Published in the January 2016 Lane County edition of Northwest Boomer and Senior News.
TOPS helps people like Mary Phillips lose hundreds of pounds
By Vanessa Salvia
Mary Phillips moves slowly but with purpose. She needs a walker to help her get around, but when she decides she needs to move to the other side of the room, she puts her head of gray hair down and pushes her walker around with determination. Phillips is 76 now, and even though she must move slowly and carefully, she’s a lot better off now than she was when she was 140 pounds heavier.
“One of my grandsons got married in July and I was with a lot of my family,” says Phillips. “My sister said to me, ‘Boy, you have lost weight!’ I’ve lost 15 more pounds since then. They were saying to me, ‘She looks fantastic!’”
Phillips is the last remaining charter member of the Eugene chapter of TOPS, or Take Off Pounds Sensibly, which uses education and group support to help people reach a healthy weight. Phillips got involved with TOPS shortly after moving to Eugene from California in 1971.
She sometimes looks at a pair of pants that shows how big she used to be. The pants look like they could hold two of her. She’s slowly getting rid of her “big clothes” and pretty soon will need to get rid of more. “I had pants that were 16 1/2 and I thought, can I get into them?” she says. “I’ve been into size 18s for several months and I tried them on and they fit. I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!’ I was in a 3 and 4X when I started TOPS.”
Phillips was 285 pounds when she first joined TOPS, and has struggled over the years to maintain a healthy weight, but recently she’s made tremendous progress. “My weight’s gone up and down up and down but the last couple years is when I realized I’ve got to do something about my weight,” she says. “I knew I was having trouble walking and doing things around my house.”
Joe Tegge, 79, is the TOPS area captain with 33 chapters throughout Linn, Lane, Benton, Lincoln counties. Tegge herself is closing in on 5 years as a KOPS—Keeps of Pounds Sensibly—a designation for members who reach their goal weight and maintain it. TOPS encourages its members through numerous small incentives and prizes, such as pins for different levels of weight loss.
Tegge appreciates the camaraderie and how much she learns from the other members. She also appreciates how hard she sees members working to achieve their goals. “Many people think TOPS is a quick fix,” she says. “It’s not a quick fix. It’s a lifestyle change. It’s learning to eat portions and what a portion is and eating healthy foods. We say there’s not one food that you can’t eat if you eat it in portion.”
TOPS is open to men, women and children 7 years of age or older and is the oldest and original weight loss support group. Members must get a physicians note showing a healthy goal weight. It was formed in 1948 by a housewife, Esther Manz, who was in a support group for other pregnant women as she awaited the birth of her fifth child. She recognized how much the group setting helped, and got together with two of her friends to support each other. “It started with three ladies drinking coffee and sitting around a table eating donuts,” says Tegge. “They were overweight and said they got to do something to lose the weight. Esther said she tried to get newspapers to cover TOPS and they said it would never work, that she might as well give up right now. And that lady traveled all over Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with a floor scale and a shopping bag and her little red and white suit, gloves and hat and talked to people on the streets about coming to her TOPS chapter and learning how to lose weight.”
The Eugene chapter meets weekly on Fridays at the Church of the Nazarene on the corner of 8th and Madison in Eugene at 9 a.m. for weigh-in followed by a meeting. As the meeting begins at 9:45, each person in attendance goes around sharing whether they lost or gained and the number of pounds, if they feel like it. A statement of “I gained” is met with each women speaking in unison “You can do it!” while “I lost” is followed by a round of applause. Members can also “turtle,” which means staying the same weight. Each meeting features a program, such as information about how to cook a new food, or exercise ideas.
At a November meeting, new member Dianne Adams gave a presentation on pumpkins. She passed around a plate of a recipe she called “skinny pumpkin pie” made with vanilla wafers, pumpkin butter and a little whipped cream. “If you only think of pumpkins as pie, get over it!” she announces, followed by a round of laughter from the 15 people in attendance.
Weekly awards go to weekly or monthly best losers, contest winners and members who’ve reached their goal. Contests are fun competitions such as dividing the members into two groups to see which group loses the most weight over a period of time. Winners get prizes, often pins. “It’s an incentive,” says Mary Phillips. “It’s a reward. It shows something you accomplished and it makes you not want to go back up.”
Phillips likes the ideas and information she gets from the weekly programs. “We get different ideas from the group on losing weight and exercising,” she says. “We get ideas, simple ideas and we talk about our food plans because we don’t have all the same food plans, and we just talk. It’s really enjoyable.”
