Published January 2, 2021

How I Lost 80 Lbs (ep. 2)

by Helen M. Ryan
Helen Ryan before after

Trying to get motivated to exercise, lose weight, or make a change?

EPISODE SUMMARY: This is a coached walk and podcast. Grab your shoes and walk with me. This episode: How I lost over 80 pound. This episodes gives you a little insight into my background, my lifelong struggle with food and weight, and outlines in detail how I finally lost the excess weight I'd be carrying around for years. Getting back into shape changed my life...and gave me the ability to help others.


  • My long-running fight with weight and food
  • What finally got me motivated to lose weight
  • How I lost over 80 pounds in 10 months while still eating chocolate
  • How to overcome your own challenges
  • Why giving in now and again is OK
  • Why saying you "blew it" needs to be banished from your thoughts


21 Days to Change Your Body (and Your Life)
21 Days to Change Your Body (and Your Life) Pocket Guide


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Have you ever been reverse catcalled? You might wonder, what is reverse catcalling? Well, that is instead of somebody whistling at you or shouting what they think is a compliment, they just take the time to roll down their window and shout, "Lose weight!" as you walk by. And yes, my friends, I have been reverse catcalled.

I'm going to tell you a little bit about myself today and why I do what I do. When I was younger, I didn't really have any weight problems. 

When I was a teenager, I started comfort eating because I was going through a lot of trauma and stress in my personal life, and the only way I knew how to cope with it was eating. My mother was an alcoholic so she would drink, I would eat. We made for a lovely pair.

Yet, I exercised all the time. I was more like an exercise bulimic. I would eat, eat, eat, then the next day, I would exercise, exercise, exercise...because you can't exercise and eat on the same day, right? At least that was my reasoning

I was what we would refer to as a “normal weight” as a teenager. I thought I was fat but I wasn't. I went to Greece with my sister and her friends when I was 16 and I would not wear a bathing suit or shorts because I thought it was hideously fat. In reality, I was pretty slim even though I had eating issues because I did exercise a lot. I probably also had a faster metabolism.

That all caught up with me as I got a little bit older. So when I was 18, I returned to the US from Norway where I grew up. I started working, and then I would go running every morning at 5:30am. So, again, I would balance the eating with the exercising.

I started teaching aerobics. Back then there were no certifications or any kind of training. 

Then everything started to change. My metabolism started to change and so the food that I was eating began to pile up on my butt, my hips, my tummy. So I started to become a little more uncomfortable in my own skin.

I moved into my own apartment when I was about 19 and I wasn't making a lot of money at my job. I worked two jobs. I worked a full-time job in an office and then worked a night-time job at Waldenbooks, which up until today has been one of my all-time favorite jobs. I also worked on the weekends and went to college at night on the days I wasn't working at night. So that was burning the candle at 4,000 ends.

I still wasn't making enough money to support the basic life that I had. So I didn't have a lot of money even for food. There was a 1-2 week period - I still remember - where I was really hungry because I barely had anything to eat. Then I found a packet of soy sauce - probably at work in the break room - and I drank that little packet of soy sauce so I could see what it was like to have the taste of food in my mouth again.

Then I moved in with two roommates. One of them was going to be my future husband and they were both working in the food industry. There was a pretty decent amount of food because they both knew how to cook and they left a lot of extra food around. I finally started to eat more food again; then I really couldn't stop.

I felt like whenever I got stressed, whenever something was bothering me, I would just eat. Instead of dealing with whatever issues I was facing, eating would give me that comfort.

As my ex and I moved out into our own place, I continued with the eating and didn't exercise as much. I was still teaching a little bit. Back then, I think it was step or high low aerobics. I started to get in worse and worse shape because my metabolism had changed and I wasn’t exercising as much. I was starting to really gain weight.

That's when I got my beautiful catcall when somebody shouted, "Lose weight!" out of their car window at me. But I really wasn't even that heavy so I don't know what that was all about.

The weight just kept piling up and before my wedding, I was a little more motivated and lost 30 lbs. It was hard, but I had something really important to look forward to, which was fitting into my wedding dress. So I was able to lose weight. I worked out. I tried not to eat as much.

Then after the wedding, it slowly started to pile back on again. As things got a little more difficult in life, I just kept on eating, and eating, and eating. Eventually, we got our own house and I had kids. And little by little, the stress of having my first baby - especially one who didn't like to sleep - that was fun. I would be up every hour and a half, then all I would do was eat because I was so tired.

Then the second child came along and I had a toddler and a baby, which was my license to eat everything in sight. Because it's very difficult being a parent and I didn't really have anybody to help me. I just turned to food.

Sometimes I would wait till everybody had gone to bed — I'd put everybody to bed, read the stories, my ex had gone to bed, and I would just sit on the sofa finally take a moment for myself — and I would be looking down into the ice cream container. It was a gallon container, mind you, not the pints. Pints are for amateurs. The gallon with a spoon; that's for a pro. That's what I used to do. My weight just kept skyrocketing.

Back to my story… at 54, I can't always remember where I left off. A little bit later on in my life — when the kids were probably five and seven or eight — my father, who I was very close to, developed aggressive lung cancer. And those five months where I took care of him, ran my business, took care of the kids, took them to school, volunteered…  those were very difficult months for me. Of course, they were more difficult for my dad and my stepmother. It was a challenge trying to balance everything. My stepmother didn't drive so I would take her back and forth to the hospital when he finally went into hospice.

Eventually, my father passed away. It was one of the most difficult days in my entire life, just watching this strong, vibrant, amazing man be so thin and emaciated and in a coma in bed. It was really hard for me to let him go, but I had to let him go, and I was crushed.

