School board member inspires with weight-loss journey

| Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013, 10:22 p.m.

Food was an important part of Joe Tommarello's upbringing.

“Growing up, I was always heavier, said Tommarello, 20, a Plum School Board member. “I come from an Italian family, and I would hear ‘Eat, eat, eat.' My nana likes to make sure the kids are fed. And a lot of family members are a little overweight.”

In elementary school, Tommarello's weight became a target of fellow students.

“I was bullied because of my weight,” Tommarello said.

Then Tommarello's spine was shattered on Valentine's Day 2007 as the result of a sledding accident. He was 14 at the time of the accident. The injury resulted in the removal of two vertebrae in his spine. He also had to learn how to walk again.

“After the accident, my doctor advised me to take off weight to take pressure off my back and knees,” Tommarello said.

Tommarello didn't heed the advice and suffered through aches and pains.

By December 2011, Tommarello, who is five feet 11 inches tall, had had enough. His weight had ballooned to 285 pounds, and he was unhappy following a breakup with a girlfriend.

“I decided I wanted to look better and meet new people,” Tommarello said.

Tommarello, a sophomore majoring in history at Robert Morris University, began an exercise regimen, changed his diet and lost about 100 pounds in six months.

“I went to the gym two to three times a week and worked out on a treadmill and elliptical,” Tommarello said. “And I substituted fruits and vegetables (for less healthy food).”

Tommarello started by losing 10 pounds by the end of December 2011 and said he “felt good.”

The weight loss motivated Tommarello to step up his plan. He began working out every day and started eating salad, fruits, vegetables and grilled chicken nearly exclusively. Tommarello set his daily caloric intake at 1,600. He also eliminated sugary drinks, opting for water, iced tea and natural juices.

By last March, Tommarello weighed in at 240 pounds. He pushed forward, and those around him noticed the weight loss.

“People said I looked good and asked if I had surgeries,” Tommarello said.

By mid-June, Tommarello lost 100 pounds and weighed 180. His personal life took a happy turn in November when he began dating Rachael Hower, 20, of Marysville, also a sophomore at Robert Morris.

“I feel comfortable now,” Tommarello said. “And I have a beautiful girlfriend.”

Tommarello, who said his weight now is about 200 pounds, continues to eat healthy foods and exercise.

He lifts weights to build muscle mass. He set his calorie intake at 2,600 a day, and his goal is to maintain his current weight.

“You have to look at it as a lifestyle change, not a diet,” Tommarello said.

Tommarello still feels some aches and pains from the sledding accident, but the frequency and intensity have been reduced since he lost weight.

“There are days I wake up and don't remember breaking a thing,” Tommarello said.

Tommarello credits family members and friends for helping him reach his goal.

“It was helpful to have a strong, loving group of people to help me,” Tommarello said.

Hower and Mark Weifenbaugh, Tommarello's friend and fellow Plum High School graduate, said Tommarello serves as an inspiration to them.

“I'm going to go to the gym more,” Hower said.

Weifenbaugh, who is six feet two inches tall and weighs 240 pounds, has consulted Tommarello for weight-loss tips.

“I want to be around 200 to 210,” said Weifenbaugh, 20, a sophomore studying pharmacy at Duquesne University. “Joe suggested healthier foods like good proteins in grilled chicken and lifting weights to get back muscle mass.”

Tommarello also sees long-term benefits from his weight loss.

Some of his family members suffer from high blood pressure and cholesterol levels as well as diabetes. Tommarello wants to remain at a healthy weight for his future goals including having a family.

“I want to have as long a life as I can,” Tommarello said. “I want to walk my daughter down the aisle and see my grandchildren some day.”

Dana Faulkner, a diabetes educator and registered dietitian with Joslin Diabetes Center at Forbes Regional Hospital in Monroeville, said Tommarello is wise to get in shape particularly with his family history of diabetes and heart problems.

Overall, the risk of death among people with diabetes is about twice that of people of similar age who do not have the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

“Kudos to him,” Faulkner said. “The sooner you start any type of lifestyle change, the better.”

Tommarello wants to motivate others to make healthy lifestyle changes.

“I hope my story is an inspiration to others,” Tommarello said.

Karen Zapf is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8753, or

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