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From 500 pounds to a new and rewarding life

By Matt McKenna
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Matt McKenna lives and works in Orange County, California. His story came to CNN through I-Report. This is his account of his dramatic weight loss.

On October 2, 2005, I weighed 500 pounds.

I was 34 and had always struggled with my weight, but for 15 years, I had allowed it to get out of control. I ate as if it were my hobby. I was unable to do the simplest physical activity. I made excuses to avoid having to go out in public, for fear of being ridiculed. I tried to hide myself, as if someone so large could actually hide.

I couldn't walk to my car from my apartment or office without being out of breath, and my knees ached from even that small journey. Lying in bed, I could feel my heart pounding. I awoke several times each night struggling to breathe. Still, I was in denial. I knew I was obese, but I never considered what I was doing to myself. Loved ones offered concern and suggestions, but I saw them as just "getting on my case." (Gallery: Watch as Matt loses the weight)

In late July 2005, my mother and father decided it was time to step in. My dad called me and said they were concerned about how difficult my life was. They feared they would soon face every parent's nightmare: the death of their son. They told me that they could no longer watch me destroy myself, and they wanted to help me back to a normal life. But it couldn't be a halfhearted effort on my part. It would take serious commitment from me.

Gratitude and fear

I was grateful for the love and support of my family and their willingness to help. But I was also apprehensive at the prospect of giving up a measure of freedom and independence. And I was angry at myself for allowing my eating and weight to get so out of control. But I knew they were right: I had to do something before the damage to my health became irreversible. My life at this point wasn't much of a life at all.

We decided that I would move into my parents' home, where I could be supervised and supported. There would be no excuses for failure, and the entire family would know everything -- no more hiding from anyone! It was important to involve them because I needed their encouragement. We devised a "pledge drive" tied into my weight loss with the proceeds going to Habitat for Humanity to benefit Katrina victims. (The storm had just occurred while we were making our plans for my weight-loss "project.") My goal, based on my frame and height, was 240 pounds.

On October 3, 2005, I began my journey back to health. I stepped onto two bathroom scales (one wasn't enough) and took full measure. While 500 pounds was shocking, seeing that number made me feel even more determined.

I saw my doctor, and with the exception of my weight and blood pressure, my health was not bad. He prescribed medication for my blood pressure, and I agreed to see him every four to six weeks so he could monitor my progress. I was cleared to get started.

For two weeks, I followed the South Beach Diet Phase 1. No breads or grains, no fruit, no alcohol, no sugar of any kind -- just eggs, cheese, lean meats and vegetables. I also began to exercise, walking for five minutes on a treadmill at first. Then I started walking around the neighborhood, and then walking around Dana Point Harbor, near our home in Southern California. For the first few weeks, just walking those short distances really wore me out. But I could go a little farther with each try, and I felt my stamina increasing.

Sunday mornings were weigh-ins. The first week, I had lost 25 pounds! We were all stunned. I had achieved liftoff! In the next weeks, I continued to lose weight, but more modestly. I "graduated" to South Beach Phase 2, which meant I could have fruit, low-fat yogurt, whole grains and a glass of red wine with dinner. I exercised more. I sought counseling to get at the mental and emotional reasons for my eating.

Christmas: 90 pounds gone

By Christmas I had lost 90 pounds! By this time everyone saw that I was losing weight. Comments from people at work encouraged me. I had more energy, less pain, and I felt better about myself. I could do things that I couldn't six months earlier, like play with my nieces and nephew for more than a few minutes before needing to rest. (Diet pro says Matt did it right. )

In February 2006 I joined a gym. I had lost 130 pounds and had to buy new clothes to fit my shrinking body. I realized that I didn't need to hide myself.

At some periods, my loss would slow down to 1 or 2 pounds a week, but I never lost sight of just how far I had come. I told myself that as long as I was making progress, no matter how small, I was still successful. In the spring I helped coach my niece's softball team.

By the second week of July 2006 -- just nine months -- I had lost 200 pounds! I was now hiking the hills and canyons, as well as playing ice hockey. I was able to discontinue my blood pressure medication. Throughout, I never felt that I was depriving myself. I viewed it as a chance to rediscover the real me.

By mid-September I was ready to live on my own. I had lost more than 230 pounds, and I felt confident that I had enough knowledge, discipline and drive to reach my goal.

I went to Europe, something I had always wanted to do but couldn't because of my obesity. It was my victory lap, a celebration of what I had accomplished. I don't call it my reward, because my reward is the life I have today.

Just a couple of weeks before Christmas 2006, I reached my goal of 240 pounds. Since then, I have maintained my weight between 236 and 240. The feeling of accomplishment is unlike anything I have ever felt. The reactions I get from friends, family, and co-workers when I recount my journey are indescribable. I can hardly believe it myself.

I am especially proud that my success has inspired some of those very people to begin their own weight-loss adventures, even if they don't have nearly as much to lose as I had. I hope others can learn from my experience. I know that dreams are achievable, and I hope their loved ones don't give up on them, but offer help and support. I couldn't have done it without my family, but in the end it was up to me. In that lies the biggest lesson of all.... That I can do it.

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At 500 pounds, Matt McKenna couldn't walk from his apartment to his car without being out of breath.

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