One pound at a time: Holyoke woman recognized for weight-loss journey

  • Teresa Lavigne, of Holyoke, weighed 423 pounds when she started her weight-loss journey 28 years ago. Today, she weighs 244 pounds and is aiming for the 200 mark. For her efforts, the 59-year-old has been recognized by Take Off Pounds Sensibly, a national organization with local chapters that focuses on members maintaining a balanced diet and exercise. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Teresa Lavigne of Holyoke weighed 423 pounds when she started her weight-loss journey 28 years ago. Today, she weighs 244 pounds and is aiming for the 200 mark. For her efforts, the 59-year-old has been recognized by Take Off Pounds Sensibly, a national organization with local chapters that focuses on members maintaining a balanced diet and exercise.

  • Teresa Lavigne of Holyoke, who began her weight loss journey 28 years ago, works out on the leg press machine at the Greater Holyoke YMCA on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Teresa Lavigne of Holyoke, who began her weight loss journey 28 years ago, exercises at the Greater Holyoke YMCA on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020, as she does everyday except Sunday, when the "Y" is closed. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Lavigne, who began her weight-loss journey 28 years ago, exercises at the Greater Holyoke YMCA as she does everyday except Sunday, when the “Y” is closed. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Teresa Lavigne, center, of Holyoke holds her size 8X dress from 25 years ago with an assist from Greater Holyoke YMCA staff members Julie Roughgarden, left, and Bianca Shea, both of whom have offered her much encouragement in her weight loss journey. Photographed at the "Y" on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Teresa Lavigne of Holyoke, who began her weight loss journey 28 years ago, works out with free weights at the Greater Holyoke YMCA on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Lavigne, center, holds her size 8X dress from 25 years ago, and a T-shirt marking 150 visits to the Greater Holyoke YMCA, with an assist from YMCA staff members Julie Roughgarden, left, and Bianca Shea, both of whom have offered her much encouragement in her weight-loss journey. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Teresa Lavigne of Holyoke holds a recent picture of herself, center, and two others from about 25 years ago. Photographed at the Greater Holyoke YMCA on Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Teresa Lavigne of Holyoke, who began her weight loss journey 28 years ago, has an exercise regimen she does nearly everday at the Greater Holyoke YMCA, including swimming and lifting free weights. Photographed on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 11/20/2020 5:15:20 PM
Modified: 11/20/2020 5:15:07 PM

‘At the age of 59, I’m beginning to live.’

That’s how Teresa Lavigne describes herself today, nearly three decades into an on-again, off-again battle with weight loss.

That wasn’t the case in 1992 when, at the age of 31, the Holyoke resident joined a weight-loss group at her peak weight of 423 pounds. And it wasn’t the case again in 2017, when, after much success losing weight over the years — she had shed a total of 175 pounds at one point — a sequence of events including a car accident and two falls in front of her apartment, led Lavigne to one of her lowest points.

“I had to call the police to help me get up the stairs,” she said. “I said, ‘This is crazy.’ That’s when I was 58 years old. I said, ‘What am I going to do with my life? I’m going to be stuck in an apartment on the second floor. Even if I was in the wheelchair, on the first floor I could go out. But on the second floor, I’m not going to do anything. I sat there and waited for the police to come. I had a hard time getting up the stairs and said, ‘I want to take my nieces on vacation again.’”

After that experience, Lavigne recommitted to reaching a healthy weight and ended up losing 62 pounds in 2018, followed by 54 pounds in 2019, and 4 pounds through nearly 11 months of 2020. Lavigne now weighs about 244 pounds and hopes to lose another 20 to 30 pounds in the future. Over the 28 years in her journey, Lavigne is down 179 pounds from her peak.

Lavigne not only credits her diet and daily workouts, whether biking, canoeing, zip lining, swimming, or exercising at the Greater Holyoke YMCA, but a peer-mentoring nonprofit weight loss program called Take Off Pounds Sensibly (TOPS), which focuses on members maintaining a balanced diet and exercise. She joined TOPS in 1992.

She was encouraged to join TOPS by her mother, who had had her own success with the program and at the time of her death in the 1990s was a “chapter queen,” which is a title for a woman in the group who has lost the most weight among the members during the past year. Lavigne herself is the chapter queen of her seven-member group.

After losing weight, Lavigne was able to wear one of her mother’s dresses.

“I was able to fit into it and I said to my husband, ‘My mom’s here with me.’ I could fit into her dress. She was so proud of me that I was losing weight before she passed away. She gave me her yellow rose. A yellow rose is given to you as a sign and a symbol that they believe in you more than you believe in yourself,” Lavigne said.

