it's never enough. Sometimes I feel like I'm being taken for granted."
Ann has the women repeat the exercise, and this time, in less than a second, Yolanda has the whole page in her hands. She holds it over her head, beaming. Amy gives a little cheer and Kerri grins. Still, Yolanda says it didn't feel so good to win when winning meant Amy and Kerri had to lose.
"Challenge, for a moment, the belief that asking for what you want is selfish," Ann says. "Instead, think of it as self-preservation. You can't take care of others unless you are taken care of, too. Otherwise you feel, as you said, taken for granted. In the long run, speaking up for yourself leads to more supportive, longer-lasting relationships."
Yolanda nods. She takes a deep breath and looks around the circle. "I really have to be more vocal about my priorities," she says.
"At first, not everyone will be happy when you speak up," Ann says, "but they will adjust." She cautions that some people may not make any concessions at all, and if that's the case, it's time to sever your connections with them: "Only make time for those who are kind to you back."
Amy, Yolanda, and Kerri are reclining in fluffy robes on wooden chaise lounges. After their 6 A.M. workout, the women enjoyed hot stone massages in Bacara's spa—Bob's treat—and now they're relaxing by a crackling fire. Amy reaches into the pocket of her robe and pulls out three matching necklaces made of thread, each with a tiny silver charm in the shape of a key.
"I really want us to keep the promises we've made to ourselves over the past few days," she tells the others, "so I bought us a little reminder. When you tie the thread around your neck, you make a wish. And when the thread eventually breaks, your wish will come true." The three friends agree that the key charm is the perfect symbol for what they've vowed to do: unlock their potential to live better, healthier lives.
Later that day, the women go off on a mission. Ann has asked them to spend some time hunting for two objects—one that represents who they were when they arrived four days ago, and one that represents where they are headed.
At sunset the boot campers meet Bob, Ann, Angela, and Janis on a terrace overlooking the ocean. Below, waves roll onto the beach, pelicans swoop over the silvery water, and pink clouds streak the sky above the horizon.
Kerri has brought two lemons—one green, the other yellow. "When I got here I had already begun to blossom a little," she says. "After this experience, I can become the ripe fruit and finish what I started."
Amy holds up a Y-shaped stick. At the end of one branch, a handful of twigs shoot off in various directions. "In the past, I was always trying fad diets and buying 'miracle' exercise equipment from infomercials." She breaks off the branch so she's left with a straight stick. "Now I'm going down one path."
Yolanda holds up a black stone she found on the beach. "I was in darkness a few days ago. I was hard-core ready to be healthy, but I didn't know how." Then she holds up a lighter, gray rock. "The color of this one represents a new, purer, clearer vision of my life."
By now the stars have come out and the group sits down to a farewell dinner. They already have something to celebrate: Amy has lost three pounds. The campers present Bob's team with letters of thanks, and after a round of goodbye embraces, the women make their way back to their rooms. Tomorrow morning, they'll head home to begin realizing the life-altering intentions they've created here at the edge of the Pacific.
Check back next month to follow Kerri, Yolanda, and Amy as they pursue their weight loss goals. We'll be running updates on their progress throughout the summer.
Kate Hahn is a Los Angeles–based freelance journalist and author.