Chris Powell’s evolution from scrawny teen to host and transformation specialist on ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition” has taken him from Oregon to Arizona, into the air at 30,000 feet, into the homes of morbidly obese people and into the homes of millions of TV viewers. And on Oct. 14, it will take him to the stage at McCormick Place, the site of the Club Industry 2011 show where he will give the second-day keynote address. And it all started with a weight bench.
A naturally skinny kid, Powell was devastated when he did not make his high school football team. His parents picked up on his distress and came up with a creative solution.
“I walked into the house and in the middle of the room was a weight set,” Powell says. “My parents had cleared out the living room, and there was just a weight set and the TV.”
After several weeks of using the bench as a seat on which to watch TV, he finally tried lifting weights.
“I was hooked. There was no turning back,” he says.
Several years later, he pursued that passion for fitness by studying exercise science at Arizona State University. He did not plan to ever use his degree. Instead, he was determined to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a pilot. His first airline interview was set for Sept. 12, 2011, but after the tragedy that occurred on Sept. 11, he decided to embrace his passion for fitness instead of flight.
While working as a trainer at a World Gym in 2003, Powell began appearing on a local TV show, “Good Morning Arizona,” as a fitness correspondent. His segments garnered praise and led to his big break when he received an email from a 650-pound man just a year older than him who had been told he would die if he did not get his weight under control.
Ten minutes into their first meeting, Powell agreed to take David Smith on as a client for no charge. During the next two years, Smith lost 400 pounds. His story was documented on “Good Morning Arizona” but it quickly shot onto the national stage, resulting in appearances for both Powell and Smith on “The View,” “20/20,” “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and even as the focus of a TLC documentary, “The Six-Hundred-Fifty-Pound Virgin.” And with his first morbidly obese client, Powell had demonstrated his ability to produce results and inspire the masses.
After his second appearance on “The Today Show,” Powell was contacted by the production company behind “The Biggest Loser,” and they developed the concept for what would become “Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition.”
He told producers, “If we could do this transformation the right way, if we could show America what the weight loss journey looks like and what it’s like for the people at home, how would we do it? And from my perspective—a trainer’s perspective—I want time. Give me a year so we can do this the right way.”
And that’s what they did. On the ABC show, the second season of which is currently being filmed, Powell teaches morbidly obese individuals how to exercise, eat right and break through the mental roadblocks that can stop weight loss in its tracks. He even goes so far as to live with participants for one month. For Powell, the show has been an amazing experience and opportunity.
“It is phenomenal,” he says. “Season one was such an honor for me to be a part of, for these people to let me into their lives, to trust me to guide them through this. It was such an experience to be able to share the stories with millions of people and so fulfilling. It was great because I could show Americans that it’s possible if you are 400, 500, 600 pounds, you’re a year away from your salvation.”
He also learned some valuable lessons.
“I realized that I’m not the best trainer out there, I’m not the best life coach out there, but when I approach any kind of transformation, I do understand the way, the path, to get to where they want to go,” Powell says. “I understand that in order for them to heal themselves, they need to be able to trust me.”
Powell’s prominent role in the fight against the obesity epidemic may take place outside of the traditional health club environment, but he still has ideas about how fitness facilities can reach out to overweight clients. The key is to approach the issue from more than one angle.
“In order for us to really find a solution for our obese clients, it needs to be a trifecta of obesity solutions—nutrition, the foundation, exercise, yes, but then we also really need to assign an individual who can work with them on an emotional level and help them work through their own obstacles,” he says.
He acknowledges that such a personalized approach can be challenging for health clubs given the number of clients, so the key might be for health clubs to help the obese population by creating programs their trainers can use to work one-on-one with clients or even by allowing trainers the freedom to create their own programs. And fitness facilities that produce results for people get an automatic publicity boost.
“It’s results driven,” Powell says. “When people get results, there is nothing more powerful. You’ve got these health clubs that are doing all the marketing in the world, and at the same time, nothing is more powerful than word of mouth, especially with social media.
“Look at the people that I work with. When I took 400 pounds off someone in two years, you better believe that my business and my demand went through the roof. I want that for all the health and fitness companies out there. I want them turning out results.”
His desire to help the obese does not end with adults. Powell also wants to make sure that obese children are helped in a positive and effective way. He cautions parents not to criticize their children about their weight since criticism at such an impressionable age can lead to problems with food later.
“They need to focus on health and fitness being cool,” Powell says. “We need support from the heavy hitters. We need to go after their super heroes. Earlier on, it’s going to be cartoon characters and princesses, and then it transitions into athletes.”
Having role models that exhibit healthy habits makes children more interested in having healthy lifestyles, he adds.
But a larger collaborative effort also is needed to help end the childhood obesity epidemic.
“Getting into schools is a tough thing to do, and there’s a lot of red tape around it,” he says. “However, something needs to be done to bring those programs back to our schools.”
Powell documents his story and methods in his book, “Choose to Lose: The 7-Day Carb Cycle Solution,” available this December. In the book, Powell says he offers information that is palatable rather than overwhelming like many fitness books on the market.
“I wanted to be able to teach the masses,” Powell says. “I just wanted to keep it insanely simple.”
The book recommends exercise and carbohydrate cycling, which is a practice of eating small and large amounts of carbohydrates on alternating days to prevent hitting a weight-loss plateau.
To hear more about Powell’s experiences working with the morbidly obese and to learn how he thinks fitness facility operators and staff can best connect with the obese population, register for Club Industry 2011, where Powell will offer the keynote address at 10 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 14.