Obesity and exercise: How 390-pound Charles Cicciarella began to walk the walk

Special to The Los Angeles Times

Charles Cicciarella, a 36-year-old e-learning specialist from Toronto, had been fat for as long as he could remember. He was a target of bullies during his school years and then ballooned in his early 20s when he began a lucrative career that enabled an immobile lifestyle.

"I was so lazy that I'd get a cab instead of walking a block and have groceries delivered to me rather than shop," he said. "For air travel I'd get two business-class seats — or, better yet, take a private jet."

By age 29, Cicciarella was ordering McDonald's up to eight times a day and consuming three cases of root beer and a dozen gallons of butterscotch ice cream a week. He was a borderline diabetic with full-blown sleep apnea, had a shaved head because he couldn't lift his arms to comb his hair and rarely showered because he couldn't lift his legs into the tub. His 6- foot-2 body weighed 390 pounds, 74% of which was pure fat.

Change came the day that a beloved, vivacious aunt died. "In my grief, I had an epiphany," Cicciarella said. "I took off all my clothes, stood in front of a mirror and said, 'Holy cow, look what I've created. I have a ticket to life, but I'm not using it.'"

The next day, inspired by the "take responsibility" message of TV psychologist Phil McGraw, Cicciarella decided to start exercising. But going to a gym was out of the question — he thought he wouldn't fit on the machines and feared being teased by muscular gym rats. So he settled on the most obvious activity: walking.

"I made it halfway around the block — the most exercise I'd done in five years," he says. "My feet went numb and I got excruciating shin splints, but I liked the feeling. For the first time, I was taking positive action for my health."

Later that night, concluding that the no-impact buoyancy of water could be an ally to an obese body, Cicciarella downloaded swimming instructions from the Internet. At 2 a.m., when he knew he'd have the pool in his apartment complex all to himself, he donned a full-body sweatsuit and began water-running and teaching himself how to swim.

Once the post-work walks and moonlight swims became a daily habit, Cicciarella abandoned McDonald's and replaced his root beer and ice cream with water. He soon built up to 10 laps around the block, 30 minutes in the pool and took the stairs at work instead of the elevator. In two months' time, he lost 70 pounds.

After dropping 30 more pounds in month three, he began walking to work, joined a gym, spent 30 minutes a day on an elliptical machine and emailed the "Dr. Phil" show. Before he knew it, he was on a flight to Los Angeles to tape a weight-loss success story segment that helped turn him into a minor celebrity back in Toronto.

Today, Cicciarella is down to 235 pounds and has a waist size of 35 inches, down from 56. Splitting his time between Toronto and Venice Beach, he is into cycling, in-line skating, running and weightlifting. He had a major setback, gaining 60 pounds while nursing both his parents through terminal illnesses over two years, but he slimmed down again by fulfilling a promise to his father.

"On his deathbed, my dad told me, 'Move to Venice — where Arnold worked out — and get back in shape and write your book,'" says Cicciarella. He did. In two months, he worked off the weight at the Gold's Gym made famous by Schwarzenegger and finished his book, "Life Is a Fat Onion: My 8 Rules to Losing Weight and Gaining Life," which was self-published in January.

"I'm never going to be a skinny Minnie," he says. "But I am always going to be working out. Diet or no diet, I know now that I can't be mentally and physically happy without moving."

—Roy M. Wallack

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