So the first month or so after he passed away, I continued to eat. I continue to wallow in my sorrow because it was terrible grief. It was heart-wrenching grief and I would eat my grief away, which is a pattern of my life. A month or so after he passed away, I decided just to become a little more healthy. Not to lose weight and diet because I'd failed like 1,000 times before.

When I was younger, every week I'd mark on the calendar what weight I wanted to be by Friday. And every Friday, I would scratch it out because I didn't make it and I would start again. So my calendar was full of X's, full of failures, the things that I failed at. Then I just tried be a little bit healthier. Like, “I'm going to walk the kids to school.” So I did. The weather was still nice. It was about a 20-minute walk to school.

About four days a week I'd walk the kids to school. Then after about a month of that, I started to make little changes. Like I was a vegetarian who did not eat vegetables. So I added a little bit more fruits and vegetables to my diet instead of just cookies and brownies and ice cream. Not being too strict; just changing it a little bit. Then I started to do a 20-minute workout in the morning in my living room at 5:30M when everybody was still asleep.

So instead of staying up late to eat ice cream, I was getting up early to exercise. Just 20 minutes, that was it; abs one day, arms one day, legs the other day. But combined with the walking and just eating a little bit better with fruits and vegetables — after three months I lost 29 pounds. My neighbor was out by the mailbox and he asked, "Did you lose weight?" That's when I finally told someone and I finally thought that, "You know what, I'm going to make it this time." It'd been a long time since I'd lost any weight like that, consistently.

Then I tried to eat just a little bit better, and a little better, and a little better still. Then after five months, I decided, “You know what? I'm going to start spinning. I want to try to at least take a spinning class.” For some reason, I'd always wanted to do it because, years before, I'd been a fitness instructor. I remembered how good it felt to make my body accomplish something.

So I did. I took a class. It was really scary. I took my first class; it was hell. When I got off the bike, my legs were so shaky. I could barely stand but I felt really good. I felt like this little spark inside me had been re-lit. I made it through class. I didn't die. Yeah, it was hard. I couldn't stand up (on the bike), I couldn't do a lot of things that the other people could, but I did it. I made it through class.

Then I started to take a few more classes here and there. I cleaned up my diet just a little more. And by the next summer, I'd lost over 80 pounds. I went from a size 20 to a size 4. The total took about 10 months and I really didn't go crazy with the diet. I didn't avoid carbs. In fact, I had chocolate chips with my oatmeal every morning. I wanted something to look forward to.

Later on, I became certified to teach spinning and I also became a personal trainer because I really wanted to work with people and help them because I know what it's like. I know how hard it is. I know how hard it is to get started. I know what it feels like when people don't understand; when you're at a family gathering and someone says, "Here, have a piece of cake, have a cookie. One won't hurt." At some point in your life, it does hurt because one cookie can lead to a week-long binge. I understand all of that. I felt all of it and I wanted to help people.

Since then, I have kept most of the weight off. I've gone up and down maybe 10 pounds depending on what I'm doing and how I'm feeling. And I just try to do what I can in my day because everybody's day gets busy. We can't always do an hour workout. We can't always eat really clean and that's okay because when I die, I want my tombstone to say, "Helen lived an amazing life." I don't want it to say, "Wow. She really didn't eat anything fattening." 

I just want to have a balanced life. I think that's what most of us want.

I wrote a book in 2012 because I really wanted to give people some basic common sense advice. It's called “21 Days to Change Your Body (and Your Life).” I really wanted to get people started on the right track without being too strict or without going crazy. It was an Amazon bestseller. Then in 2018, I wrote a little companion guide that put the best tips from the book into an easy pocket guide so then you can refresh yourself, because you forget when you read a book. You forget when you listen to something. You forget the little things that will help you through challenging situations.

So this way, you can just look through it and you can just find something for that day to motivate you. Most of my clients — when I've had training clients —they've been trying to lose 50 pounds and over. 

It's not that I can't train a six-pack crowd. I can, but I don't want to. I want to work with people that I can relate to. I want to work with people who want to work hard and make a change, but who really want to do the things in life that they want to do physically and that's why they're doing. Not to fit into a bikini. 

They're doing it because they want to play with their kids, their fur babies, their grandkids. They want to go on a hike.

One of my clients wanted to get back on the paddleboard. We worked on her balance, we worked on her strength, and she got on the paddleboard again! It was such an amazing moment for me when she sent me the video. 

So it's all about getting fitter in your own life, weighing a weight that you're comfortable with, not worrying about a size, and being able to do the things you want to do. That's why I do what I do because I want to tell people, "You know what, it's okay to have a cookie. You don't have to binge the rest of the day."

One of the analogies I wrote in my book — which I really like — is that you have $20 to spend on a purse and that's all you have. I know you can't get a purse for $20 but let's just pretend. Then you go and spend $100 on a purse. 

Well, now you blew your budget. So now you're going to take your rent money, your utility money, and you're just going to spend it all because you already blew your budget. 

That doesn't make any sense, right? That sounds ridiculous. But that is what we do with food. 

When we eat a cookie, we say we've blown it and that gives us a license to continue to eat and eat and eat and eat. And that's what makes it really difficult is because we're so ingrained with that mentality. It's really hard to be successful until you can change that; until a cookie is just a cookie. Once you can get a better relationship with food, once you can eat a cookie and be like, "Okay, I'm going to have a cookie. Yay!" and just continue on with the same good habits, that's when you have permanent and lasting change.

That's what I try to work with people on; how to take the power out of food and give it back to you.

I will see you next time on Walking and Talking.