Esther Hollander, 43, began her journey at 320 pounds and is now working as a personal trainer. How did she do it?

By Krystal Hagan

What made you decide to finally commit to losing the weight?

I was overweight as a child and for the majority of my adult life, hitting a peak weight of 320 pounds. As I neared 40, I was determined to make transformational changes and create a new reality.

My motivation stemmed from my family. I felt out of sync as a wife because I was tired. I made my husband and kids do errands and fetch me what I needed. I avoided activities that required too much exertion or where my size was just prohibitive, so my children were being parented by a mom who was less active, involved and energized. I was not able to play sports or ride bikes with my kids because I would get too winded; I preferred staying in instead of going outdoors for activity and fresh air. I was unable to join my kids on rides at amusement parks or water slides. 

Because I craved indulgent foods, I engaged my family in unhealthy eating too often and didn’t prioritize their nutrition. On top of all that, we often avoided social gatherings because I was uncomfortable inviting people over or meeting new people.

I felt closed off to some of life’s most rewarding opportunities and experiences. I was not setting the right example for my household. In order to lose the weight I made a commitment to change my habits, which has been the key to my success.

What was your starting weight? How much weight have you lost and how did you do it?

I was 320 pounds when I decided to make a change. I began in my usual way, with a few uncoordinated activities. I purchased a Fitbit, started Zumba classes at my gym and counted my calories. I was not focused on truly creating healthy habits in my life and was largely disengaged with my efforts, yet I still managed to trickle down to 285.    

Real change began when a friend connected me with her OPTAVIA coach and I started on the program. Within nine months, I lost 137 pounds for a total loss of 172 pounds over 18 months. I succeeded on OPTAVIA because it incorporated healthy habits into every aspect of the program. It’s also simple and easy to follow. As I was working to reach my optimal weight, I also exercised moderately.  

The structure of the program really appealed to me. Once I saw that I was reaching–and then exceeding–my initial health goals, I started to believe that long-term success was possible, and I wanted to keep going.

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Support was also a key aspect in staying the course. I was so happy to have found a program with an active community that never let me feel alone. In addition to the broader community, I had an OPTAVIA coach who motivated, guided and encouraged me. She believed that I could be successful before I could believe it myself. Eventually, I became an OPTAVIA coach myself, which is something I previously couldn’t have envisioned. Coaching allows me to pay it forward and keeps me connected to my new lifestyle by motivating others on their journey to health.

What is your goal weight? Have you reached it?

I don’t have a specific goal weight. When I was over 300 pounds, I never imagined ranking as “normal” on a weight chart. I am now healthier and no longer experience the negative weight-related symptoms I was dealing with on a daily basis. I work as a personal trainer, which gives me the accountability to stay strong, energetic and fit. Plus, I feel great in my clothes. Although I am big on setting measurable goals, I have learned to gauge my success by the intangible measures, focusing less on the number.

Since my health transformation, I have the energy and stamina to be a working mom–to make a financial contribution to my household and also be able to shuttle to extracurricular activities and get-togethers and all the stuff that a busy mom needs to get done, including cleaning, cooking and homework help. Best of all, family outings are no longer associated exclusively with food; they involve playground trips, rock climbing, bowling, zoos, hiking and walking.  

By changing my habits and cooking more healthfully, I have also prioritized my kids’ nutrition. We don’t discuss diets, but they now have a role model to demonstrate healthy eating and living. That was not the case before my weight loss. Today, I lead by example.

What other diets/routines you've tried in the past? What has been the hardest part of your journey?

My life has been a series of failed diet attempts starting as a teenager, using every popular fad, book and tool. In 2008, I had lap band surgery, which I later had reversed in 2016, as I experienced negative side effects and never truly made the necessary changes that yield long-term results.  

The hardest part of my journey is two-fold. When my confidence wavers, I use a lot of positive self-talk (Yes you can, Esther!) and surround myself with people who encourage and support my efforts. I occasionally feel like a 320-pound shadow is lurking behind me, but the further ahead I get, the more confident I am in my success and ability to live in a healthier body.

Also, becoming a completely different person–both on the outside and on the inside–has been an emotional rollercoaster. Losing the weight was exciting and I would never go back, but all of the feelings that emerged, coupled with the preexisting challenges, which did not magically disappear with the weight loss, has been hard.

