Rita Hutcheson-Cobbs stretched out the waist of the size 5X pants she called her “Jasmine” pants — a nod to the flowy garment worn by the Disney princess in “Aladdin.” The band ran the length of her arm. Eight years and more than 300 pounds ago, those pants were a staple of the Hartselle woman’s wardrobe. Now, the clothing serves as a reminder and an inspiration.
“When you are a certain size, you have three or four pieces of clothing you wear over and over again. I lived in these pants. I loved these pants. Now I can fit in one leg with room to spare,” the 54-year-old Hartselle woman said.
Outgoing and energetic, the social media enthusiast documented her eight-year weight loss journey on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest in hopes of motivating others to pursue healthier lives.
“If I can do this, no one has an excuse. I started at 450 pounds. I wasn’t able to walk from the parking lot into the store. It was a struggle just to breathe. My whole life revolved around going to doctors every week just so I could function. All it takes is the first step,” Hutcheson-Cobbs said.
With the beginning of a new year, millions of Americans took that first step, resolving to eat healthier, lose weight and start exercising. According to statistics, by the end of January, 36 percent will abandon their goals. Only 8 percent will succeed.
Hutcheson-Cobbs, who began her journey tentatively and uncertainly on Jan. 1, 2011, thought she would end up one the 92 percent of resolution makers who faltered. She started small, by giving up sodas for a month.
“I didn’t have a whole lot of confidence in myself and I didn’t have a really good support system at home. But in those 31 days, I lost nine pounds. That was the jumpstart I needed to start building my confidence,” Hutcheson-Cobbs said.
The following month, she adopted a vegetarian diet and lost 10 pounds. The month after that, she ate vegan and lost nine more pounds.
Slowly, the woman, who cooked like Paula Dean and Rachel Ray, who knew every pasta and cheese available, who made a new dessert every day, changed her eating habits. She emptied her cupboards and refrigerator, replacing whole milk with fat-free milk, oils with applesauce, tea with water and mayonnaise with fat-free sour cream flavored with a Hidden Valley Ranch seasoning packet.
She concentrated on a gluten-free and fat-free diet, eating proteins, vegetables and fruit. She stopped going to fast food drive-thrus, entering the gas station when filling up her car and picking up snacks at the grocery store checkout line. At restaurants, she asked for the waiter to bring out half of the meal and place the other half in a to-go container.
Along with the physical changes, she started journaling — a practice she continues today. Every day she writes three things she is thankful for and every bite and lick she tastes. She calls it her BTL journal.
“It is so important to do that so you can see what you are eating every day and what changes you need to make. For me, these were life and death decisions,” Hutcheson-Cobbs said.
Before giving up sodas to begin 2011, Hutcheson-Cobbs tried fad diets, even undergoing weight-loss surgery, which resulted in the loss and regain of 70 pounds. She was on nebulizers, blood pressure medicine, insulin, used a CPAP machine, suffered from high cholesterol and asthma and was heading to knee surgery. Her “wake-up call” came after learning of the health problems facing a family member.
“This was a year after my father died. He had battled sarcoma of the muscle four times. The last time, he had to have his leg amputated. During surgery, he had a stroke. All of the medications he and this other family member were taking, all the diagnoses they had, except for the cancer, was what I had. I realized if I didn’t make changes, that was going to be me,” Hutcheson-Cobbs said.
In 2012, after reducing from 450 to 220 pounds, Hutcheson-Cobbs, at the recommendation of a friend, started attending Weight Watchers, where she learned about portion control. Program leaders suggested she add physical activity to her daily routine.
“My biggest regret is that I didn’t do an activity the minute I started trying to lose weight. It didn’t even occur to me to do a physical activity. I hadn’t done anything active since high school. I signed up for running. The morning of my first class, I thought, why in the world did I do this,” Hutcheson-Cobbs said.
The first day, the day Hutcheson-Cobbs thought she was going to die from a heart attack, trainers challenged her to go 100 yards.
“For me, it was all about getting past what my mind was telling me. If people have said you can’t do something or if you believe you can’t do something, the mind is going to play those words back over and over and over again. You’ve got to tell your mind that you can do it,” Hutcheson-Cobbs said. “The first day, I only ran a few of the yards, but I walked the rest. Even when you walk, you are taking steps forward.”
On the second day, she ran even farther.
“I’m a planner, so, even though I thought I was going to die on the first day, I kept running. I had paid the money, I had really cute shoes and I wanted the prize at the end. I’m all about social media. I wanted to post pictures of me with my medallion. I definitely did not want to post that I was a failure. Social media kept me accountable,” Hutcheson-Cobbs said.
In the past six years, she posted about finishing a 5K, a 10K and a marathon, which she ran with Garrett Cobbs, her 32-year-old son with special needs.
“Rita is pretty amazing. I have known her for 13 years and have seen her complete change. She is upbeat, charismatic and positive. She is an inspiration to so many people,” said Carolyn Pistorius.
When, three years into her new lifestyle Hutcheson-Cobbs had to undergo reconstructive surgery on both her feet — due to her bones separating as a result of carrying around 450 pounds — she remained positive.
“I had to learn how to walk all over again, but I didn’t let it stop me. I wore out three crutches in a year. I built up my upper body that year. Man, I was buff,” Hutcheson-Cobbs said. “That was the only complication I had from weighing 450 pounds, thanks to God. I am off all my health medicines, except for one thyroid pill.”
In 2015, Hutcheson-Cobbs landed a job cleaning RedX Fitness in Decatur and joined the gym. It was her first gym membership ever. The cleaning job turned into a management position. When the instructor of the Silver Sneakers class at the Hartselle gym retired, Hutcheson-Cobbs began leading the program.
Created for people 65 and older, but open to anyone, Silver Sneakers focuses on getting seniors active and improving their balance and flexibility.
“I never imagined I would lead a fitness class and, at first, I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to be in front of people. But I am so passionate about Silver Sneakers. I’ve seen members get off oxygen and start using canes instead of walkers. Lives are changing,” Hutcheson-Cobbs said. “Young people, who are trying to lose weight or who are intimidated by other classes, come to the class too.”
She leads Silver Sneakers classes in Hartselle on Tuesdays and Thursdays, in Decatur on Mondays and Wednesdays and a Silver Sneakers yoga program on Friday.
“I’ve been coming for a year,” Faye Anderson said. “I started coming because my daughter was nagging me about it and I knew she wouldn’t stop. I feel so much better physically now. I have shoulder pain, but after class, it feels so much better. When we take a break from class I truly miss it.”
Becky Hoover, an original member of the Decatur class, agreed.
“At our age, it is so important to stay active. You feel so much better and Rita is great. She keeps it fun and is so encouraging,” Hoover said.
Andrea Lamar witnessed Hutcheson-Cobbs’ transformation from a 450-pound woman who struggled to walk the aisles of the grocery store to a 140-pound fitness instructor.
“She has encouraged and supported me so much. When you look at her, you know you don’t have any excuse to just sit on the couch. She is so focused on helping others and making sure they reach their goals,” Lamar said.
Like she has done since 2011, Hutcheson-Cobbs started the new year with a food and fitness goal. For 2019, the self-described chocoholic hopes to cut out sugar and increase her balance and flexibility.
“I am actually doing all of this for selfish reasons. My mother is 88 and my son is 32. I want to be around to take care of them,” Hutcheson-Cobbs said. “More than anything I hope God will use my story to encourage others. Regardless of whether their goal is to lose weight, change careers or go back to school, people should not think they are too old, too young, too overweight or too whatever. The first year is a commitment, the second year is a lifestyle.”