Rick Salewske (300 pound Loser)

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My story from "Start Strong Finish Strong"

When big-boned, 19-year-old Rick Salewske moved to Dallas from Michigan in 1981, he stood six-feet-one and weighed about 220. He thought he actually looked a little skinny. But because this was the first time he had been away from his family, things quickly careened out of control in his life, especially with his daily eating habits.    

“I was young, single, and on my own for the first time in my life – and I didn’t hesitate to start drinking and wolfing down junk food,” he recalls. “That got me into a very bad lifestyle.”

Predictably, his weight began to shoot up. Within three years, he had gained about 60 pounds. In fact, the only thing that seemed to keep him from gaining more was his cigarette habit.

“I was smoking two packs a day,” he confesses.

Still, his weight continued to climb until he hit about 320 pounds in 1990.

“Being alone much of the time, I got a little depressed, so I turned to food to comfort myself,” he explains. “After a bad day at work, I’d feast on ice cream, fast foods like burgers, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I’d eat three sandwiches at one sitting, plus a big bag of chips.”

Then, in 1990, he quit his cigarette smoking. “I went cold turkey,” he says.

Even though not smoking improved his risk status for heart disease and cancer, this positive health step operated as a double-edged sword: Rick began to eat even more, and his weight skyrocketed higher than he had ever imagined possible. By the mid-1990’s, he topped 400 pounds.

A Seating Crisis

“When I hit the low 400’s, my life really changed,” he says. “For the first time, it became extremely difficult just to live a normal life. I couldn’t sit in ordinary chairs because my waist was 60 inches. I couldn’t go to sporting events because I couldn’t fit into the stadium seats. And airline travel gradually became impossible.”

After he passed 400, he started having to use two seats in planes because he couldn’t fit into just one. “I was really lucky at first because there always seemed to be an extra seat, usually in the back part of the plane,” he recalls. “But then I took a flight where all the seats were filled except one. I asked the guy sitting next to that empty seat if he could take my assigned seat so that I’d have two. If he hadn’t agreed, I’d have been kicked off the plane.”

Then on a subsequent trip Rick found that, despite having two seats, he couldn’t fasten his seat belt. “It may have been the most embarrassing moment of my life,” he admits, as he watched the people in nearby seats staring back at him.

He told the flight attendant, “This belt won’t reach around my stomach. What can I do?”

“I’ll get you an extension,” she replied.

Rick had no idea what an extension was until she explained that it was the unattached belt she used when she gave her little lecture to passengers to show them how the seat belts worked. She said that she could actually attach that demonstration belt to a regular belt to give overweight passengers a little more stomach room.

“So the last few times I flew, I had to face the embarrassment of asking the flight attendant to give me one of those extensions,” he says.

Finally, as flights became increasingly crowded around 1995, he gave up flying altogether because, even though he could get seat belt extensions, he couldn’t count on finding an empty second seat.

An All-time High

Through the late 1990’s, Rick’s weight continued to climb toward the 500-pound mark. And increasingly, he attracted stares and jibes.

“In the grocery store, kids stared at me and tugged at their parents, saying, ‘Look at how fat that guy is,’” he remembers.  “Once in a restaurant, a kid poked his dad and pointed toward me. The father grabbed the kid and took him toward the bathroom, all the while hollering at him. I felt bad. After all he was just a little kid.”

Finally, by the year 2000, Rick reached his all-time high weight of 538. “You hit a point where life becomes so difficult that you just don’t feel like doing anything but eating and drinking,” he says. “All I did was go to work, and then at the end of the day I’d head for a bar where I’d drink. Finally, I’d go home where I’d eat a lot of food.”

Rock Bottom

People still invited him over for special occasions, such as Thanksgiving. But he began to make excuses because he felt he didn’t have anything nice to wear any more, and it was so hard to get up when he took a seat. “I actually broke a couple of chairs in people’s homes,” he says.

Even driving became an onerous task. He already had one of the biggest cars available, a Chevrolet Caprice, and adjusted the seat as far back as it would go. But the steering wheel still rubbed against his stomach to the point that he wore holes in the fabric in front of several pairs of pants. Also, he had to lower the windows before he got into the car because he couldn’t reach over to lower them after he was seated. To make matters even more intolerable, whenever he bent over, his stomach compressed his torso and lungs, so that he felt out of breath.

