Getting fit starts with getting your mind right — not a food journal or a 10-minute walk around the block. It starts with the little voices inside your head, the ones that make all those delicious excuses and snappy
“Your thoughts are like a compass,” says Debi Balmert, who runs Debi’s Personal Training in LaGrange. “[They] take you in that direction. It’s very, very important to make your thoughts be positive.” 
We’ve all got obstacles to health — the never-ending responsibilities of parenthood, the demands of a busy career, the hereditary genes we’ll never shake. But some of us manage to take those challenges and tackle them like one more of Balmert’s physical obstacles on her homemade, 5-acre course. She employs an old adage to make her point: “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right,” she emphasizes.
Meet three women who overcame a score of barriers and managed to shed pounds, inches, medicine and negativity on the way to becoming healthier, happier version of themselves.

A Measured Approach
Sally Lash’s story is a familiar one: active in her youth, sedentary in her adulthood, with a strong dose of hereditary health issues in her family history. Her father succumbed to heart disease at age 60, and her mother suffered a stroke at 56. By her 40s, Lash was on a statin to lower her cholesterol. Still, she ignored the warning signs. The real wakeup call didn’t come until 2007, when her doctor put her on medication to lower her blood pressure.
“You can lie to yourself, and say, ‘Well, my whole family has a problem with cholesterol, it’s obviously genetic,’” she says. “There’s nothing I have to do to change anything in my life, because I’m otherwise healthy.” But the blood pressure medication made her face the truth. “When he [prescribed] that, I was like, ‘No, not so much. That’s all you.’ I looked at that pill bottle, and I said, ‘I am not going down that road. My parents at one point had the same choice that I did, and they didn’t take it. And I’m not doing what they did.’ ”
Around that time, Mercy Health System instituted Weight Watchers at Work, which comes into places of business and offers weekly meetings for busy staffers. Lash, a health information systems coordinator there, thought she’d give it a try. She’d already lost 10 pounds on her own, but when she joined the program, she gained three pounds back. 
“I wasn’t successful in the beginning,” she says. “I sort of had to throw away this concept that this is going to be so fast. You see stories in magazines about someone who says, ‘I lost 100 pounds in six months.’ That really wasn’t how it was going to be for me.” 
Instead, Lash dove into the Weight Watchers at Work concept, becoming the unofficial office cheerleader for the program. “I enjoyed Weight Watchers being here — I’m a little bit lazy,” she says with a laugh. She started working out at the onsite gym, following the points system, utilizing portion control — “the first thing that Weight Watchers taught me was how to measure, and I still weigh and measure my food,” she says — and taking advantage of the support system of fellow group members. Today, at age 47, Lash is 160 pounds lighter and off both her medications. 
“It’s weird that I’ve come so far,” she says. “The successes that I have were learned because of the things Weight Watchers teaches you. I don’t know that I would’ve been this successful if I hadn’t joined.” 

Time for Mom
For busy working mom Dana DeLange, stress management and weight loss are inextricably intertwined. She’d try hitting the gym for a few months, but life always intervened. After working a full-time job, the 35-year-old comes home to three children, including a son with cerebral palsy who requires special care and loads of doctor visits.  
“I never really realized how much stress can affect your weight loss attempts, your eating, all that stuff,” she says. So with limited time, money and resources, DeLange was stalled out — until social media came to her rescue. While checking out the Facebook page of Avon’s Light Salon, where she’d gotten her hair cut, DeLange discovered the reLight contest. She filled out the application, and last September she won a package that included a year’s worth of wellness coaching and a membership to the French Creek YMCA, along with free salon and spa services.
“I felt that it called to me,” she says. “It was everything I thought I deserved, and I don’t make the time to do it. Hopefully it would give me that extra push to move forward and overcome these obstacles.” 
And it has. With access to twice-weekly personal trainer sessions and a mentor who helps her focus on herself for one hour a month, DeLange has lost approximately 30-40 pounds so far. But it’s far from the 80 pounds she set as her goal. 
“I’m so hard on myself because I’m expecting to see these results,” she says. “[My mentor] Nick says, ‘You’ve come so far — don’t be so hard on yourself.’ He really has been a great motivational coach, someone who I email, see at the gym. I go in and cry a little. He’s really opened the door for me to say, ‘How’s Dana doing?’ ”
DeLange admits she struggled during the holidays, and her weight has fluctuated. But she keeps going to the gym, making it — and herself — a priority. 
“This program is so much more than just exercise,” she explains. “Everything else beyond exercise has been the biggest part of my struggle; it’s made me face a lot of things I didn’t face before.”

