Diane Sawyer’s Body of Work

By Lise Funderburg

O the Oprah Magazine
April 2002

If you’re found in a dark alley with a large rubber band…,” Diane Sawyer says to her trainer as she struggles to kick out a leg that’s constrained by wide blue elastic tubing. Ignoring the death threat — a regular occurrence, along with comparisons to Dr. Mengele — Jim Karas is unremittingly pleasant and blithely, doggedly dictatorial. If Sawyer confesses to an eating splurge, that only makes him work her harder. “Slower,” he says. “Slow it down. Control. Tuck those abs. Slower. That’s it.”

The two met a year ago when Karas first appeared on Good Morning America as the fitness expert for a weight-loss story. By way of making conversation during commercials, the stunning, formidable news anchor turned to Karas and said, “I really think I need to lose some weight.”

Most sentient beings — especially men — know this statement is not meant to elicit a response (aside from, possibly; “Oh, but you’re perfect just as you are”). Not Jim Karas. “I think you do, too,” he agreed.

If Sawyer hadn’t been serious, this might have been an irreparable breach of etiquette. But she meant what she said; at least Karas thought so.

“I could sense from our conversation that she was ready and just needed to be pushed,” he says. He phoned and faxed and e-mailed until she said yes. “He seized my imagination, my guilt, my fear, my hopes, and my dreams,” Sawyer, 56, recalls. The hours Good Morning America demands (she wakes up at 4 AM and often doesn’t go to sleep until midnight) had been wearing on her, and she was earing more than usual, thinking it would help to keep her energy up. Seams were splitting.

I’m utterly passive, and he just leapt in. Of course, having said that, I was already looking for ways to get out of it.” They started six weeks after meeting and have been working together since.

Karas, 41, is based in Chicago and has spent the last 15 years as a fitness trainer. Having earned his undergraduate degree in economics at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, he applies business metaphors to the task of losing weight. His book, The Business Plan for the Body, refers to muscle as “capital” and food diaries as a method of “revenue allocation.”

Part of his holistic approach — attention to both diet and exercise — can include moving into clients’ homes for one week (at a mere cost of $10,000). He observes their activity and eating patterns and launches them into their new regimens.

In addition to his suitcase, he brings all his portable equipment — exercise ball, air pump for the ball, pieces of foam, tubing, kinesthetic boards, and charts, graphs, and various ancillary data he uses to make his case. Sawyer, rarely home seven days in a row, started off with some trial sessions, working up to her current schedule of four times per week.

First among Karas’s tenets is to dismiss cardiovascular exercise as a fitness panacea. “Throw out your treadmill,” he advises, “and concentrate on strength and resistance training.” For people who want to lose weight, he contends, strength training boosts the metabolism and burns additional calories 24 hours a day; 7 days a week. Aerobic exercise, on the other hand, although good for cardiovascular health, burns calories only during the workout and one to two hours afterward. Karas cites a study from Tufts University that showed that strength and resistance training can increase metabolism by 7 percent.

“One pound of muscle can burn 30 to 50 calories a day,” he says, “and 1 pound of fat burns only 2.” If you build 5 pounds of muscle, he figures, it will burn the equivalent of more than 26 pounds of fat each year. Under Karas’s tutelage Sawyer has lost more than 25 pounds in the past year, two thirds of that in the first four months. Other results? She has more energy and fewer aches and pains. As she says, “I’ve got my ‘it’ back.”

Sawyer says her idea of dieting had always been simply not to eat: “Of course I would balloon up immediately afterward.” Karas convinced her that she had to eat in order to lose weight — but to eat wisely: He figured out her optimal calorie consumption (the formula, called the Harris-Benedict Metabolic Equation, is available on his Web site, Businessplanforthebody.com) and came up with a number she had to stick to. “It’s quite low;” Sawyer says. “Eleven hundred calories a day: It’s true, by the way; that I can’t lose weight unless I stay below that. I get 1,200 on the weekends.” (The extra 100 calories go, she says, “to a margarita or a half a plate of nachos grande.” Here Sawyer acknowledges using creative math.) “My dream is still to go out and do the Mexican lunch every day: But as long as I can have it on the weekend, I can bear it.”

