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From overweight and in-pain mom to thin, energetic and happy dancing queen

Fed up with feeling sluggish and older than her 54 years, Lodi’s Melinda Wilson turned to Zumba Fitness dance classes and healthy eating to help her shed 140 pounds in just 16 months

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Dan Evans/News-Sentinel

Melinda Wilson, left, dances to upbeat music during a Zumba class on Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013. Wilson has lost 140 pounds since she started taking Zumba dance classes and eating healthy.

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Melinda Wilson didn’t always dance in the front row of Troupe Cabana’s Zumba Fitness. She didn’t always fit into a size 6. And she hasn’t always been able to keep up with her 4-year-old granddaughter on the playground, where she can now spring herself from a swing.

After losing 140 pounds — almost half of herself — Melinda Wilson’s life has been transformed.

Her weight loss journey started Oct. 4, 2011, the evening she and several coworkers walked into Troupe Cabana Studios for their first hour of Zumba Fitness — an aerobic dance class set to upbeat music. Wilson, 54, and her coworkers at the city’s finance department had started a weight loss challenge, and they thought Zumba might be the key to weight loss success.

For Wilson, Zumba has been the answer.

At 289 pounds, she went. She danced. She sweated. She loved it.

“I loved the music. I loved the energy,” she said. “I was just hooked.”

People beg her to divulge her weight loss secret, but there’s no secret; her answer was to change her eating habits and get her body moving with Zumba.

“You know, doctors always tell us to eat right and get exercise, but starting is sometimes the hardest part,” she said. “You have to do it for yourself.”

Zumba Fitness instructor Nicole Howton remembers the first time Wilson came for Zumba. Like many new Zumba students, she placed herself in the back row. She mentioned to Howton that she was nervous about even making it through the class. But now, Howton says that after a little more than a year and 140 pounds shed, Wilson attends at least seven classes a week and always dances in the front row.

“She has literally melted before my eyes. Now thin and gorgeous, Melinda is an inspiration to the students in my Zumba classes who want to achieve the same success that she has,” Howton said. “How did she do it? She ate healthy and moved her body. Melinda is proof that our bodies were designed to move.”

‘I’m not going to fail’

Growing up, Wilson was athletic. She played softball and never imagined her athletic body would ever be anything else.

“When you’re younger and playing sports, you never think you’ll gain weight,” she said.

But like many women, Wilson’s body held on to the weight that came with three pregnancies. While raising her children over the past two decades, she not only kept the baby weight, she gained about 100 pounds.

Doctors told her she had high blood pressure, and she also learned that at 289 pounds, she was pre-diabetic.

Her weight had become too much for her 5-foot-4 frame to handle. Her knees couldn’t take it. In July 2011, the summer before she started Zumba, she had orthoscopic knee surgery.

“I felt old, and I was in pain all the time,” she said.

After surgery, she could manage to make dinner, but often retreated to the couch where she would watch Zumba Fitness infomercials and think that the dance workout looked like a ton of fun. It didn’t take long before her other knee started to hurt. But she refused to have a second surgery. She needed a change.

Wilson, who has always had a competitive and confident side, says one day, she decided she was going to lose the weight. If she was going to join a competition with coworkers, she wasn’t going to fail.

She stopped eating from drive-thrus and making visits to the company vending machine for PopTarts. She cut way back on diet soda. She added breakfast to her routine. And she cut out most bread, rice and pasta.

How did she make so many changes so quickly?

“I just did,” she said. Failure was not an option.

It was a change in her mindset, and she had decided she was going to make the change for herself and no one else.

After one month of healthy eating and Zumba two to three times a week, she was down 13 pounds.

Now, she and her coworker Sandy Smith — who has lost 70 pounds with Zumba — continue to dance.

“We both feel so much better and younger,” Wilson said.

Smith says she is incredibly proud of Wilson, and especially glad that she no longer battles the pain.

“Just seeing her in that pain, with it getting worse and worse was heartbreaking; to see what she’s turned around and done is very motivating,” Smith said.

Making the outside match the inside

“Without Zumba, I don’t think I would have lost this much. It just melts off,” she said.

Though the weight came off quickly — at an average of 10 pounds each month — it hasn’t been an effortless journey.

She hit the dreaded plateau eight months into her Zumba adventure, as soon as she hit an 80-pound loss.

The key to breaking the plateau was also one of the biggest challenges of losing 140 pounds: Staying focused and not getting discouraged.

She would get scared that she wouldn’t lose anymore weight, though she always kept her eyes on the prize, the person she wanted to look like.

“My goal was to have my outside match my inside,” she says, of the goal she shared with Howton at the start of her journey.

She also credits Howton for giving her the best workout she could find. After she tried Howton’s class, she went to other classes to see what they were like. None worked her like Howton’s.

Now, they are more than just instructor and dancer.

“Nicole is a good friend and a wonderful mentor, inspiring me to dance better and better each class. It is pure joy to dance with her,” she said.

‘I’m a dancer now’

Wilson wants to lose a few more pounds, though she knows she’s now gaining muscle with dance and by lifting 6- and 10-pound weights at home on her own. She also does 40 “girl” push-ups daily.

How far she’s come is measured more than in pounds. She no longer snores. She plays with her 4-year-old granddaughter without getting winded. She  doesn’t think she’s ever in a bad mood.

Going from a size 24 to a size 6 allowed her that great moment of learning she can buy clothes — stylish ones — that fit her body and personality.

She is more confident, and walks tall. Her new outlook on life shines through.

“I’m a dancer now,” she said.

She’s also looking forward to a Hawaiian fitness tour with Howton’s Zumba group in April, which will include activities Wilson never would have tried when she was nearly 300 pounds: hula lessons, horseback riding, hiking, snorkeling and yoga.

Now she and Smith, the friend who’s danced beside her from day one of Zumba, will celebrate their journey through weightloss and friendship.

For Wilson, having a workout buddy was part of her success. And she has a stronger friendship than she could have imagined.

“It’s really great to have a workout buddy, to keep you going and to share common goals with,” Wilson said. “We can sweat together, laugh together, share recipes and work together!”

Contact Lodi Living Editor Lauren Nelson at laurenn@lodinews.com.

14 images

Dan Evans/News-Sentinel

Melinda Wilson, left, dances to upbeat music during a Zumba class on Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013. Wilson has lost 140 pounds since she started taking Zumba dance classes and eating healthy.