At this camp, there's only one counselor: fitness expert Jim "Toss the Treadmill and Step Up the Strength Training" Karas. Jim's last appearance in O was in April 2002, in a feature on his training regimen for client Diane Sawyer. Except for monthly update sessions at O's New York offices, this camp is set up as a distance-learning situation. Will it work? Could it work for you? Here's a chronicle of the project to show where it did—and didn't—work and why.
Session 1: January 30
The participants meet Jim for a two-hour pep talk. He gives out copies of his book, The Business Plan for the Body, and at-home exercise equipment, including an inflatable exercise ball and elastic bands. Jim's website (JimKaras.com) will be a free resource: The women can print out menu plans, blank food diaries, and exercise logs.
Jim briefs them on diet and exercise, after asking about their routines. Gayle King, 47, O's editor at large, hasn't been on an official diet in five years, though she does get on her treadmill five or six days a week. She wants results, but she knows she's got problems: Gayle's never met a buffet she doesn't love, for example, and a good focaccia is as satisfying to her as...well, she's got problems.
Taryn Esposito, 25, tried working with a nutritionist, but just as she started, along came the winter holidays and all the associated temptations. Taryn stopped going. She likes eating out, she likes wine and cocktails, but she also likes to exercise, averaging 45 minutes on various cardio machines six times per week.
Cindy Paragallo, 34, has been going to a nutritionist for four months; she's lost only three pounds. She works out four times a week, alternating between the elliptical machine, Bikram yoga, and kickboxing.
Pat McLaughlin, 51, comes in from her job in Connecticut and arrives after the meeting is well under way. She exercised religiously in her thirties and forties, but her job, home life, and volunteer work leave her no time for herself, much less for working out.
Jim calculates everyone's current caloric intake, then prescribes a lower number. "If you're carrying too much body weight," he explains, "you've just taken in more energy than you've used."
While Jim leaves it up to the women to choose what to eat, he has what could be considered strong opinions on the subject. The gospel according to Jim consists of foods that he either loves or finds brutal. Loves: berries, pineapples, frozen fruits and veggies, Dijon mustard, pickle relish, salsa on baked potatoes, salsa on baby carrots, salsa (as dressing) on salads. Also Dannon Light 'n Fit yogurt. Brutal: creamed spinach, salad dressing, nuts, peanut butter, salted microwave popcorn, and buttery mashed potatoes ("Off the charts!").
What to eat shifts into how much. Even if the food choices are healthy ones, portion sizes can blow a diet. "It's shocking when you see the real caloric value for a portion size. And being unprepared for a situation can lead to unhealthy choices."
"I'm going to ask you to plan every day," he says. "Make appointments with yourself to exercise. Look at your meals for the coming week. See what social or business things you've got. And remember: Water is the elixir of the gods."
Jim likes his clients to stay hydrated—water, he believes, keeps the body's systems functioning at peak performance.
"Not juice?" Gayle asks. "Like Cran-Apple, Cran-Grape?"
"Lots of calories," Jim pronounces. Gayle pleads her case: "After I work out and I'm so thirsty, I need something sweet."
"Okay, why aren't you drinking water? Are you drinking lots of water?"
"No. I do a whole liter of that CranGrape. Two liters, easy."
Jim is clearly impressed. "Can you really drink two liters?"
"Do you know, Gayle, if you cut that out, you could really lose weight." Gayle falls silent and stares into the middle distance, struggling to imagine a world without juice.
Next, Jim turns to exercise. Each workout should take an hour: 15 minutes of cardio and 45 of strength-training exercises.
"Do you train every day with the weights?" Pat asks.
"That's not necessary," Jim answers. "Four times a week would be wonderful. Three is fine; two if you work really hard."
Jim demonstrates 15 basic exercises, pulled straight from his book—from biceps curls to squats and lunges. As soon as they can complete 15 reps of any exercise, Jim says, they should increase their weights, use tighter bands, or slow down the movement. "Keep challenging the muscle."
He finishes with abdominals on the inflatable ball, and a recap of his own advice: "Send me your food diaries, increase your caloric awareness, eat lots of fruits and vegetables, drink lots of water."
Next: "I didn't just fall off the wagon, I fell into the river and was paddling without a lifeboat!"
Fourteen days later, the group reconvenes. Well, half the group—Taryn is unable to make it, and Pat joins in for a bit by speakerphone. Jim reminds them to think about the nutritional content of their meals—"More veggies!"—and to drink more water.
As the meeting breaks up, Jim checks in with their aspirations.
"My goal is 115," says Cindy, whose current weight is 124. "But I'd love to be 112."
"We could get there if you're up for it," Jim offers.
Cindy's eyes widen. "Really? I'd be the happiest girl in the world."
"Sure, but I want you to drink more water. You didn't pee during this meeting."