Group Love

“You’re never too old to get involved and get fit,” says Marilyn Senn, who’s lost 40 pounds and 36 inches off her body since starting the Enlighten Program at the EMH Center for Health & Fitness in 2012. Today, at 64, she can outlast her daughters at exercise classes. But it wasn’t always this way. 
“After you hit your mid-40s, and your body starts changing, you get a little more sedentary,” she says. “When I was young, I was athletic. You kind of get away from that when you work in an office; you don’t have the time commitment.” With three daughters added into the mix, the unwanted pounds were hard to avoid. When her doctor eventually put her on cholesterol medication, she started searching the Internet for something, anything to get herself back on track. She found Enlighten. 
“We decided that it would be worth the investment,” she explains. “I looked at it as an investment in good health. It’s an all-inclusive kind of program: You have a beautiful fitness facility; you have the ability to talk to different experts; you have workout programs; you have a class.”
The six-month, revolving-door program offered something else that Senn found crucial: camaraderie. At weekly Tuesday night classes featuring a broad spectrum of health and wellness experts and twice-weekly group workout sessions, she built friendships and found support. 
“Everyone’s very encouraging to each other,” she explains. “You find that when you’re losing weight, and it’s working for you, and you encourage others, you feel good and you want them to have the same success.” But this group isn’t just there for one another in the good times, she points out. “Everybody plateaus. We would all commiserate about the plateaus.”  
Senn’s life now includes elliptical-machine workouts and pick-up tennis at the center’s court. She’s learned new approaches to food thanks to meetings with the staff nutritionist, and she no longer needs her medication. She can’t say enough about the program that’s helped her achieve it all. 
“They email you little encouraging things every week,” she says. “Everything is there for you. They give you all the tools. As long as you utilize everything and make the commitment, go there, stay on the diet, journal your food, you’re going to be successful.” 

Sally’s Journey
“I made a lot of really strange rules: If I want fast food, I must be able to park my car and go inside and order it; I’m not allowed to go through the drive thru. If I buy ice cream, it has to be in the house 24 hours before I eat it. Little things made a big difference; [I had to] recognize that I’m an emotional eater.”

“A session is 17 weeks; we had our first 17-week session, and for half of it I was trying to lose those three pounds. I kept at it.”

“Sometimes I kind of look at it like it’s an alcoholic thing. You have to always be on guard. My family has finally accepted that this is how it’s going to be, but they don’t understand it. I’ve sort of learned that every meal is an opportunity to do better.” 

Dana’s Journey

“Initially, [the pounds] started coming off right away. I think I kind of shocked my body. Around the holidays, I got kind of complacent. It’s been really hard trying to get back on track. But I absolutely feel different; I’m stronger physically, I’m running, I’m lifting.” 

“I wear a lot of hats. I get up at five a.m. and go to the gym because it makes me feel better. When I get home at night, my three boys need me.”

“I expected to lose a lot of weight, and I will still lose more weight, but will I make that 80 pounds? I really do turn to the experts at the Y. They’re the ones who smack me back to reality and [tell me] ‘Don’t think you’re going to change overnight.’ It’s a long process.” 

“There’s a wide variety of resources at the Y. It’s not just gym equipment — there are people there to talk to. I’ve really enjoyed taking more advantage of my membership.”

Marilyn’s Journey
“You have to stay positive, and keep encouraging thoughts and a positive outlook. Not everyone who joins loses weight; you have to put the effort in to it.” 

“When I first started, I got on the elliptical machine. I think I could do one minute, and two minutes on the treadmill. I’m up to 15 minutes on the elliptical, running around the track. I went to my doctor’s office last week, she said, ‘You look wonderful.’ I had my blood test, and she said, ‘Your cholesterol’s perfect.’ ”

“Everything is a benefit when you get fit and lose the weight: Your health, stamina, strength, you look better. My husband, he thinks I look great.” 

“I’ve tried everything, all the group classes — but I couldn’t do boot-camp — it was outrageous. That was really the only one I couldn’t do. But I didn’t feel badly about it! I was doing spinning, aerobics in the pool.”