Who/what inspires you to keep going?

It goes without saying that my family–my children–are the reason I live and breathe.

I watched my mother (who was 66 when she died) and grandmother struggle with their weight. Longevity was a big concern for me. I knew that I had to make the necessary changes and do what was in my power to ensure that I would be here in the future, so that I could watch and participate in my children’s milestones as they grew. Like all kids, they need love and support through both the happy and challenging moments, I can now be present for them to a greater degree. My kids have witnessed the growth in my fortitude and I think they are inspired by a mom that’s conquered challenges.

On the other hand, at my gym, I am surrounded by people of all different ages and abilities who are crushing their health goals. I am humbled and inspired by that. Working as a personal trainer holds me accountable and helping others motivates me. I really value hearing how others have conquered life’s challenges. I am a firm believer that we can learn something from everyone, so I am always trying to do that.     

Typical day:

  • Wake up: 5:30 a.m., computer time, breakfast and off to school
  • Morning clients
  • Personal workout/appointments
  • Afternoon rush/errands/school pick-up
  • Homework/dinner rush/carpools and extracurriculars
  • Evening clients
  • TV with husband

Typical healthy meal:

OPTAVIA teaches you to eat six small meals a day, every two to three hours. Now that I’m on the maintenance plan, my “larger” meals–breakfast, lunch and dinner–consist of portion-controlled servings of vegetables, proteins, healthy fats and carbohydrates. The “smaller” meals in between are hearty snacks that have balanced nutrients and adequate protein.

I focus on the quality of the ingredients, creating simple but delicious meals. One of my favorite recipes is kabocha squash, a yummy, low-carb veggie reminiscent of a cross between a butternut squash and a potato. I love roasting it with a spritz of olive oil and salt and pepper. I’ll eat it with salmon or chicken and a heap of asparagus, broccoli or roasted cauliflower. For dessert, I love the OPTAVIA Decadent Chocolate Brownie or the Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookie.

Go-to snacks:

Fruit, crudités, string cheese, cottage cheese, hard boiled eggs, nuts and OPTAVIA Fuelings.

Cheat meals/cheat snacks:

I eat treats sparingly and enjoy occasional indulgences, but typically they don’t involve sweets, which are addictive and debilitating for me. Nice proteins like a big steak–maybe paired with a glass of red wine–are my favorites.

“Go-to” tool:

My go-to tool is not an app! It’s stress management. When I feel out of control or if I am struggling to get consistent, I take a break. I build time into my schedule to refocus and relax and it’s those periods that restore me. Whether it’s going on a nature walk, talking with my OPTAVIA coach or playing a silly video game, I try and engage in meaningful activities that keep me present.

Do you find yourself focusing more on diet or exercise? Or do you try to find a balance?

Definitely a balance, and sometimes that balance shifts. To gain focus, I used my weight loss as a catalyst for bigger changes, and that began with OPTAVIA. After I lost my weight, I was able to increase my exercise–more easily and safely–and work on building muscle. Fitness takes a priority now because that’s where I want to grow, personally and professionally, but healthy nutrition is always a priority. Healthy habits and living optimally include striking a balance, which extends to stress management, sleep and hydration.

What is your favorite way to work out? How do you motivate yourself on the days you do not want to exercise?

I focus on moving safely. I enjoy modified high-intensity interval training workouts and workouts that combine lifting heavier weights coupled with cardio moves and bodyweight exercises, which are always fun and maximize time.   

How has your weight-loss journey affected your family?

My life has been transformed dramatically, both physically and emotionally. I have become an active mom who's able to keep up with her kids, which fills my heart with joy. I feel more connected to my husband. People tell me that on the outside, I am the person whom I always was on the inside. I am happier, more vibrant and more engaged in all aspects in life. I am, by far, calmer and more prepared to tackle life’s juggling act. My husband and children definitely benefit from that.

What advice do you have for others, especially moms, who are struggling with weight loss?

  • Don’t do it alone. Support from like-minded people is crucial.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help from a fitness/nutrition/mental health professional.
  • Focus on one achievable change at a time–one healthy habit at a time. Don’t get discouraged!
  • Don’t focus on the number on the scale. Keep your eye on the prize of overall health!
  • Take care of yourself. Love yourself.
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