Becoming more and more depressed, Rick tried some ad hoc positive-thinking ploys in a fruitless effort to cheer himself up. “I said to myself, ‘I’m a good person. I work. I have a house. I love my parents. I don’t smoke. I don’t do drugs. So why do I have to lose weight?’ Yet I was defiant. I said, ‘The world should change for Rick!’” Down deep, he knew the world had not been made for a 500-pound person.

When it became obvious that the world would not change, he became more depressed – until finally, a series of events brought him to a critical juncture in his weight-and-health saga.

First, because he was now unable to fly, he drove home to Michigan to see his family for Christmas of 1999. Over breakfast, his parents put the issue to him directly: “Your sisters have been crying because they think you’re going to die.”

Rick didn’t argue. Instead, he replied, “I know they care about me.” Furthermore, the message began to work on his mind as he drove back to Dallas.

Then in the spring of 2000, a recruiter offered him a job back in his home town in Michigan, but there was a catch that made Rick hesitate. “The recruiter didn’t know my weight,” he recalls. “He never saw me, just contacted me and arranged for me to be hired over the phone.”

The first reaction that came to Rick was, Okay, so am I really going to walk into that place of business weighing 538 pounds? What happens if a chair they offer has arms and I can’t get into it? Or what if it breaks? How will the other employees react to me?

So he leveled with the rep from the new company who had offered him the job: “I have to tell you something. I weigh over 500 pounds.”

“Can you do your job?” the man replied.

“Yeah, I can do it.”

“Then that’s okay. We’ll hire you.”

But Rick still had misgivings – doubts that deepened when he got an invitation to his 20th high school class reunion, which was scheduled for the summer of 2000. The more he thought about that event, the more intimidated he became at the possible problems he might face: People will freak out when they see me. I’ll never get a suit that fits right. What am I going to do?

Finally, he made up an excuse. He said he wouldn’t be able to attend the reunion because he had just bought a house and would be closing on it. Also, he turned down the job from the Michigan company, and he thought that was the end of the matter. But then, he got a call that turned his life upside down.

The Turning Point

Rick had worked for Clark Steel Framing for 19 years and had risen to the position of manager of the receiving department. The CEO, who made a special trip to Dallas from the company headquarters in Ohio, immediately set up a dinner meeting with Rick.

After they got settled at the restaurant, the CEO pulled out a copy of an e-mail he had received indicating that Rick had been offered the job in Michigan. “I appreciate that you turned this down,” he said. “But Rick, I’m selfish. I want you to work for me for the next 20 years. Yet if you don’t lose that extra weight, you won’t last for 20 years. What can we do to help you? How about surgery?”

“I don’t want to have surgery,” Rick replied.

“So how are you going to lose that weight?” the CEO countered.

“If I start eating healthy and exercise, the weight will come off,” Rick said, rather weakly. “I just have to burn more calories than I take in – for the rest of my life.”

“That’s the most difficult way of doing it,” the CEO said, and fell silent. It was obvious that the chief executive wasn’t at all convinced by Rick’s reply. But what the CEO couldn’t be expected to fathom was the change that was just beginning inside his employee’s head.

“I saw that this man cared about me and believed in me,” Rick says. “And somehow that made me begin to think that maybe I really could achieve what both of us desired – the loss of hundreds of extra pounds. You could say that I started to want to change and to believe I could change – but I still wasn’t quite sure how to go about it.”

Then, after they had finished their meal and were walking out of the restaurant, the answer to Rick’s dilemma began to emerge. Unexpectedly, the CEO said, “I’ll make you a deal. If you can find a program to lose weight, we’ll pay up to $2,000 for it. But the deadline for finding the program is three months from now.”

He even suggested that Rick try a specific program at the Cooper Aerobics Center. So Rick got online and found the “Cooper Lean Program” at the Cooper Clinic. Then he used $400 of his boss’s money to pay for ten sessions with a dietitian and ten sessions with a trainer over a three-month period.

Rick’s Start-up Medical Exam

Before he embarked on any diet or exercise program, Rick followed medical advice to get checked out thoroughly by a physician. He decided to consult with his regular doctor, who arranged for a complete battery of tests, including a stress test and a comprehensive set of blood tests.

These showed that his heart was healthy but that his cholesterol was high at 250 mg/dl. So his physician prescribed Lipitor to get it down. Also, because his blood pressure was elevated at 170/95, the doctor put him on a diuretic. But overall, the exam confirmed that Rick was ready to begin his downward journey from his all-time high weight of 538 pounds.

