Winter Warrior Project teams shed pounds with proper nutrition, fitness

By Beth Reece

They call themselves Ladies DSW: Ladies Dropping Some Weight. Their weaknesses: candy, cake and soda. Their strengths: competitiveness and a newfound love for group exercise.

The five-member team from Defense Logistics Agency Installation Support is one of about 45 participating in the 12-week Winter Warrior Project, a fitness and nutrition challenge that has attracted more participation than any other program held by the McNamara Headquarters Complex Fitness Center.

Since the program began in January, Ahawana Williams has lost 11 pounds and “a whole lotta inches.” Rowena Estrada is a step closer to getting off blood pressure medication. And Anita Elum-Mason, who insists apples aren’t a fair swap for the candy she craves, has learned that tracking the food she eats helps her make healthier choices.

Setbacks like being sick, too busy to work out and too weak to resist sweets have challenged the women but not broken their resolve, said Patricia Allen, the HQC Fitness Center coach guiding the team.

“They keep on, even if they’re having a bad day, and they’re willing to try different things even when it means stepping outside of their comfort zones,” she said.

Allen occasionally leads weekly workout sessions for the team, but Ladies DSW prefers group fitness classes offered throughout the day at the fitness center. Williams and Elum-Mason were already steady gym-goers who favored the treadmill and elliptical.

“Starting group classes is one of the things I’m most proud of myself for in this program. My goal is to lose 20 pounds by the time I turn 40 in June, and I think the classes have me on the right track to accomplish that,” said Williams, who tried six different classes in three weeks. She added that she appreciates instructors’ mindfulness toward new participants, who may not know the proper form of an exercise or need modified movements.

Being part of a team also makes working out easier, Elum-Mason said. “Before this, Rowena hadn’t been in the gym for more than a year. She kept saying next time, next time. It was easier encouraging her knowing we were all going together.”

Estrada admitted that taking the first step was hard, and the group’s initial training session with Allen was even harder. It was their first try at Tabata, an interval workout that consists of eight rounds of high-intensity exercises for 20 seconds followed by 10 seconds of rest.

“She didn’t start us off easy. I was in pain the whole weekend and discovered muscles in my body that I never knew existed. After that, I knew how badly I needed to do this,” Estrada said.

Like coaches paired with other Winter Warrior teams, Allen emphasizes that nutrition plays as big a role in how a person looks and feels as exercise. She offers weekly nutrition tips and reviews food journals with each person, making sure they’re avoiding processed foods and eating the right mix of vegetables and lean meat.

“DLA really pushes health, nutrition and exercise, but it’s hard. Some people are built with this beautiful body and metabolism that’s through the roof. The truth is, it’s an everyday struggle for the average person,” Allen said.

And she knows. Five years ago, Allen was a legal assistant for a firm in Stafford, Virginia. She was also unhappily married, depressed and overweight.

“Eighty pounds overweight,” she said. “Then I went to the doctor’s office for some random ailment and broke down, realizing something had to change.”

Allen joined Weight Watchers, which helped her start a food diary and taught her about portion control.

“It was an everyday battle. There were crying episodes because I wanted Kentucky Fried Chicken instead of the grilled chicken salad that I’d bought at the store. There were moments of frustration, seeing the scale go down one week and up the next,” she said.

As the weight came off, her confidence grew. She started taking group exercise classes and enjoyed them so much she decided to become an instructor and help others lead healthier lifestyles.

“Most of us know what we need to do to be fit, but putting it into play is hard. We have busy lives, kids, jobs, etc., and not everyone has the money to spend on trying new and different foods. Also, fresh produce isn’t cheap,” Allen said.

Elum-Mason notes that the Oreo cookies in her kitchen pantry have a far longer shelf life than most fruits and vegetables. But she has learned to ignore them most of the time, and knowing that Allen has gone through the same challenges they’re working to overcome encourages the team.

“It can be done,” Williams said.

Ladies DSW is currently in second place.

Note: This is part two of a series covering DLA employees’ journey through the 12-week Winter Warrior Project, which ends April. 8