Leigh Smith, a 240-pound mother of two, wanted to get healthy. But growing up on Southern fried food and routinely putting her family first, the 35-year-old admitted she didn't know how.
Enter three Key West nutrition and fitness experts who spent November giving her a head-to-toe wellness makeover after choosing her from nearly 90 applicants for a "30 Days to Help Yourself Challenge."
On Nov. 30, Smith showed off her new body, new confidence and new attitude about food and exercise.
"It was more than what I had hoped for," Smith said. "I feel now like how a 35-year-old probably should feel."
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In 30 days that included Thanksgiving, she lost 20 pounds, 2 percent body fat and 11 inches. She also saw her fitness level soar. She went from barely being able to complete five minutes on an elliptical trainer to spending 25 minutes on the machine -- as a warm-up. She went from barely being able to do one push-up to doing 18.
"No special, magic pills," said personal trainer Amy Spielberg, an owner of Stay Fit Studio in Key West. "Leigh has done it simply with diet and exercise."
The challenge was created by Spielberg, Charlie Wilson, owner of Help Yourself organic restaurant, and nutrition consultant Donna Shields. Their goal: Prove that a person can lose weight and improve health and energy levels by working out properly and eating "real food."
"With Leigh, we saw a need and desperation," Wilson said. "She had the motivation, but didn't know where to start."
Smith received five days worth of organic, whole-food meals weekly, a nutrition evaluation, two supermarket training tours, personal training, a gym membership, cooking classes, a kitchen cabinet clean-out and a medical evaluation, valued at a total of $5,000.
It began with a public weigh-in at the Southernmost Point, and was documented from start to finish on video posted at www.30daystohelpyourself.com.
Smith wasn't always overweight and out of shape. She played softball in high school and was at a healthy weight until the birth to her first child, Ethan, now 7. The pounds kept creeping on with the birth of Sophia, now 3.
"I never let myself be the priority," Smith said before the challenge began. "I'm doing this for me."
Her husband Matt, a dive instructor with the U.S. Army, supported her effort. A month later, Smith said she realized that while helping herself, she also has done wonders for her family (including her husband, who lost 8 pounds himself).
"I couldn't believe when I looked in the refrigerator last night," said Smith's mother, Pat Rogers, who had come from Maryland for Thanksgiving. ‘‘It was filled with fruits and vegetables. Oh my God, Ethan walked up and asked for a banana."
Clearing her cabinets of unhealthful foods was an eye-opener.
"I wrote to her that I didn't want her to feel like a bad mother," Rogers said. "That's what everybody's cabinets look like. That's what the kids see on commercials."
To replace boxed macaroni and cheese and other packaged foods, Smith learned to cook healthy entrees and roast vegetables. Wilson had Smith eliminate wheat and dairy for the month and, for three days, eat only raw foods, ending with a juice fast.
Smith worked out for 60 to 90 minutes a day, six days a week. Spielberg created a well-rounded program for Smith that included aerobic, strength, flexibility and balance exercises. Sessions were scheduled while Sophia was in day care and Ethan in school.
"If it doesn't fit into her life, she won't do it," Spielberg said.