ORLANDO, Fla. – Two hundred twenty-four pounds gone. Laura Harless, of Orlando, lost that amount of weight in 22 months and has kept if off since 2011.
Harless began gaining weight at age 5 and she was bullied by peers and even teachers throughout her childhood.
"I was an active child. I loved bike riding, I loved jumprope," she said.
But she still could not lose the weight. She said she tried various programs for six months at a time, but did not see any results.
A vacation to Universal's Island of Adventure was one of the various reasons she was inspired to lose weight.
She was on rides all day at the park with her best friend and eagerly waited to ride Universal's Dragon Challenge ride.
"It didn't occur to me to check (the seats out front). At the time, I didn't have any problems and, as I said, I didn't really feel it.
"And then my friend and I got onto the ride, and I couldn't fit into a regular-sized seats," she said.
"And the ones for heavier people were not available and they took us on the ride and I had to stand over to the other side, which was embarrassing enough. And then the next car came and they tried to put me into a heavier-sized seat and they had to shove me into it," she said.
She said she never blamed Universal, but the theme park embarrassment, a family member’s death, and a will to lose the weight were enough for her to change.
She made up her mind that she needed to get help and she wanted to change her life.
"I didn't want to go to a doctor before then because I was embarrassed (that) I couldn't do it on my own," she said.
Harless consulted a doctor to start her on her weight-loss journey.
"I didn't want surgery. I didn't want any kind of pills or anything else. I wanted to change my lifestyle because I knew that's what it would take to lose it and keep it off was to change everything that I was doing," she continued.
She followed the plan that her doctor set forth: eat small meals every two-and-a-half to three hours and 40 minutes of exercise a day.
Her starting weight was 376 pounds in June 2009 and by April 2011 she had lost 224 pounds.
She began by just walking, along with diet and exercise.
In the first month, she lost 15 pounds from following the plan.
Harless would reward herself each time she would hit a milestone.
In August 2010, she conquered the Dragon Challenge.
"I didn't want to go to the park until I could ride every ride, and I knew I couldn't and I didn't want to go through the embarrassment again," Harless said.
Harless became a Universal annual pass holder since the day she returned to the park.
"I try to go once or twice a year," Harless said.
When she reached her final weight loss goal in April 2011, she took herself on a trip.
"I went to Vegas," she said.
She has kept the weight off since April 2011 and has made modification along the way to fit her lifestyle.
Harless still maintains her weight loss by exercising and that is something that she loves.
"I still exercise 40 minutes a day," she said.
She also said feels better when she exercises.
She has been able to motive others by helping them with their weight loss journey and chronicling her experience through her Facebook page.
She also made a video timeline to track her progress over the course of several months.
'Find motivation in everything'
Harless said she finds motivation in everything and that has helped her keep the weight off for over five years.
"I would buy clothes that were a few sizes too small and try them on every five pounds until, I could get into them," she said.
"One of my motivations was being able to into clothes and go in stores," she said.
She also got rid of clothes she could no longer fit into.
One thing that she was been able to do was achieve a big goal.
"When I was able to shop in stores, I was never able to shop in before," Harless said.
She also obtained her master’s degree.
Harless took the time to enjoy the simple pleasures in each day.
"I made the decision to enjoy it along the way when you do that you are no depressed about the size you want to be. You enjoy what you have while you have it, knowing that you will not be that size for long and that keeps you going," she said.
Over the course of the 22 months and since then, Harless credits her great support system in helping her achieve her goals.
Her colleagues at work would check-in and ask her about her progress and would offer encouragement.
"I am surrounded by this huge support group," she said.
"Everybody was on board with it and they were cheering me on They really helped," she said.
Her mother also started her own weight loss journey and has lost over 100 pounds.
"I am so proud of her," Harless' mom said.
Harless said it was so helpful to have her mom along the journey with her.
As for the future, Harless gives anyone who wants to be their weight loss journey a few words of wisdom.
For others on a weight loss journey, Harless encourages them to put themselves first.
“You have to come first. Your goals matter. You matter,” she said.