Mary Kay “MK” Valenti had battled her weight her entire life. But the breaking point came after the birth of her first child, Rosario, in 2005.
“I had this newborn son to show off, but I didn’t want to be seen because I was so heavy,” she says. “And I’m an extrovert, so that wasn’t like me at all.”
MK had tried to shed pounds before, and the habits had never stuck. Determined to make it work this time, she decided the changes she made had to be gradual. Rather that adopt a strict diet plan overnight, MK first focused on eating the foods she liked more slowly. She set rules: “I would eat one slice of pizza, and then I’d tell myself that if I wanted another, I had to wait 15-20 minutes. Usually by that time, I was too full to have it.” After two weeks of that routine, she started incrementally improving those food choices, swapping her sausage pizza for veggie, her 2% milk for skim, and a large hot fudge sundae for McDonald’s 300-calorie version.
And rather than throw herself into a punishing gym routine, she added exercise to her day a little at a time. An avid TV watcher, she’d lie on the floor and do leg lifts and sit-ups while she caught up on her favorite shows. She’d start her day with jumping jacks.
One thing was key to this “small changes” plan: MK promised that she’d give herself as much time as she needed to lose the weight. There was no deadline, and no expectation that she’d lose at a certain pace. That mentality especially helped in the beginning, when she felt like she was working hard but not seeing immediate progress.
“This is more of a mental challenge than anything,” she says. “Three months is a really long time to not feel or see results. But I had to just believe in myself — that this was going to be the time I was going to do this for good.”
After losing 40 pounds, MK decided to step up her workouts and joined a gym. But when she had one of the trainers do a body fat assessment, what she learned almost derailed her journey. “Even after losing what I did, I was still considered obese,” she says. “That was really hard to hear.”
Instead of giving up, MK threw herself into weight training and began to enjoy pushing herself to lift more and more. As her body transformed over the next year, the trainer who’d done her assessment asked if she’d ever considered entering a figure competition, a sector of female bodybuilding that judges solely on physique. MK first laughed at the idea, but after attending a competition, she was intrigued.
“It was really about facing the thing I feared most: Walking out on stage in a bikini in front of an auditorium of people and judges, and asking ‘Am I good enough?’” she says. “The idea that I could do that motivated and inspired me.”
Nineteen months after her son’s birth, and down 100 pounds, MK strutted across that stage with confidence. “It was amazing and fun and I loved every minute of it—but I placed dead last,” she says with a laugh. “But I was a winner before I even went out there. Just putting myself out there was my goal. I didn’t need a trophy.”
Now 36, MK has competed in a handful of figure competitions since, and works as a fitness model. But her dream is to inspire other women who are struggling to lose weight. She is pursuing a career as a motivational speaker, and she has a growing following on Facebook and Twitter.
And though she’s come a long way from the new mom who got winded walking up the stairs, MK still celebrates the small victories — like the fact that she’s continued working out despite severing a tendon in her hand a month ago (and that her doctor praised her “perfect” bloodwork).
“Here it is, 5 years later and I am still fit,” she says. “I look better than I did in high school, and I feel better than I did in my 20s. Now I get a whole new life to live.”