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Vickie Wysokinski, 50, Middle River, vice president of sales for a system integration company, lost 120 pounds

Losing weight was a life-saving event for Vickie Wysokinski, and not just for the usual better-health reasons. On Sept. 19, 2003, Hurricane Isabel hit, and she and her husband had to travel through 81/2-feet-deep raging water to get to a neighbor’s house.

She had begun an exercise regimen only six weeks earlier and still couldn’t squeeze into a life jacket. But, thanks to working out two to three hours a day, her body was stronger and she had more confidence in what it could do. “One of the things I had done for cardio as part of the six-week program was I had water-walked for an hour,” she says.

So it was time to water-walk again, this time in freezing cold water. She and her husband walked and swam to a neighbor’s ranch house, where they spent the night inside, with water rising above their waists. In the morning, the weather then calm, they commandeered some stray rowboats and went around the neighborhood, scooping up stranded people.

“Now that I look back, I don’t know how I survived,” she says.

But survive she did, and the incident sparked in her an even greater commitment to lose weight. “I never want to be in a situation where I can’t take care of myself,” she vows.

A year earlier, Wysokinski had been at her heaviest, weighing 304 pounds. But it wasn’t until August 2003, just six weeks before Isabel, that she decided to get serious about her weight problem. She was approaching 50, and she had time on her hands because she had just left her job and was waiting out a non-compete clause. She joined the Maryland Athletic Club in Timonium and began the exercise regimen that may have saved her life.

After Isabel, she began working with a personal trainer to sculpt her body, and she focused on changing her eating habits. In the old days, she would eat a couple of doughnuts or a bagel for breakfast, followed by a sandwich and chips for lunch and a large dinner.

Now, she starts her day at 5 a.m. with a cup and a half of high-protein cereal, spiked with flax seed, soy and blueberries and splashed with low-carb milk. Then she’ll work out from 6:30 to 7:45. When she gets to her new job, she’ll eat a soy bar. Lunch is high in protein, typically a turkey on whole wheat, with mustard, lettuce and tomato. Dinner might be meat or fish with some vegetables. Instead of snacking on candy bars, she’ll down a handful of almonds in the afternoon.

A much slimmer 184, the 5-foot-3 Wysokinski works with a personal trainer for one hour three days a week and does an hour of cardio six days a week. She wouldn’t mind getting down to 150 pounds, but says, “If I stayed at this weight and stopped losing any more, I could be happy.”

So bring on the hurricanes. Wysokinski is ready.

Jim Driggers, 52, Baltimore, comptroller, lost 151 pounds

At 6-feet-4 and 371 pounds, Jim Driggers weighed nearly twice as much as his twin brother Eric. The reason was obvious. He ate too much. On a typical day, he’d have a Whopper and fries in the late afternoon, then go home for a complete dinner at 9 p.m.

Being overweight wasn’t fun, and Driggers was always vowing to eat less and exercise more, but he never followed through.

It was a broken leg that inspired him to change once and for all. During a golf outing with his company in June 1998, he slipped at the unlucky 13th hole, breaking his right leg in three places. Repairs included two surgeries and 21 permanent screws, as well as a couple of frustrating weeks of lying on the couch.

He never exercised when he could, but now that he couldn’t even walk across the room, he really wanted to. He vowed to begin an exercise program as soon as he was able.

Two weeks later, he returned to work and began a walking program while he was still on crutches. Every day at lunchtime, he would huff and puff his way around the one-block perimeter of his building, stopping often to gasp for air.

Once he was off the crutches, he stepped up his regimen. Eventually, he added running, and in 2003 he completed the Marine Corps Marathon in 4 hours and 47 minutes. Of course, he continued to watch what he ate.

He now gets to the gym at 5:30 a.m., six days a week, and works out for more than an hour, typically doing three days of cardio work and three days of weight lifting. On nice days, he’ll run five or six miles instead of the cardio workout.

The key for him has been looking at his new exercise regimen as a requirement, not a chore. It’s like brushing his teeth or paying his bills—non-negotiable. “It’s funny,” he says. “Not to do it now, I feel like I’m missing something.”