Up and down

Over the years, Lavigne says her weight loss journey has been a tug of rope between losing pounds and putting them on again. But in the last few years, she was able to make significant gains.

“I was on the second floor and out of work and out of TOPS for six months,” she said. “I gained 70 pounds back. That’s why my journey took me so long … I fell outside my house and I needed knee replacements and because of my weight they couldn’t do it … I just had my knee done nine months ago. I rode a bike for the first time in 25 years and my doctor told me to slow down.”

Lavigne says the struggle would be a lot harder without the camrarderie of fellow TOPS members out of the local 211 Chicopee chapter where she is a member. Founded in 1948, TOPS includes 100,000 members in the United States and Canada with 75 chapters in Massachusetts.

Dr. Vidya Kidambi, medical director for TOPS and chief in the division of endocrinology, metabolism and clinical nutrition at the Medical College of Wisconsin, said TOPS is a weight loss club in which members depend on their co-members to reach their weight-loss goals.

Each TOPS chapter typically meets monthly, where they share personal stories and swap recipes. But there’s also weight loss resources and practices such as journaling to keep track of what they eat and how much and weigh-ins, she added.

For reaching her weight loss goals in 2019, Lavigne was recently crowned TOPS “Queen of Massachusetts,” an annual title given to a woman in the program who lost the most weight in the previous year. Lavigne also reached the status of Keeping Off Pounds Sensibly within the group.

“She did an incredible job of being disciplined. I don’t think that’s possible for everyone, but she showed that if you keep your mind determined, it can be done. Journaling, weighing herself and just not giving up on herself is an incredible journey,” Kidambi said.

Lavigne said she’s had to be an advocate for herself in making sure she meets her weight loss goals to be named TOPS Queen of Massachusetts.

“I don’t eat too many snacks now,” she said. “When I was doing snacks, I would have a day where I’d measure them out and keep them in a ziplock bag. I’d never bring a bag of potato chips or like that to the couch because how much do you know that you’re eating if you do that?”

Another challenge for Lavigne and others in their 40s, 50s, or 60s, is that they have less muscle mass than younger people in their 20s or 30s. That means in order to lose the same amount of weight as a 20-year-old, they have to burn more calories and exercise more, Kidambi said.

Individuals who are overweight or obese also commonly suffer from health issues such as hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, sleep apnea, an increased risk of heart disease, arthritis or joint problems, she said.

A long journey

For those going through a weight loss journey, it’s often a difficult path, Kidambi said. A common goal for TOPS members is losing about a pound a week, an accomplishment that is hard earned through diet and exercise.

“Once people start losing weight, the body starts undergoing certain changes,” she said. “Those changes are probably beyond the control of the person who is trying to lose weight. One is an increase in hunger that happens after four to five months of weight loss. Also, a decrease in metabolic rate that happens after weight loss, which we call metabolic adaptation. All of these things, cumulatively, might prevent as much weight loss as people would hope.”

There’s a common misconception that people who quit their diets after four to five months lost their willpower, but Kidambi doesn’t agree.

“It has nothing to do with willpower,” she said. “The hunger goes up. Those are the times where you need reinforcement, especially having a group like TOPS might help overcome some of those hurdles and get back on track. It’s easy to lose heart once you’ve been doing so well and all of a sudden you’re sometimes not able to control your appetite. Having those extra tools might be helpful.”

Lavigne said another aspect of losing weight was overcoming her own negative body image.

“I was a size 8 extra and now I’m in an extra large shirt,” she saidg. “I’m not ashamed to say that I did go to therapy. I’ve always said, ‘It’s not what you’re eating, it’s what eating you.’ I’m no longer a binge eater. That was one of my problems because I didn’t know how to deal with my emotions.”

Lavigne said even before the COVID-19 pandemic, groups could start online. Now, most chapters are meeting over the web. It only takes four people to start a new TOPS chapter.

In August 2018, Lavigne was able to take her two nieces, Lexi and Lauren, (then ages 8 and 11, respectively) on vacation to Water Country, USA, a water park in Williamsburg, Virginia. They would have taken another family vacation to Florida this year during Thanksgiving if not for the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but are hoping that next year their prospects will improve.

“I was able to keep up with them with no wheelchair, no cane, it was really exciting,” she said. “I’ve brought them to Hershey, Pennsylvania. I’ve brought them on vacation every year … I always want to take the girls somewhere.”

Chris Goudreau can be reached at cgoudreau@gazettenet.com.


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