"I have to go," Cindy says.
"I do, too," says Jim.
Session 3: March 6
Gayle, Cindy, and Taryn meet with Jim. Pat is stuck at work. Gayle is snacking on an apple; in five weeks, she's dropped almost ten pounds. "I am ready," she says cheerfully as Jim pulls out the measuring tape.
"My hips are the same," Cindy says, "but I've gone down a size in pants." She pulls at her waistband, showing the gap. "These used to be tight." Taryn sits with her arms folded tight against her chest. "I've barely gone down. It's the Tasti D-Lites," she figures, blaming the low-fat frozen dessert she's been eating. Or maybe it's the cocktails with friends or the eating out.
Jim praises the women's workouts. "All of you have been consistent with exercise except Pat," he says. They'll be using heavier weights and tighter bands soon, he promises.
"My weights are going up," Taryn says. "It's scary. I feel like a man. I see bones up here [pointing to her collarbones]. That's my positive. But I'm gonna end up in the man's part of the gym. I feel like She-Ra."
Jim promises she'll never look like a weight lifter, and the other women in the room ooh and ah when she flexes her arm.
"What's your satisfaction rating with the program at this point," Jim asks. "On a scale of 1 to 10?"
Gayle says 6 or 7. Cindy says 5 or 6. Taryn says 3 or 4.
"I think you're being gracious," Jim says to Taryn.
"Thank you," she responds, with her first smile of the day.
Session 4: April 3
The food diary e-mails have been bouncing back and forth. The logs are alternately proud (on good days) and apologetic (on bad). Jim's feedback instructs while offering praise. "Watch out for the apple juice, but you know that.... Great day. Was the muffin big?"
At the meeting, Gayle confesses that she strayed, dietetically, during her family vacation. "I didn't just fall off the wagon, I fell into the river and was paddling without a lifeboat! But even with all the eating, I doubled my exercise program—and the minute I returned, I got right back on the diet. I think there's something to this program."
Cindy feels like she's doing well and is thrilled with the way her body shape is changing. Taryn says the calorie restrictions are killing her, but she's also noticing a transformation. "The shape of my body seems to be changing—I'm not losing any weight, I'm not losing any inches, but I feel like I look different."
About two weeks after the meeting, Pat e-mails a status report. "I am finding it very difficult to schedule in the necessary exercise time, be conscious of the amount of calories I am taking in, and generally do all the things necessary to ensure a successful outcome to this project. Intellectually, I know that I have to pay attention to myself. However, I put my work schedule, house schedule, and family obligations before myself."
Jim writes back that he's sure she's doing her best. He encourages her to keep at it, even though he's thinking that this program isn't working for her. Most of the people Jim meets who want to lose weight or get fit aren't able to make the necessary life changes. You have to be psychologically ready to "flip the switch," he says. "I always tell women, 'If you're not ready to do this yet, don't do it. Don't beat yourself up over it—let yourself off the hook until you're ready.'"
Next: See Gayle's transformation
It's been three and a half months, and the results—no surprise to Jim—are mixed.
Gayle has lost 20 pounds. "I was hoping for 10, maybe 15," she says. "I found it all very tolerable. I'm not trying to be a skinny mini—I want to have some meat on my bones. I just want to look good in my clothes." As happy as she is with current results, she doesn't want to be overconfident about long-term effects. "I think the true test is going to be a year from now."
Cindy lost 11 pounds and wants to go for 6 more. "I saw results, and I didn't have to torture myself," she reports. "I liked my workout. I could feel my muscles. I used to watch the Food Network and get all creative with cooking. Now I flip right past it: click, click, click. I'm down 11 pounds, and I'm watching the Style Network."
Jim anticipated that at least one woman would remain at her starting weight, and that's true for Taryn. "I was the failure child," Taryn says with a resigned laugh. "I'd love to lose weight. I'm on my way to wanting it enough." All along, Jim's been preaching that they had to believe they could succeed, that they had to want it enough. Clearly he's embedded at least some of that philosophy in Taryn's brain.
"My goal," he says cheerily, "is to become a tape in your heads."
Jim summarizes: "Gayle took a role as leader. Cindy was right behind. Taryn didn't lose weight but she did lose inches." Taryn puts both thumbs up and says, "There is a god."
Jim expected one person to fall off the program, and that, more or less, is Pat's story. She e-mailed Jim that she'd lost ten pounds, but she missed three out of the four meetings and the project's final photo shoot. It's hard to tease out exactly how much her inability to follow the program was externally or internally caused.
Jim believes in his own program—it has benefited him and scores of clients—but he knows he's no miracle worker. And in the world of dieting, which so often is full of guilt and self-loathing, recognizing that people have to be ready before they can have success is perhaps the best sermon of all.
Lise Funderburg lifts weights but finds calorie counting too brutal.