Ambridge native vies for $1 milion in weight-loss challenge

Many can relate to Sharona Sankar-King's challenge. Almost five years ago, at age 33, the Ambridge native gave birth to her first child, a son, Micah.

She didn't quite lose the baby weight -- with the stress and time constraints of holding down a full-time job, she didn't have the time or energy.

Then, she and her husband, Malik, welcomed a daughter, Simone, now 71/2 months old.

Ambridge native a finalist in 'Dr. Oz Show' contest

Sharona Sankar-King, a graduate of Ambridge High and Penn State, gained control of her life through Weight Watchers in collaboration with TV's "Dr. Oz Show." Online voting will determine if she wins a $1 million. (Video from "Dr. Oz Show"; 5/9/2012)

A few earnest attempts at what she termed "starvation" dieting left her frustrated. At 5 feet 8, Mrs. Sankar-King was "stuck" around 172 pounds.


"I just thought, 'OK, I'm going to be fat and I don't care.' I was giving up."

A huge fan of the syndicated "Dr. Oz Show," she saw an episode kicking off the "Transformation Nation" collaboration with Weight Watchers. The program espouses a seven-step approach to healthier living.

"It was like a light bulb going off," said Mrs. Sankar-King, who has an undergraduate degree in psychology from Penn State University and a graduate degree in statistics from Columbia University. "It's not just about losing the weight, it's about being at my best."

Mrs. Sankar-King stands to win more than a healthier lifestyle from the Dr. Oz program. She is among the 1.2 million Americans who entered the "Transformation Nation Million Dollar You" contest.

First prize: a cool $1 million.

Ten finalists -- Mrs. Sankar-King among them -- recently were announced, and the winner will be determined by online voting at They reached the top 10 through weight loss and the strength of their 400-word essays.

Through Sunday, visitors to the site can cast up to 10 votes per day. Mrs. Sankar-King might live in New York City now, but she is hoping to get some love from Pittsburgh, too.

To that end, the Ambridge High School Class of 1991 home page links to an online campaign to win her votes.

"Pittsburgh is in my heart, and my entire high school class has sent messages all around," she said. "I just want to say, 'Thank you.' "

Unlike some of the extreme weight-loss programs on television, such as NBC's "The Biggest Loser," contestants in the Dr. Oz challenge are more representative of the general population.

Sure, there is some drama -- one of the two male contestants is losing weight in case his wife, who suffers from kidney disease, needs a transplant -- but these are people dealing with everyday weight issues.

To reach their goals, they are getting healthier through a seven-step program involving more than exercise and eating right.

Seven celebrity judges, including UPMC physician Vonda Wight, are helping illustrate each of the steps. First is "Tell a friend," as in finding a support system. Step 2 encourages establishing a good relationship with your doctor. Step 3 is knowing family health history. Step 4 encourages better sleep habits. Step 5 -- and this is where judge Deepak Chopra comes in -- focuses on cutting stress from your life.

Step 6 is all about getting into shape, which goes beyond mere exercise. Step 7 requires knowing your Body Mass Index.

In a video available on the Dr. Oz website, Mrs. Sankar-King talks about putting her work and family ahead of concerns for her health. But the program, she says, "has allowed me to put me at the top of that list."

Like many Americans, Mrs. Sankar-King has a family history of weight-related health problems. There is diabetes on both sides of her family, and both of her grandmothers suffered strokes.

Her mother, who lives in Coraopolis, is a breast cancer survivor.

So far, Mrs. Sankar-King has lost 30 pounds and six inches off her waist. Her BMI went from 26 to 22 (technically, she went from "overweight" to "normal" weight), and is much less stressed out. As a senior executive working with analytics for a media company, she is constantly juggling work and family obligations.

"I just want to let people know that it is possible to get a handle on stress," she said. "Once I addressed what the core issues were -- stress and sleep -- my body started reacting differently.

"You make different choices when you're not stressed out, you don't turn to comfort food. And I'm a person who, even if I smell a doughnut, I gain weight."

At bedtime, she does 10 minutes of deep-breathing exercises, keeps a journal and has increased her sleep from 5 to 6 hours to 71/2 or 8 hours a night. The latter proved almost a bigger challenge than developing better eating habits.

"Instead of sitting up, watching a little television, I turn off the TV a little earlier," she said. "I get into bed a little earlier, and just doing that alone allows me to let the day go."

"Sometimes, it's not finding the time to get more sleep, but forcing yourself to get more sleep," said Mr. King, who said he's benefited from following many of the program's suggestions.

"There are lots of times when you are working on something, and the baby just went to bed and it's 9 or 10:30 and you look around the house and see extra dishes in the sink, or the floor needs to be swept.

"You just need to say, 'Hey, I need to give myself permission to let this go for a day and get some rest.' "

When Micah was a baby, both parents were working, but they had a full-time nanny. Mr. King, who was involved in finance, has taken time off to care for the kids. He said he hopes to resume work in the education field after Micah starts kindergarten in the fall.

The family discovers if it's suddenly $1 million richer next week, although that show won't air until May 23. No matter the outcome, it's a win-win, Mr. King said.

"We have started calling Sharona 'the ambassador of health.' "

health - tvradio

Maria Sciullo: or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG. First Published May 9, 2012 4:00 AM


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