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'My heart stopped': How two people saved their own lives by losing weight

July 21, 2014 at 3:22 PM ET

Two people facing serious health issues due to excess weight have gotten a second chance at life by dropping a combined 300 pounds. On this week's Joy Fit Club, the successful dieters revealed their reasons for making the change — and shared the strategies that spurred their amazing transformations. 

A tough intervention

Malarie Burgess' weight struggles began when she was just 6 years old, but it took years for her to realize her health might be at risk. 

"Since I had been fat for as long as I could remember, I just accepted 'this is me' and did not think I was that big," the 27-year-old from Westminster, Maryland, told TODAY. "You don't feel that big when it is you."

When her weight hit 350 pounds, however, a concerned family friend stepped in, sitting down with Burgess for a candid heart-to-heart about her health. 

"It was not easy to hear," Burgess admitted of the conversation. "(But my friend) struck a chord, and I really internalized what she said." 

With help and support from her pal, Burgess made some significant changes to her lifestyle:

  • Dumping liquid sugar: Burgess realized she was regularly drinking a day's worth of calories in sweetened beverages alone. Large soft drinks were a favorite, but "healthy" jumbo juices and creamy smoothies were a problem, too. "I didn't consider that calorie and sugar intake in juice is the same as a soda," Burgess said. 
  • Tracking snacks: To control mindless grazing — her "biggest problem," she said — Burgess began tallying servings with an app. The running calorie count helped her get a handle on portion sizes, slashing her overall intake from more than 4,500 calories a day to a sensible 2,000. 
  • Making a fitness promise: "Exercise was never a part of my daily routine," Burgess admitted. "I read somewhere that it takes 21 days to form a habit, so I got it in my head I would work out for at least 30 minutes every day for three weeks." To that end, Burgess purchased a bike and began cycling. She also followed workout videos at home. Once the fitness habit started to stick, she added strength training and running. 
Joy Fit
TODAY
Malarie Burgess, 27, decided to lose weight after a family friend expressed concern over her size. Thanks to a new lifestyle that includes biking, Burgess dropped 180 pounds and has kept off the weight for two years.

Over time, those tweaks paid off. Two years after starting her weight-loss journey, Burgess is half her original size at just 170 pounds. She's also gone back to school to study exercise science and works as a volunteer coach at a gym. 

"I am much more out of my shell than I used to be," Burgess told TODAY. "I try a lot more things I would not have before. I am just a lot more comfortable in my own skin."

A health scare — and a second chance

Dan Hall, a yo-yo dieter who had a complicated relationship with food, also struggled with weight for most of his life.

"I viewed food as my most enjoyable pastime and as a way that I could wow family and friends with how much I could eat and how good my food was," the 56-year-old from Highland, Michigan, told TODAY. 

Hall's weight eventually crept up to 298 pounds. The husband and father of three recalled that his growing size made him feel "out of control and confused as to why I wasn't feeling any better."

The unwanted pounds took a serious emotional toll. Hall, an outgoing musician, became "way less enthusiastic about performing in public, which is a bad thing for a performer," he said. And during a family visit to an amusement park, Hall was humiliated after waiting hours to ride a roller coaster only to find he was too large to fasten the safety harness. 

Joy Fit
TODAY
Dan Hall, 56, took charge of his health after a near-death experience in the ER. Now down to 178 pounds from 298 pounds, the musician no longer feels self-conscious about performing in public.

Even so, Hall says he didn't commit to changing his life until his life nearly ended. 

During a visit to a hospital emergency room for a series of unexplained fainting spells, Hall's heart stopped beating. Doctors managed to save him, but Hall ultimately went home with a pacemaker and multiple diagnoses, among them high blood pressure, fatty liver disease, thyroid disease and depression. Resolving not to squander his second chance, Hall began to make some serious changes:

  • Filling up on plant-based foods. Hall's former diet was overloaded with meat, high-fat dairy and empty-calorie snacks that spurred overeating, he said. Incorporating more vegetables, fruits and nuts enabled Hall to sate his appetite, improve his overall nutrition and pare calories. 
  • Setting his own meal schedule. "I began eating two meals each day instead of three," Hall explained. He also made a hard and fast rule forbidding late-night nibbling. "I began fasting each day for at least 14 hours (overnight)," he told TODAY. And when the time comes for breakfast, it's "almost always fruit first," he added. 
  • Mastering one key exercise move: Before his brush with death, Hall lived a sedentary lifestyle. That changed when he started doing push-ups every day — only a few at first, then more and more as the weight fell off and his fitness improved. As a bonus, Hall noticed that the joint pain that had nagged him for years began to diminish. 

Hall admits it isn't always easy to stick to his healthy habits — particularly when socializing or dining out — but he's making them work. Three years since his scary experience in the ER, he's lost 120 pounds and is down to 178. His new mantra: Forgo momentary pleasures for true happiness and health. 

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