In America, where beauty and body image are such high priorities, more than one-third of all Americans fall into the “obese” category, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The business world has not been shy about tapping into that statistic and taking advantage of a nation’s misfortune. Every January, TV, newspapers and the Internet are inundated with advertisements for products and services claiming to be that special something to make the extra pounds fall off.

Apparently, the ads are doing their jobs. The weight-loss industry in this country is now worth $66 billion, according to research conducted by John Larosa of Market Data, and on any given day, 108 million people are on some kind of diet.

Dr. Nancy Zegarra, an internal medicine specialist at Wellstone Medical Partners in Harker Heights, attributes those numbers to heightened awareness of the risk factors involved in carrying excessive weight. Since joining Wellstone in 2013, she has treated several patients for obesity.

“I do think it’s health conscious more than image,” she said.

While America’s largely obese population may not yet reflect the growth of the fitness industry, multiple gyms and fitness-oriented businesses continue to pop up across the country and in the greater Killeen area. A simple Google search performed last week pulled up at least 10 gyms in Killeen, from the traditional Gold’s Gym to the nontraditional SAS Martial Arts & Fitness. At least 10 gyms are located in Harker Heights and five in Copperas Cove.

Fitness journey

Many gym owners say their motivation to start fitness businesses came from their own fitness journeys. Nick Nixon, owner of EJK Boxing & Fitness Club in Killeen, served in military intelligence for 20 years and then as a government contractor for five. A boxer since childhood, opening the boxing club was an easy decision for him.

“It had to be something I could do forever,” he said.

EJK focuses on boxing and fitness training. Novices and professionals can attend fitness classes three times a week, train on their own and use a variety of weights and exercise equipment.

While “paying it forward” is certainly a common motivating factor in the fitness industry, grabbing a piece of the $66 billion pie also must be attractive to entrepreneurs who are considering opening their own gyms.

Consumers don’t seem to mind paying for gym memberships, which average about $55 per month countrywide, according to In Central Texas, the cost is considerably less, starting at $25 per month.

At Heritage Park Fitness in Harker Heights, a single membership is $39, which, coincidentally, is the average amount of money most people waste every month on gym memberships, according to

With a reported 67 percent of people never using their gym memberships, retaining customers is a high priority for Heritage Park Fitness owner Mike Sheppard.

“We are all about member retention,” he said. “We don’t like to collect memberships fees if the member isn’t using them, so we send out letters after we haven’t seen our clients in a month.”

Getting fit, however, doesn’t have to cost money. Some communities offer fitness classes at no charge. In Copperas Cove, Herbal Life 24 Fit Camp provides a free alternative to the gym-rat routine. The camp features group cardiovascular exercise in a relaxed outdoor setting, with personal trainers instructing campers on technique and effective workout practices.

“No matter what your financial income or your schedule, you should be able to work out and enjoy what you’re doing,” said Heather Stickler, a camp instructor. “I feel this camp is just a way for people to unite and come together and it’s fun.”

Conquer cancer

On the consumer side, why do Americans choose to spend so much money in their quests for thinner bodies? For many, health problems such as depression, cancer and diabetes push them to change their lifestyles. Others simply want to appreciate what they see in their mirrors.

Brooke Chaffee, 39, of Harker Heights, was diagnosed with stage three colon cancer in August. The disease runs in her family and she lost her mother to it a year and a half ago.

Throughout her entire adult life, she exercised regularly and had healthy eating habits. Even after her diagnosis and through multiple rounds of chemotherapy, Chaffee still pushes herself to continue that routine. Even when her body is exhausted, she still laces up her sneakers and drags herself to the gym three times a week.

“Like an Olympian, who trains their bodies to compete, that’s what I am doing here,” she said. “I’m not training to medal. I’m getting my body in the best possible shape so I can conquer cancer and prevent it from coming back in the future.”

Health problems

Health problems also motivated Brittany Burges, 22, of Harker Heights, and D. Michael Jones, 65, of Killeen, to start their weight-loss journeys.

After the birth of her second child, Burges experienced postpartum depression. Her husband was deployed and she was alone with her two children with no friends or family nearby. She turned to food for comfort and quickly gained weight, she said.

