Kerri Hwang, a 34-year old middle school cafeteria worker from Burleson, Texas, has struggled with her weight for years. At her heaviest in 2017, she topped the scales at 316 pounds.
"I may have gained even more weight, but I stopped getting on the scale after that," she recalls ruefully.
But 18 months ago, Kerri wandered into a local gym at the advice of a friend — and left motivated to get herself into better physical shape. Today, she's gone from being barely able to walk around the block to deadlifting 300 pounds. Here's her story, in her own words.
Just One Gym Session Sparked the Motivation I Needed
I've been overweight my entire life and have always struggled with my self-esteem. Over the years, I bounced through every single diet and supplement you can imagine: Weight Watchers, Plexus, Herbalife, Slimfast, Hydroxycut. Nothing worked. I never lost more than 30 pounds, and I still wasn't happy with what I saw in the mirror.
Then, one of the women I'd met through one of my diet attempts suggested I try an exercise session with her trainer at her gym. I went, and I loved it. Even though I had severe back pain, I found I could do basic moves like air squats and light weight-lifting. I felt strong, and capable, and proud of myself.
After that, I was hooked. I kept wanting to go back to that gym, which was filled with so many warm, welcoming, supportive folks. I felt like I had truly met my people. After a couple weeks, my clothes were big on me, and I realized the exercise program was working.
Read more: 'How I Lost 70 Pounds Before I Turned 50'
How Strength-Training and Macro-Counting Helped Me Lose the Weight
At the beginning, it was all about strength training. I went twice a week for personal training sessions at my gym. We broke it up by body parts: At the beginning of the week, we'd do an hour of upper-body exercises, such as lat pull downs, back extensions, chest presses and bicep curls, and then later in the week, an hour of lower-body activity such as lunges, squats and abdominal work like crunches.
As I gradually got into better shape, my trainer added little 30-second spurts of physical activity like marching in place or jumping jacks between the exercises in my workout.
I know cardio is always touted as a way to lose weight, but I think it's a tool that can be abused sometimes. My trainer never forced it on me — he just encouraged me to be more active.
Before I started exercising, I would sit all the time. But I made it a goal to get in 10,000 steps a day. I began taking walks on my lunch break, parking farther away from the office or grocery store and, instead of watching TV, going outside with my 11-year-old daughter to play with the dogs. I tried to sit as little as possible — when I was on the phone, for example, I'd stand up and walk around.
"I quickly realized my problem: I was restrictively calorie-counting, not macro-counting. Once I adjusted my protein intake, I saw the results really pay off in terms of my strength-training goals."
As I got into better shape and began to feel better, I found I naturally gravitated toward wanting to eat a healthy diet. I realized that I didn't have to restrict foods I loved, like cookies, entirely — it was all about just eating everything in the right amount.
I started simple, with LIVESTRONG.com's MyPlate app. It helped me set daily goals in the important food groups: three servings each of fruit, veggies and whole grains, as well as at least 6 ounces of protein.
Then, in April 2019, I hired a nutrition coach who helped me fine-tune it. She gave me advice on how many fat, carb and protein grams I should eat every day, and encouraged me to log them so I'd get a better sense of how much I should be eating.
I quickly realized my problem: I was restrictively calorie-counting, not macro-counting. I was eating more carbs and fat than I needed, for example, but not nearly enough protein. Once I adjusted my protein intake, I saw the results really pay off in terms of my strength-training goals. That was more proof that I was on the right path!
'My Self-Doubt Was the Biggest Challenge I Had to Overcome'
Up until recently, I've always had a little voice in my head whispering that I'm not good enough. But I'm not the person I was two years ago. The changes I've made — not only in my physical appearance, but mentally and emotionally — are insane. My weight always made me shy because I didn't want people to look at me for fear I'd be seen as fat and gross.
Now, I'm totally OK with who I am. I'm not afraid to go to the pool anymore with my daughter, or get into a bathing suit at the beach, or run around with her at our local playground. I'm not afraid to try a new fitness class at my local rec center, and I'm not afraid to be silly and laugh when I'm out and about with my husband.
'I Gave Myself Permission to Invest in My Health'
At first, I balked at spending money on a trainer. But the more I thought about it, I realized that over the years I'd already lost so much money on meal plans and workout DVDs and exercise memberships, that it was worth a try. It's the best financial investment I've ever made.
I found a wonderful support system at my gym — first my trainer, then all the other clients who became my friends. Now, my husband and I just automatically calculate my personal training costs as part of our monthly budget. It's what I love, and working out keeps me healthy — it's not a chore or an obligation.
"We all want instant results, but losing weight is about changing your lifestyle. You have to be consistent, and you also have to get out of your comfort zone to make those necessary changes."
Three times a week, I pick up my daughter from school and she hangs out and plays on her iPad while I work out. I joke that these times are also like therapy sessions. If I'm having a bad day, I can talk to others while exercising and work through my problems.
My Best Piece of Advice for Others
Never give up. We all want instant results, but losing weight is about changing your lifestyle. You have to be consistent, and you also have to get out of your comfort zone to make those necessary changes.
One of the biggest adjustments I had to make was the idea that I could make room in my diet for occasional indulgences. Every night, I reward myself with a small sweet treat, like two to three mini Reese's white chocolate peanut butter cups. I always thought it was a luxury I couldn't afford, but it turns out it's only an extra 80 to 120 calories.
Yes, sometimes I get impatient and want my weight to fall off more quickly — but then I go shopping and realize that just a year ago I would never have been able to find anything in a regular department store that would have fit me. On those days or weeks when the scale doesn't seem to budge, I remind myself that I'm still losing inches around my arms and thighs and dropping clothing sizes. And I feel so much better! That's what's most important.