It Really Does Begin in Your Head

Next, Rick responded to a nagging sense that he wasn’t quite ready “upstairs” to make his best effort with a fitness program. “I knew I had to do something to change my terrible attitudes and habits – and to get rid of those feelings I always got into my head when I passed a McDonald’s,” he says. “I had to fix what was above my neck if I hoped to alter the rest of my body.”

His solution was to take another $700 from his boss’s gift to pay for eight one-hour sessions at a hypnotism and mental training clinic. During the initial mental training sessions, the therapists put him in a room in a big, reclining chair with soothing music in the background. When he was comfortable, a female therapist would begin to talk to him in a low voice until she had determined that he was “totally released” from his normal, everyday thoughts. Then, she began to recite statements, which he repeated, emphasizing principles that he had decided he wanted to believe in:

“I’ll crave healthy foods.”

“I won’t eat read meat.”

“Water is my beverage of choice.”

“I won’t beat up on myself.”

“I’ll get right back on the program if I slip.”

“I’ll start liking myself.”

 “I wasn’t actually hypnotized during these sessions,” he explains. “I stayed fully conscious. But I did begin to believe that I could train myself to eat better. I remembered that when I quit smoking, I really became convinced I had the power to overcome that craving. It was similar with food. The mental training gradually gave me a certainty that I could cut back on my eating and lose 300 pounds – or go from 538 to 238.”

The Search for “Motivational Foods”  

Rick then huddled with his dietician at the Cooper Clinic to design a meal plan.

“We worked hard to find good foods that I could enjoy,” he recalls. “I had never eaten breakfast, but the dietician said, ‘You’ve got to start eating breakfast!’”

So they settled on a breakfast consisting of bran cereal, bananas, strawberries, orange juice, and one percent fat milk. Rick had made it clear that he really liked fruit, and so they also identified a set of fruit-oriented snack foods: bananas, apples, grapes, and oranges.

For lunch, he decided he liked the Lean Cuisine meals – and also he was allotted more fruit, maybe three to four pieces. A snack later in the day would also consist of a piece of his favorite fruit.

“Won’t all this fruit give me too much sugar?” he asked the dietician.

Her answer: “Don’t worry about it – your blood glucose level and other readings show you’re okay with the fruit.”

She assured him that the Cooper Clinic would continue to monitor his blood sugar and triglycerides, just to be sure that the fruit didn’t upset his blood balance. But subsequent tests showed that he didn’t have a blood problem with sugar, no matter how much fruit he ate. Also, after adding up his total intake of calories, the dietitian demonstrated clearly that he was still taking in many fewer calories with the fruit than he had been with his peanut butter sandwiches, ice cream, and other snacks.

But for dinner, Rick says, “I knew I had a problem. I like fast food. I really needed to pick a food I could enjoy that was healthy.”

So he told the dietitian, ‘I can’t go from McDonald’s to carrots and broccoli. What about a turkey sandwich? Can I have two of them?”

“Sure,” she said, “and extra fruit as well. But no salt, okay? Your blood pressure is still too high, and we want to do everything we can to bring that down.”

A major objective in these discussions and negotiations had been to find a set of healthy foods that Rick really liked and could substitute for higher-calorie offerings that were a threat to his weight and health. In other words, he needed to pick “motivational foods,” which would entice him to eat the right way, rather than the wrong way.

All in the Numbers

Finally, with Rick’s meal plan set, the dietitian ran all of his chosen foods through our data base and found that his new diet consisted of only about 1500-1800 calories per day, versus the 3000-plus calories that he had been consuming daily in the past.  Because 3500 calories amounted to one pound, he would be cutting nearly a half-pound of calories per day.

“For the first two weeks of the program, those two turkey sandwiches a day curbed my craving for fast foods,” he says. “It’s all in your head. You start craving it, and you give in. But if you head off the craving before it hits, you can conquer it. Also, the longer you stay away from bad foods, the more likely it is that you can avoid them permanently. After just two weeks, the turkey helped me break the fast-food habit. Then, I started experimenting with other foods. Also, remember that all this time I was doing serious mental training.”

More Mind Games

In addition to his other mental training, the therapist suggested a visualization exercise. “Imagine you see a figure in the distance,” she said. “It’s fuzzy, not quite clear. That figure is you, but at your ideal weight. You can’t see yourself yet. But as time goes on, that picture will come more into focus. One day, you’ll see yourself clearly at your ideal weight.”

As Rick recalls, “I was totally relaxed during those sessions and totally open. Completely alert, but highly suggestible.”

Soon, he found that the effect of these relaxing sessions carried over to his stressful workweek. Instead of turning to a high-calorie soft drink or a candy bar when he was under heavy pressure, he told himself it was all in his head. He knew that when he got home that night he would eat something healthy, and so all he had to do was make it to the evening.

