“It’s worth it. Somewhere along the line in your life, you have to think about you. If you’re not happy where you are, you’re the only one that can change that. And if you’re willing to make a change, there are a lot of places that will help you make that change.”

Karen Larsen shared with me her weight loss journey over the past 44 years, pushing through many ups and downs with a victory in the end. The Plainview, Nebraska native and her husband Doug live on his family farm west of Viborg, SD where he grew up. They added two daughters to their marriage, the oldest now living in Sioux Falls with her husband and their two children and the youngest now living in Brookings with her husband and their two dogs.

Larsen has lived on the farm most of her life. She grew up on a farm and after living in Yankton for a few years returned to the farm life. She enjoys living in the country and feels like she can be as active as she wants to be, which was her goal when she first set out on a journey to become healthier.

Not new to the struggle with losing weight, she first started her journey in 1974, attending a support group that year and the following year, not reaching her goal either time. They then had children and she stayed at home to raise them and began embracing her love for cooking and baking. With those temptations around, she soon began to gain weight again. She began the weight loss challenge again in 1985 and finally reached her goal weight. Feeling like she could maintain on her own and letting schedule conflicts interfere with her support group meetings, she soon began to fall backward and gain weight again.

In 2004, she realized that she was nearing 52 years old, overweight and concerned about the thought of not being able to keep up with possible grandchildren in the future. At her heaviest weight ever, she realized that she wanted to live long enough to see grandchildren and that her health was going to be compromised by the extra weight. Shortly after having these thoughts her employer, the state of South Dakota, offered incentives for getting healthier. They offered options for paying toward gym memberships, health club memberships and exercise equipment. She saw this as a sign that she was meant to take this health journey again. She again joined a support group that year, knowing that she had to make it a priority to be attend meetings. With her children grown and on their own, she finally decided to take some much-needed time to focus on herself.

“I thought, ‘I need to do something, I’m not happy like this,’” she recalls.

Though she felt overwhelmed when she looked at the total weight loss needed to reach her goal, she set her sights on smaller goals, such as losing five pounds, ten pounds, five percent or ten percent of her body weight. She slowly and steadily reached those goals, losing in total 95 pounds, surpassing even her goal. That’s the same weight as three cinder blocks or twelve gallons of milk!

Larsen soon found that the new lifestyle for her wasn’t sustainable and she realized that she wanted to live a little without dedicating every second of every day to her health and her new routine. She eased back a little and now happily maintains a 75 to 80 pound total weight loss.

Not wanting to feel deprived, she explains, “I’m sorry, I like my treats. I’m not going to walk 10 miles a day so I can have a cookie once a week,” she explains as I laugh. “I want to have a little bit of fun every day, and make it work.”

Not only did she set small, attainable goals during her journey, she also chose to look ahead one week at a time instead of looking at the overall time it would take to reach her final goal. “I never look any further away than a week at a time because you can’t, because it’s overwhelming,” she explains, noting that the first year for her went very fast. She continued meeting with her support group even after she reached her goal weight.

She was excited when she found out that her first grandchild was on the way. She recalls seeing how her dad lit up when he was around his grandchildren and how her best friend always wore a beaming smile when talking of her own grandchildren. She knew she wanted to feel that excitement and wanted to stay healthy enough to keep up with them. She told me of a game that she plays with her grandchildren at the Viborg park. As she hangs down the top of the tornado slide, the children crawl up from the bottom, trying to reach her hands to be pulled up to the top.

“I thought, ‘I could not do this at my top weight. I could not do this,’” she beams.

She realizes now how much extra weight she was carrying. “Now I carry a 20 pound of cat food and it kills me and I think, ‘I had four of these hanging on me!!!’” She hadn’t realized how the extra weight impacted everything in her life so much. When she couldn’t crawl

over gates on the farm to feed the cows and calves, she attributed it to getting older. She now recognizes that it was so difficult because she was carrying 80 pounds of extra weight.

“My plan in the beginning was to live long enough to see grandchildren and be able to play with them and that’s still what keeps me going,” she states. She not only keeps herself motivated but has motivated and inspired others through her leadership as a Weight Watchers mentor since 2011.

Aside from being able to play with her grandchildren, she noticed other benefits of getting the extra weight off. A previous bad knee that she was certain would require surgery healed on its own. Though she still has aches and pains, the disappearance of knee problems allows her to bike and walk often. She feels fortunate not to rely on medication for any ailments.

From the beginning of her goal, she made it a priority to attend the support group meetings and to always leave the house prepared. To this day, she still leaves the house every day with a bag full of healthy, delicious foods that she could eat. If something wasn’t in her bag, she didn’t eat it. She’s worn out her first bag and has moved on to a new one. She knew that to reach her goal she had to skip eating out at lunch, and even two days being on the road didn’t set her back.

“I never, ever, since 2004, said ‘I’m not going to do this,’” she recalls. She explains that no matter how far she got off track, she still made herself accountable for her decisions.

She remembers her class reunion in 2005, after she had surpassed her goal and was at her lightest weight. She met up with two high-school friends on the night before the class reunion. When they saw her, one of the them said, “I knew I should have lost weight before I came to this class reunion.” She laughs as she remembers the event, explaining that she didn’t lose the weight on purpose for the class reunion, but the compliments she received felt great.

Still faced with obstacles, she still loves to bake, but doesn’t do it as often or bakes only for special events. Her biggest challenge is her love for eating. “I will never, ever, ever not want to eat instead of doing something else. I like to eat. It’s my favorite thing to do. I enjoy it.” She explains her tendency to over-eat and to eat for something to do, when she’s not truly hungry. She eats out much less, using the dining out experience as a fun, special event and not as a habit.

Though now retired from the State of SD as a Drivers’ License examiner for more than 20 years, she still has a couple of jobs for fun. Along with being a Weight Watchers leader, she also handles the billing for Pump & Stuff’s headquarters and is the Treasurer for the Turner County Fair, the largest free-gate fair in South Dakota. She explains how there is always food around her at work, often donuts and cookies readily available for various celebrations. Though it’s challenging to be around the tempting foods without giving in, she will eat something if she really wants it.

“If you don’t have it, you can’t eat it,” was a statement she once heard. Her spin on this statement was that she had to have healthy food available at home to eat. Her husband saw it from a different angle: if you don’t have junk food around at home, you can’t eat it. She follows both practices when buying groceries and explains how one bad decision in the store could trump fifty more decisions during the week at home.

The fun and energetic, yet humble Larsen is a great mentor to others on this journey, serving as an excellent teacher, supporter and motivator. She thinks of some advice for others in their weight loss aspirations, and smiles, “You have to realize that you’re worth doing this.”