Losing weight is no walk in the park, but a walk in the park is a good start.
Those words of encouragement are from someone who knows that it can be hard to move when you are obese. Ashley Johnston, second place winner of the reality television show “The Biggest Loser,” said that walking will, “Let your body feel what it’s like to start moving again.”
Johnston, known on the television show as “Pink Ninja,” will be in Blount County to help get people moving at the Blount Memorial Moving Together Walk.
Ashley will be joined by her mother, Sherry Johnston, who also was a contestant on Season 9 of “The Biggest Loser.” They will be part of the walk, along with the Blount Memorial Weight Management Center staff and community members. The one-mile walk, Moving Together: One Step Closer, will be Saturday, Oct. 2. Registration begins at 8 a.m. at the Blount Memorial Wellness Center at Springbrook, and the walk begins at 9 a.m.
Ashley says the walk is a perfect opportunity to inspire those who are obese, overweight or don’t exercise to get up and get started. She said she can relate to the difficulty of starting an exercise routine, and this one-mile walk could be a great way to begin for many.
Born and raised in Knoxville, minus a few years in Alabama, Ashley describes how she once lived a life full of fast food, binge eating and partying. She says this was her way of dodging her emotional issues, including her father’s death from cancer.
“I was already feeling overweight when I was a teenager. After graduating from (Bearden) high school, I began partying a lot and avoided dealing with the death of my father. I was basically numbing it with my lifestyle. I stayed up all night, slept all day and ate fast food constantly. It was just a downward spiral. Before I knew it, I weighed 374 pounds.”
Ashley says she began changing her lifestyle, got her esthetician license and became a spa manager. “I realized that when I got my life back together, I still had an eating issue.” She says she knew she was overweight, but was unaware to what extent. “I didn’t even realize how much I weighed. I couldn’t weigh myself because the scale wouldn’t go up that high.”
Ashley had a love for fashion and clothing, but felt she couldn’t express herself before the show because of her size 28 body. “I was just so miserable.” Ashley also was suffering from severe headaches, from sleep apnea, along with other health problems. “I knew I could die in my sleep any day. Every night I would pray, ‘Don’t let me die tonight.’”
Not only was her health in danger, but her safety was in jeopardy, as well. “I couldn’t even buckle my seat belt anymore.” Ashley describes one of her “ah-ha” moments as a plane ride while traveling for work.
“I was on a small plane, and the pilot actually came back and did the seat belt checks himself. I couldn’t buckle my seat belt. He called me out and got an extender for my seat belt. It was just the most embarrassing moment of my life - I just cried.” She says that she told herself, “I’m done. I can’t live this way anymore.” It was her breaking point.
Ashley says she had tried every diet under the sun, but nothing was working. Food was her emotional coping mechanism. “I didn’t know how to deal with the emotions from my father’s death in any other way.” She says she began looking at other avenues for weight loss, and got online to research “The Biggest Loser,” which by chance was having casting calls in Nashville.
Ashley recruited her best friend to help her make a video audition for the show. They traveled around Knoxville, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Dollywood - trying to portray all of the things Ashley wanted to do, but wasn’t physically able to do. She also recruited her mother, Sherry, to audition for the show, which she says took a lot of convincing. She says she reminded her mother, “You are the only parent we have left now. We need you as long as possible.”
Sherry agreed, but got cut after Nashville, and Ashley moved forward in the process. Ashley was later cut from the cast, but was called back two months later and asked to try out again in Atlanta. “My mom and I went to Atlanta and went through all the steps. We kept making it through. The next thing I know, I’m with Alison (Sweeney) on the ranch.”
Ashley says her next turning point was realizing that the “emotional eating” was a result of her resistance on dealing with her father’s death. She credits “The Biggest Lose” coach Jillian Michaels with helping her overcome this.
Was Jillian Michaels really as tough as she seemed to be on the show? “Yes, she is just as tough as she looks on TV,” Ashley says. “But she also has this ability to look at the emotional aspects. Jillian was a big help to me, and she really was dead-on with all of my issues. She broke me down on the show. It was very real, and it was a huge part of my healing process.”
When beginning the show at 374 pounds, Ashley says she didn’t believe in herself. Throughout the show, she started gaining confidence as she worked harder every day. One of her fellow cast members, Koli Tongan, was also a big part of her support system. “He pushed me to see that I could win.” Ashley and Koli grew close and now are dating. She says that although they don’t live close to each other, they are able to travel together. She says Koli is going back to school to study food and nutrition.
One thing about the show that Ashley wants to be clear to her fans is that it is not necessary to work out to the extent that “The Biggest Loser” contestants do.
“Our full-time job is to work out when we are there. In the real world, that’s not something that people can normally do. We are pushing our bodies to the limit, although we do it safely with medics on scene.”
Ashley says she wants others to be confident that they can eat healthy and exercise. She encourages everyone to set up a workout program with a physician. “Talk with your doctor, and cover all of your bases so that you have the confidence to push yourself an extra mile on the treadmill because you know your heart can handle it.”
Ashley also reminds that losing 12 pounds in one week, like you see on the show, may not be ideal. “If you lose two pounds in one week, that’s a really good week.”
Since the show, Ashley says she has to practice “putting myself first, like I did on the ranch. You have to take care of you. If I have a meeting during a workout, I see if we can push it back.” Ashley now spends a lot of time on endorsements and motivational speaking.
She also will be working on her own clothing line in October, which will reflect clothing she wished she could wear at a much larger size. The clothing line will be fitted for women sizes 6-16, as she is hoping women will use her clothing to create a goal size. She describes it as a clothing line for women with healthy curves.
“I will never be a stick. I will always have curves. And I’m OK with that.”
The clothing line will consist of street and fitness clothes, and Ashley hinted at the possible brand name of “Pink Ninja.”
Ashley says she is excited to meet those who are working toward their weight loss goals at Moving Together: One Step Closer. “The walk is to inspire people who are obese and don’t exercise on a regular basis to get up and get started. The walk is one mile, and for some, that is a huge distance. It’s a good place for people to start. I have been there. It’s difficult.”
Blount Memorial bariatric coordinator, registered nurse and certified bariatric nurse Dana Bradley says, “Many of us saw Ashley’s struggles with weight loss on ‘The Biggest Loser.’ She is from our area, and I feel that people can relate to her. Her motivation and dedication to becoming healthier inspires a lot of people.”
Bradley says the Moving Together walk brings awareness to the community of the need to become healthier. “The title says it all - we not only have to move together, but work together to encourage each other on the success of the journey, whether it be losing weight, maintaining weight loss or improving health conditions such as diabetes, hypertension or high cholesterol.”
Ashley says she hopes to see a large turnout at the walk. “I just want people to know that I started there, and I now weigh 190 pounds and can run a mile. It’s not impossible. You can walk. Walking is a huge deal. I just want people to know that if I can do it, then they can do it.”