Phillips is actually just 20 pounds away from her goal weight. Jo Tegge is so confident she’ll lose that weight that she recently organized a donation of 164 cans of tuna to the Eugene Mission in Phillips’ honor. Phillips is proud of herself, but she also didn’t realize that anyone was keeping track of her weight loss. She says she just knew she was losing “here and there,” and was surprised but happy when Tegge told her how much she had lost. As of October 10, 2015, Phillips joined the “century club,” for members who have lost more than 100 pounds and kept it off the more than a year. Anyone that loses a significant amount of weight gets the royal treatment—TOPS crowns Kings and Queens every year.
“I feel a lot better and I can walk a lot better, I have more strength to do things and do more activities in my house,” says Phillips. She tries to walk, although she should walk more she says, but she also does chair exercises. “It’s about 27 exercises and they go from the tip of your head to the tip of your toes. Sometimes when I’m cooking I’ll use the chair and exercise my legs while I’m waiting for something to get done.”
Shirley Gauthier is a TOPS Eugene member who herself has lost more than 40 pounds. Gauthier is a practicing nudist, so she always felt comfortable with no clothes on, she says, but it was a bathing suit that sparked her “moment of truth.” “I had two granddaughters who insisted on going to a water park and when I came home and saw the photos of myself in a swimsuit I decided it was time to take action,” she says. “I weighed 213 pounds in 2009 and as a nudist it’s very easy to gain weight and not feel uncomfortable.”
Even though her doctors were telling her her cholesterol, blood sugar and other baseline numbers were okay, Gauthier didn’t feel healthy. “I’d heard about TOPS and I went online and read just about everything on there and when I came to the success stories I realized those were real people. And TOPS doesn’t have a one-size-fits-everybody mode. I thought that was something I could maybe work with.”
When Gauthier joined she weighed 192 pounds. “At first I didn’t think TOPS was a good fit for me because I’m more into exercise,” she recalls. “What did fit was the positive attitudes of everybody, the success stories within the group and the fact that I had to weigh in every Friday. That accountability worked for me.”
Gauthier also felt comfortable coming to the Eugene group because it has been in existence for 40 years as of October 2015. The meetings have been held in the same church for that entire time. “I felt strength in this chapter because they’ve met for 40 years, and that told me there was some success going on there,” says Gauthier. “And then I started hearing successes. A woman lost 44 pounds, one woman lost over 70 and Mary lost way over 100, so, I’m sold on TOPS. I like the inclusiveness. We have three members in their 90s, several in their 80s and I’m 65 so I feel rather young, but it also shows that being a senior is no excuse for letting yourself go or not paying attention to your health or saying it’s too hard, because I’m seeing seniors do it every day and what keeps me going back is the fact that its so easy to put the weight back on.”
TOPS doesn’t hold any food as off-limits, they don’t have celebrity spokespeople and they don’t spend millions of dollars on advertising, although TOPS does donate significantly to obesity research. Membership is $32 for the year, with each chapter paying its own dues. That money also ensures that members receive a monthly magazine, chock-full of recipes, exercise tips, success stories and inspiration.
Tegge, the area captain, got involved with TOPS 26 years ago. She helped start a Eugene group called the Eugene Friendship Club way back then, and the group quickly grew from four members to more than 300. One of the other group leaders invited her to a TOPS meeting and she was hooked.
“I believe it is a commitment to that scale every week to weigh in,” she says. “It is a commitment to our members. We help each other. It is a motivation and a dedication to losing that weight and becoming a healthier person.”
Tegge turned 79 in November and has been area captain for 22 years. She describes the support she gets from TOPS as “like another family.” She endured a tough time six years ago when her husband was given only a short time to live, and turned to her “second family” to get the strength she needed. Her husband was in the hospital when the doctor called to ask her to come in immediately to give him the difficult news.
“The doctor says, ‘Can you come in right away?’ and I said, ‘No, I need an hour,’ and I went to a TOPS meeting,” Tegge says. “I asked everybody to give me a group hug to give me the support I needed to go tell my husband. That’s what a true TOPS member is . . . we are there for each other as we take off pounds sensibly.”
Find a TOPS Chapter
Go to the TOPS website and click on the tab for “Find a Meeting.” Search by your ZIP code and the distance you are willing to travel.
Learn more about TOPS in the West
This website covers Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Arizona, California, Hawaii and Nevada.