Q&A with Jen Widerstrom
Reality TV fitness coach from Lisle
Photo courtesy of River Brothers
Jen Widerstrom is best known for her role as America’s big-hearted coach and the emotional backbone of NBC’s long-standing hit series, “The Biggest Loser.” Raised in Lisle, Widerstrom attended Naperville North High School. She graduated from the University of Kansas with a degree in Sports Administration and went on to become certified by the National Academy of Sports Medicine. Widerstrom first broke into reality television on “American Gladiators,” where she competed as “Phoenix” in feats of physical strength against other contestants.
Widerstrom currently makes her home in Los Angeles, where she is a frequent volunteer at the L.A. Children’s Hospital. She also travels with Goodwill Military Tours to visit troops in Iraq and Korea’s Green Zone. She is the author of a new diet and exercise book, Diet Right for Your Personality Type (see review on page 18). For the extended interview, go to www.westsuburbanliving.net.
How active were you in sports when you were growing up?
JW: I was very active. I did gymnastics for a long time, probably since I was six or seven, at American Gymnastics in Aurora, and it’s still a thriving place. I carried on with gymnastics into high school where I added track and diving. I was definitely always active.
What influenced you to get into the fitness field in the first place?
JW: It was bodybuilding with my dad! My father was really active and he always encouraged movement. I was going into second or third grade and I had a picture of Conan the Barbarian on my bedroom wall, because I thought he was the coolest thing. As I got a little bit older I realized his name wasn’t Conan at all; it was Arnold Schwarzenegger. My dad would show me how to lift weights and tell me how he once met Arnold. I remember looking at that picture and just being infatuated with Arnold because he had a long name and so did I, and that made me feel normal. He had really big muscles and I had muscles, too —- that helped me feel good about myself. Bodybuilding helped me embrace myself and my body. Arnold was obviously my hero. It sounds so silly, but bringing a picture of Conan the Barbarian to Show & Tell was not what any of the other kids did. It made me pretty happy.
Were the rest of your family into sports, too?
JW: Both my parents were. My mom was a history teacher, and she coached gymnastics and volleyball. My dad coached wrestling and football. They were both super active—fitness was really a joint venture for them. My older sister never got into sports. It’s so funny-- same genetics, same flesh and bones, same upbringing, but we could not be more different. I mean, she is a musician and she has tattoos. My younger brother is kind of a hybrid of my sister and me. He’s got some tattoos, but not as many as my sister. And he played football.
You earned your degree in Sports Administration. How did your career develop from there?
JW: I’d gone to college thinking I wanted to be a sports medicine doctor and as I got further in I thought, ooh no, I want to do sports administration, the business side. I got out of college and I was not getting hired for my degree, so I started learning about the components of health and fitness and how that changes the dynamics of who we are as people. Before then, when I worked out, it was always for performance. Or, when I started fitness modeling, it was to look a certain way. The goal of exercise was always to be better on the outside. Then, I hit a point where I realized how much better movement made me as a human, as a person. I started to change the way I looked at workouts. No more was this about performance, it was about me. That perspective had such a strong effect on me that I started to use it as a tool to help others in their lives. What we do in the gym and what we make in the kitchen is all just practice for the life out there -- for hard days, for resilience, for empowerment, for courage. And it sounds so silly but it is a direct parallel. I like to use health and fitness as a way to start deeper dialogues with people and to help them really expand on who they are and where they’re going.
Was your jump into reality television one big career break or a series of baby steps?
JW: Baby steps. Absolutely. “American Gladiators” came out of nowhere. I’d done a little bit of fitness modeling. The casting director saw my photo in a magazine and said “Oh, she’d be great.” I was on the show for couple of seasons, then it was cancelled. What seemed like a big break wasn’t really one at all. The real break is the one we create over time. Essentially, it’s the hard work, the people that count on you. You know, people always say to me that an overnight success takes about ten years. It’s the truth. But Gladiators did give me the courage to make a start in a new city. I started out in Los Angeles by teaching group classes, and then private training. I worked with women’s health, then men’s health. This was not just over a few months, I will tell you. This was year upon year of showing up, living and learning about who I am and what I do, and eventually arriving where I am. It’s a pretty remarkable thing.
What was it like to be a contestant on “American Gladiators”?
