By Cammy Clark, McClatchy Newspapers

KEY WEST — Leigh Smith, an out-of-shape, 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.”

It wasn’t easy, but on Nov. 30, Smith showed off her new body, new confidence and new attitude about food and exercise at a celebration at Nine One Five Bistro and Wine Bar.

“It was more than what I had hoped for,” Smith said. “I feel now like how a 35-year-old probably should feel.”

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

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.

“He loves me as I am,” Smith said. “But he’s happy I am doing this because he wants me to be happy.”

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.”

Shields taught Smith to shop the perimeter of supermarkets, where the produce and whole foods are located, and stay away from the processed, packaged foods she was used to buying. The dietitian was surprised to learn that Smith’s kids had never eaten an orange. Clearing her cabinets of unhealthful foods also 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.

At a public cooking class, Wilson showed her how to make salad dressing with healthful fats and a chocolate dessert from ripe avocado and coconut.

“Mmmm, it’s good,” Smith said. “I’m eating things I used to be afraid of eating.”

Organic restaurateur Wilson had Smith eliminate wheat and dairy for the month and, for three days, eat only raw foods, ending with a juice fast.

“When you tell a girl she can’t have solid food for 24 hours, it freaked me out,” Smith said. “But I did fine.”

Smith worked for 60 to 90 minutes a day, six days a week. Gym owner Spielberg was concerned about serious ankle and knee injuries she had suffered in a car accident when she was 19. As it turned out, they were fine, but Smith’s back became strained from fatigue and improper use.

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.

There was personal training two days a week, spinning classes, pump and pedal classes (a combination of spinning and strength-training) and Pilates.

Smith didn’t miss a beat until about three weeks into the program, when she became overwhelmed by all the physical and mental challenges and had a tearful meltdown. She regrouped with help from a friend.

“A woman who had lost something like 100 pounds said to me: ‘I’ve been waiting for you to do this,’ ” Smith said. “She went for a walk with me and just listened. She understood.”

Spielberg was elated that Smith lost seven inches around her waist. “Too many people focus on the scale,” she said. “Muscle is not dangerous. Belly fat is dangerous.”

Before the big reveal Nov. 30, Smith was treated to a trip to a salon, complete with hair coloring, eyebrow waxing, manicure and makeup.

“I was treated like a princess,” she said. “And I now feel great about myself. I finally have confidence that I didn’t have for so many years. I realized this had been a huge jump-start for me, just what I needed — a kick in the butt.”

On Smith’s first post-challenge day, she took Sophia to day care and went to the gym.
“It felt good,” she said.

Her next challenge: walking the Disney’s Princess half-marathon — all 13.1 miles — with her mom.

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