Advice from a Fitness Junkie
Before her husband built her a military-style obstacle course on five acres in LaGrange, and before her wildly popular approach to women’s fitness started to take off, Debi Balmert was a dump truck driver. 
Now Balmert teaches classes, which include Warrior Dash training, boot-camp and personal sessions. We spoke with the physical-fitness powerhouse (who’s also a grandmother) about how she whips her new recruits into shape. 
Famous first words: “I tell them that it’s only about their personal best,” Balmert says. “When you keep that thought in your mind, you don’t beat yourself up so much.” She reminds new clients that it’s OK if they’re not doing all the things — yet — that other women their age are doing. “Their personal best also encompasses their limitations or their assets,” she notes. 
Step one: hydrate: “First and foremost is getting enough water so their body can detoxify properly,” says Balmert. “Water is one of the main things next to getting your thoughts in order.” 
The outdoor experience: “Exercise is the fountain of youth,” she says. “Eating right is in a tight race right behind it, as far as feeling enthusiastic about life. If you go out in nature and you do something physical, you can feel the difference.” 
The No. 1 get-fit move: “There is never a class that does not include some form of lunges; lunges done properly burn an extreme amount of calories, not just during the workout but after the workout,” she explains. And surprisingly, she notes, because there’s so much sheer muscle at work during a lunge, the exercise can be better for your abs than all the sit-ups in the world. “Just doing crunches is not going to burn fat off your belly,” she says. To train with Debi, go to 

On the Menu
Diet and exercise go together like peanut butter and chocolate — but with a lot fewer calories. Most of us know where to find gyms, trainers and even free access to working out (hello, sidewalk!), but getting help with nutrition can be an exercise in futility and contradiction. 
 One of the best ways to obtain expert help is to find out if your gym offers the services of a nutritionist. We talked to Pamela Bartz, the French Creek Family YMCA’s registered dietician, about how she counsels her clients. 
Write it down: “The first thing [clients] do is fill out a food journal for three days,” she says. That means measuring everything precisely with actual measuring cups and perhaps even a scale. “I tell them, for the first couple weeks, don’t even stress about reading food labels — just journal. That alone will help you lose weight, because you’re going to see what’s going in your body, and you’ll be more conscious of it.” 
Ignore the fads: “Carbohydrates will not make you fat — it’s all about calories in versus calories out,” she explains. “Your expenditure has to be more than your intake; it’s simple.” She points to small, easy fixes such as cutting your coffee cream or salad dressing intake by half. 
Eat, eat, eat: “A lot of the misconception is, if I go into my workout not eating, I’ll burn more fat,” Bartz notes. Instead, most people will start to feel sluggish halfway through. Instead, she advocates pre- and post-workout meals that include complex carbs, moderate protein and some healthy fats — but not too much fiber. “If you’re not used to eating a lot of fiber,” she says, “it’ll feel like it’s just sitting there. It might be a kind of distress [to your stomach].”

Classes & Clubs for Everyone
Group exercise doesn’t have to mean barking instructors and wacky dance moves.

If you’re a …
Fresh Air Enthusiast: The Lorain County Metro Parks Hiking and Backpacking Club meets monthly for hikes throughout the region. Up next: a 10 a.m. meet-up at Columbia Reservation on April 13 for a ranger-led hike. 440-967-7310,
Equipment Junkie: Symmetry Pilates in Avon offers spinning, Pilates (with reformer machines), TRX suspension training and more, plus cool props such as the Pilates Arc and the Exo Chair. If those words sound foreign but fascinating, this studio might be for you. 440-934-912, 37300 Detroit Road, 
Water Baby: Jim Lawhead opened Lake Erie Paddler at Lakeview Beach last summer, and he’s already positioning it as the top destination on the lake for standup paddling (SUP). He offers classes on weekends all summer, whether you’re brand new to the emerging sport or ready for something a little more challenging. He even hosts a yoga class on the beach. 1249 Colorado Ave., Lorain,
Night Owl: Sheffield Village’s World Gym outpost is open 24 hours a day, six days a week (and most of the day on Sunday). Now you have no excuse. 524S Cobblestone Road, Sheffield Village, 440-934-7440,
Road Warrior: March 1 marks the beginning of the membership year for the very active Silver Wheels Cycling Club, based in Elyria (they’ll host about 500 events throughout the season). But don’t let the “silver” part fool you — this club boasts members in their teens up to their 80s and rides for cyclists of varying abilities.