Proof in the Pounds

Although Rick attended these mental training sessions for only about three months, he learned quickly that he had the power to control various facets of his life that he had assumed were out of his control. In the process he became totally convinced that he had control over his weight and fitness.

Also, he felt a strong, growing attraction to the mental training therapy center – and later to the exercise facilities at the Cooper Aerobics Center – because he found compelling support groups in both places. “I liked everybody I encountered or worked with, including the women at the front desks,” he notes. “I’m really big on support groups. A huge reason that I lost weight – and continued to lose – was that it was nice to have upbeat, encouraging people to talk to, first in the mental therapy sessions and later in the gym and workout rooms at the Cooper facilities. Even my mom sent me a card every week for encouragement.”

The environment that he had helped create for himself paid off immediately: he lost 19 pounds in the first week of his program. “I know a lot of that loss was probably due to the diuretic, the water pill I was taking for my blood pressure,” he admits. “But still I had drastically cut my calories – almost in half. So I was optimistic that the weight loss would continue.”        

Sure enough, he lost eight pounds the second week, and then six pounds the following week. Also, he began to walk short distances regularly, about a quarter of a mile three to five times a week. By Christmas of 2000, even though he had been on his program for only two months, he had lost a total of 60 pounds.

“But a powerful feeling had gripped me that it was really going to happen!” he says. “I knew I had a long ways to go, and I had to tackle my program day by day. But as the mental trainer had suggested, that fuzzy figure I had pictured in my first session was becoming a little clearer. I was actually beginning to get an idea of what it might be like to lose 300 pounds.”

But even so, the next big challenge for Rick was exercise. “I knew this was a major thing – and that without an exercise component, I would fail,” he declares.

The Aerobic Challenge

Rick called the personal trainer whose fees had been part of the initial package he had bought with his boss’s money. The trainer said she could see him three times a month, and Rick settled with her on a regimen that involved exercising at the Aerobics Center. In addition, he continued to walk short distances on his own.

As often happens in situations like this, the strong motivation to exercise that Rick had been feeling was immediately reinforced by the exercise itself. After riding on a stationary bike one day, Rick remembers, he sat in his car basking in the physical sense of well-being that enveloped him.

“I must have gotten my heart rate up high enough so that those endorphins* were kicking in. It was magical. I felt so good – I was energized, even though I had worked hard at the office all day. Now, I was really believing it. Exercise really did make me feel better!”

The exercise regimen he settled on was rather simple and straightforward. He began by walking on the outdoor track only about a quarter of a mile, two to three times a week. Then, as his endurance increased and his leg muscles grew stronger, he worked his way up to walking three miles a day, five to six days a week. Also, he started lifting weights two to three times a week. By the summer of 2001, less than a year after he had started his fitness program, he had lost 150 pounds.

During this period, his personal support system grew steadily. He began to go to the gym and outdoor track more often, about four times a week. Soon he was receiving all sorts of kudos from other athletes: “Hey, Rick, you’re looking great! … How much you lost now! … When’s your first marathon?

As his fitness steadily improved, with his weight now down to around 320, he frequently sensed that during the last quarter mile of his three-mile walk, he wanted to walk faster and faster.

“Years before, I had given up on the idea of running,” he recalls. “But then I felt my feet kind of leave the ground, and I was jogging! Not walking any more, but actually jogging. When I finally stopped after about an eighth of a mile, I just shook my head, I was so happy.”

As he was walking back into the gym after his workout, a club member pulled him aside and asked, “Hey Rick, did I actually see you run out there?”

“Yeah,” he replied.

“Amazing, Rick. Just amazing.”

The next time out, he ran a quarter of a mile. Then, he pushed the distance up to a half mile and then to three-quarters. Finally, in July of 2001, he ran one whole mile.

“As I was walking to cool down, it hit me: I actually just ran a full mile!” Rick says. “You can’t imagine what that did to my confidence. I was on top of the world.”

He immediately looked for his trainer and told her the good news: “I just ran a mile.”

“You know,” she said, “I bet we can do a half marathon in November.”

“What?” he responded, not quite comprehending what she was suggesting.

“That’s right – 13 miles.”

“But that’s only four months from now!” Rick protested.

“I think we can do it,” she insisted.

So from July to October of 2001, Rick and his trainer prepared for the event. He regularly ran a little farther each day than he had the day before and mixed running in with walking. By late October, he was able to run seven miles without stopping.

