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A Pumped-Up Desire to Live a Different Life

January 07, 2002

Four years ago, Gaines Newborn felt stuck. He was 16 and living and going to high school in South-Central Los Angeles. He wasn't doing well academically, and, though he liked sports, he was "the guy who never got picked."

The only social scene around was one he didn't want to be part of.

"The peer pressure was really never positive," he said. "Most activities involved gangs, drugs, alcohol and parties." So he chose, instead, to spend most of his time at home, in front of the television, eating.

At 5 feet, 9 inches and 240 pounds he felt disgusted with himself and socially isolated. Then, in the fall of 1998, he saw a flier about a flag football team that the Ketchum YMCA was putting together. He started playing, and there he learned about another YMCA program called Teen Lead, in which teens meet three times a week for two hours after school and work on getting in shape and losing weight.

The program was made to order for Newborn. "I really wanted to lose weight. I just had no idea how." He also wanted to stay out of the "devil's workshop," his term for life on the streets. Though his dad suffered from high blood pressure and heart disease, and his mom's side of the family struggled with obesity, Newborn says it wasn't his family's health history that motivated him to make a change but, rather, "how I felt inside."

Teen Lead trainer Jesse Leon taught Newborn the fundamentals of fitness. "He told me about fats, protein and carbohydrates, and how to balance them to lose weight. And he told me to get my cardio up and stay off the couch."

Soon, Newborn was spending every spare minute he wasn't in school at the Ketchum YMCA. "The Y quickly became my second home. Every day I could work out and find a pickup game of racquetball or basketball. People would open up to me and ask me to play even if I wasn't any good."

Along with exercise, he ate salads every day for lunch and more chicken and fish. Three months after joining the Y, he dropped 50 pounds and kept losing. But when all the weight came off, he looked scrawny, so he started lifting weights to bulk up. Today, at 20 years old, he's 6 feet tall and weighs 172 pounds, making him 3 inches taller and 68 pounds thinner than he was at 16. Now, he says, he has a new type of peer pressure: girls. "They started to notice me."

Other things changed for Newborn, too. "My confidence zoomed up, my grades zoomed up, my life was more meaningful and I made better friends." The director of the Y asked him to become a volunteer and assist Leon with his Teen Lead classes and, two years ago, offered Newborn a real job helping kids ages 5 to 12 in the after-school club.

Today, Newborn still works part time for the Y and attends classes at Los Angeles City College, where he's studying psychology. Recently, he got promoted to the area he feels most suited for: helping teens. "They're the ones who really need the help and direction. That's where the pressure's really at."



* Gaines Newborn (before) weighed 240 pounds at age 16, was socially isolated and felt trapped.

* Now he's lost weight, begun college and gained confidence.



Jesse Leon, 22

Background: Certified by the YMCA of USA as a strength-training instructor and group-exercise instructor. Has worked for the YMCA for four years.

Personal best: Building a successful program that introduces teens to a philosophy of fitness and a more positive lifestyle.

Key in this case: "The Teen Lead Program obligated Gaines to come to the gym three times a week, and after that he was hooked. The bond he created with the other teens here kept him coming back. A lot for him was the social aspect."

Personal fitness routine: Stretches daily. Plays basketball five days a week, two to three hours a day. Does free weights for 30 to 60 minutes, two to three times a week.

Philosophy: "People have the misconception that jogging and lifting weights will make you healthy, but that's not enough. You need spiritual and mental health as well. It's not all about looking better in front of a mirror."

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