But since joining Heritage Park Fitness in September, she went from 195 pounds to 165, from a size 16 to a size 8, and shed the depression.

“I come to the gym six days a week,” she said. “Everyone needs to carve out time for themselves.”

Jones, pastor of Pioneer Crisis Ministry and a Vietnam War veteran, began walking and eating healthier after he was diagnosed with diabetes. He walks a half-mile daily and lost 15 to 20 pounds in the last six or seven months.

“Our bodies belong to God, not to us. I’ve come a long way. I can remember smoking 2½ packs of cigarettes a day and drinking a pint of Old Granddad 100 every day,” Jones said of his pre-ministry days. “If I can bring my weight down, it will help with my diabetes and other health issues.”

Long struggle

Ann Aker, 45, is trying to lose weight for her wedding in July. She wants to wear a sleeveless wedding gown and walk down the aisle with confidence.

She also hopes to gain some energy so she can keep up with the 20 3-year-olds she teaches in her classroom every day.

“I’m tired of feeling sluggish and grumpy and having back pain,” she said. “I’m tired of living like this. I just want to feel better.”

Aside from working out at Heritage Park Fitness, Aker modified her diet and is watching her sugar and carbohydrate intake.

For many, such as mother and daughter Peggy and Christine Wells, weight problems are hereditary.

Over the years, they’ve both struggled with their weight. But recently the duo took matters in their own hands and began making strides toward losing their extra pounds.

After several stops and starts, Christine Wells, 28, said she learned how to jog and breathe properly and progressed to strength training. She replaced meals with nutrition shakes and lost 45 pounds and six pant sizes.

Peggy Wells, 52, started exercising in 2011. She lost 84 pounds but still has many more to lose, she said. In addition to exercise and healthy eating, she also uses hypnosis. She lost 34 pounds and four pant sizes through hypnosis alone.

“With hypnosis, I am able to keep my motivation going. It helped me with motivation, cravings, my energy and my focus,” she said. “I am on a mission and cannot be stopped. I continue to meet goals and I am not stopping.”


Tonnia Phelps of Copperas Cove lost more than 120 pounds in the last 18 months by exercising, weight training and healthy eating.

“I regret getting heavy. There are things that cannot be undone. You damage your body and there’s no going back,” Phelps said. “I live and have a regular life. But I watch what I eat. It’s mostly diet but also exercising.”

She teaches fitness classes at her gym but still wants to drop another 30 pounds.

Single mother Crystal Slay, 37, of Harker Heights, began gaining weight after chronic headaches and neck pain led to her medical retirement from the Army. Transitioning into civilian life after serving for 19 years was difficult for Slay.

“It’s been an adjustment, but I’m getting there,” she said. “For the first time in my life I was unable to do the things I wanted to do and it really affected my quality of life. I was depressed and anxious and I just started gaining weight.”

Slay realized she could no longer give the Army what it needed, and eventually began to believe she could excel outside of the military. She also started exercising regularly again. She wants to lose the 15 pounds she gained since retirement — and regain her confidence — in time for swimsuit season.

“Instead of drinking my sorrows away, I get up and come to the gym and work them out,” she said. “No more excuses.”

Reach another level

Unlike many others, Josie Reid, 36, is one gym regular who has never been dissatisfied with her looks or her weight. A former soldier, Reid has been a workout enthusiast her entire life. When she wasn’t seeing the physical results she wanted from her workouts, she entered a physique competition in Austin.

“I really wanted to take my fitness to another level and this contest I entered is making me really push myself,” Reid said.

Reid hits the gym hard for an hour and 45 minutes a day, six days a week. Her workouts involve a combination of cardio, CrossFit and weight lifting. “I didn’t even tell my husband I was signing up for this contest. I just kind of went for it,” she said. “People have a habit of talking themselves out of doing things, which is why I just filled out the form and sent it in.”

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Valerie L. Valdez and Azeita Taylor contributed to this story.

Contact Vanessa Lynch at or 254-501-7567.

(1) comment


Losing your house to a tornado is a misfortune. Being obese isn't, it's a choice.

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