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Starting over

Published December 17. 2009 05:00PM

Nicole Michalik is kind of a superhero.

She doesn't fight crime, defend the planet from evil aliens or spread peace and justice throughout the land.

Instead, she battles the threat of heart disease, diabetes and cancer. She does this by spreading knowledge of how to live a healthy lifestyle, and living that lifestyle by example.

Growing up in Summit Hill, the daughter of Diane and John "Chet" Michalik led a charmed life. Blessed with a loving family, she was an excellent student and immensely popular, making and keeping friends from grade school through college and beyond.

She wanted to go to Drexel University, and she did. She wanted a career in radio broadcasting, and she did that, too. In addition to her day job at a Philadelphia marketing firm, she is an evening and weekend DJ on Q102 in Philadelphia.

While she had just about everything she ever wanted, Nicole ended up with something she didn't bargain for a false sense of entitlement, which eventually helped her grow from a chubby child into an obese adult.

Everything she wanted, she had. That is, everything but the ability to eat what she wanted and not gain weight.

So despite that charmed life and outwardly bubbly personality, Michalik was an unhappy and unhealthy young woman.

A couple years ago, Michalik experienced a life-changing event. Following that experience, she began to share her new-found knowledge, and use her new "super powers" for good.

In 2007, Michalik was one of 18 contestants on the fourth season of NBC's "The Biggest Loser." While she wasn't the "biggest loser," she came close, dropping over 100 pounds 68 while being televised, and the remainder after being the 13th contestant voted off.

Since then, she has continued to lose weight and has had several very painful, but in her opinion, worthwhile, surgeries to remove excess skin.

She has also taken everything she learned on the show, and in the last two years, has turned her life around.

"I'm not an overweight person anymore," says Michalik. "I'm an average person, trying to be an athlete."

While active growing up, Michalik was never an "athlete." Today, she works out five or six days a week at a fitness center near her Center City Philadelphia home that gives her almost the same attention and intensity of workouts that she experienced under trainer Bob Harper during "The Biggest Loser."

Some days she does 30 minutes each of cardio, weights and yoga. Other days she takes a spin class and she also runs several miles, two to three times per week.

"I don't love running, but it works."

For Michalik, working her butt off literally and becoming a healthy food guru was not enough. She needed to share her story and secrets. She knows first-hand how the "fat girl" feels, and she is also fortunate to know what it's like to be the skinny girl.

Since being on show Michalik has become a motivational speaker and celebrity guest at fundraising events. Her engagements have included joint appearances with other "Biggest Loser" contestants at health and fitness lectures, as well as at a recent fundraiser where her celebrity status had her bowling along with Phillies reliever Ryan Madson and Eagles tight end Brent Celek.

Sharing her story and inspiring others, for Michalik, was a "no brainer."

"First, I am a ham and I love to talk. Second, I feel the show completely changed my life and I feel so blessed that I was chosen, and that not only did I lose weight, but my life is better, different, more enriched, and I want to pay that forward.

"I feel like I was given street credentials. Not everyone who gets to go on 'The Biggest Loser' can do a 180 with their life, so I feel I need to give back."

Her motto? "Educate. Motivate. Inspire."

Last month she hosted a Childhood Obesity Panel for the American Cancer Society. She was joined by fit children who spoke about why it is important for children and families to start early and get active.

"Childhood obesity is an important issue for me," says Michalik. "It is more important to educate the parents. You have to look at childhood obesity as a battle, the same as you would with alcohol, cigarettes and drugs."

People don't see food as a drug or as harmful, but it can be.

"It's easy to teach them to say no to drugs, but how do you teach them to say no to food?"

"When you have a child who struggles with their weight, and who has friends who are fit and can eat junk food, it's hard to establish healthy eating habits. If you have a 16-year-old who weighs 300 pounds, you're giving them a death sentence."

Michalik says educating parents is how a healthy lifestyle takes root.

"We have to teach parents to teach their kids to eat healthy. Educate them the best that you can. Get active; get away from the computer; away from the PlayStation; and away from the TV.

"Lead by example."

Also making it difficult to teach children to eat healthy, says Michalik, is in America, bad food is cheap and readily available, but on the flip side, we are expected to be pencil thin.

"Eat crappy food, but look like a size 2 model! It's like a bad movie," she says.

For children to adults, Michalik says you have to make a commitment to a healthy lifestyle.

"Everyday I have to make the right decision," says Michalik, who not only battles overeating, but also a genetic condition hypothyroidism, which means she has a slow metabolism and the tendency to gain weight or has difficulty losing weight. The weight-loss cards are definitely stacked against her.

"I have to work harder than everybody else," she says of the effects of her glandular problem.

She was diagnosed with hypothyroidism at the age of 19 or 20. Although she has been on medication for several years, she knew very little about the disorder until "The Biggest Loser."

"In the first couple weeks, everyone was losing 8-10 pounds a week. Me, I lost 4-5 pounds. Bob (Harper) said he never saw a girl work as hard, and couldn't understand why I wasn't losing more."

A visit to the show's physician put it in perspective.

"I had to work harder and eat less than everyone else. From how I eat and work out, I should be around 130 pounds."

If Michalik eats things she shouldn't, or slows her exercising, she puts on weight.

"Everyday is a struggle, but the good outweighs the bad."

Not only is the good a trimmer, leaner body, but a healthier one.

"It's so much better to be and feel healthy than anything else," says Michalik. "I used to get horrible migraines; not anymore. I'm rarely sick."

Living a healthier lifestyle is all about finding a good balance.

"It does get exhausting," says Michalik. "Some days I just say 'This sucks.' I want to eat a soft pretzel and not think about what it's going to do. But that's where the education comes in, and I know I love wearing a size 10."

Michalik says that once you understand what food can do, it's easier to make the right choices.

"I've learned the importance of fiber and protein versus carbs and sugar. I never got how important it is that you need to eat fruits and vegetables; 1,200 calories of fruits, vegetables, lean protein and whole grains is a lot better for you than 1,200 calories of cupcakes."

Michalik says to remember it's not just about calories in and calories out, it's about the quality of the food and about being nutritionally healthy.

"Once you educate yourself and learn what good food and exercise will do, you will want to practice what you have learned.

"It's not a 30-day diet or a six-month diet. It's a lifestyle."

The same goes for exercise.

"It's like brushing your teeth you just do it! It's part of your life; that's how you have to treat exercise."

Michalik believes the brain is the strongest muscle in the body, and with the right attitude, anyone can overcome their addiction to overeating.

"It's all mental," she says. "Why are you overweight? Is it comfortable to you? Is it a friend? Food is my drug of choice. It was a sense of entitlement. I did everything else I ever wanted, and was successful."

That was not the case when it came to losing weight.

"Life is not fair," she admits.

"Granted, genes play a role. But when you have a weight problem, it's about what you can and can't do. You can survive without cigarettes and alcohol, but you can't survive without food.

"Yes, there are days that get hard," says Michalik, "and there are days you will still eat and enjoy french fries, but the journey is never-ending and you will always be happier on this journey of health, than anything else before."

Coming Friday: A disabled Tamaqua man stands up and fights for those who can't.

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