His eating habits have changed dramatically, too. He eats six times a day, but each meal is small and healthy, a trick that seems to work for him. Whoppers are a thing of the past, though sometimes he’ll eat at Subway.

And he likes being nearly the same weight as his brother.

Liz Dumont Proctor, 40, Timonium, weight loss director, lost 107 pounds

Liz Dumont Proctor doesn’t believe in extreme low-carb or low-fat diets. She thinks everyone has to find the plan that works for them. And she knows what she’s talking about: She dropped from 252 pounds to 145, and has kept the weight off for 12 years.

Now she’s the weight loss director at the Maryland Athletic Club in Timonium, helping others achieve the same success. Her program, called Weight Loss Solution, is gimmick-free and flexible, with a focus on eating right and exercising.

Fit and happy, Dumont Proctor has come a long way. At age 28, she was obese and her marriage was falling apart. Finally, she was ready to change. “I had to stop being a victim,” she says.

She knew that the only way to lose weight was to eat less and exercise more. There were no magic tricks. For several days, she mourned the passing of her old habits: no more afternoon candy bars and heaping bowls of ice cream at night. She started by adding more fruits and vegetables to her diet, and cutting her portion sizes.

She also takes a break from her diet one day a week. “I’m not a food Nazi,” she says. “I love my food.” She puts cheese on her broccoli, but notes it’s a big improvement over the mounds of mac and cheese she used to consume.

She lost a sensible 1 to 2 pounds a week for several months, and when she dropped to 210, she joined a gym. At first, she was terrified of all the spandex-clad skinnies in the step class, but those women turned out to be her biggest supporters. She took the class seven days a week, and eventually began teaching it. “As I built muscle, I built emotional muscle, too,” she says.

That muscle gave her the courage to marry again and to make a major career change, dropping her lucrative banking career to work at MAC.

Dumont Proctor uses the same philosophy on her clients that worked so well for her. She provides skills, structure and support, but lets them find their own best techniques. Clients keep journals of what they eat, then focus on areas of improvement.

Exercise is critical, both for her clients and for herself. Dumont Proctor gets up at 4:30 each morning to exercise on a cross trainer, then spends 45 minutes on strength training three days a week.

“I found my own way through the process,” she says. “That’s why I succeeded.”

Chris Harback, 32, Columbia, systems analyst, lost 65 pounds

Family meals were always a big deal in the Harback family. Chris Harback, who grew up in Towson, remembers eating until he actually felt sick at every holiday. He was proud when he could eat more than his father.

He also didn’t exercise as a kid. “I can remember hating it in middle school and high school,” he says. “It was easier to eat food.”

It’s hardly surprising that he was chubby by the time he was in middle school. As a freshman at the University of Maryland, College Park, he weighed 180 pounds, which doesn’t seem excessive for his 6-foot frame. But he had “no muscle tone,” he says, and by the time he graduated, the needle on the scale had edged up to 210.

His first job out of college was working night shifts at a grocery store, where a typical dinner might include an entire bag of Doritos, plus a six-pack of soda. When Harback married Kate Thomas in 1999, the two bonded over food and gained even more weight together.

Finally, in July 2002, both decided they’d had enough. “At some point, it just clicked,” he says. They joined a gym together and improved their eating habits. Harback wanted to make a permanent life change, so he decided against fad diets or low-carb regimens.

“I thought that dieting really wasn’t going to get me anywhere in the long term,” he says. “Lots of people I know are Ôbinge dieters’ who just go from diet trend to diet trend, lose weight for a month and then gain it back.”

Harback knew that physical fitness was the key to weight loss, but the first time he walked into that gym and saw all the hardbodies sweating away inside, he almost turned around and left. “When you’re really big, or perceive yourself as really big, you don’t want to go in there with all those people,” he recalls.

His wife encouraged him to stay, and within a few months, he had lost 40 pounds, mostly through cardio exercise on stair and elliptical machines, four days a week. Once he started to see results, he knew he would never go back to his old ways.

But underneath the flab was a hernia that had probably been there for years, Harback says, undetected because of his “doughy middle” and inactive life.

