Note: This profile appears on the cover of the September issue of Centerville-Washington Neighbors Magazine, which is mailed monthly to 3,661 homeowners in Centerville and Washington Township.
By Jeff Louderback
One word catapulted Erica Lugo on a journey that reshaped her body, mind and life and has forged a path that continues to evolve.
Over the course of four years, she has lost 160 pounds, embarked on a career as a personal trainer, emerged as a social media influencer, survived an auto-immune disorder and cancer, met her second husband and got married, and gained acclaim as a TV personality with future plans that have yet to be scripted.
It all started with that one word that is sometimes necessary, and other times self-defeating.
As a child and then a college student, Erica never gave nutrition a second thought. Snacks in the pantry after school, and comfort food for dinner followed by dessert, were commonplace in her family’s home. During college, she was on her own for the first time. There was nobody to say, “No,” when her diet mostly consisted of fast food, pizza, and donuts.
The years passed. She married and gave birth to her son, Connor. Fitness was far from her mind, and the weight piled on. Then she received a wake-up call that forever changed her life, and has since dramatically shaped the lives on others in a memorable way.
“Connor was 3 years old and playing on our living room floor. I was sitting on the couch when he looked up at me and asked me to join him. I said, ‘No,’” Erica explained. “I vividly remember sitting on that couch completely drained, eating some kind of snack, and not wanting to get up because doing so felt like too much effort.
“At that moment, something clicked. I looked at my son and realized that he deserves so much more than a mom who doesn’t even have the energy to play with him. I had to make a change and I needed to make it fast while I had the motivation.”
At the time, Erica weighed 322 pounds.
“I was pushing a size-30 at Lane Bryant,” she recalled. “Since I’m 5-foot-11, people couldn’t tell how much I really weighed, but the scale never lied to me.”
“No” provided the motivation for “yes.” Erica took one step forward, one day at a time. She improved her diet, reduced her calorie intake, and started exercising.
“For the first two months, I stuck to cardio. I averaged about five hours on the elliptical and treadmill a week. Then, I started working with a trainer who showed me some high-intensity interval training (HIIT) drills,” Erica said. “I could tell I was losing weight, and I learned what ‘good tired” meant. I became hooked to that feeling.”
First, Erica shed 45 pounds the first month. Over the first year, she lost 122 pounds.
“The biggest transformation for me was internal. During the early stages of my journey, I began documenting my experience on social media to hold myself accountable, but it also resonated with other people,” she said. “They noticed that I was carrying myself differently and was just happier overall. They wanted to know how I did it.”
Erica casually launched her training career leading boot camps for her friends. Word spread, and she became a certified personal trainer and created the online platform Erica Fit Love in 2016. Her Instagram following consistently grew so widely that she became a social media influencer. She also opened a studio on Compark Road in Centerville.
The brand name “Erica Fit Love” reflects Erica’s philosophy about sustained results.
“Unfortunately, it’s natural for us to want to exercise because we don’t like something about ourselves, but I found that it’s best to get fit because you love yourself, not because you hate yourself,” she said. “When I discovered this, I began my own journey and lost 120 pounds that year. You never know where the path will take you if you decide to never give up.”
She was featured on the cover of Women’s Health in 2016 as America’s Next Fitness Star. That led to calls from Rachael Ray, The Today Show and other national media outlets and personalities.
Andrew and Lauren White of Dayton-based Indigo Life Network gave her an opportunity for her first show. “I Am” features 10 episodes where Erica leads five women on a three-month wellness journey with no scripts and no retakes.
More videos and Instagram stories followed. She received a call from a TV producer, who invited her to audition revamped version of Biggest Loser.
“What do you think?” she asked Danny.
“Considering her story, and her charisma on camera, it seemed like the perfect fit,” Danny said. “She teaches a lifestyle – a sustainable lifestyle of how to achieve what she did and keep it off. That resonates with people because they know Erica was once where they are now, and they are motivated to show her they can achieve the same results.”
Initially, Erica had doubts about the opportunity.
“I told the producers that I’m not your typical shredded trainer with six-pack abs,” she said. “I’m 5-11 170 and have curves. I told them how I want to change the way people view fitness and show people through my story that they can accomplish what might seem impossible.”
The mental transformation is essential to gain a physical transformation, Erica believes.
“You’re going to have days where you want to give up. I know. I was there and still have some of those days myself,” Erica said. “I spent 26 years of my life forming bad habits and relationships with food and fitness.
“It’s taken time to rewire my relationship, ideals and thoughts toward living a healthier lifestyle,” she added. “We live in a time where everyone wants results instant gratification. My results are from long-term habit changes. Getting back up after I’ve fallen down. Waking up daily with the attitude of trying to get better every day, and if I fail, I try again.”
