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'It Can Be Done'
NIH'er Dramatically Transforms Physique

By Joan Chamberlain

On the Front Page...

To see her effortlessly take the stairs at the Bethesda Metro station or flit, rosy cheeked, across the pool at the Montgomery County Aquatic Center, you'd never guess Marcia Potts was once more than twice her current size and could barely walk the distance from Bldg. 1 to 31.


Nearly 4 years ago, this ORS employee began changing her life and almost every aspect of her daily habits. Hers is a story of awesome determination and transformation and testimony to the human body's innate ability to recover good health.

Recently, Potts joined the NIH-supported National Weight Control Registry of more than 3,000 adults who've lost at least 30 pounds and kept it off a year or longer. "It can be done," she likes to say. The researchers who formed the registry think that they, and the many Americans who struggle with a weight problem, may have something to learn from people like Marcia who succeed at long-term weight loss. One study of registrants found that, like Potts, most maintain their weight loss by cutting fat and calories and increasing exercise. Most successful reducers eat breakfast. And some good news: as the years go by, maintenance of weight loss seems to get easier. In fact, 42 percent of registry members say that maintaining their weight loss is less difficult than losing the weight initially.

Marcia Potts, before

Potts had been overweight for most of her adult life, trying and failing on different diets — Slim Fast and the cabbage soup diet, among others. "I ate all the time and I ate a lot — probably 3,000 to 5,000 calories a day. I could eat a whole large deep dish pizza by myself. Cheeseburgers were my favorite. Subs. Fries. Lasagna. Things with a lot of cheese. Fattening stuff and lots of it. I ate things 'til they were gone, and they were gone pretty fast."

Did she ever feel full? "Never. I still don't.

"Clothes were a problem. Size 28 was too small. I didn't know where to go to buy clothes." She had asthma and sleep apnea, conditions that worsened as she became heavier. She couldn't sleep horizontally, and the apnea awakened her periodically throughout the night. Sleep deprived, she napped through the day. "To walk was unbelievably challenging," she remembers. "I couldn't breathe. I couldn't stand without leaning or holding onto something. The grocery stores were great because I could hang onto a cart." As for seeing a doctor, "I just never went. I knew I'd be told to lose weight. I believed I was going to die from it," she says.

She called her sister, a nurse, to ask for help getting diet pills. Instead, her sister suggested Weight Watchers, which emphasizes keeping a journal, cutting fat and calories and reducing portion sizes. On May 23, 2000, Potts joined a Weight Watchers-at-work program that met in Bldg. 31. She remembers the day well. Waiting for the shuttle to take her from Bldg. 1 to 31, she had to lean on the mailbox for support. At 48 years old, 5' 3" tall, she weighed 317 pounds. "When I weighed in at 317, my reaction was 'Wow.' In the beginning I had no expectations. I had no idea that I could even get down below 300. I never imagined I would get down to the size I am now. I didn't think I could do it."

Research has shown that a person doesn't need to lose a massive amount of weight to see improvements in health. A modest loss of just 5 to 7 percent of body weight helps a lot. For its members, Weight Watchers suggests working toward a loss of 10 percent as an initial goal.

Potts' first challenge was staying within the point or calorie range prescribed by the program. "I ran out of points at lunch the first day of the first week. I had to eat something, so I went to the salad bar at Giant and filled little containers with zero point foods like lettuce, broccoli, mushrooms, and radishes, and ate that." Gradually, she adjusted to eating lower calorie foods, and her diet became primarily vegetarian. "After a while, I didn't crave anything anymore. It's amazing how your body can adjust."

Potts, after: "In the beginning I had no expectations. I had no idea that I could even get down below 300. I never imagined I would get down to the size I am now. I didn't think I could do it."

Potts stuck with Weight Watchers until the program ended in August 2000. She lost 163 pounds that year and another 25 pounds the next.

She attributes part of her success to drinking water. "I had no trouble drinking water. Water is my drink. I would drink 32 ounces in the morning, so I'd be sure to get it in." She also began walking. The first day on Weight Watchers, she walked 20 minutes to the bus stop near her apartment. Slowly, she began adding time and distance to her walks. She began walking the 3/4-mile from her apartment to work and back. She walked regularly at lunch. In the summer, she decided to try the outdoor pool at her apartment building. "On July 13, I swam my first lap." By then she was averaging a loss of 20 pounds a month.

When winter rolled around, she joined a deep-water running class at the Montgomery County Aquatic Center. "There I met an instructor, Sally Dimsdale, who became very important to me. She challenged me," recalls Potts. Potts progressed rapidly in that class, and then, with Dimsdale's encouragement, joined other classes in water aerobics and weight training.

"She was always concerned about whether she could handle the next stage," recalls Dimsdale. "She's one of the most disciplined people I know. No excuses. She was single-minded. She truly believed every step she took, every stair she took, and every bite of food — the right kind of food — brought her closer to her goal. She was so motivated."

Potts' message to someone who has given up trying to lose weight? "Try one more time. You can find a way to make it work for you rather than find a way that it won't work for you. And a lot of people do that," she advises. "For example, you have to know what kind of eater you are. I snack. If I get nervous, I eat. But I eat low-calorie foods.

"My energy level is very strong now, and I'm going to need my strength as I get older," says Potts, who at age 51 weighs 129 pounds. "I always want to be under my own control."

Many people don't recognize her anymore. "They probably think I died," she muses.

Lost Weight Lately?

Have you lost 30 pounds or more and kept it off for at least a year? Let researchers with the National Weight Control Registry learn from you. For more information, call 1-800-606-NWCR (6927) or see

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