Toward the end of 2002, after he recuperated from his hernia surgery, he began running. It was “a life-changing experience,” he says. “I knew it was what I wanted to do in exercise.”

He’d always thought running was too “hard core” for him, but all that cardio exercise had prepared him for it. Harback and Kate ran their first 5K in March 2003, and “we were pretty much hooked from there,” Harback says. They now run between 25 and 30 miles a week, and in October they both ran the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C.

“Our times were slightly slower than we had anticipated, 5 hours 17 minutes,” Harback says, “but we’re proud that we stopped only for water stations and restroom breaks.”

In 2003, they also became vegan, meaning they eat no animal products. “We decided we were going to try it out and it really had good results,” he says.

Harback now weighs 145 pounds, but says he consumes enormous amounts of food and enjoys eating more than he used to. He also has “boundless energy, a better attitude and a better self-image,” he says.

The most difficult thing has been attending family dinners and saying no to all the rich food. “It’s just not what I want anymore,” he says.

Family members were at first baffled by his changed eating habits. At one family function, his sister did her best to prepare appropriate foods, but put butter in the mashed potatoes and pork in the string beans. Now, she’s learning how to cook for Harback and Kate, so they can still enjoy those big family meals.

Brian Hug, 31, Pasadena, environmental planner, lost 161 pounds

By the time he was 29, Brian Hug weighed 379 pounds. His shirts were size 5X and he needed special shoes, socks and even neck ties. On airplanes, he had to ask for seat-belt extenders.

A lifetime of bad eating habits and complete inactivity had caught up with him. He’d start his days with sugary Pop Tarts and muffins, then wash it down with a whipped-cream-topped Starbucks concoction. Lunch was always supersized, and snacks were usually chocolate-covered. A hearty dinner was followed by a pint or two of Ben and Jerry’s, or a late-night trip to Taco Bell.

He’d been heavy his whole life, but now it was starting to really bother him. “I was getting close to 30,” he says. “I was single, overweight, not happy with life and decided that something had to change.”

When he went out with his friends, he’d get the laughs but not the dates. “When you’re heavy, you force yourself to be the funny, nice guy since that’s the only attribute you have.”

But on Jan. 21, 2002, the day after Hug turned 29, his new life began. He’d thought about stomach staples, but rejected the idea as too risky. And he couldn’t sign on to Atkins because he couldn’t imagine a future without bread or sweets.

Still, he started by tossing out all the whole milk, Oreos, soda and potato chips in his house. He restricted his calorie intake. “I set a goal of 1,700 per day and started shopping differently,” he explains. He read labels and tried to eat as much as possible while keeping his calories in check. But, even though he was hungry all the time, he was losing only 1 or 2 pounds a week.

As he began to learn about the weight-loss process, he decided the key was to bump up his metabolism through exercise. Just walking around the track at a nearby high school was a big change for a man who always parked near the entrance to his office because he couldn’t walk through the parking lot without gasping for breath.

He could barely finish two laps—a half-mile—but he returned the next day and the one after that. “Within months, I was losing 5 pounds a week,” says Hug, an environmental planner for the state. “The weight started to just kind of melt off, it was actually amazing.”

He became less focused on cutting calories and actually upped his intake to about 2,000 a day. Still, there were times he felt like reverting to his old junk-food ways. One time, while out with some friends, he couldn’t attract the attention of any women at the bar. “I thought, ÔWell, if losing weight didn’t do anything to make me more attractive, then what’s the use? I might as well be heavy and enjoy food again,’” he recalls.

But he told himself he’d come too far to turn back. “The hardest thing was convincing myself that this was not a diet,” he says. “This was something I would have to control for the remainder of my life.”

At 6-feet-4, he’s now a svelte 218 pounds. He exercises six days a week, and has run several 5Ks.

He still likes Ben and Jerry’s. Once a month, he buys a pint of low-fat yogurt Cherry Garcia. He eats it all in one sitting, then doesn’t buy another pint until the following month.

To celebrate his 31st birthday, he asked a girl out on a date. He’s still funny, but now he’s a funny guy with a nice body and a ton of self-confidence.

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