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Woman who struggled with mobility made small, daily changes and lost 84 pounds

Seeing a photo of herself weighing 318 pounds shocked Mercedes Riley, 53, into changing her lifestyle

In December 2021, Mercedes Riley’s weight had reached a point where her mother was worried about her health. So, her mother staged what Riley called a “private intervention.” Riley says, “She took a picture of me from the side. I had a strong negative reaction to that, but I held my tongue. Afterward, I thanked my mom. She loved me, she helped me see the destruction I was doing to my body, and she did it in a loving and caring manner.”

At 53, Riley weighed 318 pounds and she knew her weight was affecting her health. “It was becoming difficult for me to get around,” she says. In order to stay mobile, Riley carried an umbrella she used as a cane.

“Eventually, I was going to end up with a cane, I was going to end up in a wheelchair, I was going to end up being bedridden, if I kept going the way I was going. I hated what was happening to my body,” she says. Plus, she struggled with mental health issues — she had anxiety and panic attacks and had battled agoraphobia.

Mercede Riley's mother was worried about her health
Mercede Riley's mother was worried about her healthCourtesy Mercedes Riley

Riley made 3 crucial habit changes

After her mother's intervention, Riley realized that she needed to make changes in her life in order to improve her health — and her life. She knew that she was going to have to totally transform her habits, but she decided to start with 3 simple rules to keep her on track:

  • No more sugar
  • No more fast food
  • No more sitting at the computer next to the refrigerator

These modifications snowballed into even more positive changes, and now she’s lost 84 pounds. She wants to lose another 83 pounds, so she’s past her halfway mark. To keep herself moving forward, Riley sets smaller benchmark goals of losing 10 percent of her body weight. Right now she’s three pounds away from losing her third 10 percent.

She shifted her eating habits

Riley looked into weight-loss surgery, and as part of the process, she needed to consult a nutritionist. But there was a two-month wait for appointments, and she wanted to get started right away. So she joined Weight Watchers, and between in-person and online options, she went to a meeting every day. Plus, she followed their eating plan. In the end, Riley didn't need to go forward with the weight-loss surgery.

What Riley eats in a typical day

Riley and her husband plan their meals and portion out foods like lean ground turkey and skinless chicken breast into three-ounce servings. A day’s meals might look like this:

  • Breakfast: Two eggs and a homemade two-ingredient bagel made with self-rising flour and plain, fat-free Greek yogurt
  • Lunch: Three ounces of skinless chicken breast, a half-cup of cooked long-grain brown rice, a cup of vegetables and a sugar-free fruit cup
  • Dinner: Low-carb or lentil pasta with oven-roasted ratatouille

Riley admits that quitting sugar and giving up takeout was hard. “I’m a sugar addict,” she says. “And my family still eats takeout, and that first week was terrible. They would bring home Church’s Fried Chicken—the biscuits are to die for. I stayed out of the kitchen until everyone got their food and the leftover food was tucked away,” she says.

She also recognized that having her computer by the refrigerator tempted her to snack, so she moved it to the dining room table.

Riley started her fitness journey by walking five minutes at a time
Riley started her fitness journey by walking five minutes at a timeCourtesy Mercedes Riley

Riley added movement into her daily routine

With slow, steady changes, Riley went from barely being able to walk to walking 6,500 steps routinely — sometimes hitting 10,000. Because she had limited mobility, she started with stretching and isometric exercises that she could do in a chair. She found an online video with exercises for people who had arthritis or were recovering from surgery.

As Riley got stronger, she started walking for five minutes at a time, and her husband got her a Fitbit so she could track her steps and active minutes. At first, she walked in her backyard because her anxiety made it emotionally difficult for her to walk in her Los Angeles neighborhood. “In my backyard, I had a fence, and I felt safe,” she says. Now she walks in her neighborhood, and her husband often joins her.

She works as a substitute teacher, so she added 15-minute walks during recess, walking the perimeter of the schoolyard while she keeps an eye on the students. And she makes sure to get 250 steps in during most daytime hours. “Before, I would do my 15 minutes of exercise and then sit the rest of the day. I don’t do that anymore,” she says.

She appreciates being able to walk for exercise again: “I used to power walk all the time — I used to be a very active person. I’m enjoying being able to be active again.”

Celebrating non-scale victories is important to Riley
Celebrating non-scale victories is important to RileyCourtesy Mercedes Riley

Now, Riley has a lot of non-scale victories to celebrate

Riley knows that health is bigger than what can be measured by one number on a scale. Here are some important ways her life changed:

  • She can walk longer distances and no longer sees a wheelchair in her future.
  • She can be on her feet as a substitute teacher for hours: “Before, I had to roll a chair, so I had a place to sit. Now, sometimes I don’t sit down until lunchtime.”
  • She’s more flexible: “I can bend down — my big gut is no longer a big gut. I’m getting my figure back.”
  • Her mobility has improved and she’s no longer angry about her limitations.
  • She’s wearing size 2X clothing, down from size 5X.
  • Her anxiety has improved, so she can walk a bit more outdoors: “For my mental health, I decided to walk to a house beyond my comfort zone — that would be my anchor. I cross the street, walk down the street, cross over to where the house is and walk back.”
  • She’s more confident and happier in all phases of her life: “I am physically happier. I am mentally happier. I am spiritually happier.”
  • While she has some loose skin, she says she’s proud of it: “It shows how much I’ve come through.”
Riley's anxiety has improved and now she spends more time outdoors
Riley's anxiety has improved and now she spends more time outdoorsCourtesy Mercedes Riley

Riley continuously connects with support

Riley understands that when you make significant changes in your life, it’s easier to succeed when you can turn to others. She joined a Facebook group for people who are morbidly obese, and a member there shared a link for the Start TODAY Facebook group. “Quite a few of us checked it out. Many of us were not able to do everything exactly, but we joined and decided we were going to do 30 days of movement,” she says. (On Facebook, she uses the name Rosry Chaplet.)

She also gets support from her husband and family, Weight Watchers, and the FitBit community. “I’ve incorporated everything,” she says. “I needed support. I needed help. I could not do it by myself.”

"I could not do it by myself."
"I could not do it by myself."Courtesy Mercedes Riley

Here’s how journaling helps her work toward her goals

When Riley decided to lose weight and improve her health, she started journaling. She found a format that works for her. On the left side, she records what she ate, what she did for exercise and how many steps she walked. She includes photos and charts her weight. Her essays are on the right: “Those are my write-ups of what happened and how I felt the day went.” She fills a journal every season, and she’s working on her fourth journal now.