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The Look of Fitness

By Amy Moritz. Published by the Buffalo News.

Link to the original newspaper article.

Like many women of her generation, Casey Kelly grew up playing sports. She played soccer and ran track in high school and went on to play four years of collegiate soccer at Daemen College. But once her final game for the Wildcats ended, so did her competitive athletic career.

Kelly had spent most of her life playing sports, finding a path to both physical and emotional health through physical activity. But there was something important in the competition, too.

And suddenly, that component was gone.

To fill the void, Kelly first tried distance running, completing a half marathon and then trained for a sprint triathlon.

But then Kelly's friend, Wendy Sanacore, introduced her to figure competitions - an event in bodybuilding competitions designed specifically for women. Enter a new motivation to get to the gym, a new goal and a new focus not just for her fitness but for her competitive spirit. Kelly was hooked.

How does a figure competition differ from bodybuilding?

The traditional sport of body building requires "getting ripped" and "getting big" - building as much muscle mass as possible with low body fat to show the striations in the muscle to judges. Competitions involve a series of mandatory poses.

The combination of the pose striking and the bulk are often unappealing to women who want to get involved in serious weight training. So the sport evolved to add other categories.

First came "fitness," which involved not only displaying a healthy, toned body but intricate aerobics-style routines. As those routines became more and more complicated, the division known as "figure" evolved. It involves women striking a few poses while doing quarter turns in front of a panel of judges.

In figure competitions, women wear two-piece bathing suits, high-heeled shoes and have a full complement of hair, makeup, nails and tanning to accentuate their aesthetics.

"I tell [women] it's like bodybuilding, but they look for more aesthetics and proportion than muscle definition and size," said Sanacore, who trained Kelly for her first show this past spring.

"When you think bodybuilding you think automatically big muscles. Figure, I think, doesn't scare women as much, because it's 'figure.' It's a prettier name. It's prettier presentation."

For some, like Kelly, it's about finding a new competitive outlet. For others, it's about a road to weight loss and improved health. And for some in the over-35 category, it's about getting to compete for the first time after years of working out for themselves.

Sanacore had participated in the sport for nine years. And as Kelly looked for new sports to try, the idea of figure became intriguing.

"I graduated from college two years ago, so every year in the spring I like to train for something," Kelly said. "Seeing Wendy's pictures inspired me ... I wondered if I could work that hard to look like that. I kinda needed something to fill that competitive void since I haven't been playing soccer at the college level."

Picking up momentum

The overall number of women competing in bodybuilding competitions remains small, but the sport is growing, particularly among older women and especially in the figure category.

While no national governing body exists for the sport to keep accurate statistics, a look at local competitions gives a hint as to what is happening across the country. At the Can/Am Natural Muscle show held at the Nichols School in April, promoter Jerry Marsala added a novice division.

"I thought I'd get three or four women who were doing their first event and wanted to enter the novice division," Marsala said. "I had 12. I had so many I had to split them into two divisions. That's a lot of women doing their first show. I've been doing this since 1995 and there are definitely more women interested in the sport and interested in competing."

In many ways figure competitions feel more accessible to women who want to have a tangible goal. They want to work out for something other than its own sake.

That's what ended up attracting Judy Fachko.

"I started when I met somebody at the gym who suggested that I try it," Fachko said. "I never played sports. I'm 45 years old and didn't start going to the gym until probably my early 30s just as a way to lose weight after having kids. I just got really into working out and especially the weight lifting part of it. I was always over in the free-weight area where there are not quite as many women. After I was approached about the competitions, I decided that since I'm already going to the gym, I might as well do something with it."

Fachko did several figure shows before switching over to bodybuilding. She enjoyed the extended time on stage that comes with bodybuilding and was never that keen on the makeup and hair thing anyway.

"I think most women are more attracted to figure because it's more feminine than bodybuilding," Fachko said. "I just like bodybuilding. You have to be the right kind of person. I think younger women probably lean toward figure because it's more feminine, but I noticed at competitions the majority of women doing bodybuilding are older, in their 40s."

Meanwhile, for Heather O'Connoll, training for her first figure competition this spring was a way to help her attain her weight-loss goals. Working out at Southtowns Fitness, O'Connoll wanted to lose weight for the Buffalo firefighters exam. She successfully completed that but still had some pounds to drop and she continued working out, particularly continuing weight training.

Men at her gym encouraged her to enter a figure competition and she took the better part of a year to prepare.

"At the time of the show I did in April I had lost 155 pounds," O'Connoll said. "Because I was already working out, I thought [competing in figure] was a possibility. I started training about a year ago because I still had weight to lose. For me it was very much a solo project and a long road, but I knew my ultimate goal was to lose weight for myself. The competition was just part of the bigger goal."

Diet is key

Aside from working out, often twice a day, the key component to figure competition involves diet.

Competition diets typically start 12 to 14 weeks before the event. The diets include increasing protein, honing the types of carbohydrates consumed and restricting calories. The emphasis on the diet is to eliminate as much fat from the body as possible in order to show off the muscle mass that's been built.

The diet for amateurs, when followed correctly, is rather healthy, and calorie restriction is limited to times around competition- which usually is just one show a year. There are dangers of falling into year-round dieting or entering too many competitions.

"It's not a healthy type of diet to be on year-round," said Dr. David Geier, the director of sports medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina. "People in bodybuilding can restrict carbohydrates too much, and that causes problems because after you lose fat, the body will start burning tissue and muscle. They also tend to restrict fluids around competition, which is always something that's potentially dangerous."

But figure competitions, when trained for with the right approach and a diet in moderation, can be a healthy avenue toward overall fitness, experts say.

"In general, I think figure offers a healthier approach than traditional bodybuilding," Geier said. "It has less emphasis on building bulk and a bit more emphasis on overall fitness. We often talk about three main components of fitness - muscle building, cardiovascular and flexibility. Working on all three are especially important for women, and figure tends to be a more well-rounded type of competition and training."

Building confidence

Aside from the physical benefits and healthy lifestyle the women have enjoyed, figure competitions have given them a pronounced increase in their confidence. It's not just the activity and the building of muscle that brings about better self awareness but the ability to get on stage in a bathing suit.

"At first, I was really afraid to go on stage, but once I got up there one time, you couldn't get me off," Fachko said. "I always told my boss that I can't do public speaking. That I'd freeze up. I was actually afraid that I would go through all this training and dieting and not be able to get up there, but once I did it, it was such a huge boost of confidence. I can't even explain it."

"Truthfully, I look at myself and I'm like 'wow,' " Kelly said. "I'm such a klutz and everything and I really think the whole thing of posing and presenting myself really taught me how to be a little more graceful. I've always been the soccer player who trips over weights at the gym, which is a true story.

"In my career as a graphic designer I have to present to clients, and I think it helps me to be a little less stage shy, to have a little more confidence when I present myself."


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Disclaimer: As a Health Coach, I will never attempt to diagnose, treat, make claims, prevent or cure any disease or condition. I advise my clients that Health Coaching is not intended to substitute for the advice, treatment and/or diagnosis of a qualified licensed health care professional.