The first time I went on a diet, I was 8. Already, I knew I had a weight problem: Weeks before, I'd been in a supermarket, cracking up with my BFF, when a grown-up nearby said, "She's awfully fat to be laughing that loud." I was humiliated, and not long after, I asked my mom if I could go to Weight Watchers, where my friend's mother went. Every week, I'd sit in a room full of middle-aged women, reporting my weight and everything I'd eaten.
There were a lot of things going on in my life at that point. My parents had separated when I was 6, and my older brother Jeremy and I lived with our mom. She worked a lot but we never had enough money: When the furnace broke one year, for example, we heated the house with the oven rather than getting it fixed. Instead of talking about how tough things were—I didn't want to burden my mom—I learned to soothe my feelings by eating. My brother, in the meantime, was going through his own challenges and started drinking in his early teens. We were super-close, and it hurt and scared me to see that.
The day I graduated high school, I weighed 225 pounds. I gained even more during a bad relationship in my twenties. By the time I went to see a doctor about what turned out to be two herniated disks, I was over 265 pounds. He told me that, at my size, the same problems might return even after my back surgery, but I still didn't lose the weight. At 29, this was my reality: I was a food addict, and no warning from my doctor could stop me from eating.
Then, three years later, my brother Jeremy went to rehab. He'd nearly lost everything—his home, his business—and was struggling to stay clean. I went after him ruthlessly: "You have to change!" I'd tell him daily. He'd say, "I'm trying, but you don't understand. It's really hard." And I'd snap, "I don't care!" I so badly wanted him to be happy and healthy. Then one day, it hit me: I needed to lead by example. I didn't know where to begin—I'd never cooked a homemade meal, and the last time I'd exercised was 10 years before. So I did the one thing that came to mind: put on my sneakers and set out to run a mile. Within a few steps, a little voice in my head was screaming, Stop! But I finished the route, and couldn't wait to tell Jeremy. I did it again the next day. Then a coworker showed me a running app that posted on Facebook anytime I started it up. When people hit "like," the sound of applause came through my earbuds. The first time I heard it, I gasped. That encouragement felt amazing.
My new philosophy: Try everything. I started lifting weights and loved it. I tried Spinning, ditto. Soon, I was taking all kinds of fitness classes, putting all my own pieces together, and figuring out which I enjoyed.
Since counting calories never worked for me in the past, I decided not to do it this time around. Instead, I threw out all the processed junk in my kitchen cabinets and focused on eating whole, clean foods and cooking them in healthy ways. (Think baked chicken with herbs, not fried wings.) I tore recipes out of magazines and followed them step-by-step. It was all one big experiment, but I was having fun with it, and the weight was coming of little by little.
By April 2011, I had lost 60 pounds. That's when I first set foot in a boxing gym. Years before, I'd been curious about boxing—I just didn't have the courage to check it out. When I finally did, though, the biggest benefit wasn't even the incredible workout; it was something I hadn't realized I needed. Boxing required me to rely on other people—say, to put on my headgear, wrap up my hands. Before this point, I'd been dropping pounds but going it alone, which was my usual MO in life. Early on, one of the guys tried to help me get my glove on and I yanked it away and said, "I can do it myself." He grabbed it back and said, "Listen, Miss Independent, I'm going to put your glove on, and it's OK." My eyes welled up. I thought, Ah! All right, I need to take my walls down a little. I shifted my exercise routine in order to box more.
Eight months later, I stepped on my scale and saw that I was down 100 pounds from my top weight. (I've since lost about 20 more.) My dog and I had a little dance party. Shortly after, I told my coach I wanted to box competitively. I began a Facebook page, "Living Inspired with Jillian," to keep myself accountable and encourage others. It's grown to 8,000 followers. When I won my first tournament this past November, some of them came to cheer. Next? I plan to go pro.
This amazing life wasn't one I could have imagined the day I took my first run. Back then, I was focused on showing Jeremy that he could change. He's been totally clean for almost two years, and along the way, I realized I deserve to be healthy and fulfilled too. I'm still that little girl in the grocery store—but now I know I can laugh as loud as I want.
Workouts that Take off the Weight
Inspired to try something new? These burn mega-calories in just 30 minutes.
- Aerobic Dancing (224 calories)
- Jogging or spinning (264 calories)
- Crossfit or circuit training (319 calories)
This story originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.