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It all started with a scale. It was the winter of 2013, and I had been feeling lethargic and unhappy for many years.

I remembered seeing myself in photos at my son’s high school graduation back in 2007; I hadn’t liked what I saw then. Now I was 56 and nothing had changed. I decided it was time to stop trying to hide from cameras and face the facts.

So for Christmas, I asked my son for a scale. When I stood on it, I didn’t like the number staring back at me: 252.5 pounds. I started thinking, What if I get old and sick? I don’t want to be a burden to my son.

A few weeks later, on March 2, 2014, I awoke determined to change. I had been so focused on raising my son that I had lost myself. Now I realized I had to focus on my health so I would be there for him in the future. It was a light-bulb moment.

I’d been a lifelong dieter. Nutri-system, Weight Watchers, Atkins — you name it, I had tried it. I knew I could lose weight, but I had never been able to keep it off. I was determined to do something different this time: I was going to change my life, not just my weight.

Starting Point

I hadn’t always been like this. As a child growing up in a Minneapolis suburb, I played outside a lot. In my teens and 20s I loved playing softball. As a young woman, I knew Jane Fonda’s workouts by heart, and I enjoyed running and biking.

I was working full-time in a bank when my son was born in 1989. Despite being on my feet all day, I gained 62 pounds while pregnant and didn’t lose an ounce while on maternity leave. With my life centered on working and caring for my son, I didn’t make time for myself.

In 1992 I left the bank to work at a printing company. It was a much more sedentary job, and a typical weekday consisted of sitting at my desk from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. with an hour lunch break — usually a burger and fries from McDonald’s or a slice of pizza. I would come home exhausted and snooze, maybe take my dogs for a short walk, pick up some more fast food for dinner, and then sit in front of the TV while snacking on chips and sweets until 9 or 10 p.m. The more I ate, the less I moved. It literally wore me out.

Already overweight, I quickly gained another 10 pounds after changing jobs. Over the years, I continued to put on weight.

One Step at a Time

So there I was in the spring of 2014, a 56-year-old woman who was aging, obese, out of shape, and unhappy. But I was determined to take back my health and my life.

I set a goal to walk at least five days a week. At first, I walked a mile at a time, but I kept pushing myself to go farther. By the summer, I was walking three-and-a-half miles a day. My dog loved it.

I made other changes, too. I cancelled my cable TV and set a goal of reading one book a week. Instead of watching TV and snacking, I walked and read — that was my new entertainment.

I stopped buying sweet snacks and potato chips. I drank more water and cut back on Diet Coke. Instead of eating out, I prepared meals at home: a salad or sandwich for lunch; carrots, chips and salsa, or an apple for a snack; and grilled meats and vegetables for dinner.

I was achieving my walking goal, and I was eating better. I lost weight and began to see a physical difference. Others around me started to notice the changes, too.

Yet, seven months later and 50 pounds lighter, I still felt empty.

With another brutal Minnesota winter around the corner, I knew I needed a different plan to stay active. So I joined Life Time and decided to hire a personal trainer to teach me how to use the equipment.

It was a life-changing decision.

Training Ground

I signed up for 12 weeks of personal-training sessions in November 2014. That was when Joey Gangelhoff came into my life.

We started with the basics. Even though I could walk three-and-a-half miles outside with my dog, the treadmill was a challenge. I could do only a mile and a half. After a few weeks, I pushed it up to three miles, then four miles, then five, and then faster — walking and running for an hour or more a day.

Joey showed me how to do lunges, squats, and other exercises to improve my core strength and balance. Eventually, I began doing these with weights.

He taught me even more about nutrition, adding more protein, healthy fats, and good carbs along with vitamins and supplements.

He challenged, encouraged, and supported me. When I felt frustrated, he would tell me, “This is a process, not a race.”

Joey helped me find my self-worth.

He also convinced me to stop drinking Diet Coke.

We kept building from there, and I was a model student — except I had a secret: At some point, I thought, I’m going to have to tell him that I smoke.

I knew it was ridiculous that I would have a cigarette in the car on the way home from a workout or after a long walk with my dog. But I was having trouble admitting it. I had tried to quit numerous times before but always turned to food instead (and gained weight as a result). Plus, I wasn’t sure I wanted to quit.

I finally came clean one day when Joey mentioned another client’s struggle to quit smoking. I looked at him and said, “Well, you haven’t gotten me to quit.”

He was shocked!

Going Cold Turkey

I had my last cigarette on March 2, 2015, exactly one year after my epiphany. The first nine days were hell. On day 10, I woke up and felt better. I haven’t looked back.

By summer 2015, I had lost 97 pounds.

A few months ago, I showed Joey my “before” picture and started crying. “I remember how empty and sad I felt,” I told him when he asked why I was crying. I had lost myself. I had forgotten who I was.

Now, at 59, I’m stronger and fitter than I’ve ever been. I’m no longer ruled by cravings. I wake up happy. I’m more confident. My boss tells me I’m friendlier and more outgoing. And during the journey, I’ve made some amazing friends for life.

Success Summary

Meet: Cindy Kelly, 59, Maple Grove, Minn., a customer-service manager for a printing company; single mom of one son, age 27.

  • Big Achievements: Losing 97 pounds and keeping it off through a combination of sustainable exercise and healthy-eating habits; quitting smoking after several years.
  • Big Inspirations: Her son and her trainer. She knew she wanted to be around for her son for the long haul; her trainer gave her the tools to change.
  • What Worked: Being open and honest with her trainer about her struggles; her trainer’s weekly support, in addition to support from friends, family, and even her boss.
  • What Didn’t Work: Keeping secrets. Cindy was afraid to tell her trainer she smoked because she worried that quitting might trigger stress eating. Eventually, she realized that facing the truth, seeking help, and being accountable were crucial to success.
  • Words of Wisdom: “If you’re struggling with a weight issue, just try every day to do better than the day before. If you’re truly trying, it will work.”

Photography by Lydia Anderson

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