Fitness and Health: Physician’s road to a winning physique

| December 28, 2017 | 2 Comments

PHYSIQUE WINNER in the women’s open division was Windsor Square’s Dr. Valerie Ulene, pictured going through her poses.

A year ago, if anyone had asked Dr. Valerie Ulene (Windsor Square) if she were a fan of weight lifting, she would have answered in the negative.

Last month, however, after six months of training, she competed in the open amateur division for the Organization of Competition Bodies (OCB) in Hollywood.

How it all began

A physician herself (currently medical director and co-founder of Clear Health Advisors, and former health columnist at the “Los Angeles Times”), married to orthopedic surgeon Dr. David Skaggs, and the daughter of noted television celebrity Dr. Art Ulene, she would have gravitated to the positive aspects of exercise in general, but weight lifting was not for her.

“My workouts had been very cardiocentric — lots of spin classes and such,” Ulene says.

Everyone else in her immediate family — husband, two daughters (23 and 21), son (16), and parents (Priscilla and Art, ages 79 and 81) — had all jumped on the weightlifting bandwagon. She was the last holdout.

Ulene is no stranger to hard work and helping others make choices for their health. That is her business, after all. Cardiovascular exercise and a healthy diet were already a part of her lifestyle, but she had tried weight lifting when she went with her family to the gym and didn’t like how it made her feel.

“I think the thing I struggled most with was working to failure — lifting until I was literally unable to move the weight,” says Ulene. She felt weak when she wanted to feel strong.

Then one day she went to the gym with her mom. Her parents had been working with trainer Toby Johnson, owner and operator of Easton Gym, 8053 Beverly Blvd., for five to six years. It was his training that prepared her father for his trek up Kilimanjaro this past summer at the age of 81.

“If it hadn’t been for all the work they put in at the gym, they never would have made it to the top,” Ulene noted.

She went to the gym that day because Ulene wanted some time with her mother, maybe meet some of her mother’s friends.

Instead, she ended up talking with Johnson about how much she disliked lifting weights. Johnson challenged her to give it three or four weeks, saying it took that long to see the benefits of weight lifting. Ulene accepted the challenge, and over the course of four weeks felt her body changing, becoming strong. She felt more physically capable — and she was hooked.

The road to bodybuilding competition

Ulene developed a steady exercise routine of two days training with Johnson and two days on her own. Then, in July, while at a friend’s birthday party, Ulene met a woman who had entered her first bodybuilding competition shortly after turning 50. The woman described it as an incredible experience and proposed that Ulene join her in participating in a bodybuilding competition. Ulene, thinking the other women would never follow up, said “sure.”

The woman contacted Ulene the very next day to hold her to her commitment. Ulene — who had begun the year trying something she thought she would never do — thought, well, why not?

The competition became her “capstone project into fearlessness” for 2017. But bodybuilding contests, even at the amateur level, take some work. Ulene knew she needed help, so she contacted Johnson, who had been a collegiate wrestler at Columbia University. (Ulene, coincidently, graduated from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.) He helped her develop a diet and exercise program to train for the OCB group’s competition.

When it came to her diet, Ulene kept her rules simple. “Eat less bread, rice and pasta. Consume more protein. Cut out desserts,” she planned. She added that sweets were the hardest to give up, although she’s learned to grab some yogurt or dried fruit to satisfy that craving.

In the meantime, Johnson upped her training to approximately five days a week at the gym, with a schedule that varied days on and off for weightlifting and toning.

Part of professional bodybuilding is posing to show off the muscles. The OCB group judges contestants based on good leanness and conditioning with full, healthy and shapely muscularity, good balance, proportion, and symmetry of both muscularity and conditioning, and then, of course, presentation.

So, Johnson put Ulene in contact with professional bodybuilder Jodi Miller, who lives in Texas. Miller was going to help Ulene with the presentation. The two women connected over Skype, where Miller coached Ulene on how to pose for the upcoming competition.

“She was a very exacting coach,” says Ulene. She would tell Ulene to “Move your foot five degrees this way” or “Move your shoulder a quarter of an inch.”

How did it turn out?

Ulene won the Women’s Physique Open division at the Hollywood competition in December, although she explained that she was the only person in her age group competing.

Family and friends, not sure at first why she had entered the bodybuilding competition, are all very proud of her, and also are more understanding of bodybuilding as a sport . . . after watching her go through her regime.

Would she do it again? Ulene turned 53 in December, and the competition was only supposed to be a one-time thing to show herself how fearless she could be. But — “It was an amazing, incredible journey in so many different ways,” Ulene says.

And yes, she would consider doing it again.

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Category: People

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