JW: Oh my god, it was a total party. You’re going to be wearing make-up every day. Check. That’s a yes for me. You’re going to play games. Ok, check, I’ll do that. And they’re going to pay me on top of it? Yes I will do this show. I worked with amazing people. It was a lot of fun. I still talk with a lot of the gladiators and with my producers. It was a dream job.
Did you create the character of Phoenix or was her over-size personality something the producers came up with?
JW: Oh god, no. No, they did. “We’re going to dye your hair pink and we’re going to call you Phoenix.” I said, “Whatever you want, man. Cool.”
Once you’d got a taste of reality television, how long was it before you were cast on “The Biggest Loser”?
JW: Oh, that was probably six, seven years later. And it was during that period that I learned that my real passion was for personal training. I got involved in nutrition, worked on becoming a fitness expert, and made connections with some really big brands. I was trying to make myself relevant to the industry, to my peers, and to the publications respected by trainers. The producers of “The Biggest Loser” actually interviewed me multiple times before they hired me.
What surprised you most about the show?
JW: I was surprised how much I got from it. I went in knowing, ok, I’m the trainer, I’m the boss. I gotta be their captain and I’m gonna fix them. I was going to be the one to train others and to help them. I didn’t expect how deeply I would connect with people and how much they would change my life. Those contestants were always there for me. At the end of a long day, there was always an extra plate of dinner for me. And the moment I realized that letting them in and being vulnerable was ok, my ability as a trainer went through the roof. You know, you’ve got to let people in. Being on the show was absolutely an empowering experience. And we stay in touch. We always talk, we always connect — every holiday, every new year. If someone’s having a hard time, they speak up. The entire Biggest Loser community is there to support them. So we’re all connected.
Is there any one way to lose weight? What mistakes do people make and how does your new book help?
JW: Here’s the thing. We’ve proven that anyone can lose weight, but can you do it while staying healthy? Can you do it while supporting yourself and can you sustain the results? In my opinion, if you follow just one specific way, your chances of losing weight and sustaining that loss are going to be slim. When I decided to write a book, I wanted to put my stake in the ground and share everything I teach in nutrition and health. But I realized that I coach everyone differently. How could I possibly write a book that teaches just one approach when we are all so different? And so I started to think about the personalities of everyone I’ve trained, all the nuances of behavior or motivation, whether it’s in the gym or in the kitchen. I began to formulate five different personality types and realized there are five ways I had to coach people to match up with those categories. I kept track of what I saw and experienced. How can a diet plan possibly work if you are not even including the dieter in on the conversation? It’s just impossible. I can’t create a plan for you if I don’t know your schedule, your job, whether or not you’re a parent. I can’t plan for you if I don’t know what you’ve struggled with or I don’t know your head space or what motivates you. How can I possibly create a diet for you if I don’t even know if you are allergic to nuts? The book I came up with allows readers to elevate their own awareness of who they are – and to celebrate that.
Can you share a story of a client who has worked with you?
JW: Actually, there is a great one--my best friend Ty. He lives in Chicago and we grew up together. He is a parent and a business owner. He is so great to be around, always the life of the party. But Ty’s weight gain escalated and escalated. When gave him my program and the book, it was such a victory for me. He got to realize the amount of pressure and shame he put on himself for letting himself get so fat. And there was such joy in him when he saw how easy it all was. He thought it would be a lot harder, that he would have to give up so much to lose the weight. But he didn’t have to give up anything at all! In his first month he lost 20 pounds, just by becoming aware of his habits and tendencies. He had healthy guidelines geared around his lifestyle so that he could easily perform under them. As soon as I made him see and address the frustrations he had for letting himself go, he experienced the joy of knowing he had the ability to fix it. He could succeed only by leaning into who he was and what worked for him. If I had given Ty my own diet and exercise program, he would have failed. It wouldn’t have worked for him. Working with Ty was pretty special. It’s the same with the contestants on “The Biggest Loser.” l love seeing people win. I love to see them start to come out of the clouds and realize who they are. They see that their efforts make a difference not just on the scale but in their lives. What people don’t realize is that the outside changes a lot faster than the inside does. I’ve seen contestants lose a lot of weight yet still see the fat person in the mirror. My coaching allows them to accept what they see, lean into it, and move along on their journey. And that’s really neat.
