November 30, 2021

Changing her life, one step at a time

Katie Keyser/Living and Leisure Editor

Toni Kelly of Cortland spends mornings at the YMCA doing water aerobics and other classes. She is seen here Oct. 9, 152 pounds lighter than her first class a year and a half ago.

The 10 a.m. Monday and Wednesday water aerobics class at the YMCA changed Toni Kelly’s world.

“I am not trying to be cheesy, but you guys helped save my life,” she said in a poster hanging at the YMCA.

Kelly weighed 650 pounds a year and a half ago when she came in the door at the 22 Tompkins St., Cortland, agency.

“When I first started, I was in a wheelchair, with oxygen,” the Cortland woman said. Then she showed up at Crystal Betters’ water exercise class.

“I started dropping weight. I got off oxygen and I didn’t need a wheelchair any more,” Kelly said. “Her class saved my life.”

“There was no judgment,” she said. “The ladies are amazing. We like to call ourselves the water babes.”

Kelly has lost 152 pounds to date. She weighed in at 498 earlier this month.

“I have a home scale that weighs up to 700 pounds. I weighed myself the day I came so I would know. Six hundred and fifty wasn’t my highest weight either. The highest weight was 796. That was three years ago,” Kelly said.

The woman had weight-loss surgery in June, has been practicing new eating habits, and is exercising every day. Her goal: to weigh 180.

“I feel lighter. More energetic. I can breath easier. I’m not out of breath all the time. I feel happy, when I am here,” she said at the YMCA.

The way we used to eat

Valerie Terry of Truxton lost 100 pounds 20 years ago and has maintained that weight loss to this day. She is the instructor of the YWCA’s Strive weight loss program, which encourages healthy eating and exercising.

“It’s a very difficult thing to lose weight, especially in today’s society,” Terry said. “We’re such an instant gratification world. We need things right away.”

Food that is easily accessible, whether from fast food restaurants or prepared foods at the store, can be highly processed with lots of sugar, salt or calories.

“In order to lose weight, we need to go back to the way we used to (eat),” she said — with a focus on natural and healthy foods.

Terry gets fruit and vegetables every day. She eats lean proteins. She exercises daily — not crazy hard, but moves her body. She also remembers why she lost weight in the first place.

“Everyone’s why is different,” she said. “But it keeps you motivated.”

Katie Keyser/Living and Leisure Editor

Inspiration on the wall at the Cortland YMCA.

The why for Kelly

Kelly said she was always a big kid.

“I was sexually abused at 12,” she said of a “friend” who was not a friend. “My friends and family all know about this. I am OK with it (being made public).”

“That made me put up a barrier … put up a shield where guys wouldn’t see me sexually.”

She became addicted to food. The weight kept coming on.

“One day I couldn’t stand up to go to the bathroom,” she said.

She went to the emergency room and the doctor told her she had cellulitis, a skin infection that causes swelling, in her legs up to her chest. She had a lot of water weight she was carrying.

“The doctor told me if I don’t lose weight I will die,” Kelly said. “That’s when I started my weight loss.”

She and a friend canvassed area pools looking for a place Kelly could exercise her joints safely. They figured the YMCA would be a good place to start. But she worried about facing people, having social anxiety.

“It took me three to four months to get in here to see what it was like,” she said. “I decided, talking to my counselor, I decided it was time. What was the worst that could happen?”

That was a year and a half a go. She’s 30 now, and healthier.

‘It felt like a family’

Getting out in public can be intimidating, Terry said. “Especially if you don’t feel good about your body. A lot of times, to get out in public, to get in a pool,you have to go to a place where people will not judge you … That’s why I love the YWCA. There is no judgment.”

Kelly found the same experience nearby at the YMCA.

“The people here were nice as could be. They didn’t make me feel uncomfortable,” she said. “It felt like a family.”

She started doing water classes at the 22 Tompkins St.,agency.

“I am here every day from 9 to 11 a.m., in the pool, doing workouts and stuff. I have eight classes total a week that I do. It’s working, though. I’m not complaining.”

