Lena Redding is so convinced of the benefits of Zumba, she quit her full-time job, became certified to teach the fitness classes and hopes to make a living coaching people who want to "use it to lose it," as she likes to say.
The reason for her enthusiasm is obvious: Zumba helped her lose more than 100 pounds.
It wasn't easy. She wants to share what she has learned with others who are struggling. Especially those who worry that they are too large to exercise.
She overcame that problem, too.
• • •
In January 2013, Redding reached her all-time high: 324 pounds. She knew it was time, again, to do something.
She'd lost weight with Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, the Atkins diet, a doctor-supervised weight loss program and just about every fad diet that came along. She always lost weight, but she would soon return to her old habits and gain what she'd lost, plus a bit more.
By her late 40s, Redding was facing many of the serious health problems in her family history, including heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes. And for the first time, weight was keeping her from doing even simple things, like bending over to pick up something from the floor or tying a shoe.
She was ready to try again.
So she went back to the physician-supervised program she tried before. It included a high-protein, low-carb eating plan, vitamin injections and weight loss hypnosis. It cost Redding more than $1,600 for six months of treatment, but she was more determined than ever to lose weight and keep it off.
For exercise, she chose walking in her neighborhood. At first, she could make it just up to the corner. By late May she was 40 pounds lighter and could cover a couple of miles a day.
But she was getting bored.
That's when she found Zumba classes at the Long Center in Clearwater. "I thought, I like music and I like to dance. And I decided to give it a try," she recalls.
• • •
Her first class was after work one June evening. At 5 feet 2 and more than 280 pounds, Redding was the largest person in the room. Surrounded by fitter, spandex-clad women who moved easily through the fast-paced steps, Redding felt worse than uncomfortable.
Instructor Claudia Garzon remembers meeting her new student.
"I was so worried. I knew it wouldn't be easy for her," Garzon recalls.
Zumba is a total body workout that feels more like dancing at a party than exercising. Depending on the instructor, the moves can be big and the steps quick. While your feet are trying to dance a salsa, your arms may be pumping wildly over your head. There may be jumping, lunging or twisting to a cha-cha, merengue or Latin hip-hop. When one song finishes, the next one starts within a second or two. It can be challenging even for experienced dancers.
But that's the point. You're supposed to work hard, breathe heavily and sweat a lot. The choreography and what you look like doing it are less important. It's all about moving.
Garzon doubted that her new student would last for more than a few minutes.
"But when I saw that she made it through the whole class, I was so impressed. I talked with her afterward and told her to just take it a step at a time, to do whatever she could and to keep moving, no matter what everyone else is doing," Garzon said.
Can anybody of Redding's size do Zumba? Not without proper precautions. A doctor was monitoring her weight loss, and she had already built up endurance through a walking program. Plus, she had a good teacher who counseled her to modify the moves to suit her needs.
• • •
Even with the support, Redding found the going tough at first.
"I thought I was going to die 10 minutes into the class," she said. "I probably would have walked out if it wouldn't have been so embarrassing to leave."
Tough as Zumba was, Redding was having so much fun she took another class the very next day. She was hooked.
Pretty soon she was in class just about every day. By the fall she was working toward certification so she could lead classes for women like herself, who have a lot of weight to lose or think they can't exercise.
She demonstrated her approach, which she calls Zumba Made Simple, during one of Garzon's recent Friday morning classes. With simpler footwork and more repetition of fewer dance moves, her class is ideal for those who may not move as quickly as their fitter counterparts.
But it's no less of a workout. Even the leanest women were sweating, winded and diving for water bottles by the end of the song.
The students — 20 or so mostly middle-aged women — cheered for Redding at the end of the class. They've been with her all along, watching her drop pounds but rarely drop the smile on her sweat-drenched face.
"You could see the weight loss every time you saw her in class," said Zumba regular Lynn Robinson. "She makes us want to keep pushing."
Watching Redding's progress has been "extremely motivating," agreed Rosemary Lenahan. "She's a dear."
• • •
In December, Redding earned Zumba instructor certification. The next month, a full year after she started her self-transformation campaign, she quit her job in workers' compensation benefits management and is living off her savings as she launches her new career in health coaching.
"It's such a struggle to shed this much weight, and I want to be able to help other people do it," said Redding, 49. "I just really feel this is my purpose in life."
She now takes two to three Zumba classes a day, six days a week and continues to follow a healthy, low- carb diet, practice the hypnosis skills she learned last year and keep a journal of her food and exercise.
Down more than 116 pounds, she still has weight to lose. Her goal: Trim down from her current size 14-16 to a size 8.
She showed off some clothing from her heaviest days: a purple dress made of yards and yards of flowing fabric, and a pair of jeans, both size 30. "They keep me in check," she said.
Redding also gives Garzon a lot of credit for her success. The petite instructor beams at her student and remarks, "She has lost me —116 pounds."
Now Redding wants to be that support, that mentor for others struggling to exercise and lose weight.
"I want to create an atmosphere where people are comfortable exercising, where they won't get discouraged and quit," Redding said. "I still have more weight to lose, so we can do it together. No matter your age or your weight, come do it with me."
Irene Maher can be reached at email@example.com.