Sometimes, your body will whisper to you that it’s time to get healthy: shortness of breath, needing to lean on the bed for support while putting on a pair of pants. Sometimes, it will shout it from the rooftops: a bout of illness or a sudden injury. Seven years ago, over the course of several months, my body did both.
Although I had been overweight almost my whole life, it wasn’t until I was 43 that I began to feel sluggish and slow. For a while, I chose to ignore these more subtle warning signs. Then, one day in late 2006, while my partner and I were adding a pergola to the back of our house, my body decided to get loud.
While I was carrying one end of a 12-foot crossbeam up a ladder, I started sweating heavily, I felt my energy level crash, and I had to sit down. Suddenly my mind flashed on an image of my dad, who suffered four heart attacks by the time he was 45.
That’s when I got scared.
When I went to the doctor after that episode, she confirmed my worst fears. I weighed 280 pounds, I was hypertensive, and my cholesterol levels were out of control. She looked me in the eye and told me that if I didn’t lose weight, I’d likely be on medication for the rest of my life.
A Slow, Steady Start
I’ve been heavy ever since I was a kid. I grew up on fried chicken and Hamburger Helper. When I got older, I spent long hours as a freelance illustrator sitting at my desk, and most evenings vegetating on the couch. My diet never improved, and our house was filled with processed cookies and crackers, pizza, ice cream, and gallons of soda.
I knew that developing new habits would be difficult, so I consulted a trusted therapist who had helped me through hard times in the past. She told me the only way to make long-term change was to undo old behaviors and create new ones. I knew she was right, so I got to work.
I decided to make small, sustainable tweaks in my diet. I started by cutting out just three foods: pizza, cheese and ice cream. I told myself I could eat anything else, just not those things. Slowly, I made other changes. I switched out pasta and rice with freekeh, an ancient grain with lots of protein and fiber. I prepared healthy stir-fries with lots of veggies, edamame and cayenne peppers. Instead of big bowls of sweet cereal, I consumed steel-cut oatmeal with no-sugar-added peanut butter.
As I changed my mealtime habits, I also added a little bit of exercise to each day, usually a 30-minute walk around my neighborhood. A few months later, I joined a local health club (although I must admit I paid the bill for a month or two before I ever set foot in the building).
Even after I started going to the gym, I sometimes had panic attacks in the car before I walked in the front door. I didn’t feel good in my body and I didn’t want anyone to look at me. My therapist convinced me that this needed to be one of my new, everyday patterns, though, so every single day I gathered the courage to at least go in and walk on the treadmill, even if it was for just 15 minutes.
The positive results were slow but steady. Almost every week I lost a pound or two, and that kept me motivated. By the spring of 2007, I had lost 30 pounds.
Gaining Focus, Losing Weight
My health was improving, but in mid-2007, I had broken up with my partner and was struggling financially. To supplement my illustration income, I got a job in a grocery store cooking featured food products for customers.
It was there I met Kenny, a regular customer who was a personal trainer. He had noticed that I was losing weight and told me I could make even bigger changes if I started training with him. He was persuasive, so I committed to three sessions a week for a month.
During Kenny’s assessment of me on our first day, I couldn’t hold a plank for five seconds. Not only did I not have any core strength, I didn’t even understand what my “core” was. It was a hard moment: I was ashamed about being obese, and I had to confront the fact that my own actions had led me there. But I felt empowered by admitting my failures and making a commitment to live a better, healthier and more balanced life.
Kenny coaxed me out of my treadmill monotony with circuits and resistance training on machines. As I got stronger, I moved to more complex, multijoint exercises.
I worked with Kenny off and on for a year, and I lost weight steadily. By mid-2008, I had reached a major milestone: At 199 pounds, I had dropped under 200 for the first time in years.
When I struggled to maintain my motivation, Kenny was my safety net. His support pushed me to achieve more and helped keep me on track.
A Path to Lasting Change
I continued to get leaner over the next year or so, and by early 2010, I had achieved a more consistent weight range of 150 to 160 pounds. More than ever before, I feel connected to my body and proud of myself.
The changes that came with my weight loss weren’t just in my appearance: I could do so much more. At the grocery store, I occasionally had to haul 50-pound bags of files up a ladder. I could barely do it when I started. But after a while, I was flying up and down the rungs. I didn’t have to hold on to anything when I put on my pants. I could stand on one leg forever. It’s no problem — because now I’ve got a really strong core.
Certainly, stressful situations still threaten my new lifestyle. Last year, when my brother and mom died, it shook me hard, and I slipped back into familiar unhealthy eating habits. Consciously, I knew it was wrong, but for a while I just didn’t really care. After several weeks, though, I started to feel like the old, overweight me again. My weight crept up to 177, and the thought of backsliding more scared me enough to get me on track with both my workouts and better eating habits.
During this process, I’ve discovered how strong I really am, both physically and mentally. And I’ve learned to give myself a break for the slips I have when a crisis occurs. The changes I’ve made, combined with all the things I’ve learned along the way, give me confidence that I’ll never be that 280-pound woman I used to be.
Meet: Bonnie Matthews, 49, business owner in Minneapolis.
Big Achievement: Losing 130 pounds and keeping it off.
Big Inspiration: Avoiding the health struggles that plagued family members.
What Worked: Focusing on better foods, not fewer calories. “I didn’t need a book to know that foods with tons of artificial ingredients weren’t good for me.”
What Didn’t Work: Envying others. “I got so mad at thin, fit people at the gym because I thought they didn’t need to be there. Later, many of those same people confided that they admired my dedication, and that I served as inspiration for their own workout goals. I realized that everyone has struggles.”
Words of Wisdom: Focus on incremental changes. “You can’t lose 100 pounds in a month, but you might be able to lose 8. That might not sound like much, but it’s really good. And you can build on that.”