On a recent day Karas warms up Sawyer’s muscles with a 1.67-mile loop around Manhattan’s Central Park reservoir, not far from the apartment she shares with her husband, director Mike Nichols, and their spaniel, Lila. Karas’s ideal workout splits into 25 percent cardio and 75 percent strength training, so the run takes up less than half of their hour together. He lets Sawyer walk now and then, but when they jog they go at a fast clip; he wants her heart rate between 140 and 149 beats per minute. Then, during her weight work, he keeps it between 120 and 130.

After the run they head to her apartment, where she has a small home gym — a gymette, really. Much of the ten-by-ten-foot room is taken up by a hulking machine, a four-sided combination of benches, platforms, and weighted pulleys designed to work the upper- and lower-body muscle groups. A rack of free weights sits in one corner, a tower of dumbbells ranging from 5 to 20 pounds. Karas also relies on low-tech equipment such as (the deadly) elastic tubing, a balancing board, and a large inflated ball.

“I love the ball,” Sawyer exclaims, sprawling across it stomach down, then falling off. “It seems like fun,” she explains as she gets up unscathed. “Plus it doesn’t hurt my back when I’m doing abs. I also like doing two things at once — whatever exercise you’re doing, you also have to hold yourself up.”

“Most everything we do is compound movements that call on multiple muscle groups,” Karas explains. He likes the instability of the exercise ball because it forces the body to recruit additional muscles in order to stay aloft. Karas focuses on Sawyer’s upper body one day, her lower body the next.

He leads her through ten exercises per session, with 8 to 15 repetitions of each (fewer if the weights are heavier and the speed is especially slow). Today they start with Sawyer lying back on the ball, this time with her feet well planted and her torso and thighs parallel to the ground. “Hips up, abs tucked,” Karas reminds her as she lifts 20-pound dumbbells straight up in the air in chest presses. Next Karas has her sit on a bench and grasp a bar in front of her that she pulls toward her chest, contracting her upper back muscles as she does. What’s this exercise called? They answer simultaneously:

“A back row,” says Karas.

“A bitch,” says Sawyer.

Sawyer gripes and moans and makes faces, but she does what Karas tells her to do. (“Poor Jim,” she says. “It takes so little to make him happy. If I sit up straight one day on the air, he’s thrilled. I have such bad posture, I’m always leaning in and looking up people’s nostrils.”) She has never stuck with a trainer before, never actually done much in the way of working out. “I used to run to catch planes,” she says. “That was my secret exercise routine.” She would also start with one trainer and then quit almost immediately; “Because I didn’t want to admit I was losing interest, I’d say I had a gynecological problem. So there’s a whole slew of trainers around New York who think I’m a gynecological mess.”

Now Sawyer is thrilled with her increased strength. The stairs at work that used to feel like Mount Everest are nothing to her, and as for the airport sprints, “You should see me. I want everyone to stop and look, to see how much faster I can get to the gate.” Despite Sawyer’s enthusiasm, inevitably some world event crops up that she has to cover for Primetime Thursday, and so four sessions often turn to three — sometimes even none. When she works out, though, she works hard.
What’s most critical is making the emotional investment, Karas explains. But beyond that there are the workouts (bare minimum: three half-hour sessions per week), then the calorie counting, the food diary, and the weekly weigh-ins. And the work never ends, even once you’ve met your weight-loss goal.

Life is full of pressures and opportunities to gain the weight back, Karas says. “We’re all aging, it’s hard to find the time to keep at it, and then there’s your birthday, the holidays, the office party — all sorts of chances to splurge.” If you begin to relax, he says, the number on the scale will rise.

“You must be consistent with your plan and not ease up. As you succeed at weight loss, you should strive to make even healthier food choices and to work even harder in your strength and resistance- training sessions. That’s the formula for ongoing success.”

And mind-set is critical. The commitment to getting strong means reconceptualizing the idea of success. Building strength demands that you tire out the muscle, working until you can’t lift anymore, Karas explains. Once you go into “fatigue,” he says, you create little muscle tears. “The brain says to the muscle, ‘Next time you need to be stronger,’ and it orders repairs, building new muscle tissue. This is one of the few times in your life where you succeed if you fail,” Karas says. “If you don’t ever push beyond what your body can do, you’re not really accomplishing anything.”

After Sawyer’s workout, he stretches her out. He bends and twists her; she is putty in his hands. The final, envy-inspiring minutes of their session are filled with a shoulder massage.

