From “Facts of Life” to life at 50, Lisa Whelchel—who’s also a mom, author and motivational speaker—sits down with us to talk about the real secret to a healthy weight. Plus, what inspired her new workout DVD.
You take the good, you take the bad. Like millions of Americans who grew up watching her on “The Facts of Life,” Lisa Whelchel knows that familiar tune. But unlike the shallow, spoiled socialite Blair Warner—the former child actor’s sitcom alter-ego from 1979–88—the Texas-born beauty quickly learned that what life seemed to deliver on a silver platter could be most unfulfilling, leaving her hungering for something deeper. During the NBC series’ second season, the 16-year-old rising star’s recent weight gain led her male producers to start weighing her on set—and in front of curious onlookers. Her personal struggle was further broadcast publicly when Joan Rivers repeatedly dubbed Whelchel and her young co-stars “The Fats of Life.” Indeed, Hollywood was anything but the Heartland. Fortunately, a short trip back to Texas reconnected the religious teen with her spiritual support system—which in turn inspired her to manage her waistline by first and foremost nourishing her soul.
Nearly 35 years later, the faith-based author, motivational speaker, mom of three and 2012 “Survivor” finalist has found a new way to inspire and encourage women by walking her talk—literally. Whelchel, fit and ever-glowing at 50, recently released her first fitness DVD, “Everyday Workout for the Everyday Woman.” The program includes two total-body workouts for all fitness levels, as well as personal training tips to boost fitness, energy and well-being in virtually any setting. In this WellBella exclusive, Whelchel—who recently made her acting comeback in Tyler Perry’s feature film “A Madea Christmas”—shares about her journey from all-American girl to empathetic (and still not exercise-crazy!) everywoman.
wb | What inspired you to do a fitness DVD?
lw | Almost every book or talk or anything I’ve ever done has flowed out of my own life, and specifically my failures and weaknesses and struggles. And this project is no exception. Especially in [show] business, exercise plays a very big role—but I don’t enjoy exercise, I don’t want to do it, I don’t like it. But I’ve needed to do it. And now that I’m getting older, it’s not even about the need to be a certain size; it’s about health and energy, keeping my body moving and not deteriorating.
I thought, There’s got to be other women out there who aren’t looking for rock-hard abs, but would like more energy, strength and better health. I started with empathy and understanding of that audience, and wanted to see if we could tackle this together.
wb | How will the everyday woman benefit from these workouts?
lw | I’m really excited to hear feedback from all types of women—from those with physical challenges to those who haven’t worked out in years. For the real beginner, there’s motivation to get moving, and it’s not overwhelming. But I’m also really thrilled to hear that even women who have been exercising for a while will do the workouts and feel sore and stronger the next day. There’s feedback to show that with the three [difficulty] levels, you can find a spot to really push yourself without pushing yourself too far.
wb | What are a few ways to condition our bodies for fitness before exercising?
lw | One of my favorite parts of the DVD is the bonus section of personal training tips that aren’t specifically part of the exercise routine, but can make a huge difference for good or bad—the way we stand, the way we sit at our desk at a computer, whether we engage our core properly and the way we breathe. We don’t pay much attention to those things. But in not paying attention to them, we often fall into bad habits and, over time, the cumulative effect can be as bad as injuring yourself while exercising.
wb | Playing “Survivor” at age 49 certainly required mental, emotional and physical fitness. Did you find you had strengths you didn’t realize?
lw | No, maybe the opposite: I found out I had weaknesses I did not want to admit or accept. I spent so much of my life trying to be good and trying to do the right things, and then I got into this game of “Survivor.” I came face-to-face with the fact that if I needed to be bad in order to move ahead, then, you know what, that [ability] was in me. I didn’t want to vote somebody out in order to win $1 million, which is an incredibly shallow thing to do—and yet, if I’m going to be honest, yeah, that’s kinda why I signed up for the game.
wb | Everyone has a little bit of Blair Warner in them!
lw | [Laughs] I think you’re right. What I learned most doing “Survivor” is to accept all parts of me, not just the “acceptable” parts.
wb | You experienced such scrutiny about your weight during “The Facts of Life.” At age 16, how did you endure being weighed on a scale by your producers?
lw | During my time off, I went home to Texas. That’s where my family was, my friends, my church, my youth group. And I had this conversation with one of the guys in the youth group. I said, “I don’t want to go back to California. It’s too hard. I’m letting everybody down. I’m gaining weight. I really just want to give up and come home.” He said, “I can understand why you’d feel that way. But let me ask you a question: How much time are you spending with the Lord every day?” I said, “I read my Bible. I pray and go to church.” He said, “No, I’m not asking you what you’re doing for God. I’m asking you how much time you’re sitting and just being with Him, hanging out like friends do?”
I’d really not thought about it in such practical terms. He said, “Let me give you a diet. For the next two weeks when you go back to California, eat anything you want, but set your alarm a little early and just sit and be with the Lord, and let Him fill you up.” I thought, That’s the best diet I’ve ever heard of. And I did it.
wb | So a spiritual diet of sorts. How did it work for you?
lw | They say you eat for emotional reasons, to fill empty places that have nothing to do with our stomachs. That was very much the truth for me. As I began to fill those empty places with love and grace and acceptance and the truth of who I am in the bigger picture, I wasn’t as hungry to fill up with food. And it made a really big difference.
wb | How did your producers sending you to “fat farms” affect you emotionally?
lw | Like anything we experience in childhood, we internalize the messages we receive. So I think I’m still trying to undo some of that message that my acceptance and lovability and worth are based on how I look or if I fit a certain standard. If we are conscious of those messages, we can work toward changing them.
wb | What continues to bond you “Facts of Life” ladies all these years later?
lw | Anytime you’ve gone through something together that nobody else can really understand unless they’ve gone through it themselves, there’s something inextricable about your connection. We spent nine years as child stars, and that’s a war zone in many rights. We were in the trenches together, so we will forever have each other’s backs.
wb | Now that you’re back in show business, what is your heart’s desire?
lw | Professionally, I would love to do comedy. It’s what I enjoy the most, and it seems to be an avenue on television that isn’t quite as tainted as others, [so I don’t have to be part] of the continuing pollution. [Laughs] But in the bigger picture, in whatever way possible—whether it’s writing or speaking or something else—my desire is to be a messenger of God’s love, grace and acceptance. And I just wish there were some way I could encounter as many people as possible and have them sense and receive and know and believe how deeply loved we really are without needing to try so hard.
Lisa’s Healthy Favorites
Exercise: The plank is probably my most and least favorite. It’s a full-body exercise. You get the most bang for your buck for the least amount of time.
Way to reconnect with spirit: Reading. I like to find a book that resonates with where I’m headed but haven’t quite arrived, so it draws me in with curiosity and hope, and at the same time touches me in a place that’s relevant to where I am at the present moment.
Outdoor activity: I’ll spend at least two hours on my little patio every day. Spring is the best time because it’s so refreshing. I have some plants out there and the hummingbirds and wild birds come to visit me.
Natural beauty remedy: A good night’s sleep. I’m a champion sleeper. I easily get 8–10 hours a night.
Healthy snack: Quest Bars. They’re high in fiber, low in carbs and they’re great for me, especially when I’m traveling. If I’m hungry and have one in my purse, it keeps me from buying something unhealthy out of desperation.