HACKENSACK, N.J. — It takes a special someone to pack a group fitness room to maximum capacity before sunrise.
At Retro Fitness of Hackensack, that someone is Lauren Belton.
When she joined them gym in 2012, she weighed 238 pounds. Her workouts were limited to walking in isolation on a treadmill in the gym's dark movie room.
She was too self-conscious to wander into other areas of the gym -- namely the weight floor.
Once she did, though, Belton shed the weight faster with the support of friends she made on the floor, and began seeing glimpses of her passion: group training.
Every Tuesday and Thursday morning before sunrise, the gregarious 35-year-old found herself standing at the head of the group exercise room, leading her friends and some fellow members in 30-minute ab workouts.
All she needed was the push from an employee who took note to follow her instinct and become a certified group instructor.
"I've never had someone believe in me the way she did," Belton told Daily Voice, sitting cross-legged on the floor of the group exercise room of her gym, her grey hoodie pulled over her forehead.
"When you're young, you have your parents and your teachers. But as an adult, with a family and a job, you don't always have that.
"But here, I had someone pull this passion out of me."
It's been 2.5 years since Belton began officially leading group fitness classes at Retro Fitness, now nine per week -- and 80 pounds lighter than she was in 2012.
The Englewood native has become known around the gym for her million-dollar smile, Michelle Obama shoulders and -- most of all -- steadfast devotion to her classes.
She says helping other people turn their lives around and push through personal tragedy is what keeps her going.
"It doesn't feel like a job," the mom of two said. "It's something I get a lot of fulfillment from.
"It's that person who comes up to you and says after starting your classes, they're seeing changes in their body.
"You've got people recovering from addictions, people with serious health conditions and turning their lives around.
"That's what's so inspiring."
Belton's first lifestyle change came in 2008, three years after giving birth to her first child. Her husband had been diagnosed with ulcerative colitis and between the two of them, they had packed on 180 pounds.
Doctors told Belton's husband that if he wanted to get better, he'd have to change his diet.
Belton followed suit simply because it didn't make sense for her to cook separate meals. Instead of fried chicken, they grilled it. Instead of chips, they had veggies.
The weight was coming off slowly and Belton could feel her body changing.
In 2011, she had her second child, but her weight hit an all-time high of 238 pounds -- and it hurt.
It kept her from running around with her kids. From climbing the stairs in her house without becoming breathless. From socializing on weekends, too upset by what she saw in the mirror to venture out with friends.
In the midst of a major depression, Belton was sick of it. The gym became her vice.
"The gym took me away," she said. "I came here and it was my personal time to focus on me."
She began simply enough walking on the treadmill. But she wasn't satisfied.
Things were still hanging, she said, and she yearned to be like the women who were unphased lifting weights next to large, male body-builders.
Belton realized if she wanted to ramp her journey up again, she'd have to get out there on the floor.
Once she did, she formed that of an alliance with nearly everyone else on the floor -- "The 5 a.m. crew," Belton calls it. "Everyone was in here for a purpose."
They all did their own workouts, but socialized and helped each other throughout.
That's when Belton's love for the gym grew. She looked forward to seeing her new friends and found herself planning her day around her workouts.
Going to Retro Fitness and lifting weights became her hobby.
One day in 2012, the "early morning crew" were talking about how none of them ever trained their abs.
"No one ever wanted to do abs or cardio," Belton recalled. "So we decided we'd come to the group fitness room at 6 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, at the end of our workouts, and just do abs."
For many months, this was how it went -- with Belton pioneering. She wrote the workouts and made the playlists and slowly, other members caught wind of what was going on and asked if they could join.
"Here I was basically leading a class that didn’t exist," Belton said laughing. "Everyone saw the energy."
Belton admitted it was a bit uncomfortable as she wasn't certified in group fitness at all. But after one of the members encouraged her to post a video of "ab attack" on social media, former staff member Melissa Carella took notice.
She vowed to help Belton get all of her certifications, and promised her the 6 a.m. time slots for ab classes, which have since grown into total body, boot camp and more.
She feels those types of classes or working out with others is the most successful form of physical fitness.
"I'm a strong believer of team training and having that support system," she said.
"It's good especially in the beginning to have support from someone," Belton said, still sweaty from finishing up her Sunday leg day with a friend.
"Someone on the same path who knows the struggle to give you the push."
Retro Fitness has become Belton's second home, the staff and members her family.
"Retro is everything to me now," she said.
"I've joined other gyms but I always ended up back here. I can't see myself taking this journey anywhere else."
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