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Pay Fit Forward: How One Woman Started a Fitness Chain Reaction

Before Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, one woman started a shape-up chain reaction by simply putting on a leotard and a pair of leggings. She was no Jane Fonda, but her decision to become an aerobics devotee in the '80s would be the spark that set four other women into motion for major body makeovers decades later. Get inspired to make your next move.

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Hope Gilchrst
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It Started with Hope Gilchrist....

In the early 1980s, when her daughter, Mary Claire, was an infant, Hope Gilchrist decided to quit her on-and-off smoking habit for good. The stay-at-home mom and grad student succeeded but put on 30 pounds in the process. After dieting on lettuce and sugar-free cookies didn't work, Hope enlisted a therapist who helped her get to the root of her emotional eating. "I stopped labeling food as either good or bad and was finally able to indulge in a single piece of cake instead of eating the entire thing," Hope says. It was as if a switch had been flipped: She not only lost the hang-ups and the weight but also acquired an exercise habit that stuck.

As Mary Claire got older, she watched her mom embrace the latest fitness crazes, first following in the spandexed footsteps of Jane Fonda, then going to step aerobics classes and then taking up Spinning when it hit the gym scene in the mid-1990s. "I was very aware of not imposing over-the-top rules about what Mary Claire ate and just encouraged her to enjoy playing sports not to burn calories but because it was fun," Hope says.

These days Hope runs three mornings a week in her Jonesboro, Arkansas, suburb before work, does Pilates regularly, and works out with a personal trainer twice a week. "If you would have told me when I was younger that at 61 I'd like my body more than I ever have before, I wouldn't have believed you," she says. "I wasted so much time focusing on my weight and the number on the scale instead of the energy that exercise has filled my life with."

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Hope's Daughter, Mary Claire McLaurin, Was Next...

"I remember as a kid seeing my mom put on a leotard to go to the gym," says Mary Claire McLaurin, 32. "She was so dedicated to exercising." When Mary Claire and her husband started talking about having children four years ago, she knew that she wanted to be the same kind of healthy role model. But first "I needed to quit smoking," Mary Claire says of the bad habit she had picked up in her twenties.

She cut out cigarettes cold turkey, joined a gym and, instead of hitting the drive-through, whipped up homemade meals. "I already had all the knowledge about how to eat well from my mom, but I just needed to do it," Mary Claire says. She also signed up for a 5K. "I couldn't even jog to the end of my block when I tried for the first time," says the former high school soccer player.

She lost seven pounds along the way and was surprised to discover she loved running as much as she had as a teen. That first 5K was followed by others, then a few 10Ks, a 15K, and ultimately a half-marathon. She was still completing 5Ks when she was six and a half months pregnant.

"I had my daughter, Annalise, a little more than a year ago, and she continues to inspire me to stay faithful to my fitness goals," Mary Claire says. Now Annalise joins her mom for runs in a jogging stroller. And Mary Claire recently ran a race side by side with her mother, Hope. "We joke that Mom takes such good care of herself that when I'm older, we'll be sitting in a nursing home together!"

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Mary Claire Inspired Ashley Hudson...

Seventy pounds. That's how much Ashley Hudson, 34, gained five years ago during her first pregnancy. "I was eating for two -- myself and a linebacker," she jokes. And almost all of it stuck around after her daughter, Lucy, was born. "I had pretty much resigned myself to being overweight until Mary Claire moved back to Little Rock, where I lived," she says. "We had gone to law school together, and it wasn't that she was heavy then, but she looked so much fitter. And there I was, feeling embarrassed about how much I had let myself go," Ashley says.

Two years later, a few months after having her second baby, Sadie, Ashley went to cheer Mary Claire on when she ran a half-marathon. "I used to kid that I don't run unless someone is chasing me, but I sat there in amazement at Mary Claire's accomplishment. Then I thought, Why can't I do that?" Ashley says. "Seeing someone I know actually finish such a huge race made something click with me."

She started running, regularly leaning on her friend for advice and slowly dropping all of her pregnancy weight. "The following year I ran the same half-marathon that I was inspired by," Ashley says. There cheering her from the sidelines was her now pregnant pal Mary Claire.

Ashley continues to run, having recently had her third child, C.J. "I'm feeling really good about myself," she says. "And I can keep up with my kids!"

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Ashley's Nudge Got Audrey Jeffries Up and Running...

It wasn't until after the youngest of her four children, Zoe, now 4, was born that Audrey Jeffries realized how serious her weight gain had become. "My doctor told me that at 240 pounds, I had prediabetes and would soon have the full-fledged disease," Audrey, 34, recalls. "I did an Internet search of what complications come from diabetes and got totally freaked out."

In 2011, to motivate herself to diet, Audrey started a blog about her efforts. "I had friends pledge money for every pound I lost." She quickly dropped 30 on a cabbage soup regimen and other fad diets and received so much support that she asked her followers to donate to the American Diabetes Association instead.

That's when her college buddy Ashley Hudson, who had been following the blog, sent her an e-mail with a link to a Couch-to-5K training program. Ashley's personal note read, "If I can do it, I know you can!" It was the push -- and the mantra -- Audrey needed to get active. "I started jogging just the downhill portions of a route near my house and slowly worked up to running the whole thing," she says. Having never exercised regularly, Audrey ended up loving to run. "Ashley and I began competing with each other, even though I'm in Virginia and she's in Arkansas," Audrey says. "We would pick a race on the same day, run it separately and see who finished faster."

Now down to her high school weight, Audrey is training for a marathon. "I never would have attempted that if it weren't for that initial encouraging e-mail from Ashley," she says.

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Audrey's Blog Posts Motivated Emily Arend...

As Audrey Jeffries blogged about her goal of running that first 5K in 2011, her high school classmate Emily Arend was tuning in. Emily, now 34, was living in San Rafael, California, at the time and on a weight-loss mission herself. "I've been obsessed with reading about dieting for as long as I could remember. So Audrey's blog was another thing to add to my list," Emily says. "I kind of thought that if I read everything I could about it, the extra pounds I was carrying around would magically fall off."

She had weighed 199 pounds at her heaviest, but thanks to more Zumba and less dining out with her husband, she had by then dropped about 25. That's when Audrey's blog posts struck a chord. "She talked about how great she was feeling and the ways her body was changing," Emily says. "I wanted that for myself, too, so I decided I would try to follow in her steps."

Her first runs on a nearby track were torment. "I hated it; it felt like such a chore," she says. "But I kept seeing the success Audrey was having, and I felt encouraged as it started getting easier and I could run farther." Within four months Emily was down two dress sizes and entered her first 5K race. "I ran it in less than 40 minutes," she says. "I felt so proud of myself!"

Two years later, Emily now lives in Louisville, Kentucky, and has a 1-year-old son, Henry, but she still keeps up with Audrey on Facebook. "I'm not ready to tackle such a long distance as Audrey yet, but you never know what might happen in the future."

Originally published in FITNESS magazine, November/December 2013.

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