Racheal Rickabaugh had been overweight for half her life.

The Grand Haven, Michigan, teacher knew she needed to lose weight, but didn’t think she could.

When her primary care physician suggested she meet with Mary Dagen, MD, ABOM, a Spectrum Health Medical Group obesity medicine specialist, Rickabaugh approached the appointment half-heartedly.

“It was a casual meeting,” Rickabaugh said. “I wasn’t totally serious, and I almost didn’t go. But it’s turned out to be easier than I thought.”

In less than two years, Rickabaugh has lost more than 100 pounds. She’s eight clothing sizes smaller, her body mass index is normal, and she feels much better—physically and emotionally.

“I feel like how I go about my life is different,” she said. “I’m caring for myself and my body. I get more sleep and I’m trying to be my best self. My mood is better and I’m feeling less depression and anxiety.”

Rickabaugh, a teacher, even climbed the monkey bars with her young fives class this past fall.

“When I met Racheal, she had been referred by her primary care physician,” Dr. Dagen said. “I didn’t know if she really wanted to do it. But she made changes. Now we work as a team, she comes to her appointments with questions, and she has steadily lost weight.”

Rickabaugh and Dr. Dagen agree that small steps have been the secret to success. They meet every five to six weeks to review progress, hurdles and next steps.

“Racheal sets goals she thinks she can try,” Dr. Dagen said. “Every time I see her, she is accomplishing more and gaining confidence.”

Dr. Dagen is part of the Spectrum Health Medical Group Bariatrics team and has training in obesity medicine and culinary medicine. Among her patients are people who don’t want or qualify for bariatric surgery, or those who have “gotten off-track.”

Her philosophy is to have people set small personalized goals that can become big goals. She takes a team-based approach to her patient care and her only rule is that patients need to keep a food journal.

“I don’t think I should tell anybody that you can’t eat something or have to eat something,” Dr. Dagen said. “I encourage healthier habits and provide education along the way.”

Rickabaugh also said she found counseling to be important. Better mental and emotional health helped her make changes to her physical health.

“If I still saw myself the same way I did when I started this journey—hopeless, stuck, not liking who I was—it would be much harder to maintain the changes I have made,” she said.

“Counseling has helped me gain self-compassion and I can give myself grace when I need it. I’ve had to learn to love and care for myself enough to want to treat myself better and with kindness—not because I am in pursuit of a thin ideal.”

For people who are considering a change in their health, Rickabaugh recommends taking the first step.

“Make the appointment and try what’s suggested,” she said. “See where it leads you.”

Maybe to the monkey bars.