The Journey to Fit is Hard

3 Women Share How Weight Loss Goals Turned to Healthy Lifestyles

By Tonya Jameson

Each year, many of us make resolutions to lose weight, cut sugar, eat healthier and exercise more. We drink the latest cleanses, embrace trendy diets and (re)join gyms.

It’s March now, and back to the same-ole, same-ole, but it doesn’t have to be. Meet Shirley Lee, Gena Washington and Elizabeth Colen. These Charlotte-area women made healthy living a lifestyle, not just a resolution.

Their results and fitness levels varied. Their journeys to living a healthier lifestyle varied, too, but a few things were common – getting healthy is not easy, it’s still a challenge every day, and it’s worth it.


Shirley Lee, 52, former 30-year smoker

Shirley Lee’s journey to a healthy lifestyle started after she quit smoking. Giving up tobacco came with picking up weight.

“I needed to get healthier,” said Lee, who weighed 20 extra pounds. “I really got determined when I turned 50, not to stay overweight.”

Lee, of southeast Charlotte, joined K.O. Fitness + Bootcamp. Owner Dayron Booth pushed Lee. When Lee started training with Booth three years ago, she couldn’t do a single pull-up; sit-ups were tough and jumping rope was hard.

“For a while, I thought my name was ‘Shirley, get your butt down,” joked Lee, in reference to Booth telling her to squat lower during exercises.

Now, she can do 25 pull-ups and jump rope 200 times consecutively. Lee saw improvements each year, but the weight barely budged. Last year, Lee used the controversial and non-FDA-approved HCG diet for three months. Human chorionic gonadotropin is a hormone produced during pregnancy. She only ate 500 calories a day and stopped exercising. After she finished the diet, she increased her eating to about 1,100 calories a day and resumed training. She lost 25 pounds last year.

“I really didn’t need as much (food) as I thought I did,” said the quality assurance specialist. “It’s a lifestyle change to eat better.”

Lee trains an hour a day, six days a week, and sometimes twice a day. She runs the Big South 5K race in south Charlotte every year. She said learning a new exercise is easier than it used to be, but she keeps challenging herself. Her next goal is to do a bar muscle up (pulling your upper body above a pull-up bar).

Her biggest goal now is to change the lives of the people around her, such as helping her sisters get healthier.


Gena Washington, 49, lost 100 pounds

Gena Washington has a love-hate relationship with losing weight. For decades, trying to lose weight consumed the compliance consultant’s life. At 303 pounds, Washington lost weight based on the occasion – a wedding or a trip to the beach.

She always regained the lost weight. Seven years ago, her doctor told her she was at risk for diabetes. Washington got serious about weight loss. She went to a clinic to learn how to eat properly. She lost a few pounds, and took it to the extreme. She dramatically cut her eating, measured her food and became a vegetarian.

At the same time, she exercised compulsively. She woke up at 5:30 a.m. to work out, then exercised during her lunch break and sometimes with co-workers after work. She lost 100 pounds, but eventually landed in the emergency room with double vision and balance issues. Her manic eating and intense exercising caused a vitamin B-1 deficiency. She missed six weeks of work.

“In the pursuit of skinny, I messed myself up,“ she said.

Now, Washington pursues healthy instead of skinny. She sought counseling. Although she’d lost weight, she still pictured herself as the 300-pound woman who wore a size 24. She was stuck mentally, and burned out.

“For me, it’s getting the mind right. It’s always going to be a work in progress,” said Washington, who trains at Burn Boot Camp. “It’s hard. When it comes to weight loss, if people are more honest, then I think it will help other people.”

She monitors what she eats, but she doesn’t obsess over every morsel of food. She isn’t hard on herself when she misses workouts. Washington runs half-marathons, but she doesn’t restrict herself to traditional exercising. She wants to try stand-up paddle boarding, belly dancing and, as she said, “anything that’s out there that’s fun.”


Elizabeth Colen, 43, lost 100 pounds

Elizabeth Colen is an addict.

“I’m happy I want to eat. I’m sad, I want to eat,” she said. “I was eating my emotions. To this day, I am a food addict.”

Colen takes each day one meal at a time. She knows the consequences of letting her addiction control her.

In 2008, Colen weighed 247 pounds. Her unhealthy eating habits lead to diabetes, but it was the removal of her gall bladder, which helps with digestion, that made her want to change.

She thought, “I am literally destroying the body that God gave me,” she said. “When you start taking body parts out, it’s serious. That was my moment to say ‘I need to make a change.’“

After the surgery, Colen couldn’t eat solid foods. She mostly ate Jell-O and cottage cheese for the first three months. She used the time as an opportunity to learn how to eat properly. Colen took a nutrition class, learned about healthy food versus non-healthy food. Equally important, Colen learned about portion control.

“I’m from the South,” she said. “I never knew how to eat.”

Colen also attended therapy to address the personal issues that caused her to overeat. The exercise portion of getting healthy was easier, because Colen said she always loved to exercise.

“I’ve always been an athlete,” she said. “I was even working out as a size 24. I was working to maintain my size 24.”

Colen started using the elliptical machine for cardio. Then she started taking spin classes. Initially, she couldn’t stand up on the bike and pedal, but after four months, she could stand up. Now, Colen’s a spin instructor. After six months, she became a group fitness instructor, and now she’s a certified personal trainer.

After two years of healthy living, the size 24 shrank to a size 00 and the pounds fell off. It was steady and slow, but Colen is down to 130 pounds. She is using her experience to help others as a personal coach.

Colen says she’s not gaining the weight back, but it’s a fight every day.

“The eating part is 80 percent of it,” she said. “I need to control myself every meal.”