Weight loss through encouragement, not fads

Anita Esser is so happy about progress recorded in her bankbook, she doesn’t mind if I take a look. She’s especially proud of her 2003 numbers.

From January until June 2003, there’s a big drop — 162 to 125. Unlike a saver, Esser welcomes losses. The Sultan woman tracks weight, not dollars.

Her record book isn’t from any financial institution. It’s a TOPS International Pound Bankbook.

Early Monday, Esser, 74, joined 10 others at Monroe’s First Baptist Church for the weekly meeting of their Take Pounds Off Sensibly group. It’s one of many local chapters of the TOPS Club, Inc., an international, nonprofit weight-loss support group.

Meetings include a weigh-in, some friendly competition, planning for challenges, food and exercise tips, and the gentle encouragement that keeps members coming back.

For lots of us, it takes courage to hop on the scales anytime. And, oh boy, it’s the week after Christmas. At Monday’s Monroe TOPS meeting, gains and losses were part of roll call, announced for all to hear.

Esser, who has graduated to KOPS (Keeping Off Pounds Sensibly) status, reported Monday that she is “still below goal.” One intrepid member lost a pound during the holiday week. Another had “turtled,” meaning her weight stayed the same. Several gained, one member more than 3 pounds.

To each who said their weight was up, the group responded with a rousing, “We’re glad you’re here.” That may be the biggest secret to TOPS’ success. Wherever members are on their weight-loss journeys, they are greeted with kind encouragement.

The group is a cheaper option than commercial programs, bringing members back year after year. “The good thing about TOPS, it’s so affordable,” said Donna Thomas, a co-leader of the Monroe group along with her husband. Mark Thomas, who led Monday’s meeting, has lost 30 pounds.

Members pay $28 in dues per year and get a monthly magazine from the national organization. Monroe’s Monday morning group also collects $3.50 monthly for its club. And weight gain comes at a price — $2 into a basket to be used as gift incentives for losers.

Esser, who is 5 feet 2 inches tall, said she put on weight after retiring in 2000 from the Boeing Co. She joined TOPS the first Monday in January 2003. By that June, she had lost almost 38 pounds. She has since dropped a few pounds under her 125-pound goal.

“I weigh myself every day, first thing in the morning, just to make sure I’m not creeping up,” Esser said. “If it’s up too much, OK, no cookies at all for me, and maybe no bread that day.”

There is no TOPS diet plan. New members get a “My Day One” booklet with sample menus, nutritional information, a shopping list for healthful foods, and exercise tips.

“Each person follows their own plan,” said Esser, who eats Cheerios for breakfast, walks outside and uses a treadmill.

While Esser shed her excess pounds in six months, others have stuck with it for years to reach goals.

Bertha Holeman, 77, joined a TOPS group 20 years ago when she moved from Seattle to the Machias area. “I needed to lose some weight and meet people,” she said.

It took her 10 years to lose 50 pounds. Holeman has maintained that weight loss for another decade. “Some people do it in 10 months. Not me. Some years I stayed the same, some years I’d lose a few pounds,” she said.

Holeman weighed 221 pounds when she started. “I went down to 170, and I’ve since lost another 5 pounds. I’d like to get down to 160. The doctors are very happy,” she said.

Darlene Wascher, area captain for TOPS, said the group has 22 chapters in Snohomish and Island counties. “I’ve been in TOPS about 12 years,” said Wascher, who lives in the Smokey Point area. For 11 of those years, she has had KOPS status.

“You just keep going. If you slip, you go back,” Wascher said. A regular weigh-in means accountability, but Wascher said the encouragement helps most.

“We’re a support group,” said Wascher, 71, who lost 29 pounds. “If you slide back, nobody is going to yell at you. There’s usually always someone who has done the same thing. If someone is having a hard time, people send cards and email. It’s positive reinforcement.”

Members talk about a lifetime commitment.

“It’s not a program you go on,” Wascher said. “This is not a magic pill.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

Learn more about TOPS

To find a TOPS (Take Off Pounds Sensibly) group or learn more, call Darlene Wascher at 360-658-1311 or go to www.tops.org/FindAMeeting.aspx.

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