Facebook group helps Chicago restaurateurs and others lose weight.

The origin of Robert Magict’s life-changing Facebook group begins with an undeniable moment of clarity.

The 45-year-old Chicago restaurateur was visiting friends in Louisville last October when his obesity turned a fun family outing into a nightmare. Poor eating habits and lack of exercise had brought him to 410 pounds – so heavy it was difficult to walk let alone keep up with his 1-year-old.

The worst moment came towards the end of the trip when he accidentally broke the metal frame of a guest bed. When he offered to pay, his hostess, Cindy Maguire, waved him off.

“I said, ‘I’ve thought about it and I don’t want you to pay me back in dollars,'” she recalled. “I want you to pay me back in pounds. The cost is £50.” ”

That inspired magic to a new way of life. He dropped a soda habit that had caused him to consume the equivalent of 30 to 40 cans a day. He ate less, chewed more and cranked countless meters on his home rowing machine.

As his weight dropped and his health improved, he began thinking about ways to keep his momentum going and perhaps encourage others to join him. The vehicle he chose was Facebook.

“I just knew how I felt, if I could help anyone in my community or anywhere, I wanted to do it,” he said. “So I started a group and I think it’s been pretty successful.”

In just over four months, the Take Control of Our Health One Day at a Time group has grown to more than 1,000 members. Some are Magicet’s friends or acquaintances, but most are total strangers who post about their efforts and are greeted with a shiver of validation.

“It’s really great to have the local support,” said Clare Longfellow, 38, who lives in the Logan Square neighborhood, where many of the attendees are from. “It’s also nice that I can just let people know, ‘You’re doing great and I’m on your side.’ ”

dangers of restaurant life

Magict grew up in the grocery store. His parents owned a deli and restaurant in the Chicago suburbs, and after college he turned to work himself. Today he is a partner at The StopAlong, a pizza and burger joint in Wicker Park.

But the industry may not be the ideal career for weight management. Though youthful exercise initially compensated for his sweet tooth, restaurant life gave him unlimited access to a soda fountain. Gradually, his ambition caused him to disregard his own well-being.

“It definitely wasn’t stress related because I really enjoy what I’m doing,” he said. “I’ve always dreamed of creating a huge, amazing concept. I’ve always worked overtime to prove to the owners I worked for that I’m capable of so much more. So I probably put my personal life and my health on the back burner a lot.”

He tried to boost his fitness by going to the gym, but it never lasted. Meanwhile, his weight continued to increase. He became so heavy that he could no longer play basketball with his children or tie his shoes without the help of his wife. When it snowed, he needed the neighbors’ help to dig out his car.

This ill-fated trip to Louisville, crowned by the broken bed frame, prompted him to make changes. He stopped eating at night, focused on chewing his food slowly, and cut back on sugary treats and drinks.

“Once in a while I’ll grab a can of[soda]take a sip, and think, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ before throwing the can in the trash,” he said.

He also held out on his rowing machine, although at first he was so out of shape he couldn’t strap himself into the footrests. Today, he routinely schedules 30-minute sessions.

Magict is a community-minded Chicagoan who, among other good deeds, has been buying up the inventory of tamale vendors so they can go home earlier and distribute the food to the homeless. But while he started the Facebook group to encourage others, he said, he also wanted to be held accountable himself.

“I know I don’t want to let people down when I say I’m going to do something,” he said. “It’s easy for me to start every month and say, ‘I’m going to do 23 rows this month,’ and if I don’t do it, I hope other people will say, ‘Well, Robert, why didn’t you did? Do it?’ ”

The buddy system

dr Diana Plata, physician of obesity medicine at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights, said Magict’s Facebook page is the modern version of the buddy system that has proven effective in weight loss for decades.

“Shared goals tend to be more achievable than individual goals,” she said.

However, she cautioned that the camaraderie shouldn’t become an unproductive comparison. That’s a particular danger online, she said, where people who don’t know each other may not have insight into the circumstances that allow some to lose weight faster than others.

(Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)

Group member Sonia Latrice Brown, 50, has kept the right perspective. She knew Magict from his work in the neighborhood, and when she came across his Facebook page, she felt he was the motivator she needed to help her lose weight. She joined a gym and became a frequent poster, uploading selfies from the treadmill or elliptical trainer.

“Good morning I’m back,” she recently wrote in an emoji-strewn post. “I have missed you!!! How are you all? I’ve been watching the progress on this site, you all yelled at me. Well your girl is back and better!”

The post got 20 likes and hearts. In an interview, she said the positive reinforcement helped her keep going.

“Being in this gym isn’t just for me,” she said. “We encourage each other because Robert brought this side together.”

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Magict said his weight is now under 290 pounds and is getting closer to his goal of 230 pounds. He can play basketball, shovel snow, and go down a water slide, and he’s almost able to shop for clothes at stores not dedicated to the big and tall.

His stamina improved to the point that he spent Lollapalooza weekend hurling hamburgers at a food stand in Grant Park. Next, he wants to run a mile in under 8 minutes.

“We all deserve to live healthy, active, long lives and to spend time with our family and friends,” he said. “That’s ultimately the whole point of the group.”

As for his broken bed debt, it’s been paid in full, and then some.

“I’m just amazed and so proud of him,” Maguire said. “He had the drive. He always says I helped him so much, but that’s all he is.”

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Twitter @JohnKeilman

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