“Coincidentally, that was the exact day that Dr. Cooper put me on his radio show for the first time,” he says. ‘“What did you do today, Rick?’ Dr. Cooper asked me, unaware of what I had just accomplished. ‘I ran seven miles,’ I said. ‘What?’ he almost shouted. He couldn’t quite believe what he was hearing. Also, I was now down to 308, having lost a total of 230 pounds in exactly one year.”

The next weekend, Rick and his trainer ran the first eight miles of his first half-marathon without stopping. Then they walked a mile, ran another mile, walked another mile, and ran the final two miles to the finish line. In other words, Rick ran a total of 11 out of the 13 miles at his then-current weight of 308.

After that milestone, Rick’s weight loss predictably slowed down. That’s usually what happens when you try to lose weight, whether your goal is only in the range of 10-20 pounds, or prodigious amounts such as those Rick took off. In other words, the last pounds are always the toughest to shed.

But Rick was prepared, mentally and physically, for this final challenge. His transformed attitude constantly whispered, “You can do it, you can do it, you know you can do it!”

And his inner conviction became outer reality. During the next year, from October 2001 to October 2002, he lost a total of 70 additional pounds, usually at the rate of about a pound a week. By October of 2002, or exactly two years after he had embarked on his great quest, Rick achieved his ultimate goal: a loss of 300 pounds and a new body weight of 238 pounds. Furthermore, his body fat percentage became a highly athletic 12 percent of his total body weight. Just as encouraging, his blood tests improved so much that he was able to discontinue all his cholesterol and blood pressure medications.

“Now, all I take daily is vitamins, a folic acid supplement, omega-3 fish-oil supplements, and a baby aspirin,” he says.

 Rick’s Hot Buttons: Feeling Good and Competition with Himself

“The hardest part is the beginning,” he has concluded. “And the key to the entire thing is training your mind. You have to learn to want to experience a big physical change – and you have to begin to believe that a personal revolution is possible – that you can actually translate your inner desires into outer reality.”

To illustrate, he poses a hypothetical case: “Let’s say I want to run four miles. Well, the first mile, I almost always want to quit. So my main goal is just to get through that first mile, just keep on going. Then, the second mile is a little easier. To help motivate myself, I may think, ‘I’m halfway there.’

“Then, when I finish the third mile, my mental state always improves a lot because I know I’m almost done. Physically, I go into high gear, sometimes accelerating the pace. I almost always start feeling really great. And at the end of the run I usually sense I could easily go another half mile.”

It’s the same with losing weight, he says. “You just keep telling yourself you can do it. You can lose one pound and then another pound. And you keep thinking those mind-changing thoughts: ‘I’ll crave healthy foods…. Water is my beverage of choice.’ Before you know it, you’ve actually accomplished your entire goal. For me, that goal was a total of 300 pounds, on a pound-by-pound, day-by-day basis.”

Perhaps most important, Rick has learned to believe firmly in a principle that we have long advocated here at the Cooper Clinic: Exercise is the best tranquillizer. Here’s how he translates the concept into his own experience:

“I might have a stressful day at work, and then I’ll head for the gym for a workout. It’s like a drug because when I’m finished, I feel so much better. I’ve learned I can work all day, yet still have plenty of energy left over for my personal life – so long as I exercise almost every day. I’ve reached the point where my body wants the exercise. To feel right, I have to give in to these strong physical and mental urges to work out.”

In other words, in the language of exercise physiology and psychology, Rick has experienced positive addiction, or habit-forming conditioning that leads to healthful and constructive results.

As part of this positive addiction, Rick also has developed an increased tendency to push himself while running. “I find myself running faster and faster miles, from twelve minutes, to eleven, to ten, to nine. Occasionally I’ll even run an eight-minute mile, and recently I actually ran the distance in 6 minutes and 40 seconds.”

To keep up his drive to exercise regularly – and to expand his developing physical skills and fitness level – he’s included an hour to an hour-and-a-half of basketball in his program several times a week.

“This helps expand the support group that reinforces my motivation to exercise and stay fit,” he says.*

Icing on the Weight-loss Cake

Rick’s exciting story goes on and on. Although he had never really dated anyone since high school, he met Kelley, his future wife, in November of 2002, just after he had succeeded in taking off those 300 pounds. Then, after a whirlwind courtship, he ended proposing to her before a national television audience in his second appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Their first child, a son Owen, was born in December of 2005 – just before he was featured in People magazine.  Our second son was born in September of 2007  (Henry )

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