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These days, 33-year-old Leandie Williams loves to travel and explore the outdoors — she recently went zip lining in Asia, and often goes hiking and swimming near her home in South Africa. But four years ago, those feats were nearly impossible.
Williams, who lives in a town called Port Elizabeth, was on a flight to Johannesburg for work when she realized she couldn't fit the seat belt across her lap. At the time, she weighed 275 pounds.
"I was too embarrassed to tell anyone that the seat belt didn't fit and I was scared that alarm bells or something would go off," she told TODAY. "The flight attendant walked past and I kind of covered it up, so she couldn't see it wasn't fastened."
"Just knowing that it was my fault, that I'd compromised my safety, was a big thing for me," Williams continued. "It probably made the biggest impact on me to change my life. I'd been overweight for about eight years, but I didn't know it had become so bad that I couldn't fit in chairs anymore."
There were other signs that her weight was a serious problem: Williams had recently been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, she was having trouble finding pants that fit and she couldn't walk more than a few steps without getting winded. She'd also gotten some tough love from her closest friend: her mother.
"She was the only one who was honest with me," Williams said. "She said, 'You need to do something — it's out of control. You're so overweight.'"
"I was livid, so angry," she continued. "I looked at her and said, 'How could you say this to your child?' Everyone else, they lie to you: 'You're great the way you are.' That's good and well, but if it affects your health, it's critical (to change)."
Four years later, Williams' weight fluctuates between 175 to 183 pounds. Her weight-loss journey isn't over, but she's come a long way. After the flight, she got a personal trainer so she could learn her way around the gym, and traded fast food for a high-protein, low-carb diet of home-cooked meals.
"I don't enjoy cooking," she said. "I find it a waste of time, but I know it will help me in the long run."
The gym was the hardest part, she said.
"It's very difficult to work out being so overweight, because you have no strength," Williams said. "I started training with my own body weight and recovery was very tough for me. But it just got better."
And the weight fell off quickly, at first. She soon lost over 60 pounds, but then plateaued and had to switch up her routine. Williams found that heavy lifting, as opposed to cardio, helped her the most. She also joined BodyBuilding.com's online community for accountability and to discover new workouts.
Now Williams wakes up every day at 4 a.m. and hits the gym for an hour before getting ready for work. She sits at a desk all day for her job as an administrator, so the workouts are especially important. But the effort is worth it: Now Williams can shop at regular stores for clothing, go mountain biking on the weekends — and best of all, she can travel without worrying about the seat belt on planes.
Williams has also noticed something she didn’t expect: how people treat her differently after she lost the weight.
“People are more open to talking to me,” she said. “It’s like people were afraid of me when I was overweight. People are more accommodating now. It doesn’t feel fair. People didn’t give me a chance back then. Guys, let’s say I had a crush on them, they wouldn’t give me the time of day...It puts me off, people like that. But it’s also humbled me. I won’t treat overweight people badly, because I’ve been there. I can relate to them.”
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Williams shared her top three tips for losing weight.
1. Get professional help.
Williams said getting a trainer was a huge help in kick-starting her own transformation. “So many people go to the gym and they don’t know what to do,” she explained. “But when you know what to do, and where to go, you have so much more confidence when you walk in there.”
2. Get on Instagram.
Social media helped Williams with accountability — and following like-minded people reminded her of her goals. “Choose people to follow that will motivate you,” she said. “It will help so, so much.”
3. But don't compare yourself to them!
“The only competition is yourself," Williams said. "When people fall off the wagon, they think they should give up. But it happens to all of us. It doesn’t help to dwell in the moment. Life happens. You just pick yourself up, dust yourself off and move forward.”
For more inspiration, check out our My Weight-Loss Journey page.