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I’ve struggled with my weight for most of my life. In kindergarten, I was overweight at 85 pounds. In my first year of college, I gained way more than the typical Freshman 15.

I’ve tried a lot of diets over the years, but they always left me feeling deprived. Usually, I ended up binge eating.

When I met my husband, Adam, I stopped dieting altogether. We ate out frequently, and we both gradually gained weight.

After getting married in 2007, I gave birth to our daughter in August 2008. Less than 16 months later, I had our son. I put on more pounds after each pregnancy, but I felt like I didn’t have time to lose weight. I was busy being a mom, working at a daycare center, and eventually launching my own childcare business.

My wake-up call came in 2012. Adam and I were having trouble conceiving baby number three, and I wondered if it was because of my weight. And then, when I saw family photos from a recent summer vacation, I was shocked at how huge I looked. How did I let my weight get so out of control? I needed to change — for myself and for our family.

Facing Reality

I took “before” photos in a tan T-shirt and stretch pants. I weighed 331 pounds and looked tired and depressed.

My weight-loss efforts started with a prepackaged shake diet that helped me lose 30 pounds in just three months. It was encouraging, but I knew it wasn’t sustainable.

I got pregnant again in 2013, but miscarried shortly after. In the months that followed, I grieved and worried. Had I let myself get so unhealthy that we couldn’t have another baby? Not long after, I got pregnant again — and miscarried again. I was heartbroken.

My doctor assured me obesity wasn’t a primary factor in the miscarriages, but I still blamed myself. Adam and I both wanted a third child, but my instincts told me it wouldn’t happen if I didn’t lose weight.

Healthier Habits

A friend had been raving about Zumba, a Latin dance–inspired class at our local gym, so I agreed to join her one night in February 2014. Nervous and self-conscious, I stood way in the back so no one could see me.

Zumba wasn’t easy, especially at first. I weighed about 300 pounds, so quick movements were tough. Plus, I didn’t know the steps: I moved right when the rest of the class went left. Still, I loved the high-energy music and the smiles on my classmates’ faces. The instructor was kind and encouraging. “There are no mistakes in Zumba,” she told me, “only accidental solos.” People assured me it would get easier if I stuck with it. So I did.

I didn’t know it then, but Zumba would become a game-changer for my weight-loss journey. I attended class three times a week and started to learn the moves and additional routines, like strength training, that the teacher added to the mix.

At first, burpees and jumping jacks were difficult, and for months I modified the movements according to what my body could handle. The night I finally pulled off my first jumping lunge, I whooped with joy.

Gradually, the pounds melted away — about 2 per week. In addition to taking Zumba and strength-training classes, I tracked my diet using an online calorie counter, which taught me about portion control. I focused on eating lean proteins, vegetables, and gluten-free whole grains while avoiding sweets — especially ice cream, my main weakness. I reserved that as a special treat once a month.

My husband has always been our chief cook, but we began to plan meals together so we weren’t tempted to order out. On weekends, we did food prep, like cooking a chicken so it was available all week.

In July 2014, I was down to 220 pounds and discovered I was pregnant again. I lowered the intensity of my Zumba routines. I was afraid of losing another baby, but I knew that staying the healthy course was the best thing for me and my family.

At times, I worried about gaining the weight I’d worked so hard to lose. Still, I knew some increase was necessary for the baby. I just kept eating well and listening to my body. In April 2015, our healthy baby boy arrived.

Faster, Stronger, Happier

Our dream for a third child had come true, but my fitness quest wasn’t over. I gradually ramped up my weightlifting, because building muscle was transforming my body. For added self-motivation, I got certified as a Zumba instructor.

I also discovered a surprising passion for running. In the past, I hated it — I feared I would pass out from the exertion — but once my weight dipped below 200, it became easier. I challenged myself with a 10-mile run, then a 10K race, and eventually a half-marathon.

Because I gained energy as I lost weight, it was easier to keep moving forward toward my original goal: 165 pounds, half my starting weight. I started leading occasional daycare walks with the kids (I opened my own in-home business in June 2010), and rather than feeling exhausted after a day of work, I had enough energy to play or ride bikes with my family.

In December 2015, I reached that special 165 mark. Even better, making healthy choices has become a family affair; Adam has lost 50 pounds. Because children mimic their parents, I feel good knowing we’re now modeling an active lifestyle for our kids.

Staying Inspired

I always try to focus on the positive, but there were plenty of times when I thought, No way can I do this. The road was so long, and I had to be dedicated every day. People often ask, “How did you lose so much weight?” I like to tell them, “I didn’t lose 185 pounds; I lost 1 pound, 185 times.”

Instead of letting those bad days define me, I pushed through them. I remember one afternoon when my run felt terrible and I almost quit. But the next day, I went running again and recorded my best time ever.

A couple of years ago, I started posting before-and-after photos on Instagram to remind myself how far I’ve come (@tessasweightlossjourney); it also helps me stay accountable. Thousands of followers cheer me on and say I inspire them — I can’t give up now.

Today, I weigh 146 pounds and am no longer trying to lose weight; my new goal is to increase my strength-training efforts and build more muscle.

Two years after I started, I stand in the front row of Zumba class and rock it out. It’s been quite a journey, but I’ve loved it — and myself — every step of the way.

Success Summary

Meet: Tessa Leen, 32, a self-employed childcare provider in Kasson, Minn.

Big Achievement: Losing 185 pounds in four years. During her journey, Leen had two miscarriages before ultimately giving birth to her third healthy child.

Big Inspiration: “My family took a group photo on vacation, and when I saw it on social media, I didn’t recognize myself. I knew I had to make a change. Now I post that photo on ‘Transformation Tuesdays’ next to a picture of the healthier, fitter me!”

What Worked: Dietary improvements, plus the trifecta of Zumba, strength training, and running. Posting daily updates on social media also fueled her success. Her husband supported her by caring for the kids so she could hit the gym.

What Didn’t Work: Quick-fix diets and home-exercise videos were a no-go. “Exercising with a group keeps me from giving up.”

Words of Wisdom: “Don’t think about how many total pounds you need to lose. Instead, set small weekly goals like drinking more water or going for a walk during lunch breaks. The next week, add something else. Eventually the little things add up to something pretty big. Once you gain momentum, you’ll be unstoppable.”

Photography by: Melanie Swanson Photography

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