“This one’s really tough,” Karas jokes.

“I do this to failure,” Sawyer purrs.

Time Crunches: tuck and squeeze these exercises into your jam-packed day.


Jim Karas’s strength-training program is spelled out in his book, The Business Plan for the Body. If you’re not experienced with resistance workouts, you may want to invest in a few sessions with a personal trainer. Start by exercising at least three times a week for 30 minutes: 7 minutes of warm-up aerobics and 20 minutes of strength training, followed by 3 minutes of stretching. Lack of equipment is no excuse. If you don’t have a reservoir to run around, Karas says, climb stairs. If you don’t belong to a gym, do resistance work with elastic tubing, dumbbells, or a bottle of water in each hand (start with half-liter bottles.) Even if you can’t manage a workout, Karas says there are plenty of exercises you can fit in on the go.

1. The flamingo. “Balancing on one leg is a form of resistance training. Every time you take an up elevator, stand on the right leg. Going down, stand on the left. You’re forcing the supporting muscles — the quadriceps, the hamstrings, and the gluteus maximus [butt] — to work harder because they are used to doing only 50 percent of the work. Once that becomes easy, bend the standing knee slightly to better challenge the muscles.”

2. Auto abs. “Tuck in your abdominals every time you hit the brakes of your car. Hold the contraction until you start moving again.” (Hope for fast-changing signals.)

3. Techno posture. “Place a huge Post-it note on your computer monitor: SHOULDERS BACK! This will help improve your posture, reduce back pain and stress, and take pressure off your neck.”

4. On a roll. “I love Resist- A-Balls, those big beach balls you use for exercise. If you have to be at a desk for long stretches, sitting on the ball instead of a chair really helps promote good posture and works your entire core, both abdominals and lower back.”

5. Escalator squeeze. “The moment you hit an escalator, tense up your rear end for the whole ride. The glutes are the largest muscles in your body — I know, you already thought that — so squeeze as hard as you can. Just don’t make a face,”

6. Chair challenge. “Get in and out of chairs as slowly as possible. Try for four counts up and four counts down. This works the front of the legs. Ideally, you should tuck in your abs, pull your shoulders back, and tuck your glutes under with a slight forward pelvic tilt. The longer you take, the more you work your leg muscles. Use your hands only if you have to.”

What About Food (sidebar)

Karas suggests that you build a support system by telling friends and family about your plan, A few of his other diet tips:

Calories count. “Go back to the basics and realize that your body weight is a function of the equation: Calories in minus calories out equals your body weight. If you’re not happy with the outcome, then you need to work on your numbers,”
Keep a food diary. “A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that when people wrote down what they ate, they had underestimated on average by 1,053 calories a day. That is major. Write it down and see the reality of what is going into your mouth.”

Don’t suffer from “portion distortion.” “Most of us have no idea how many calories are in certain foods. You have to read labels and learn to eyeball the caloric values of portions. Buy a measuring cup and a food scale — not to use forever, just until you get a handle on the actual calories you are consuming,”

Eat out but eat smart. “Order your food grilled, not fried, and make sure the grilling is done with very little olive oil. Vegetables should be steamed, not sautéed, and never let a restaurant put the dressing on your salad, That dressing could be more than 500 calories and pure fat. Get it on the side, and dip your fork tongs into it–once!–or use balsamic vinegar or carry packets of fat-free, low-calorie dressing. And please stay away from the bread. It could add hundreds of calories.”

Stop drinking calories. “New research shows that your body does not register liquid and solid calories the same way. If you drink orange juice, your body is still hungry. Eat an orange instead, and your body will register the calories in a way that makes you begin to feel full. So drink water rather than juice, soda, and milk-heavy cappuccinos, and be moderate with liquor. Try sparkling water with lime or lemon or, to ease the transition, dilute your juice with 50 percent water, either sparkling or still.”

You can’t part-time diet. “Most dieters are so careful during the week, only to undo their good work with weekend splurges. The body counts all calories.”

Plan a treat. “My 5-year-old daughter knows she can have a treat every night after dinner. But that’s it. If she asks at any other time, then she knows it will come instead of the regular one, not in addition to it. So plan on having the cookie, piece of chocolate, frozen yogurt, whatever. Just know the calories and predetermine a reasonable portion. That way you won’t feel deprived.