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When Losing is Winning

Rick Salewske

By the time Rick Salewske turned 28, he had racked up some impressive statistics. He smoked two packs of cigarettes a day, he ate three sandwiches at one sitting, and over the course of nine years he had packed on 100 pounds.

And, that was just the beginning. Rick continued to gain until he weighed 538 pounds. Then, he turned it all around – the old-fashioned way.

A recipe for weight gain

Looking back, the cards seemed stacked against Rick when he moved to Dallas in 1981 – and away from his family in Detroit for the first time – at age 19.

At home there was always tempting food in the fridge, but his mom had strict rules about eating between meals. That structure was missing in Dallas, and so was the big, loving family that kept him busy. He felt the loss deeply, and it started him off on the wrong foot – drinking, smoking, cigarettes and eating junk food.

I was alone a lot, and I used food for comfort," says Rick. "I feasted on ice cream, fast food, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and chips."

Rick had always loved food, but as a high school athlete in Detroit he'd been able to keep his weight down. However, his new job in Dallas put him behind a desk, and the pounds started to add up – he added 60 pounds in the first three years, and by 1990 he weighed 320.

That was the year Rick quit smoking – a smart move. But, for all the health benefits of quitting, there was a downside for Rick. He replaced cigarettes with food and gained even more weight. By the mid-1990s, he weighed 400 pounds.

"As I got bigger, my world got smaller," says Rick. Few clothes fit him. He couldn't fly because airline seats were too small, and when he drove, the steering wheel rubbed his stomach. Dating wasn't in the picture. Instead, he stayed home and ate.

Rick's weight eventually reached 538 pounds. But, even that startling number wasn't enuogh to convince him to lose weight. In the end, Rick's motivation to change started with his family.

Changing direction

When Rick went home for Christmas in 1999, his mom had something to say to him. "She told me my sisters had been crying because they were afraid I was going to die," says Rick. His family is close, and he took their worries to heart.

Shortly thereafter, he got an invitation to his 20th high school reunion. "The last time my high school friends saw me I weighed around 220," says Rick. "I didn't want to walk in there at 538." He didn't go – and that bothered him.

But, what finally pushed Rick in the right direction – toward healthful lifestyle choices – came from a surprising source: his employer. The CEO of his company took him out for dinner and a message. Rick remembers that his boss told him, "I want you working for us for the next 20 years. But, if you don't lose weight, you won't last that long." The concern and support from Rick's company was what it took to finally get the ball rolling.

The joy of losing

Rick knew that if he expended more calories than he took in, he'd lose weight. He felt he could do that without surgery, and he put together a program that balanced diet and exercise so he could start shedding pounds.

The first step was a physical exam. Rick was soon taking medication for newly diagnosed high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Soon, he had an entire team to help him. He worked with a dietitian to come up with an eating plan that would provide 1,500 to 1,800 calories a day of food he enjoyed. A mental health therapist helped Rick learn that he could control what he ate by changing his attitude toward food.

He started becoming more active with the help of a personal trainer. He began with supervised exercise at an aerobics center, walking one-quarter mile at a time. He soon worked up to three miles, five to six days a week. Then one day he surprised himself by jogging a short distance. He worked on his running, and eventually, even participated in a half-marathon.

All the while Rick's weight was dropping – but it wasn't easy. He hit a plateau after the first year, when the pounds became harder to lose. It took a powerful effort to maintain his positive outlook.

You have to keep telling yourself you can do it," says Rick. Keep thinking those mind-changing thoughts, such as 'I'll crave healthful foods,' and 'Water is my beverage of choice.'"

It's an attitude that worked for Rick. Two years after he started, he hit his target weight of 238 pounds – a loss of 300 pounds.

Never give up

At his new, healthful weight, Rick no longer needs medicine for high cholesterol and high blood pressure. He's now married – in fact, he proposed to his wife, Kelly, on the Oprah Winfrey Show. With two young children, his life today is very busy.

But he still makes staying healthy a priority. A big part of that is regular exercise. For Rick, it not only helps him stay fit, it relieves stress as well. He also keeps plenty of fruits and vegetables in the fridge – for himself and his family.

"You have to value healthful eating as much as other important things in your life," says Rick. "Your job, for example – or giving up smoking."

That's good advice for someone at either end of the weight-loss journey. Here's more: Create a support system. Experts, such as your doctor and a dietitian, can get you started. Some people have a hard time dieting on their own. Exercising with friends and family can keep you going.

Rick's most important advice is this: Never give up. With the right attitude, you can lose weight and you can become healthier.

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