April Wood had always struggled with her weight.
When she was 8-years-old, she began to gain weight, and at 11 or 12-years-old she was overweight. By the time she was 34, she was 440 pounds.
But, tired of sitting on the sidelines at every activity she took her two kids to, she started making changes to improve her health.
Now, Wood, 38, weighs 160 pounds and is first in her group for the national Ms. Health & Fitness competition sponsored by “Muscle & Fitness Hers” magazine.
And she’s never felt better.
Overweight her whole life
Wood considered her weight as a “so-far-gone” problem.
“I’d been overweight my whole life,” Wood said. “When you get to a certain age you’re like, ‘OK, I’ve got to start controlling this.’ But it just doesn’t work when you don’t have the right information or the right tools available to you.”
As a kid, her parents tried to help her, but they didn’t have a lot of money and worked full-time, so they couldn’t put her into activities. She ate what they cooked, and ate a lot of candy and cookies, according to Wood.
“I put her on Weight Watchers when she was about 7, and encouraged her, trying to make her aware that she was not like the other girls she was getting heavier and that was the issue,” said Wood’s mother, Alice Vigil, 70. “I tried to help but you can only do so much as a parent.”
Vigil thought Wood might have gained weight because she simply liked the way food tasted and because it was always in every social setting.
As an adult, she ate a lot of fast food, eating it because it was “quick, convenient and tasted good.”
That attributed to her being 440 pounds.
Woods said she tried multiple times to lose the weight, but was never fully successful “for various reasons: self-sabotage, self-doubt, not following a good program that I was able to do, and sometimes life gets in the way and you let it get in the way,” Wood said.
Wood moved to Surprise in 2013 from California to move closer to her job at Radiant Financial Group, a local mortgage broker.
Her fitness journey began with a scroll through Facebook in 2015 looking for local events.
Time to change
Wood realized she needed to change when came across an event on Facebook she wanted to attend with her son and daughter.
She thought, “That would be so fun to take my kids to!”
But a different voice in her head said, “That’s not going to happen because I’m going to be too tired and not going to be able to walk around.”
So, in both a commitment to herself and her kids, Wood joined a gym and hired a personal trainer.
Wood began with “baby steps,” doing two half-hour sessions of strength training and one or two half-hour sessions of cardio a week with her trainer. Slowly, she added more days, more time.
As an added push to get to the gym, she signed her son up for karate in a studio in the same parking lot as her gym.
She thought, “Well I’m already here so I have to go work out.”
The same accountability mindset came in when she hired a trainer.
“It also was helpful in me being mindful of other people’s time,” Wood said. “If I make a commitment with somebody else I’m more likely to keep it than if it was just myself.”
Over time, going to the gym became routine.
Losing weight, gaining relationships
When Wood lost 100 pounds, she decided to dye her hair purple as a reward. After a search through Facebook, she found hairstylist Chantel Cooper, 35.
Cooper was 350 pounds, and every time she saw Wood come into the salon, she asked her to move her body, marveling at how much weight Wood lost.
Cooper, a film student, is currently making a documentary on the aftermath of extreme weight loss and asked Wood to be in it. Eventually, the two began confiding in each other, finding their stories matched.
Wood was going through a divorce at the same time as Cooper, who is a domestic abuse survivor.
“He was telling me to kill myself on a daily basis, and I didn’t know it but I was emaciating myself,” Cooper said. “I wasn’t eating at all.”
According to Cooper, April gave her a place to stay, helped her to relearn how to eat and inspired her to lose 200 pounds herself.
“But she kind of took me in and ‘mom-ed’ me and she saved my life,” Cooper said.
They both lost weight and their marriages ended, but they gained each other, according to Cooper.
“One of the major things that you lose when you lose weight, besides the weight, is relationships,” Cooper said. “You will lose people you never expected to lose and you will gain people you never expected to gain.”
Balancing her kids, friends, the gym
Wood’s new ability to move led her to start doing more activities with her kids.
“Before it would’ve been if I could take them somewhere I would sit on the sidelines and watch,” Wood said. “Now if I take them to Elevate (Trampoline Park) or Jump Street … I go out there and go jumping with them.”
Her son sometimes accompanies her to the gym, and her daughter sometimes imitates what her mom does when they are at home.
“If I’m doing push-ups or squats or planks or things like that she will copy along,” Wood said. “Sometimes she wants to do a competition. Like who can do more, or faster.”
To balance being a mom, working and exercising, Wood enlisted the help of her mother, sister-in-law and brother to watch the kids. But even if her schedule got crazy, she always fit in a workout.
“It’s part of the journey that’s hers, and she doesn’t miss it for anybody,” Cooper said. “When she’s had certain situations in her life, she’s like, ‘No, I don’t care that that sounds fun, that’s during my gym time, that’s a requirement.'”
By 2018, she lost 280 pounds and maintained her new weight for a year and a half.
She currently does strength training five to six times a week in hour-long sessions.
On Monday, she does back and triceps; Tuesday’s she does chest, biceps and core work; Wednesday is leg day; Thursday’s she works on her shoulders; Friday she does any workout she feels she needs; Saturday’s she does legs again with a trainer. Sunday’s are her rest days.
She also does hour-long Zumba sessions three to four times a week.
Cooper describes Wood as a “beast” because of how much she takes on and juggles.
“To be 100% honest, I don’t know how this girl does it,” Cooper said. “Because with the type of job she has, she works all the time, literally all the time.”
Cooper has watched Wood get up at 4 or 5 a.m. to work and go to the gym before anyone wakes up.
“Then she comes home and handles whatever she needs to handle regarding the kids … Then she goes back to work,” Cooper said. “She literally just goes and goes like an energizer bunny.”
Wood also changed her diet, eating at a calorie deficit, or consuming fewer calories than your body needs to run itself normally. She tracks her macronutrients (fats, proteins and carbohydrates) in an app called MyFitnessPal.
“[A diet] has to be something you can sustain and do for the rest of your life. No fad diets, no crash diets, no crazy crazy restriction of your food where you’re only eating 500 calories … It has to be something you can do for the rest of your life,” Wood said.
Competing for $20,000
Wood is competing against approximately 6,000 other women split into 120 groups of around 50 in the Ms. Health & Fitness competition. Over eight total rounds, public voting determines the top person in each group before moving on to the final rounds. Winner of the competition wins a spread in the magazine and $20,000.
Her decision to join the Ms. Health & Fitness competition also started with a scroll through Facebook.
“I saw there was a contest for it and I was like you know what, I’m going to enter,” she said. “I figured I have a good chance as almost anybody else so why not.”
If Wood won the competition, she would use the prize money to fund the first of two skin removal surgeries, which in total cost $50,000.
“Due to the amount of weight I carried for so long I have a lot of loose skin,” Wood said. “There’s certain activities I like to do that I have some discomfort and pain from the skin.”
Wood wanted to compete primarily to get her story out and inspire others who might be going through a similar situation.
“[People] tell me that my story’s helped them or inspired them to keep going, and I really want to get that message out, that no matter what size you are, or where you’re starting or anything, as long as you really really want to reach a goal and you’re willing to work for it, you can get there,” Wood said.
Her mom is very proud of all the progress she’s made.
“I wish her well, I want her to do extremely good in this contest I hope she wins,” Vigil said. “I think it would be a lifetime achievement.”
The first round of voting ended on July 3, which determined the top 30 people in each of the group. Wood remained in first place for the next round.
Over four more rounds, people will be eliminated until one person is left in each group on July 31. After a wildcard and a semi-final round, the remaining people will be voted on in the finals, which ends on August 21.
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