Kelly would hit plateaus where she wasn’t losing weight — at the 650 mark. At 585.
“I would do different eating habits or different exercises, then get back on track,” she said. “I always told myself, if I don’t do what I need to do to get myself healthy, I would die — not to be extreme or anything. But that’s what I had to do to get motivated.”

Terry said her job as a personal trainer and director of Strive keeps her on her toes.

“If I am not healthy and maintaining my weight, what kind of advocate am I?” she said.

Katie Keyser/Living and Leisure Editor

Toni Kelly of Cortland shows a photo of herself taken when she walked into the YMCA for the first time to exercise.

Weight loss journey

Weight loss is a long-term process, Terry said. “They need to realize they didn’t gain weight in three, four, five weeks. To take it off and keep it off is a lifestyle change.”

Samantha Metz is a project coordinator at Seven Valleys Health Coalition in Cortland and is a lifestyle coach for a year-long diabetes prevention program — trying to get people to change eating and exercise habits before they get diabetes.

“The diabetes prevention program is year long because that’s how long it takes for individuals to achieve lifestyle changes,” she said.

Clients don’t do fad diets and lose weight quickly, only to gain the weight back, she said. Participants take the first six months to try new eating habits and incorporate exercise. After that, they work on maintaining the weight loss or lifestyle change, Metz said.

“I have a class of 14 people. It’s going really well. They have lost a total of over
170 pounds.”

“To lose one pound is very diffcult,” Metz said. “To lose one pound, you needto get rid of 3,500 calories.”

16-oz. soda = 200 calories

Cutting 500 calories a day adds up to a pound a week. That can be overwhelming, Metz said. She tells people: Cut out a bag of chips or a soda and go for a long walk instead. That’s easier to think about.

Kelly’s eating habits have completely changed. In June, she did a weight loss surgery, a “gastric sleeve” procedure at Upstate University Hospital in Syracuse.

“My stomach was the size of a small watermelon. Now it’s the size of a banana,” she said. “At the most I can eat five ounces of food at a time. There are some foods I don’t do well with” — canned tuna and lettuce, for instance.’

“At first, it was a little difficult to get used to. Now it’s my new normal. I can eat pretty much what I want to,” Kelly said.

“Surprisingly, I never had high blood pressure. I’m not a diabetic. I dodged that bullet,” she said.

And her thyroid, which helps with activity levels, only works when it wants to, she said.

Terry said it takes a while for chronic diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure to manifest, hitting people in their 40s or 50s. But they are often brought on by unhealthy lifestyles.

Metz’s next Lifestyle Change Program will start in January. Participants get education, healthy lifestyle skills from a National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National diabetes prevention curriculum and learn resistance training from Dr. William Shang of Ithaca.

They get group training, a lifestyle coach for a year, four months of access to YWCA weight room and exercise classes.

“Kudos to her, and anyone else that wants to make a lifestyle change,” Terry said. “She should be an advocate to other people: You can do these things.”

“It’s one step at a time,” she added. “There are many people and projects out there that will help you find a way. If you can’t find one, come find me. I will help you.”

Terry will start a new session of Strive, which becomes a support group, at the YWCA in January. She also works one on one with people.

Kelly said Betters, her water instructor, was important.

“She has never made me feel uncomfortable at all. She said, ‘Do what you can. There’s always alternatives to exercises.’”

Betters, of Homer, has been a YMCA instructor at least 20 years.

“We are all a team and we are in it together,” she tells her students. “And they can do anything.”

Kelly is an inspiration, she said.

“She makes what we do here completely worthwhile,” said Betters. “It makes me want to be here.”

“People always tell me that I am an inspiration to other people. To me, it doesn’t feel like that,” Kelly said. “But I have been inspired by people that come here every day, that work out. I kind of get it now.”

Two weeks ago, she showed a picture to a friend of the day she came in to the YMCA.

“It kind of shocked me,” Kelly said. “I couldn’t believe the difference. It’s a big difference.”