The producers were captivated by Erica’s vision, and it wasn’t long before she received another call.
“The bad news, they said, is that I have 12 hours to get on a plane and be away from home for three months,” Erica said. “The good news? I would have an international audience to take the next step is changing the way people look at fitness.”
On that plane ride, Erica thought about all of the challenges she faced to reach this point. She remembered the obstacle from three years ago. After she lost the weight and gained a loyal following on Instagram, she excitedly imagined what awaited ahead. Then was diagnosed with Epstein-Barr Virus, which can cause other infectious diseases like mono. She battled brain fog, low-grade fevers, and lethargy. It forced her to scale back on HIIT workouts because of extreme exhaustion. Learning to cope with the illness, and adjusting her workout routine, led to a small weight gain. That affected her self-esteem, but it was not remotely as devastating as what would happen next.
Erica was driving to the studio on an October morning in 2018 and began sweating profusely. She felt faint and sought a nearby parking lot to pull over and rest. She remembers drifting out of consciousness, feeling three bumps and being pulled from her wrecked car moments alter.
At the hospital, doctors wondered why a healthy, athletic 31-year-old woman passed out while driving. An MRI showed a lump on the right side of her neck. A biopsy that day after Thanksgiving revealed that Erica had stage 2 papillary thyroid cancer. Surgery to remove her thyroid and 33 lymph nodes was required, followed by radiation treatment.
“Nothing can prepare you to hear that you have cancer,” said Erica, who had just signed a new lease on her studio’s current Washington Township location. “I had worked so hard to lose weight and get healthy, and I rebounded from an auto-immune disorder. Then cancer.”
Erica thought about Connor, and her will to survive for him. She thought about her budding romance with Danny, who she had met on a blind date set up by a mutual friend that April. It was Danny who served as her rock. He created Fighter Cancer for 44 (www.fc-44.org), a nonprofit organization dedicated to his longtime best friend and Alter classmate, Kurt Murnen, who died from Ewing’s Sarcoma in 1999 at the age of 19.
“He was calm and resilient at a time when I wasn’t,” Erica said. “He was familiar with cancer from his best friend, and then his ex-wife, who survived. He told me, ‘You’ve got this. It’s going to be OK.’ He was right. It was.”
Erica had surgery on January 17, 2019. She then completed radiation treatment and later that year started her new chapter with The Biggest Loser. She was away from home during filming for three months last fall, and then she completed a press tour in February. They married on April 4 at 4:44 p.m. to honor Kurt.
The blended family has three children – Connor, who is now 10; 9-year-old Elise; and 13-year-old Jack – and three dogs. That adjustment has been smooth, the couple agrees. The most prominent challenge? Danny prefers neatness. Erica?
“I like stuff to have its place,” Danny said with a grin. “Erica doesn’t.”
“She leaves clothes in the washing machine for days, and puts peanut butter on a spoon and leaves it in the sink without washing it,” he explained. “The other day, I found a charred English muffin in the back of the oven.”
Erica laughed and defended herself
“He is super organized. He has labels for labels,” she said. “Heaven forbid if tape dispenser is not where it is supposed to be.”
The second time around with marriage, Danny and Erica agree, is special because “you know what you want, and you appreciate each other knowing that you bring out the best in each other.”
Amid the unexpected landscape of 2020, the newly married couple is thriving. Danny owns JEM Designs, which specializes in kitchen and bathroom cabinets. Erica’s Instagram following has climbed to 648,000. She is working on a book that will be released by 2022, and she envisions a talk show. Fit Love Squad (www.fitlovesquad.com) has 2,600 members, and her studio in Centerville is growing. She even has a new supplement company, Fit Love Fuel (www.fitlovefuel.com). She is crafting a plan for a nonprofit that encourages men and women alike to get their thyroid checked. This fall, she returns to The Biggest Loser to a second season, which means three months away from home.
“I’m happy with my life, and it is hard to be away for so long. Fortunately, I have a support system,” she said. “The Biggest Loser has opened doors. It’s up to me to keep the momentum going so I can have a positive impact for the long term.”
Erica hopes that her story about body image after the weight loss and then thyroid cancer resonates with her audience as much as the physical part of her wellness odyssey.
“I’ve lost 160 pounds, gave birth to a baby and faced cancer, so my body has undergone stress,” said Erica, who is now 33 and is one year cancer-free. “My body doesn’t process hormones like a normal’ hormonal regulation system should. However, that does not mean my value is less. That does not mean I’m not strong. That does not mean I’m not worth something. That does not mean I can’t help, inspire, motivate, and educate.”