Five years ago, when Bill Ivory Larson saw the photo of himself, he was chagrined.
"I look like that?!" he exclaimed.
He had recently moved to Philadelphia from his native Chicago to become PR manager at the Adventure Aquarium in Camden. To say he brought some weight to the job would be an understatement. He had recently hit an all-time high: 400 pounds.
He was wearing clothes five sizes larger than extra large. On airplanes, he needed seat-belt extenders. His blood pressure was high, and he had sleep apnea. His arthritis was so severe he couldn't sit for more than an hour in a movie theater without his knees locking up.
He was only 34 and he had been watching the pounds accumulate since his early 20s.
"I told myself, as long as you can find clothes that fit at the Big & Tall store, you're OK. It was part of the river of denial down which I flowed."
An only child, Larson had grown up in Hyde Park, near the University of Chicago. His father vanished when he was 8, and his mother, JoAnn, a Sears warehouse worker, earned meager wages.
"We had no money and we ate poorly - lots of starches, and food that was cheap and would fill you up," Larson recalls. "I didn't know where my next meal would come from, so I ate a lot. That kind of diet, combined with a lack of physical activity, made me a chubby kid."
In college, his weight gain accelerated. He was fond of Chinese food, cheeseburgers and fries, and sugary soda. "It was nothing for me to down a two-liter bottle in a day."
By his late 20s, he knew he was morbidly obese. He couldn't go to amusement parks because he couldn't squeeze himself onto the rides. At the doctor's office, he was too heavy for the scale. He was alarmed by ugly stretch marks around his middle and aware of the threat of diabetes, which ran in the family.
From time to time, he made halfhearted attempts to shed some flesh, but his resolve faltered and the flab returned.
The photograph, taken during an aquarium shoot, "rocked my world," Larson says. "The camera doesn't lie."
Larson decided to try again, determined this time to succeed. Rejecting gastric bypass surgery, he set out to reclaim his body the old-fashioned way - by eating less and moving more.
"I cut back on junk food, not just the quantity but the frequency. I used to eat whenever it struck me. I was an emotional eater. When I was sad, I ate. When I was happy, I ate. Now I tried to be smarter."
For the first time in his life, he also began exercising. Every morning, he did 25 sit-ups. Once a day, he walked up and down a flight of stairs 10 times. At work, he made a point of getting out of his chair, walking around to visit colleagues and exhibits, leaving the building for lunch. In short order, he dropped 10 pounds.
He began paying more attention to feeding patterns, how and why he ate, which foods made him energetic or lethargic. He ate salads instead of cheeseburgers, drank water instead of soda. Instead of a breakfast sandwich at McDonald's, he ate yogurt, fruit or oatmeal - food that was not just lower in calories but higher in nutrition. The sinful stuff moved from staple to occasional treat. "I didn't want to be a grumpy bastard," Larson says, "by denying myself the foods I loved."
Walking became his principal mode of exercise. He walked a 31/2-mile circuit along the Cooper River after work. When he moved to an apartment complex in Cherry Hill, he gained access to a gym and walked on a treadmill, then began working out on an elliptical trainer.
His weight kept plummeting. "I became a good bargain shopper," Larson says. "I turned my wardrobe over six times."
In September 2008, Larson reached his goal - 225 pounds. He was nearly half the man he had been.
"I don't want people to think that once you get to the Promised Land it's over," Larson says. "It's constant work for the rest of your life."
Last year was rough for Larson; his mother died in June, and he was laid off from his job as director of communications at the Philadelphia Zoo. His weight climbed 20 pounds.
"I had to buy jeans a size larger," Larson says. "That was a red flag."
Larson has since trimmed 10 pounds and is fighting what he calls the Battle of the Final Ten. "I will lose it," he vows. Twice a week, he takes a mixed martial arts class in Lansdale. ("I have a blast," he says. "I so look forward to kicking the bag.")
Since November, he has been writing a blog about his weight-loss efforts (www.determinedtosucceed.com) and he is just beginning to offer personal motivational counseling via Skype, the Internet-based phone and video service (for a dollar a minute).
"I know what it's like to weigh 400 pounds and struggle to stay at 225," Larson says. "I proved that an ordinary Joe can do it without surgery. You don't have to go to the gym or buy a lot of equipment."
Link this story to your website:
Copy the above code and paste it into your webpage, blog or forum