What does your daily schedule look like and how do you stay on track when it comes to diet and exercise?
JW: I have a lot of freedom because I just make up my schedule. I realize how lucky I am with that. Right now, I have a book tour coming up and I’m filming, so my days are crazy long. I’m undereating. I’m depleted. I’m short on rest. I’m not getting enough water so now I’m craving sugar to help give me a boost in energy. I’m drinking extra caffeine. I do not live perfectly but I do make choice every day to be present and to work at being my best. And that’s for everybody. That’s free. It costs you nothing.
Any tips for our readers on staying fit in the winter months?
JW: When the weather gets colder and the nights come sooner, it gives us the feeling the day is already over before it’s really done. I encourage people to schedule 20 or 30 minutes of basic movement, just as they would anything else in the day. There’s a study that shows that 20 minutes of moderate movement per day will literally extend your life three to five years. Don’t leave it too late in the day. Wake up 20 minutes early and go for a walk right after breakfast. I know it’s cold out, but you’ll be fine. If you prefer, you can do 20 minutes of pushups, sit-ups and squats. If you just move moderately, slowly, for 20 minutes a day, it will change the way you make food choices. It creates brain activity. Take a walk after lunch and it will reset your day. It’s going to keep you elevated from that afternoon crash. Have a healthy snack, one that has protein and fat and fiber. It’s like fuel. And you’re going to set yourself up for a much better day. This doesn’t have to be a workout. You shouldn’t be running a relay. Just walk. It’s really that simple.
What do you say to people who are dealing with body image issues?
JW: I think there needs to be more support for the 10 to 13 age group. I want to empower them to understand their eating habits, to know what’s on their plate. Because the choices they make will affect them in their twenties and thirties fifties. I think it’s good that “skinny” body image is on its way out. Lately, “strong” is in – women are proud of their muscles and that’s great. But I’m still waiting for “You Are In” or “Embrace Your Shape.” I know actress Gwyneth Paltrow. She is as gorgeous a person as you can imagine. She’s tall, and she’s lanky and she’s long. And that’s her body type. I’m never going to look like Gwen. There’s nothing I can do. But I’ll tell you what. There’s nothing Gwen can do to look like me. This is my body, my shape, my strength. And she has hers. We’ve maxed it out. We’ve made it our best. Be positive about your body type. There are people with curves or with a pear-shape figure. Whatever your shape is embrace it, and rock it. Lean into it and make it your best. Because that’s you.
Now that you’re living in LA, what do you miss about home? What are your favorite things to do when you visit?
JW: I was really lucky to grow up near downtown Naperville. My first job was at Potter’s Place, which has been there forever. It’s fun to go back and see places like the Lantern Tavern, which is another favorite. I I love the Riverwalk. I love that I took my high school photos there and go there whenever I’m home. It’s a very peaceful place. It makes me happy to know I grew up in such a great area. The community that is in downtown Naperville is not common. I don’t think people realize how special it is. Western suburbs, baby!
Advice for weight-watchers on Valentine’s Day?
JW: Whether you’re single or attached, go have some fun. This is a year when half the country is happy and half the country is sad. Right? Embrace the love. Embrace yourself. Do something for you that day, for sure. Eat chocolate — just not too much. Enjoy!
Best advice and from whom?
Yoda. “Do or do not. There is no try.”
Weights or cardio?
Weights, for sure. No question.
Favorite workout music?
Ooh, lately it’s been rapper M & M.
If not fitness, what career?
Oh, I’d be a teacher. Like my mom.
Well, cheese and crackers I see as one food group. I do love the cheese cracker vibe. I love breakfast for dinner. So eggs. It sounds so funny. I can do breakfast any time of day. I love almonds. I love the taste. I can roast them, I can chop them. I can do whatever. And they’re healthy, that’s a bonus.
Snatch, it’s an Olympic barbell movement. I love hiking, running. I used to hate running and I’m starting to love it. Oh, and the burpee because I can do it anytime, anywhere and it’s really effective for your whole body.
Low fat or low carb?
If I had to choose one, I’d say lower carb. My body feels better running on fat.
Best workout buddy?
My dog, Hank. He’s a bulldog/pitbull rescue. He’s not really my workout buddy. He doesn’t go very fast. But he’s a great supporter.