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There's nothing like a 7 a.m. aerobics class, followed by an 8 a.m. weight-lifting class followed by a 10-mile brisk walk (uphill) to work off those extra pounds.

And that's just the morning routine.Guests at the National Institute of Fitness are often surprised to learn they can eat as much as they want of the low-fat meals provided and still lose weight. Until they take a look at the exercise program.

The NIF (locals refer to the institute's guests as NIFers) is one of the most respected health spas in the country. Most guests interviewed by the Deseret News said they came to NIF because of what national magazines like Shape had to say about it.

Located at the mouth of Snow Canyon a few miles east of St. George, the NIF is a no-frills spa that eschews diets and pampering. The NIF program is based on three square meals a day of complex carbohydrates - like grains, vegetables and fruits - and vigorous exercise.

"They have a no-nonsense approach here," explained one guest as she trudged up Snow Canyon with a dozen others on their 10-mile morning hike. "Eat healthy - cut out fat, sugar and salt - and exercise, and you'll get somewhere," she said.

Jean Demico can attest to that. She lost 70 pounds during her five-month stay at NIF. Arthur Lukowski, Chicago, lost 13 pounds during his first two-week stay. "My cholesterol dropped from 291 to 191," he chortled.

Amazed at the results from his first stay, Lukowski returned home to Chicago just long enough to put his affairs in order and came right back. "I came back for 16 days," he said. "Now it looks like I'm going to marry this place. I have never seen anything in my life so good for my health. I never used these muscles before."

It was early afternoon. Lukowski and a pal, Joe Shaw, were stretched on lawn chairs digesting their low-fat lunch and deepening their tans. Shaw, a Florida man, has visited the institute three times in the past year. "I weighed 250 pounds when I came here the first time," he said. "Now I just broke into the 190s this morning. I weighed 199 this morning! That's the first time I have weighed less than 200 since the day I got married 28 years ago."

Even though studies show that healthy eating and exercise lead to better long-term weight loss than dieting does, many NIF guests are nervous in the beginning about the tasty, substantial meals.

Judy Gardner and her mother, Adele Grober, came to NIF from Canada for a 12-week stay. Gardner's friends told her about NIF because they were frightened by her ballooning weight, she said. Grober, 82, came along to provide moral support for her anxious daughter.

Before Gardner came here, "I was in a panic," she said. "I had tried every diet there is. I would lose, then I would put it all back on again plus more. I thought, `I'm out of control. I'm going to go up to 400 pounds.' I was ready to jump off a bridge. It was a very low time for me."

Gardner had visited two other spas that focused on the same low-calorie approach she had tried her whole life. There was little exercise at those spas, and the meager servings kept her mind focused on the next meal throughout her visit, she said.

Her first week at NIF was starkly different. "I felt so full and satisfied after each meal. We were eating everything, which was delicious. But I wasn't used to eating well and losing weight."

Gardner was again panic-stricken, certain that she was putting on weight instead of losing it at NIF. Although long-term guests are allowed to weigh only once every two weeks, Gardner was allowed to weigh after her first week there. Stepping on the scales, she discovered she had lost two pounds.

She lost 32 1/2 pounds during her three months at NIF and as many inches. Grober dropped 10 pounds. NIF changed Gardner's focus from starvation diets to abundant low-fat, healthy foods and vigorous exercise.

According to NIF literature, the most weight lost by a guest during a four-week stay is 44 pounds. The record for most weight lost is 130 pounds dropped by a woman during a lengthy stay. Others have lost over 100 pounds.

"Statistically a woman loses a half pound per day and a man loses a pound per day," said Kelly Jackson, head of the NIF testing department. "Some do better. Few do worse."

Each guest has measurements taken on nine places on the body every two weeks as well. "Guests usually lose about a half inch to an inch a day," Jackson said. NIF has a graduation ceremony every Friday night for the departing guests. A woman who was leaving after two months held a measuring tape up at her graduation and showed the 40 inches her body had dropped during her stay.

While the program mostly draws people anxious to lose weight, it also appeals to athletic people with only a few pounds to drop. Those clients usually qualify for the advanced exercise program, which offers as many hours of vigorous exercise each day as a guest can stand.

"I've lost six pounds," said New Yorker Julie Rose. "I'd like to lose another 10. But it's not just to lose weight that I come here. At the end of my stay here, I feel like an athlete. I feel like I can conquer anything. It's like a spring tune-up."

NIF is owned and operated by Marc and Vicki Sorenson, a couple who became interested in weight management after their own problems with obesity. They have a sense of mission about their work.

"It sounds funny, but I really feel like I was placed on the Earth to do this particular thing," Marc Sorenson said. With a doctorate from Brigham Young University in hand, Marc Sorenson has spent much of his life perfecting the healthiest eating and fitness program he could. He believes that program exists at NIF.

Vicki Sorenson applies her business degree to the financial side of the business, monitoring its careful expansion. "We went from having nothing in the bank to doing over $2 million in business last year. It is a case of starting out with nothing, working your guts out and reaping the rewards."

When the Sorensons built a home for NIF in Ivins seven years ago, they could accommodate 22 guests. Now, with a staff of 60 and several new dorms, they can house 107 guests. They are still turning guests away and plan to gradually expand to accommodate hundreds more one day.

Vicki, a former beauty queen, met Marc when she was at NIF as a guest. It was a practice then, as it is now, for the staff to get to know each guest. Marc's wife had recently died. Vicki was there to lose 50 pounds. She lost some of the weight, was delighted with the NIF program and got a job there. Working on staff, she lost the rest of the weight, fell in love with Marc and married him, his business and his four children.

Marc teaches classes at NIF every afternoon on the three keys to a slim body: proper eating, exercise and attitude. He wants his guests to go home with a battery of new habits that will keep them thin.

The most effective weight loss program is 90 minutes of aerobic workout six times a week, he told his class. "Walking is generally the king," he told his class. Next, he recommended a mini-trampoline or bicycling. "Bicycling will do more for the shape of the hip and thighs to make them slim and sleek than anything else."

He encourages guests to shoot for dietary fat target of 10 percent and teaches them how to measure that. Guests eagerly take notes as he talks.

"It's really been fun," said guest Dixie Peterson at the end of the class. She flew to Ivins from Juneau, Alaska, for a two-week stay. "I've really been impressed. It's been a fun working vacation. I've already made my reservations for next year."


(Additional information)

What NIF offers

Meals: Three meals plus fresh fruit snacks. The meals contain no sugar, no salt, little oil and a total dietary fat content of about 12 percent.

Exercise: Guests are divided into three groups according to fitness: below average, average and fit. The exercise program is tailored to the needs of each group. The spa offers walking, swimming, calesthenics, tennis, racquetball, jogging, bicycling, treadmills, mini-trampolines, aerobic dance, weight training, hiking and yoga.

Education: The spa offers classes every afternoon to help guests incorporate healthy habits and attitudes that will keep them slim.

Cost: Between $469 a week and $899 a week depending on whether you reserve a room by yourself or agree to stay with one to three others. Weekly rates are less for those planning lengthy stays. $100 deposit required to guarantee a reservation.